AGN International, a worldwide association of independent accounting and consulting firms, held its annual North American regional meeting in San Diego in May. As part of the event, HR professionals such as administrators, learning development coordinators and shareholders attended a learning track offering a deeper understanding of effective mentoring and coaching programs at CPA firms. Their answers to several questions at the session provide some valuable insights.
Question 1: Have you ever been involved in a mentoring program and, if so, what do you consider to be the greatest benefit?
Tom Prince, a shareholder at Hungerford Nichols, a firm with nine shareholders and approximately 85 professionals in Grand Rapids, Mich., replied, “Early in my career, we did not have a formal mentoring program, but I found it beneficial when I was able to occasionally meet with managers and shareholders over lunch or have a drink after work and chat about their career path, life experiences, triumphs and failures, etc. It was great to hear about how others dealt with situations I was currently dealing with and learn from their experience. I realized that I sought out those opportunities, so I got them, but we needed something more formal so more could benefit. We developed a formal mentoring program a few years ago, and we have really seen the growth in our team. I think the greatest benefits are either learning from others’ experiences in going through similar situations that you are currently dealing with, or also learning from someone who has a completely different life and/or career path as you and getting a different perspective.”
Bradley Self is senior director of talent management at Clark, Schaefer Hackett CPAs & Business Consultants, with a shareholder group of 38 and a professional staff of 420, located in Cincinnati. Brad explains his firm’s approach: “At CSH we have developed two very distinct coaching and mentoring programs. Our coaching program is primarily focused on the development of technical skills. Because public accounting reporting structure is so matrixed, we have found it necessary to create a coaching program that provides that level of developmental direction. Coaching is more or less performance driven and ties directly to the performance expectations at the staff and senior levels of our organization. On the other hand, mentoring is much more transformational. It is designed to be more about character building than technical skill sets. Our shareholders and principals serve as mentors to our managers. This is an opportunity for a shareholder to take a manager “under their wing,” to share their own lessons learned and real-life experiences. I’ve seen our senior leadership pouring themselves into our managers, being intentional about relationships and building loyalty that transcends anything a salary could offer.”
Question 2: How do you see the concept of coaching benefiting CPA professionals professionally and personally?
Carolyn Melin serves as HR administrator and financial assistant for Eckhoff and Company, in San Rafael, Calif., with four shareholders and a professional staff of 15. Carolyn says, “I think coaching can benefit those that are particularly work-focused or suffer from tunnel vision. Some accountants don’t have a good grip on what is going on around them, especially when it comes to employees and their different personalities and conflicts that need to be resolved within the organization. Coaching encourages you to think about things that might make you uncomfortable and gets you strategizing about what really matters and to get to the root of the problem you might be facing. Coaching can help you come up with the answers to questions that you might not have been able to arrive at on your own.
“One thing I have learned from coaching is that by not initially responding to a person right away, just being still and listening, that person is then guided to open up more, allowing the coach to support them while they come up with their own answers, which is much more effective than giving them advice.”
Tom adds, “I think everyone can use a coach, even if you’re successful and thriving in your career. A coach can provide a different perspective where others around you may not feel they can or should. A coach holds you accountable and challenges you. A coach can help you maximize your strengths as well as work on your weaknesses. We can all improve. Coaching isn’t just for the ‘under-performer.’”
Question 3: What are the most common personality traits that you feel generally keep CPA professionals from connecting with and/or better serving their clients? What about internal staff?
Brad comments, “Wow! That is a great question! Behavioral or personality-wise, I have observed two common challenging traits: conflict avoidance and introversion. One may be the result of the other and, ironically, since we are in a relationship business, I have seen minimal development in relational skills.”
Tom says, “I think a lot of people get into public accounting because they like numbers. They are analytical problem-solvers who like a challenge and often solve problems by doing and thinking, not necessarily by communicating and collaborating. More often than not, they’re introverts. The result is they are reactive rather than proactive, and you need to be proactive to best serve your clients as well as communicate with your team.”
Carolyn adds, “It’s tough if someone is socially awkward and only likes doing the work, not interacting with the clients or internal staff. Interpersonal skills are key in any job. Clients love to talk and will be even more impressed if you can remember something personal from the last time you spoke. Taking the time to find out how things are going in their lives builds a trust and helps strengthen the overall relationship.”
Question 4: Which areas that are traditionally addressed through coaching do you feel are the most needed at your firm and/or throughout the accounting profession?
Tom explains, “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I prefer face-to-face communication. Communication isn’t just words. It’s about voice inflection, body language, facial expressions, etc. It seems more and more people prefer to communicate via email and text, and I feel so much gets lost in the translation. With the increased use of texting, all of the traditional rules of grammar and punctuation are out the window.”
Carolyn agrees. “Communication is a problem everywhere. We need to become better communicators and better listeners. We also need to be better with the ‘follow through.’ Coaching definitely benefits these areas. Sometimes I worry that I may be over-communicating by reminding them too much and start becoming a bother, more than a help. But when there is no follow through, it becomes apparent that I am not always being heard.”
Leadership and Confidence
“I read and hear a lot about the problems with millennials,” says Tom. “I think most millennials display a lot of leadership abilities and they have a lot of confidence as well. Sometimes we need to pull the reins back a little bit just due to lack of experience, but we have a lot of emerging leaders in our firm.”
Brad adds, “Mentoring helps to address the leadership piece. Our shareholders mentor our managers with lessons learned and best practices. Confidence is a big piece of this program, too.”
Tom says, “This is always an area people need help with in the CPA profession. Most of us went into accounting because we didn’t like sales. We try to emphasize that business development is simply talking to your clients and/or meeting new people and asking them questions to get them talking about themselves and what problems they’re having or issues they’re facing. Often, what they are dealing with is something we can help them with. Now you’re not selling, you’re offering a solution to their problem. It sounds easy, but it takes training and practice. That’s where coaching comes in.”
Question 5: How can we create good communication among management and staff at our CPA firm?
Carolyn sums it up nicely: “I am often described as the ‘the helper’ and, as such, I have a need to share as much information (as appropriate) in order for everyone to be on the same page. I do this by making sure new partners know all their benefits, current partners are aware of staff issues, anniversaries or achievements, etc., and staff are aware of any changes coming down the pike. I do my best by keeping the line of communication open, building good relationships with not only the partners but the staff too, learning a little about everyone personally and sincerely asking how things are going. Making sure people know they can come to me in confidence is important to me.”
Those are some words of wisdom from experienced, polished and successful HR professionals at CPA firms of various sizes in different locations, reminding us of the power of sharing our best practices.
Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a certified life strategies coach and marketing strategist with 20 years of experience working with CPAs. Tierney Coaching & Consulting provides individual and group coaching that addresses areas of improved communication skills, leadership development, increased confidence and provides assistance with exponentially marked improvement in areas of marketing and business development. Lisa’s coaching methods honor the mind, body and spirit connection which is pivotal in implementing real change. Lisa can be reached at Lisa@CPAMarketingConsultant.com.