Episode 66: Path to Partner Series – Nikki Yarborough

As we celebrate Women’s History Month at DHG, we are excited to share a four-part Path to Partner Series, featuring interviews with some of our most esteemed female partners. We have selected partners from various career stages to help provide perspective and insight on their careers and their career paths. Joining us in this podcast is Nikki Yarborough, a tax partner in our Raleigh office and leader of our DHG Inclusion & Diversity Council.

*Nikki Yarborough retired in 2021 and is now a proud member of the DHG Alumni Network.

Episode 66 Transcript:

AGH: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of our DHG podcast series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison, your host, and I love this venue because we get to hear about the things that matter the most to us here at DHG – flexibility, careers, and of course, stories about our people.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month here at DHG, we’re doing a four-part Path to Partner series featuring inspirational interviews with some of our most esteemed female partners. We selected partners at various stages in their career to provide perspective and insight into their own career path and advice of things they’ve learned along the way.

Joining me today is Nikki Yarborough. I’ve had the privilege of working with Nikki for about eight years. We worked together to get Women Forward, our women’s effort, off the ground and I’m currently enjoying working with her and others through our Inclusion & Diversity Council.

Nikki was a Women Forward coach at DHG for several years. This program has been really successful at DHG and we decided that we needed to expand it to have an Inclusion & Diversity Council. Nikki was the natural fit to lead this group. She’s a tax partner in our Raleigh office and she is a female leader who is nearing the end of her career at DHG, which makes me sad, but she has many years of experience and great wisdom. Nikki, you’re someone who I consider a role model and it’s truly an honor to have you here with us today on the Life at DHG podcast. Welcome, Nikki.

NY: Thank you so much, Alice Grey. Now, you’re going to start off by making me tear up. Talking about this subject matter, just in general, it’s one of my passions, so that’s going to come through today. If I do sound a little bit teary on the front end, it’s just that you’ve gotten me going sentimentally.

AGH: Sorry about that!

NY: That’s fine, that’s all part of the real experience, right?

AGH: That’s exactly right, and I think that that is why I do consider you a role model and someone that a lot of people look up to. As the leader of our Inclusion & Diversity Council, you are at the forefront of our strategy around I&D. I realize it’s a team effort, but you have just been so instrumental here. What are some of our key focus areas for the next few years? I know we’ve developed a strategic plan. Can you tell us about that? Nikki Yarborough holding child

NY: Absolutely, it’s my pleasure. It’s such a privilege to be with you today, and I’m glad you mentioned the concept of team behind I&D and our whole effort. Between our I&D Council, and our initial Women Forward Council – Effin Logue, Catherine Morris, Jill Benjamin, Sarah Hemmings, it's been a true team effort. There are so many people who have been so instrumental with all of our regional champions, local office champions and partner advocates. A big thank you to everyone that has been part of this.

I’m just excited about continuing the journey. Big picture, let me just start off with our three A’s. This is, in a nutshell, our mission and commitment. Our three A’s stand for Awareness, Advocacy, and Action. We believe that by enhancing Awareness, Advocacy, and Action we are going to foster an inclusive environment that enables our people to achieve incredible professional success. Thereby, best serving our clients.

With Awareness, we’re promoting learning experiences, modeling, understanding bias – both our own and others, and bringing your great self to the table. Advocacy is really experiencing, connecting, influencing, and standing up. I say stand up, not just to actually stand up, but the action part is celebrating what we accomplish, leveraging, and thriving in our differences. Just a lot of recognition and accountability for the great work that we’re doing.

We do have a three-year strategic focus, and we do have at least one year under our belt. Just to give you a little bit of a heads up, the focus areas that we have spent time on and will continue to focus on are in the areas of implicit bias. This includes understanding the impact on our teams, our processes and our decisions, what automatic thinking means, understanding our own biases and being able to pick up on others. Because, at the end of the day, we’re seeking unity and connection.

Our Common Interest Groups are something that I’m just so excited about. We actually had our first CIG summit in December. These are employee-driven groups around a common interest area, with Women Forward being the largest and most successful to date. We also have a veteran’s group, we have a working parents group, elder care, the African American Network, and there are more to come. We are supporting these employee-driven groups around a common interest area so people have the support and help that they need to deal with issues as they go through their life.

