Executive Coaching as a Way to Improve Soft Skills for Accountants

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Executive Coaching as a Way to Improve Soft Skills for Accountants

To reach their full potential, individuals who have been promoted to new leadership roles in their firms, whether they are partners, shareholders or principals, must master both technical and soft skills.

Soft skills include aptitudes in customer service, business development, supervision and leadership. Many new leaders first gained the attention of firm executives because of their ability to master the technical aspects of their chosen area. However, it is the development of their “soft” skills that determines how quickly they move up the firm’s career ladder.

Accounting firms should consider offering executive coaching as a premium service for new and established leaders who desire to excel in their roles by enhancing or developing specific soft skills. Fortune 500 companies have provided coaching to their management teams because of positive outcomes realized in workplace satisfaction, productivity and the bottom line.

Developing soft skills requires change that goes beyond one’s intellectual abilities. The change required to develop these skills often requires the leader to make shifts that impact how they view themselves as a person. It requires them to consider their temperament, personality style, attitudes and beliefs. Making these changes may demand changes to adjust not only old habits but also long-held beliefs.

Let’s take the example of Rachel, a new leader who the managing partner believes could reach her maximum potential within the firm if she improved her communication skills. Specifically, the managing partner understands Rachel’s development challenge as follows: Informal feedback received from peers and direct reports reveal that Rachel communicates effectively in large groups but struggles with one-on-one communication. She can be aloof and condescending at times, especially with those whom she supervises.

Rachel has advanced quickly in her firm because she is a strong technician, provides excellent customer service, and is a hard worker. She has been mentored by the firm’s managing partner, been given feedback about needing to develop her communication skills, and has attended continuing education programs on communication and leadership, but no changes have been observed.

Why is this type of change so universally difficult, and why do training programs and other interventions fail? There have been volumes written on this topic, but here is a brief overview of a very complicated subject. On the surface the reasons for lack of lasting change are not surprising—we are creatures of habit and change is simply a hard, painful process. From an evolutionary prospective, resistance to change is adaptive. Maintaining homeostasis provides for social stability and group cohesion. But our species is not doomed to this fate.

In fact, we are capable of phenomenal flexibility and growth. A simple case in point: Wasn’t it just a few years ago we maintained audit workpapers in three-ring binders and now they are held in electronic binders? Now, the change from paper to electronic binders is a technical change, involving the mechanics of how we work.

If Rachel wants to improve her communication style, the technical aspect of this challenge may involve making eye contact, smiling, and adjusting her tone of voice. Unlike Rachel’s challenge, the change to electronic binders was externally imposed. We had to adapt because paper binders were no longer an option. It did not require the level of motivation that is required to achieve a personal development challenge.

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, involve one’s belief system, thought processes and personality style. It is far more difficult to make adaptive changes that require us to change our attitudes and beliefs. Although Rachel may be aware of the technical solution described in the previous paragraph, it is unlikely that she will utilize the tools presented beyond a few days after training because the adaptive issues have not been addressed.

For instance, let’s say Rachel’s aloofness stems from her innate shyness, and because she feels threatened by direct reports who may question her authority or knowledge, and believes leaders must have all the answers. If these are the issues, it is unlikely that the technical solutions described above will result in Rachel’s development in this area. This is why many external leadership training programs, which are rich in technical solutions, rarely produce lasting change. How often do participants in these programs initially respond with enthusiasm, but then the program booklets are found months later gathering dust, and the PowerPoint presentations remain underutilized on the shared directory?

Executive coaching is a premium service that can be provided to new and even established firm leaders to help them address adaptive challenges that impede soft skills development. Executive coaching has been around in various forms for many years. Only recently have more practitioners been entering the field. Because of the new growth in the field, many practitioners can claim to be executive coaches or claim that they do executive coaching, but it is hard to know what exactly gives them the skills and background to make this claim. Before a firm considers hiring an executive coach, it should consider the following:

Cost: Executive coaching is expensive. An engagement that spans between six to nine months and includes individual and 360-degree assessment tools can easily cost thousands of dollars ($15,000-$30,000). Offering executive coaching to new leaders may simply be cost prohibitive to smaller firms. However, these firms should consider the long-term costs of failing to provide the service to new or established leaders with soft skills development challenges.

Confidentiality: An executive coach may share themes and a development plan with the management team and human resources, but the coach will insist that the specifics of the coaching sessions be confidential. The only way a coachee will feel comfortable speaking about deep-seated and possibly uncomfortable issues is if the coach can guarantee confidentiality. Since firms are making a substantial investment, they will need to work with the coach and coachee to determine whether progress is being made.

Contact for the coach: Before coaching begins, it is important to establish up front who the coach “reports” to. Typically, the coach reports to the human resources director, but if the firm does not have an HR director, then the managing partner or partner responsible for HR matters can be the contact. It is not advisable for the coach to report to multiple individuals within the firm.

Explaining the reasons for coaching: There are two issues here. First, how does a firm explain that one individual is receiving coaching, but others are not? Second, how does the firm communicate that coaching is a positive development and not a negative one? It is recommended that the firm consider the response to these two questions early on to avoid demoralizing the coachee’s peers or, on the other hand, causing the coachee undue alarm.

The field of coaching is a relatively new and selecting the “right” coach for your leader will be critical for the success of the coaching engagement. Here are some guidelines:

Interview at least three coaches: It will be important for the coachee to be involved in the interview process. This is called the “chemistry check.” The purpose is to determine whether there is a good fit between the coach and coachee. A firm may hire the most experienced and well known coach, but coaching will not be successful if the coach and coachee do not have a good personality fit.

Determine the coach’s certification: Since it’s essentially the “wild west” when it comes to coaching, it is important to determine the level of experience the coach has, including the certifications and educational background. Although there is not one body that certifies coaches, many coaches are certified by the International Coaching Federation, or ICF. A word of caution here: Simply because a coach is not ICF certified should not dissuade you from considering a coach; excellent coaches may not be ICF certified.

Determine which 360-degree and assessment tools the coach will use: Just about every coach will conduct a 360-degree evaluation. A 360 is defined as a methodology used to obtaining information about the coachee from his peers, supervisors and direct reports, using either a structured or unstructured format. In addition, the coach will use assessment tools to determine the coachee’s personality style preferences, leadership style or other individual characteristics. Information from the 360, interviews of the coachee and assessment tools will be used to draft the coachee’s development plan. Therefore, it will be important to understand the assessment methodology that the coach plans to use in the selection process.

Executive coaching can be a highly effective tool to help leaders develop the soft skills needed to reach their full potential. Prior to hiring an executive coach, an accounting firm should consider how and when coaching will be introduced in its existing leadership development program, and understand the nature of coaching and the coaching relationship.

By: Alfonso Perillo, CPA, is a partner at Edelstein & Company LLP in Boston.

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