Inside CPA firms we do a lot of talking about mentoring but often we demonstrate very little action. When I ask participants in my presentations if they have a mentoring program most of them say, “Yes”. However, when I ask how these programs are working I usually get “So-so” as an answer.
There seems to be some confusion about the difference between mentoring and coaching. If you Google these words you will get a lot of differing opinions on what they mean and how to go about being a mentor or a coach in the business world. I will add my voice to the masses and tell you how I think it plays out inside a successful CPA firm.
I believe that a mentor is a listener, a sounding board, a wise resource to guide and steer you as your evolve, develop and gain experience in your career.
I believe a coach is someone more active. Think of a basketball or football coach – they actually show you (run down the field or court beside you and give you detailed instructions….”keep your elbows in and head down!”
In a CPA firm both roles are needed. I like to see mentoring programs have a foundation of coaching. The first year or so, beginners really need a coach (or buddy), someone who knows how to actually do the work, use the software, etc. and then they evolve to where they need more of a mentoring situation (and this usually is a different person) who is more of a career counselor.
As with everything, mentoring is under-going some changes in the professional service firm world. If a mentor and a coach aren’t enough, we are now reading and hearing more and more about having a “Sponsor” as your develop your career.
Honestly, I think that what we have inside CPA firms is really more of a sponsor relationship. It is more of an “I will help you and in return you will help me” type of relationship. A Sponsor builds a relationship with people (by helping them succeed) and they give back to the sponsor by helping them (and replacing them) so they can go on to bigger and better things. It’s like succession – - – I will teach you, train you and promote you and you will help me handle my clients and responsibilities better and eventually replace me.
“You might be tapped for development, but you’re not going to be given a ride on the coattails of anyone who doesn’t see you pulling your weight (and then some). Mentors may pick you, but you pick your sponsors by committing yourself to their best interests.”
I have worked with many CPA firms to establish and/or re-engineer their mentoring system and their performance review process. These two things are such an important part of the culture within public accounting firms.
Of course, there is a lot to talk about and a way to communicate in these areas. In fact, communication is one of the most challenging issues consultants to the CPA profession are seeing inside CPA firms.
I find that partners don’t communicate enough OR they have way too many meetings. I also get lots of questions about exactly how to communicate with a subordinate about their performance or how to give meaningful advice to someone you are mentoring.
At your accounting firm, as you enter the season of performance reviews and more frequent mentoring sessions, please keep in mind that you have a special power. Silence is power.
Inside your firm you probably know of situations where “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but if you really want to increase the power of your voice, silence can be a powerful tool.
In summary, inside accounting firms communication needs to be enhanced at all levels. In conversations inside your accounting firm, often silence is golden.
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
I am very proud of the fact that I have been blogging about accounting firm management almost every workday for over 7 years. I must admit, I do occasionally miss a day – it is very rare.
Yesterday was one of those days – but wait! I won’t make a habit of it and I have a good reason.
As you advise and mentor the people working inside your accounting firm, deadlines will definitely be missed. Here’s some advice you can give the people you supervise in case they miss a deadline:
Communicate to those involved .
Don’t try to hide it.
Explain the situation.
Plan better next time.
Don’t make it a habit.
As for me, another deadline came up. My monthly newsletter goes out tomorrow morning. I wanted to make it special for CPA firm citizens because they are nearing the end of a very busy time. Leaders will be re-engaging with various issues and challenges inside their firms. Unless, of course, you don’t have any issues and challenges inside your CPA firm.
I spent yesterday writing my April CPA Management newsletter. I even expanded it beyond it’s normal content. Then last night, it hit me…. I didn’t make a blog post yesterday! At other times, I would have written one before midnight just to make the deadline. This time I didn’t. I’ll plan better next time.
I think I hit all the bullet-points, above. If you aren’t on my newsletter list, you can sign-up here.
I work best after the deadline has passed, when I'm in a panic.
You know what I like. That is a statement, not a question.
If you follow this blog, you know that I’m always nagging you about getting busy…… do this to make your firm better, do that to make sure everyone understands their role in marketing, don’t wait until “after busy season,” make decisions faster, be more inclusive in leadership rather than being exclusive… and on and on….
