Role models and rule breakers: Elizabeth Claxton of female led accountancy firm Rostrons

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Whether it’s providing an example of strong female leadership, or coaching startup clients in the early stages of growth, Elizabeth Claxton director of Norwich-based accountancy firm Rostrons has set a forward-facing standard for other firms to aspire to.

Claxton shares her experience of bringing the 40-year-old business into the 21st century as part of our Role models and rule breakers series. Over four parts we’ll look at her visionary approach to business and her personal journey – from leaving school at 16 to becoming director of Rostrons.

The power of a double act

With automation ushering in an era of change for accountants, it’s important that firms see how they can offer new value to clients — and how they can play a role in changing the industry for the better. Claxton knows that improvements in a company’s service or culture can only start from the top. This is why she and her co-director, Michelle Raper, have led by example since taking up their posts in 2008.

“I joined Rostrons 21 years ago,” she recalls. “I had trained in a larger firm and I had always felt that I’m sure this could be done differently and better. I knew that I wanted to be in a smaller firm, I didn’t want to be in a firm that was led by committees, I wanted to be in a firm where if you actually made a decision it was dynamic and implemented quickly.”

It isn’t always easy taking the reins from a long-standing company founder, which was the challenge that faced Claxton and Raper when they replaced Peter Rostrons. When leaders are promoted from within a firm, it’s tempting to continue with business as usual. But Claxton and Raper found that making a firm your own means looking at workflow through a critical lens.

“Over time, you can almost fall into autopilot and run the business the way it has always been run without questioning why,” she explains. “The challenge is to make sure we question everything in the business and think about why we do what we do, and how we could do it better.”

Both directors also found that managing a company together takes compromise. Disagreements between co-directors are bound to arise, though Claxon believes that finding a collaborative approach to making major decisions is the best way to move a company forward.

“Michelle and I could not be more different in terms of personality and outlook on life,” she says. “We can challenge each other, which we do, and we know that if one of us is dead set against something, it isn’t the right choice for the firm. It’s a very powerful combination.”

No room for egos

In fact, collaboration is the first trait Claxton mentions when asked about the possible benefits of female leadership. She believes that the absence of those infamous male egos might just be the recipe for a more productive work environment.

“I think there is a natural tendency for females to work together,” Claxton says. “I don’t know if it’s just because of who we are or whether it’s because we’re female, but we tend to leave the ego out of the situation.”

Even though Claxton believes gender has not created any career obstacles for her, she has identified causes for accountancy’s wider equality issues. Firstly, it’s a deadline-driven profession where long workdays are common. Claxton points out that a leadership role can be difficult to combine with raising a family, but she insists that the gender gap is not caused by this challenge alone. According to Claxton, it’s common for high-ranking leaders to recruit and promote staff in their own image. “If a firm has started off with a male-dominated leadership team, it’s more likely that this trend will continue,” she says.

However, simply seeing women working at the top of the company hierarchy won’t be enough to drive female accountants to seek out similar opportunities. Claxton believes that providing the industry’s young women with career help and guidance will make gender equality in accounting achievable.

“The one thing we’ve identified as creating the highest chances of women coming through the pipeline and moving into leadership positions is having a mentor,” she says.

With the launch of We Can, a networking platform aimed at future female leaders across Norfolk, Claxton is actively building a brighter future for women in business. The platform offers mentorship and other forms of knowledge sharing to help women at any stage in their careers to reach the top. Claxton’s own story demonstrates that being a female leader in a man’s world requires a bold vision and a collaborative approach. With the support of the sector’s women veterans, young accountants can rest assured that the future of accounting is female.

Five tips for female leaders

  1. Find a mentor. Young female accountants should seek out the advice and guidance of women who have succeeded before them. Having a role model can make ‘climbing the ladder’ seem much more attainable.
  2. Do things your way. Female leaders shouldn’t be afraid to make their mark on a company. As you’re given more responsibility, make sure you’re staying true to your vision — and not that of your predecessor
  3. Collaborate and share responsibility. Going it alone isn’t possible, and women in leadership roles don’t need to bear the weight of the world. Find colleagues you trust to take on responsibilities and help you make decisions.
  4. Build support networks. Equality isn’t just an issue in accounting. Creating a network of local women leaders will help you feel less alone, and mean you have trusted friends to turn to for advice.
  5. Be flexible for female employees. Recruiting women is only half the battle. Retaining female staff members means being flexible and understanding of potential family commitments — from doing the school run to taking care of a sick child.

Sophie Jardine is an editorial assistant at Flibl. She writes, researches and reports stories about finance and technology.

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