We’re also focusing on leadership behaviors. We want to define what a good I&D leadership model looks like and we want to be able to model those inclusive behaviors at every level of our organization. We’re focusing on sponsorship, diversity recruiting, and key partnerships. We also recognize that we all have different personalities and communication styles, and we want to take advantage of DISC and other programs to make sure that we can understand our workplace preferences and achieve a more unified group.

We’re tackling covering, which goes back to the fact that we want to be able to bring our authentic self to work. We don’t want anybody to cover up who they are when they come in every day. It’s just an energy drain. So we’re working on some programs to help with that, and more than anything, we’re just encouraging curiosity to learn about others and yourself to build unity.

In a nutshell, that’s our three-year strategic focus. I could go on and on and share about 30 different pages of how that plan is being rolled out. There are so many positive things that have already happened. It’s just incredible business imperative to do this, not just doing it because it’s the right way to treat our people, but it’s a huge business imperative so that’s obviously part of what we’re tackling as well. In a nutshell, hopefully that gives you a good overview of what we’re working on and what we’re so excited about.

AGH: I think that it’s just amazing how far we’ve come and what we have mapped out. Every day, I’m honored to be a part of this journey. I love how you talked about learning about yourself through this process. I’ve learned so much about myself, just in general, learning about inclusion and diversity.

When I think about the work environment, in the last 20 years, I’ve seen things change. I know you’ve seen a lot more changes. How has the work environment changed for women from when you first started to now?

Nikki Yarborough wearing giant glassesNY: Well, as I think about that, Alice Grey, I think one of the most positive things I can say about what’s changed in the last 20+ years is that we talk about it. We have open and more transparent dialogue about the challenges that women face in the workplace, and not only women, but all of our folks. That leads us to better solutions when we can talk about it.

There’s no cure all, there’s no magic wand, but I think it feels better and we get stronger if we have open dialogue. When I started out, I knew what I wanted to do, but I probably was pretty naive at that point about some of the roadblocks that I might encounter. I navigated through it and I was flexible. I learned from what didn’t go well, I probably learned more from what didn’t go well than what did. To me, what’s really changing is that we are talking about it, we’re not afraid to talk about it, we’re not afraid to ask for help, and we’re not afraid to be creative and think out of the box about what the solutions need to be.

We’re partnering with the AICPA, we’re listening to other CPA firms and various interest groups, and we’re getting all of this great information which is a huge positive. You know, some things have changed, that’s the positive part. It never changes that it’s a great day just to have passion about what you do, have the gut instinct that you're on the right track, and keep going for that journey knowing that you’re never finished. That’s what I started with, and that’s where I am today. That’s what I’ll do in the next few years of my career before retirement.

AGH: Love it.

NY: That’s the big thing.

AGH: I think that so much of what we do begins with communication and I’m proud to be part of that here as well. Now, let’s look forward. What do you think the profession will look like in terms of women in another 10 years? Do you think that women will continue to face similar barriers that they do today?

NY: Well, I don’t think that there’s a magic wand, so I’ll go ahead and admit that right now. I recently attended the AICPA Global Women’s Leadership Conference along with several members of our senior leadership team and other leaders in inclusion and diversity, and we heard stats there saying that it’s going to take a while for everything to be exactly the way we want it to be.

I don’t want to be so optimistic to say that we’re going to have it all figured out by next year and everything is going to be great. You know the saying, life is a marathon, not a sprint. We are making a lot of positive changes, but will there continue to be barriers and challenges, sure. They may not be the very same ones that we face today, but I think that’s just part of the evolving workforce. When I think about just the accounting profession, and how we’re having to change every day just in that, there will continue to be challenges. I think it would be wrong of me to admit to anything else.

Again, I just think we’ve got to keep the path, stay on the right track, and keep trying for what we’re trying to accomplish.

AGH: I totally agree. I think that you’re right, there will always be barriers, and it’s just going to be how we are able to address the barriers. As you pointed out, part of it is having open conversation that enables us the opportunity to step up and overcome the barriers.

NY: I do believe one thing that is really going in our favor is that as we get more diverse clients there is a true business imperative to get this right. We have that wind going in our direction, we have a lot of awareness of this issue, and I think that that hopefully is going to help us get there quicker.

