Women in Business Q&A: Alexandra Kessler, Aronson LLC Government Contract Services Group

In her role as the partner-in-charge of Aronson LLC's Government Contract Services Group, Alexandra "Lexy" Kessler connects her clients with the solutions, resources and contacts that they need to succeed in an ever-changing government landscape. Lexy's 25+ years of expertise in assurance, tax and consulting allows her to help clients balance the challenges and opportunities inherent to the business of being a government contractor. Lexy is also deeply involved with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, serving as a member of the Board of Directors, Executive Committee, Government Contracts Council, and co-chairing their Government Contracts Committee. Lexy earned her bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Maryland, where she sits on the Smith Business School Advisory Board.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
People often talk about that "one defining moment," but I feel like I've had a million of those moments that have shaped my leadership style. I've been lucky to have known people throughout my life and career who have influenced me in really positive ways - mentors and colleagues who have empowered me and taught me that your people need to be recognized for even the smallest accomplishments. I try to pay that forward as a leader and remember that I was once in that same position.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Aronson?
I actually started working with Aronson right out of college and, except for a brief stint outside of public accounting, have spent my whole career here. In many ways, that has helped me progress and move forward. When I joined the company, it was a fledgling firm with 65 employees; now we are nearly four times that size. The fact that I was able to grow alongside a rising company meant that there were many ways to leave my own mark. It has allowed me to carve my own path and create new roles and opportunities that I might not have had at a larger firm.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Aronson?
My greatest challenge is one that will probably sound familiar to anybody working in the accounting industry - and that is convincing people to embrace change. Accountants, in particular, lean toward intransigency. The market is changing faster than ever and the accounting industry has to play a proactive role in addressing the needs of their clients and helping them rethink their approach to doing business.

The highlights of my career have been many - being promoted to partner, being elected as part of the firm's Board of Directors. Most recently, I was asked to speak at the AICPA's Major Firms meeting on a panel called "Everything You Wanted to Know About Women (in Leadership) but Were Afraid to Ask." Having the opportunity to speak to so many people in our profession about the unique challenges of gender diversity was an incredibly gratifying and humbling experience.
I think the greatest part of my journey, though, has been seeing my staff grow and develop and carve out their own niche in the profession. Since becoming lead partner of the government contracting group, I have had the honor of promoting ___ members of my staff to the partner position. There is no stronger evidence that you are doing something right as a leader than seeing those you work with succeed.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking for a career in accounting?
Many women, myself included, are guilty of falling prey to the boundaries that society assigns to both men and women. Sometimes we even perpetuate them without realizing it. You have to move past those invisible boundaries and take chances. Don't let preconceived notions prevent you from trying. Even in an age of technology and social media, strong relationships are critical. Don't be afraid to make relationship or even to ask for the relationship. Take the initiative and put yourself out there.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My career has allowed me to achieve many of the things that I wanted for my personal life. For example, I wanted to ensure that my kids wouldn't have to incur college debt. My career has allowed me to give that to them. When my daughter graduated from college this spring, it was a reminder that my career is not just rewarding to me, but also to my family.
I have an amazing infrastructure at home. Between my husband and mother-in-law, I've had a wonderful support system. I'm lucky because, without that, it would have been incredibly difficult to achieve what I have so far. The old saying that it takes a village is true, but that support system doesn't have to be a spouse or your family. Don't be afraid to reach out to neighbors, friends, other parents - and be sure to return favors in any way you can!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
My biggest hurdle -- and the one I see in other women around me each day -- is being your own worst enemy by putting imaginary limits on yourself. You start buying into the notion that you have to make a plan for what you will do when you have kids, or you tell yourself that a certain hurdle is unsurmountable, so you don't even try. You leave the table before you even come to the table. Don't plan for things to occur, don't edit yourself unnecessarily; address challenges as they come and find a way to make it work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Being a mentor and having a mentor has meant everything to me. Those who supported my professional career taught me great lessons about acknowledging hard work, saying thank you, and showing people that you care about them as human beings. I like to call the mentor/mentee relationship a "professional friendship" based on respect and trust and interest in a person's life and goals. Making a difference in somebody's life or in a client's business - that's what drives me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My own mentor is somebody I admire greatly. She showed me the possibilities available to women in our profession, and she taught me the importance of vision, direction and the need to constantly push forward and try new things. Even though we no longer work together, we have stayed a part of each other's lives. I do my best to pass along the lessons she has taught me to those I work with today.

I also have great respect for Hillary Clinton. I can't help but admire somebody who, as First Lady, handled being in the public eye in a very graceful way. The challenges she faced during that time didn't break her. Instead she funneled her energies into her own career and, more importantly, into making a difference in the lives of people across the world. No matter what somebody may think of her politics or her motivations, it's hard to deny that her commitment to women, children, and human rights has had an impact on our understanding of these global crises.

What do you want Aronson to accomplish in the next year?
I would like to see Aronson continue on the path of embracing the future and shaping important conversations about gender and ethnic diversity, generational differences, globalization, and technology. Growth is always important, but it's easy to get tunnel vision. All employers need to be having these important conversations and inviting more people into the process. It's critical that we hear other perspectives, even if they contradict our well-established ideas - especially if they contradict those ideas.