sually rendered one-to-one, coaching is a hybrid professional and personal service that lies midway on a spectrum that stretches from management consulting to psychotherapy. CPAs who are coaches do everything from assisting other practitioners and entrepreneurs to improve staff productivity to helping them target, acquire and integrate technology acquisitions. But they don’t focus only on the client’s ambitions, they address how he or she can change as a manager and as a person to become better equipped to perform at a higher level.
CPAs, having intimate knowledge of their clients’ businesses, are well placed to help them set goals and solve problems. Some practitioners have segued into offering coaching as a consulting service after using it to strengthen their own careers, and for CPAs comfortable with personal contact coaching has potential as a popular service niche. This article shares details about what some coaches do and how they do it for CPAs who want to help clients improve their game.
A SERVICE THAT ADDS VALUE
Attorneys in Albuquerque, New Mexico, used to love to talk shop with Steve Erickson, CPA. As partners in professional-service firms, they had a lot in common. Since Erickson’s job was to coach accountants on the problems and challenges of running their firms, it was only natural for lawyers to try to gain insight from him. Although some CPAs might have felt those attorneys were nibbling on free advice—which he gave generously—Erickson saw an opportunity and, 10 years ago, decided to add coaching lawyers as a formal, revenue-generating niche to his existing business of coaching accountants. Last year, when Erickson was 52 and the CEO of Phoenix CPA firm REDW Business & Financial (with a specialty in professional practice management), he decided to retire and continue on as an independent business coach. Because CPA and law firms face comparable ethical and business problems, his practice is with both groups.
Erickson is just one of an apparently growing number of CPAs who have caught on to coaching. The Coach U for-profit training organization, based in Colorado Springs, cites accounting among the professional fields that spawn new coaches. Its founder, Thomas Leonard, an accountant and certified financial planner, has been an executive coach since 1982, according to the firm’s Web site (see “Resources” ).
Other CPAs are adding coaching as an extra service when they see a need. Some are acknowledging the coaching they already do, learning to point it out to clients and break it out on bills as a service that adds value and deserves recognition. Some now coach exclusively, using communication and relationship skills and drawing on CPA expertise. Erickson, for example, might help CPAs realize they’re spending too much time working in their business (on client services that could be delegated to a staff member), and not enough time working on their business (such as engaging in long-term strategy planning, finding ways to boost profit performance or changing policies that might improve employee retention).
THERAPY TAILORED TO BUSINESS OBJECTIVES
The job of an executive coach parallels sports. “Coaching helps someone achieve a goal,” says Erickson. It’s about getting clients to act effectively for themselves—and in so doing to acquire self-perpetuating strengths—rather than doing their work for them.
Clients hire CPAs and others as consultants, expecting them to study a problem and provide advice, usually in a written report. People who consult psychotherapists about business issues focus on the interplay between emotional health and business situations, but a business-focused action plan is outside the scope of such help. The theory behind coaching is that the clients themselves have the answers and need to take the time to stop and focus, says one. A CPA who coaches, however, will help the client to figure out
How to set business goals.
Coaches do much of this through modeling—they keep records on the goals and timetables the clients have set and raise a red flag when they see clients veering off their chosen path. Through this process, clients learn to monitor themselves and correct unproductive behavior.
Clients call on coaches for a number of reasons. Some coaches get urgent calls from professionals who are suffering from sudden and massive staff turnover or striving to perform after a big promotion or starting their own business. Other clients have vital short-term goals such as heading off a job loss. One insurance-company client of Esther Ewing—a coach from New York who frequently works with CPAs and leads the three-person organizational capability practice The Change Alliance—had a senior manager who had blown an important deadline as the company was preparing to go public. His employers realized it would be less expensive to secure coaching for him than it would be to fire him and pay severance that covered his 18 years of service.
Ewing says she worked with him to figure out what went wrong. (He had focused on the technical details of the job and hadn’t given his colleagues a heads-up when he saw that he was running behind schedule.) She helped him plan how he could avoid similar problems in the future by paying attention not only to his job description but also to his relationships with other departments. Ewing prefers that each coaching project with a client hew to a single, goal-oriented term of three months, with a follow-up extension of three months if necessary. “If you need more than six months, then there’s something bigger that needs to be addressed,” she says.