What I really like is firm leaders doing something really positive and helpful for their team members. Owners setting a good example. What a concept! It is something I don’t see often enough. Here’s the story.
The owners in a mid-size CPA firm were becoming worried about the younger accountants understanding and commitment to client service (their firm is made-up of a majority of people under 35). Rather than have me come in and talk to these young people about the value of client service, they had me come in and talk to everyone in the firm, accountants and administrative team members AND here’s the part I like…. The partners ALL attended, participated, told stories, contributed ideas – - Yes! They taught their own team by setting the example, sharing the learning experience with them and telling stories of their business development successes.
They did NOT set the tone I so often see….. “we” know all this but our staff needs to learn it.
The following is a reprint of a blog I did on November 3, 2009:
Sometimes, inside CPA firms, we tend to talk about what’s not working a whole lot more than what is working.
I believe it is for a good reason. CPA firm leaders want to continually improve things and to do this they need a thorough checklist of what appears to be broken. While I encourage your continual march toward a forward-thinking, well-managed firm, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses!
Talk, talk, talk about the good things at your firm and encourage your leaders to cite examples of positive forces in your firm. It’s funny how you will see others begin to do the same. Positive talk and positive actions creates positive energy and it is imitated.
Just such an action happened yesterday at the Alpern Rosenthal’s annual leadership retreat in Pittsburgh. We were having a discussion guided by Holly Fuller and Steve Feldbauer on why the firm’s mentoring program needed improvement. There were lots of great ideas and comments on how to “fix” it, when Frank Duzicky spoke up.
The room got very quiet when Frank began to speak…. “My firm mentor is Dave (David Charnock, COO, of Alpern). I have benefited so much from Dave’s guidance and counsel. He is so patient and never hesitates to spend time with me. I am a better professional, better employee, better manager, better husband and just a better human being because of Dave.”
Wow…… the quiet room erupted in applause. That’s what it is all about. I am so proud of Dave and fortunate that he is my friend and role model, too.
Inside your accounting firm – be sure to talk about positive things today.
Footnote: Dave Charnock passed away on Monday of this week after a two-year battle with brain cancer. This is a picture of Dave with his lovely wife, Cathy, taken at one of the annual Association for Accounting Administration national conferences. Yes, I was very fortunate to have known him and I will miss his wit, advice and friendship. We need more leaders who actually demonstrate what it means to be a role model in public accounting and in life.
A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.
Mentoring happens naturally inside a CPA firm. More experienced accountants teaching, guiding and educating less experienced accountants.
How much experience do you need? If you have worked in public accounting for one year, you can help others! That’s why so many CPA firm mentoring programs usually contain a “buddy” program. Someone who is closer to the day-to-day work is paired with a new hire to help them “learn the ropes.” It’s more hands-on type guidance (how to use the software, how to act at the client’s office, how to respond to review notes, etc.). It is still a mentoring role – you are reaching down and pulling someone up.
Think about it. If you have one to two years of experience I bet you have a lot of very practical advice to share with someone right out of college or someone coming in from another firm – real-life and often eye-opening experiences.
Formally or informally, I don’t care, mentoring is something that should be happening inside your CPA firm.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Should all partners (principals, shareholders, directors, owners) be mentors. My standard answer is:
“No, if they do a horrible job, if they don’t keep their commitment in meeting with the mentee, if they set a very poor example inside the firm (and the rest of the team make fun of them behind their back)…. don’t ask them to be part of your firm’s mentoring program.”
Even though you exclude them, they are mentoring anyway, because mentoring is part of almost every CPA firm culture – - more experienced accountants teach less experienced accountants how to do the work, how to treat clients, how to follow firm guidelines and so on.
If you are one of these people inside a firm who declares, “I’m not good at mentoring,” and dodge the formal responsibility – it’s time to step-up to the plate and mentor.
Many experienced CPAs ask, “What do I say, what do I do, where do we meet, how often do we meet?” Chill! – It’s easy, it’s natural – be yourself.
Here’s a hand-out I use, titled:
Take Time To Mentor
Take time and be friendly – the most basic thing you can do.
Take time and truly listen – the most motivational thing you can do.
Take time and be empathetic – the individual wants to know you care.
Take time and be flexible – the individual wants options and choices.
Take time and be helpful – make sure you understand their needs.
