Q&A: Gaining inclusivity, battling isolation

Q&A: Gaining inclusivity, battling isolation

Chris Mitchell has been with Crowe for six years, serving as a consulting principal within the technology, media, and telecommunications group prior to his appointment as the firm’s first chief diversity officer (CDO). As CDO, Mitchell is responsible for driving a programmatic agenda to support a culture of inclusion in line with the firm’s vision and strategy.

In this conversation, Financial Executives International talks with Mitchell about his experiences moving up in the accounting, audit, and consulting industry and his hopes for making sure diversity is represented in its ranks.

Here is a transcript of the first portion of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. You can also listen to the full audio version of this interview.

Financial Executives International (FEI): I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be the first chief diversity officer at Crowe.

Chris Mitchell: I get that question a lot, and I’d like to say I started out my career thinking I would be a chief diversity officer. But that was not the case.

When I started in public accounting 27 years ago with a focus on mainly governance compliance work, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I was always involved, and very intentional about being involved, in recruiting and understanding what it’s like to be a Black man in corporate America – because I experienced that firsthand – just being involved in all kinds of activity as it relates to business resource groups. Or whether it was helping and making sure I go to the right schools and get them plugged into recruiting, but I just was active. I was always curious, making sure that I had opportunity and others like me had opportunity. That’s how I got started.

And then, as I’ve grown in my career and I’ve had an opportunity presented to me, I found my way being executive leader for business resource groups. I found myself leading from a recruiting perspective at various universities. Then, well before all the events of last year, the firm asked what I thought about being more involved as it relates to DE&I [diversity, equity, and inclusion]. I said, absolutely. It’s been a passion of mine for many, many years, and now I have the opportunity just to live a dream. So, I’m excited to be doing what I’m doing and definitely excited to be working with Crowe.

FEI: And you mentioned earlier, just the experience of being a Black man in corporate America. Coming up in accounting, did you see many people of color in leadership positions?

Mitchell: I did, and I actually started my career in the military. I did see Black leaders, and I had experience with professionals at the various levels. And when I graduated and came to the civilian sector, I got plugged into financial institutions and I worked in key roles, and I did see a lot of senior leaders at those organizations that were African American. It’s not something that I didn’t see, but I knew it wasn’t easy because I’ve had mentors and coaches along the way that have helped me understand what that environment looks like and who I am and how to represent myself. Back then you were pulled aside and told, “Well, this is the opportunity that you have, and you need to make the most of it.” And those mentors and those coaches are the reason why I’m here doing what I’m doing today, so, I’m thankful to them. But absolutely I was exposed to them and had an opportunity to work very closely with them, to get to develop my skills and to get better and further along in my career.

FEI: You really understand the benefit of seeing people like you in the profession. What do you think needs to change when it comes to hiring and promotion practices in finance and accounting? What jumps out at you as problematic or something that you would love to fix?

Mitchell: When I think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think about promotion. I think about recruiting nowadays and our profession; it’s just changed so much over the last 10 years. It’s not just when I think about underrepresented groups and them being involved in this profession – it’s everyone. Just working at the various levels, whether that is high school, whether that is at the college level, being plugged into various institutions. Whether it’s historically Black colleges and just sharing a story and what the career is and how it’s changing. It also means being transparent enough with leadership, where we’ve got them on our team and they’re helping us solve that problem as well.

What I think needs to change is that we need to spice it up. We need to tell the truth. We need to bring to the table, where there’s consulting involved, you can do anything and everything within this profession, whether you are Black, white, male, female, what have you. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in place for this and a lot of careers, and just give it a shot because I think the gains and the returns would be good.

FEI: You are the firm’s first chief diversity officer. If someone else with a similar background to yours is interested in one day filling a role like that, what are some experiences that you’ve had or some choices that you’ve made that you think have prepared you well to take on this type of role?

Mitchell: I get this question a lot. There are a lot of opportunities that are out there in the market for someone like me.

I’d say what prepared me is just being involved and plugged in when it comes to recruiting and understanding who you are as a person, whether you are from a certain ethnic background or of a certain gender. It really is up to you to bring some light to it and understand what’s important to you. You would think that it’s a canned profile or background that makes a good chief diversity officer. It’s just being involved in your community and plugged in and wanting to make a difference and taking it seriously. I didn’t start out being a partner at a public accounting firm. I learned, and I got comfortable as it relates to my technique, as it relates to certain methodology and guidance, and I just have grown into this role.

It’s the same with being a CDO. I started as a Black man in corporate America. I was plugged into various organizations. I’ve been involved with NABA, National Association of Black Accountants. I’ve been involved with a lot of organizations. And through those experiences I think I’ve gained something. I’ve gained confidence. I’ve gained an understanding and an awareness of what it takes to be a professional, and you’ve got to want to share your experiences to make others better. I never wanted anyone to experience exactly what I experienced coming up and through the system, because I wanted to make it easier, and being a mentor and being a coach and being plugged into those roles as well has allowed me to evolve and be where I’m at today.

Not to say that I’m good at it because who would say they’re good at anything as we continue to explore and experience? But I feel comfortable. I know that we’re making a difference for what we’re doing at Crowe. I don’t know where other organizations are, but I’m confident in what our leadership is doing and where we’re headed.

FEI: I’d love for you to expand a little bit on the experience that you had, because you said you wouldn’t necessarily want someone else to have the same experiences. You’d like them to have an easier experience. So, could you tell me a little bit more about what you’re talking about there?

Mitchell: When I had started initially within corporate America, I wasn’t familiar with a business resource group. I wasn’t familiar with affinity groups and these networks that would help me feel more comfortable being a part of an organization – someone to pull me aside and say, “Well, hey Chris, these are the programs that we’ve set up and we’re very intentional about making sure you feel like you’re included.” We’ve got so much more infrastructure in place today than we had back then. I just walked in, and I was new to the organization, and no one was there to greet me. Sometimes, maybe I felt a little different, but I didn’t allow it to stop me from moving forward because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I started in a smaller public accounting firm many, many years ago, and I was the only Black professional at the firm, and there were 150 professionals at the firm. So, what do you do in a situation like that? You step up. You step into your role, you try and be successful, and you hope that everyone will give you the same opportunity and you feel like you’re included.

Now, I didn’t feel like I was by any means eliminated from the process, but it’s just a lot easier to feel that sense of comfort. I think if I had the infrastructure that we have today, then maybe I would’ve been more successful. Maybe it would’ve been a lot easier for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have been as stressed. I don’t know, but I can tell you this: I definitely want to make sure that that infrastructure exists so others that come after me can adapt and adjust a lot quicker and a lot easier than I did.