AGH: Absolutely. Before we close, I think I would be remiss not to ask you to share some of your wisdom with us. For aspiring leaders in the firm, and this is male and female, how can they fine-tune their leadership skills to help propel them to the next level?

NY: Well, let me give you my couple of cents worth on this. After attending the AICPA women’s conference and having just had an I&D Council meeting, I’ve been part of many wonderful conversations over the last few weeks. I came up with a list, this is not necessarily chronological and it is somewhat in a bit of a random order, but when I thought back to everything I’ve learned and what I’m still learning, these are the things that stand out to me in my own career that have been very important. I will throw these out there and people can see what works for them.

Number one, enjoy the journey. I have a paper weight on my desk that says, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail.” I keep that in front of me, in my brain and on my desk, every day. I think it’s important to know why you’re amazing, own it, be brave, be willing to write your own script, be authentic and flexible, be willing to say yes, and be willing to say yes when it means going out of your comfort zone. Be empathetic and have fun, build connections, and open the door for others. It’s just so important that we grow our people. Play to your strengths, but certainly be open to constructive feedback because that’s where you really learn a lot. Grow your people, give them feedback, and be willing to mentor and sponsor when you have an opportunity.

I think it’s important to listen, to be curious, to try and understand yourself, your own biases and others. Obviously, being a great role model, modeling I&D behaviors in areas of discomfort, that’s where some of the growth opportunities really occur. One of the women at the AICPA conference, I don’t think that she is the author of this quote, but she said, “Smooth seas don’t make skilled sailors.” So again, just emphasizing that when things are tough, that’s when we learn a whole lot. Understand that there are seasons of life and know where to be patient and where it’s important to stop and take a deep breath. One of my mantras is always keep focus on what you have control over; own your career, just don’t wait for it to happen, express what you want by telling somebody that you’re interested in a particular role. Don’t be bashful, you’re never done.

Barry from the AICPA women’s conference had a wonderful quote, “We need to learn, unlearn, and relearn, and empower others to solve their own problems. We need to help our people fulfill their potential, we need to care for each other, we need to care for our people and then we’re going to care for our clients.”

You don’t have to do it alone. I talked in the beginning about our wonderful Common Interest Groups. Share your stories, listen to your gut, learn from everybody, and learn from every experience. Don’t sit and wait for it to happen, seek your own mentors and sponsors, know when to take a breath, be vulnerable, take responsibility for others to build them, and be responsible for building yourself.

What I’d like to end with, for any of those that know what a terrible artist I am, I can’t draw anything but stick figures. The second day into the AICPA conference, I said, “I’ve got it all in my mind and I’ve drawn this picture, don’t laugh.” Then I shared it with the I&D Council, and on the bottom, if you can imagine, I’ve written "train and awareness." Then I’ve got a zigzag curve going up to the top and it says, “zigzag because there are ups and downs.” There are going to be great days and there are going to be not so great days. But then, on my arrow going straight up, I have "courage, empowerment, own it, follow your passion, follow your gut, and say yes."

AGH: That is fabulous. Would you share that with us?

NY: Yes, I can send it to graphic design and they can make it pretty.

AGH: I think that would be lovely. How inspiring. You have shared so many great pearls of wisdom. I was sitting here writing some of them down and I couldn’t write fast enough. I look forward to going back and re-listening to this.

NY: Well, it’s more than my top 10, it’s probably my top 20 or 30. It does come from learning through reading and hearing other great leaders talk about this very subject. I don’t claim that they’re all mine, it’s just what has stuck with me over the last 25 years as I’ve gone through this career. I would just say that I look forward to the next few years. It’s an exciting journey, that’s all I can say.

AGH: It’s very exciting. Well, thank you Nikki. We really appreciate you taking the time out of this busy season to talk with us today, and for sharing your leadership and wisdom with all of us through the I&D council.

NY: Thank you Alice Grey, it’s my privilege.

AGH: Thank you all for listening to Life at DHG, our premier podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues, be sure to check out our DHG blog for more great stories about our Life Beyond Numbers.

Join us next time for another edition of Life at DHG.

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