Take time and be truthful – tell me what is likely to happen and what will not happen.
If you can’t take time, give them some who can.
You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
Harris says most of what kids know, they learn from others. He believes that rather than seeing kids as “scientists in the crib” learning from observation and research, they actually learn more from the “testimony” of “informants.”
Think about your own childhood. If it was like mine, you learned so much from what adults and friends “told” you. Harris goes against what happens in today’s classrooms; instead, it demands verbally acute teachers as well as patient parents. Per Harris, children left to be hands-on experimenters is too narrow of a vision.
Harris: Children get their information from teachers, parents and experts. They’ll learn to trust some more than others. But I’m not just offering a portrait of young children. We’re all stuck with the fact that the amount of knowledge we can gather for ourselves is minuscule compared with the amount we gain by listening to experts, whether it’s how to invest or what to do if we have a cancer.
An issue – Pre-school teachers are mostly selected for their ability to be “nurturers” rather than for verbal or intellectual abilities. The student-teacher ration needs to be much lower.
Does questioning become less important as children age? Harris: No. It extends to elementary school and even high school. I don’t know about your children, but mine complain that often when they’ve asked questions in school, there’s not been time to deal with them. It’s the curriculum that dictates the pace of learning.
Why did I tell you all this? Because, hopefully, as you live your life inside an accounting firm, you learn from me and other “experts.” I learn a whole lot by reading (and I share that with all of my readers). I like to say “I read so you don’t have to.” While I learn from reading, I must admit that most of what I have learned over my many years in the accounting firm world, I have learned from listening to others; people more experienced in CPA firm management. Isn’t that why you belong to CPA associations, so you can learn from others?
Turn the focus to YOU. People hire you because you are an expert in taxation, accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, financial affairs, etc. They listen to you and learn.
Who else listens and learns from you? Yes, your staff members! Most one and two-year people tell me, “I didn’t learn any of this in college!” It’s about on-the-job training. It’s about individual counseling. It’s about mentoring others.
Accountants are known, for the most part, for being introverts yet so many people are relying on you to talk to them, to verbally convey your knowledge and experience about financial affairs.
Reading this interview shed some light for me on the fact that communication is the root of many problems inside accounting firms.
Don’t make it difficult, keep it simple and talk to your people and your clients. So what if your formal mentoring program isn’t working 100%, are you taking individuals to lunch and simply answering their questions? My advice is to take more individuals to lunch and answer questions – verbally convey your wisdom. Clients will gladly pay for it and your people will prosper.
Contact me if you need ideas for improving communication within your accounting firm.
It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
So many CPA firms continue to do what they have always done. This applies to many areas including the people issues. Does your firm still recruit the same old way they have always recruited? What about Orientation (Onboarding)?
Most firm leaders who are focused on hiring and training are always looking for a better way to make onboarding more meaningful. What usually happens is that we bring them in, make sure they know the mission, vision and core values, give them an employee handbook, maybe spend two days with them and then turn them loose to be scheduled on client engagements. Larger firms have more resources than smaller firms, but I imagine firms of all sizes could benefit from revisiting and re-engineering their onboarding process.
Onboarding really isn’t a two-day event. The most important part happens after the two-day structured process is over. A recent Workforce Mobility Survey sponsored by Allied Van Lines, gives us actual data about the state of onboarding. I learned about the survey via H R Capitalist.
Here’s what some of the data tells us:
Management participation in the program – only one-third of companies have this. (Please tell me this isn’t true inside your CPA firm!)
Under half of the companies responding to the survey match the new talent with a vet in a coaching or mentoring relationship. (Young accountants entering public accounting have always learned from an older, more experienced CPA. It is the foundation of the CPA profession. Maybe your program needs a little more formality to it via a coaching/mentoring/counseling system.)
Only 13% of companies responding to the survey do proactive stay interviews. (I just talked about this at a recent Massachusetts Society workshop. Firms are doing Stay Interviews and Stay Bonuses!) Ask your people: How are we doing? What are you thinking? How likely are you to leave? Every likes to be asked.
Need outside assistance with surveying your team? I have a new service called SurveyCPA. Often, when the survey is conducted by someone from the outside (who really understands the CPA profession) you will be rewarded with better participation and more honest feedback.
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.