Barbara Webb & Sarah McGuire of MGO LLP: “Technical competence is absolutely crucial, but confidence is huge”

Challenge yourself to read through the fine print on a few credit card agreements and the legalese on a mortgage document. Since you can learn anything on YouTube, treat yourself like a business for a few months and document your own finances with debits and credits. Wrap up by producing a balance sheet and income […]

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Challenge yourself to read through the fine print on a few credit card agreements and the legalese on a mortgage document. Since you can learn anything on YouTube, treat yourself like a business for a few months and document your own finances with debits and credits. Wrap up by producing a balance sheet and income statement for yourself — I can’t think of a better way to gain a genuine understanding of personal finance and economics.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Webb and Sarah McGuire.

Barbara Webb and Sarah McGuire co-lead the Chicago office and Midwest expansion of MGO, LLP, one of the fastest growing CPA and Advisory Services firms in the US. As Directors of the new woman-run office, Sarah McGuire leads the practice’s accounting advisory engagements, while Barbara Webb leads the practice’s tax advisory engagements.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

Barbara: My parents emphasized the importance of self-sufficiency early on and encouraged me to enter a licensed profession toward that end. I attended the University of Michigan and was accepted to the Master of Accounting (MAcc) program at the Ross School of Business. During our last two years, MAcc students took all our classes in the MBA program with students 5–10+ years older than us. Even so, they all looked to the 21-year-old MAcc students to figure out the accounting considerations. That experience taught me that as a CPA I could develop credibility and expertise to qualify for a seat at the table with a wide variety of bright and interesting people who needed my input. It also demonstrated that the devil is always in the details. The most original ideas and the most sensational business deals eventually have to be translated through the lenses of debits and credits and tax regulations on the road to successful execution.

Sarah: I always knew I was interested in going into business and became interested in accounting through a friend in college. I liked the idea of going into public accounting because of the exposure to a variety of industries and types of companies. There’s always an interesting new challenge around the corner!

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

S: I went to visit a prospective client and asked to see the accounting records. They replied that their records were manual — so of course, I thought this meant they had used a traditional Excel spreadsheet rather than an accounting software program. Boy was I wrong! When I arrived, they presented me with a tool I had read about in financial history books: a pad of “greenbar” paper, populated with illegible writing. I learned in that moment that even in a financial field, you still need people skills. Working closely with them, I was still able to get the data I needed and give them the advice they needed. However, I can say that’s the first and hopefully last time I have seen greenbar paper used in a modern business setting. It was like going back in time!

B: I’ve worked extensively with clients in construction, tech, private equity and cannabis — all very different industries, but what they do have in common is that they are male-dominated fields. Often, I have been the only woman in the room at meetings. Many times, I have not immediately noticed this fact until one of the men present directly apologizes to me for swearing. The first time it happened early in my career I felt caught off guard and conspicuous — like my professional persona had been disintegrated. I still don’t have the perfect comeback to that comment, though colleagues have invented some pretty funny ones — but at this point when it happens I am just amused because it’s so predictable and expected.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Both: Together, we are actively working on a couple of initiatives with cannabis industry groups in the Midwest — one that represents craft growers and one that supports women working in the industry. Through the groups’ educational functions, we are leveraging our experiences with businesses in all stages of the life cycle, from start-up to public, to provide new and smaller players with enough financial accounting and tax knowledge to start off on the right foot and achieve long-term success. Our experience advising C-suite execs at larger companies also puts us in a unique position to mentor younger women looking for a career in the industry, as well as provide support for women in more senior positions that the industry does not have a great track record of retaining.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

S: MGO is not your typical accounting firm. In fact, our company’s “Type Atypical” approach makes us standout in a field of largely indistinguishable competitors. We keep ahead of the marketplace by combining the expectation of a CPA’s attention to detail with the suggestion that we are not your your stereotypical accountants. We try to make the work fun, and really get to know our clients’ businesses. Not only does that make the experience better for everyone, we can give more nuanced advice when we have a strong and trusting working relationship.

B: MGO values creative solutions and our priority is problem solving for our clients. In fact, MGO is the only place I have ever interviewed in the accounting world where my interviewer assured me, “your background is amazing — it’s perfect.” My background is a bit unusual for the industry in that I also have an advanced degree in the humanities that I generally keep in the background. We not only value people who are technically excellent, but who are also able to create innovative approaches to challenges. We are definitely an entrepreneurial group — folks don’t generally join us to stay in their comfort zones.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club.” This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

S: Definitely the presence of more women mentors and role models in executive positions has convinced even more women to pursue their careers further than in previous generations. There are also more network building opportunities for both of women and men that has helped cause this shift. As a younger professional, I’m grateful to all the women who came before me and provided many different types of role models for what success in the business world can look like.