HONESTY OPENS DOORS
Few, if any, business-to-business professionals have the intimate level of knowledge about a client’s enterprise that a CPA possesses. “This is a business that requires radical honesty,” says Carolyn Sechler, CPA, also of Phoenix. In the eyes of Sechler and others, the honesty inherent in the CPA-client relationship makes CPAs ideal candidates to offer coaching. If you can trust your CPA with knowledge of your company’s finances, you can trust him or her with intimate knowledge of how you need to improve as a manager. Sechler should know; her weekly consultation with a coach helped her grow her practice and drew her to offer the service, too.
Katharine Halpin, CPA, was Sechler’s coach. As owner of Katharine Halpin & Co., LLC, Phoenix, she often coaches executives up several rungs on the ladder of success, and her clients include—but aren’t limited to—CPAs. “My clients stay with the process three to four years. They tend to get promoted,” she says. Halpin works a little differently from other coaches and prefers long-term to short-term coaching.
In general, short-term coaching focuses on client issues such as “how they’re doing,” Halpin says, but she focuses on “who they’re being.” For example, Halpin might confront an executive who repeatedly encounters the problem of underperforming employees with the question: “Who is it that you’re being that’s giving them permission not to meet expectations?” Leading people out of bad habits requires an effort to change both personality and behavior, and it takes longer than the three months or so that’s required to simply coax an executive into establishing a new good habit, she says.
Halpin worked with Sechler for about three and a half years when Sechler decided to open a home-based CPA firm. The confidential nature of the relationship means Halpin can’t go into detail, but as the client, Sechler can. “I had run a business by myself before, and this time in I didn’t want to make the same mistakes,” Sechler says about her reason for choosing guidance. “The first thing I did when I reopened the practice was hire a coach,” she says. She felt the energy was right in the initial conference with Halpin, and the relationship took off—and so did Sechler’s 14-member virtual CPA firm.
The experience of being coached through establishing a virtual firm led Sechler to realize that she, too, could coach clients. “I coached a teleworking attorney through the process of how to work from home with assistants and secretaries.” Like Erickson, Sechler realized that CPAs have in common with attorneys the challenges of running professional-service firms. But she and Halpin both believe it’s important to play to your strengths. “Don’t coach anything you don’t know,” Sechler says.
Halpin had started out as a CPA at Touche Ross and developed a specialty niche with engineering and finance professionals. She acquired contacts through activities such as serving on the executive committee of the Arizona Society of CPAs and, through referrals only, started coaching executives. “I’d really connect with the ones that came from a finance and accounting background,” Halpin says. Now she coaches full-time, and her practice includes engineers, finance professionals and CPAs. Halpin advises other CPAs to consider adding coaching, or something like it, as a business that can help replace lost revenues from the decline of traditional compliance services.
“The profession is really at a crossroads,” she says. “If more CPAs don’t move toward putting themselves in the role of a trusted business adviser and focusing on a strategic vision for their clients, they’re going to be left out in the cold.”
MARKERS ON THE PATH TO SUCCESS
Usually a CPA coach should start the process by gathering a significant amount of data from those in the client’s universe. Ewing uses a Web-based evaluation tool called Panoramic Feedback to organize “360-degree” input from her clients (see “Resources” ). “We gather feedback from their bosses, direct reports, peers, perhaps from customers and from clients themselves,” Ewing says.
This is not much different from the feedback an employee receives from a boss in a performance review, except that in coaching it might also come from employees, clients, peers or even family members or the general public. The goal is to find out how clients perform in each of those relationships. Are they respected by peers? Do they deliver high-quality work to customers? Do they meet deadlines, keep promises, keep others informed of timelines and provide sufficient warning if schedules slip? Does the client spend work time efficiently enough to both perform well and enjoy family time? Or does the client fail to draw boundaries and instead drag family problems to work and bring work problems home?
