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Coaching -- you can't afford not to do it

Dom Cingoranelli, Jr., CPA, CGMA, CMC® | August 2018 Footnote

In a February/March 2018 Footnote article, I provided an overview of mentoring, noting that initiatives for coaching and mentoring are quite common. I stated that both mentoring and coaching are essential to an organization.

That being said, for smaller organizations -- particularly ones with limited resources -- starting with coaching makes the most sense. This is because a good coaching program includes the accountability to hold employees to performance and developmental expectations. This, in turn, leads to better, faster, stronger people and organizations through an intentional effort and specific improvements.

Coaching or mentoring -- what's the difference?

People often use these two terms interchangeably and, at times, someone who is mentoring is thought to be coaching (and vice-versa). There is a difference, though.

Specifically, coaches actively provide guidance, direction, monitoring and feedback. Coaches hold people accountable for change. As such, they usually work in the same group or department with the person being coached, and they should have authority and responsibility over them to hold their people accountable for the performance expected. The coach usually drives the process, which is designed to help protégés stretch and grow through accountability for change.

On the other hand, mentoring involves a process where the mentor and protégé meet periodically, often based on the protégé's need for additional input or assistance. In these meetings, the mentor may ask questions, listen or answer questions of the protégé and provide support in his or her ongoing quest for improvement. The discussions are driven by the protégé, who will meet with the mentor on an ad hoc basis or more regularly. The mentor and protégé, by design, normally work in different groups, departments or divisions. Thus, there is not much opportunity to create accountable action plans with performance monitoring and rewards or sanctions.   

Everyone in your organization needs one coach

If you want to create an intentional path for ongoing development of your people, set up a coaching program. This is a critical concept to embrace if you want any development system to become part of your culture.

It starts with the commitment that every employee -- for developmental purposes -- needs to directly report to somebody. To be clear, every worker will report to a number of people as they are assigned to various projects. But, having a boss on a project is far different than having "only one coach." The purpose of everyone reporting to one person for coaching and development is simply to enhance accountability and consistency.

The coach's job is to:

  • Be sure that the worker assigned to them knows how to do their job.
  • Monitor the worker's performance (even though they will be working for many people).
  • See that specific educational and on-the-job experiences are provided so that the worker can develop according to their career path plan and competency expectations.
  • Step in and resolve conflicts for their workers, acting as the final arbiter when the direct report has been given conflicting instructions or direction by those in higher positions in the firm.
  • Be held accountable for that worker's performance, with appropriate financial incentives to reward a job well done in the coaching role.

When workers report to several people, no one is responsible and, therefore, no one is accountable.  This leads to staff being thrown into a sink-or-swim environment. The sink-or-swim model of development works fine if you have five job openings with 100 capable applicants available to fill those slots. But, that has not been our economic model for most of the past 30 years, unless you were with one of the largest accounting firms.  

I am not suggesting that everyone should only perform work for one person. In CPA firms, we use matrix management constantly, meaning that depending on the project, anyone could be working for almost anyone. And, while working on a particular project, a person will have a project boss -- the person who is leading that project. But, what if a staff person can't get their work done, doesn't have the skills to do the work being assigned to them or are being directed to do things in opposition to their development plan? That person needs to know who their coach is and engage them in resolution of these issues.   

Identifying coaches and assigning protégés

We suggest the creation of a coaching organizational chart to make it clear as to who is responsible for developing whom. In this chart, you might have people listed multiple times -- a person may oversee a department and also be the developmental manager or coach for specific people.

How many people should a coach be responsible for? We believe the more, the better, up to a point -- say about six or seven per coach at the top end. This model can work at a firm of almost any size. At the other end of the spectrum, you don't want to have each coach working with just one or two protégés. That will result in far too many coaches, which will lead to too many variations in the process. Even with proper training and preparation, each coach has his or her own bias, and this bias will bleed over, for better or for worse, into the coaching process.    

Preparing the coaches

As with mentors, coaches need to have suitable aptitudes and attitudes for the role. Not everyone is cut out to be a coach; some just aren't passionate about developing others, for example. Those that do have the aptitude need to be trained on how to be coaches. Specifically, training should cover the firm's coaching process, and determining the coaching behaviors needed to give protégés direction and encouragement. Other training likely will include coverage of interpersonal skills, such as effective questioning, active listening and monitoring others' nonverbal signals.  

Beginning the coaching process

The approach is simple. At the outset, the coach needs to determine the protégé's needs through one or more methods, such as assessments, evaluations, and discussions with the protégé and people for whom they work. In other words, what changes does the coach need to address for this person?

After determining the current status and desired future status of competencies, the coach needs to:

  • Create action plans to work toward the changes identified.
  • Set up metrics to determine if the desired results are being achieved.  
  • Monitor to review metrics and, if necessary, adjust action plans.

Think about where a protégé's greatest opportunity for development lies -- be it in acquiring new competencies or in shining up existing competencies. Start there. Keep it simple. Focus on no more than two to three areas at a time to begin with. As progress occurs, then continue to find other opportunities for improvement. It's all about making a little bit of progress at any one time and building on this incremental improvement to create greater successes over time.  

The coach's commitment

Coaches should plan on spending up to an hour each month with each of the parties they are coaching, as well as time in between the coaching meetings to:

  • Monitor and provide feedback as required.
  • Review progress and discuss changes that may be needed to stay or get on track.
  • Identify additional learning opportunities.

Coaches need to provide guidance, direction, monitoring and feedback frequently on many initiatives, depending on the coached party's experience with the change being made and how they feel about it. Do not underestimate the level of the coach's involvement needed during these times. Some may be wondering how they can afford the time to do this. I ask: How can you afford not to?

The bottom line on coaching your people

Coaching is part of a leader's job. The approach suggested here is based on the successful experiences of CPA firms throughout North America. It's not difficult. It just takes time and thought with the right attitude to do it properly. But, once you've done it properly, you will be amazed at the results.

If you're like others in the profession, once you begin using this coaching approach, you will see your people's progress dramatically improve due to the extra investment you're making in them.   

Dom Cingoranelli, Jr., CPA, CGMA, CMC® is executive vice president and co-founder of Succession Institute, LLC, a firm specializing in consulting to management on matters relating to succession, performance management and organizational development, both within and outside of the CPA and consulting professions. You may visit him at www.successioninstitute.com.