B: Technical competence is absolutely crucial, but confidence is huge. There are new generations of extremely confident young women entering financial fields whose parents and teachers have told them their whole lives that they belong at the table. So they expect to be there — and act like it. Also, the increasingly balanced gender composition of college classes conditions male colleagues to expect to see women in the workplace beyond their college years as well. These younger women professionals are walking into the room like they belong there — and rightly so.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

Both: As a woman-run office, we’ve given this some serious thought; we want to be an example for others.

To support individuals, consider whether women at the firm — especially younger women — are being encouraged to engage in business development. Many young women on the finance/accounting track have worked really hard through high school, college and graduate school to do well, to earn good grades. They find themselves situated as prime candidates for the best entry-level job offers. After they accept, they continue to work really hard and turn out excellent work product efficiently. Everyone wants them on their teams and they receive more difficult assignments and more responsibility. Very seldom does anyone explain to them that the price of neglecting business development skills is a career ceiling. Very seldom does someone in management actively take a complex project off their plates and encourage them to spend more time taking contacts to lunch.

To support diversity throughout the firm itself, management team members should track data and observe the gender mix of proposal teams — especially prospect-facing proposal teams. Do key roles go to women as often as men? If not, top management should send a clear message — including leading by example — that balance is needed.

As a society, we should all assess who is doing what I call the “mom jobs” in the department or on the team. Are men equally assigned responsibility for internal initiatives such as process improvements, mentoring programs, or continuing education? Many times these activities are discounted when evaluating promotions to the highest levels, yet women are traditionally more willing to perform these sometimes time-consuming tasks, compared to our male counterparts. In fact, I have often seen women “volunteer” for these responsibilities when no one else does. Management should evenly distribute these roles, or even consider whether they can be shifted away from the financial professionals altogether. At the same time, as individuals we all need to take responsibility for our own career paths and evaluate how we spend our time.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

B: Honestly, I believe financial literacy should be a graduation requirement — like government. Unfortunately, this aspect of education went by the wayside with the phase out of “homemaking” and technical trade classes in high schools. Beyond high school, requiring any kind of financial education or literacy test for any reason in society at large becomes ethically suspect and potentially discriminatory.

S: I would recommend that the public sector support organizations that empower our youth to become more interested in these topics and to achieve financial literacy. It’s likely something that isn’t going to happen in our school systems, so we should look to other settings.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

B: Challenge yourself to read through the fine print on a few credit card agreements and the legalese on a mortgage document. Since you can learn anything on YouTube, treat yourself like a business for a few months and document your own finances with debits and credits. Wrap up by producing a balance sheet and income statement for yourself — I can’t think of a better way to gain a genuine understanding of personal finance and economics.

S: I agree — it’s important to start with understanding your own finances. I’d also recommend using one of the many app’s out there to track your progress against a savings goal. Nothing makes you more financially aware than reaping the rewards of saving money toward a goal, then enjoying spending the money on something meaningful that you might not have been able to afford otherwise.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

S: I have had numerous mentors and teachers that have helped me achieve success. The support of my family, especially my husband, to understand my goals and objectives and support me during rough patches, has been critical for me. For example, when I first started at MGO, one of our partners in Los Angeles would come into town to help me get the Chicago office up and running. Before we invested in office space, we would work together in the East Bank Club, so even though Barbara had not yet joined, I felt like I had support and partnership in starting this new venture.

B: I learned a lesson from a boss early in my career about keeping things simple: I was working in a small tax group in a prominent family office and my boss was a tax attorney who also taught at a respected university. He asked me to research something and I — thinking I’m very good at research given my advanced humanities degree — brought him an extensive file of court cases and private letter rulings and started monologuing on my conclusion. He turned around in his chair and reached for one of his bound volumes of IRS regulations (of course had the full set). He turned to the relevant regulation, pointed, and started reading. There it was — the common-sense answer. Lesson learned: Occam’s Razor, the principle that the simplest solution is usually the right one, can even apply in tax. Choose the obvious before getting complicated. Don’t be afraid to ask the simple questions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

S: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Whenever I’ve faced tough choices or situations that could be viewed as negative, I’ve taken the road of positivity, and found a silver lining even in the most challenging scenarios.

B: “Wherever you go, there you are.” This may be a lightweight choice, but so true. A change of scenery — whether professional or personal — is not always the solution to problems (although sometimes it may seem to be). It’s a truism that reminds me to step back and look at my own repetitions, to consider whether I am getting in my own way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

B: I would encourage more people to get to know more people from different walks of life. I’ve participated in many virtual networking events during the pandemic, which have provided the opportunity for face-to-face introductions to interesting people from around the country. “Speed networking,” for example, is like speed-dating for professionals. Imagine your whole neighborhood, or office building, or apartment building, participating on a networking zoom call. If everyone has to go four rounds of making conversation for three minutes with a randomly chosen partner, we might actually listen to each other and get to know each other as people. This is extremely pertinent especially in this moment in history when we are all experiencing isolation of one kind or another on many different levels.

S: I would help mentor younger women professionals and help them the way others have helped me. I think if I were to start a movement, it would be one that would put structures in place for women in financial fields to help the women aspiring to join them.

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