In using this comprehensive information, Ewing follows a fairly common format: A flat-fee, three-month coaching stint covers interim counseling phone calls and e-mails. If the package includes face-to-face time, the client pays the cost of travel for either party. Frequently, a coach and client will hold regular meetings, either once a week or once a month. Meetings usually run about an hour, but weekly meetings may be a half hour in some cases. In contrast, many coaches, such as Sechler, work exclusively by phone and Internet with all clients, even those living in the same town.
The benchmarks for progress depend on the reason the client has sought coaching, and setting them is the first work of the coach and client. If the client wants help with meeting deadlines, the gauge of improvement will be whether the number of deadlines missed diminishes by the end of the coaching term. Some coaches seek 360-degree feedback on the client’s performance, collected via surveys or software, at the end of the coaching term as well as at the beginning.
Ewing says that clients have a higher level of commitment to the process when they have a three-month deadline. “In general, there’s an urgent need for the client,” she says, and the time frame encourages focus and progress.
BIG TICKET TRANSACTIONS
“Something bigger” often means plans for a sustained climb up the corporate ladder or a major project such as an acquisition or niche development. James C. Metzler, CPA, and Jennifer Wilson, founding partners of ConvergenceCoaching, Buffalo, New York, often work with companies that are adding in-house IT capability or merging with an IT entity. The firm signs on to coach the executives through the integration phase, help them set priorities, develop a consistent customer profile and make sense of their new product strategy.
For Metzler—a partner since the early 1970s with CPA firm Gaines Metzler Kriner, Buffalo, New York—the move to coaching evolved gradually over a number of years and through several niche specializations. The idea grew, in part, out of the problem CPAs were facing, which Metzler calls “following the pain path.” He says, “Everybody wanted to break out of compliance services” but had been unable to do it under their own powers. Since “we were pioneers in starting a technology practice within a CPA firm in the late 1980s, we found ourselves on the bleeding edge,” Metzler says.
After his book How to Build a Million-Dollar Technology Consulting Practice was published by Harcourt Brace Professional Publishing in 1999, he was approached by many CPA firms for advice on how to build a technology business. That laid the foundation for services linked to assimilating the new technology, and in March 2000, Gaines Metzler Kriner founded its niche subsidiary ConvergenceCoaching as a 50% partnership with marketing professional Wilson.
The new firm had to make many decisions about how to structure the business: which of the five partners would work in the coaching niche; which would remain with the traditional practice; what kind of ownership structure it would have; would it be a service offered by the parent firm or would it be structured as a separate corporate entity? “We had lots of tough partner meetings around those kinds of issues,” says Metzler, who recommends the corporate form because it enables a firm to limit liability.
Pricing needed to be considered carefully, too, says Metzler. They chose the flat-fee structure, which covers not only time spent with the client but also office time for research, e-mails and other homework. Coaching isn’t annual business, so “you’ve got to spend time selling and closing,” he says.
BUILD ON A FOUNDATION
Metzler advises CPAs looking to get into coaching to make sure they have the necessary “soft” skills for listening, teaching and advising in addition to traditional service strengths. The strong trust of a CPA–client relationship gives a leg up, but “it’s about the process,” he says. Even CPAs to whom communication skills come naturally may wish to enroll in formal coach training, which can be as simple as taking a single class or enrolling in a coach certification program (see “Resources”). Such training can help a CPA coach systematize communication skills into a formal process, pick up best practices from instructors and form a network of peers.
As a salvation or a side business, “coaching is definitely on the rise with CPAs” who either want help with their business or want to become coaches themselves, says Sam Allred, CPA, of CPA firm Anderson ZurMuehlen in Helena, Montana. In July 2000 Allred and two colleagues started a coaching consulting niche for their firm. Called Upstream Academy, it helps professional service organizations, mostly CPA firms, focus on reaching their strategic business-plan goals by breaking the plan down into steps that can be measured for improvement at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals.
Upstream is a for-profit, membership-based association with about 75 members. It provides monthly Web-based topical workshops called “BrainStreaming” to help CPA firms improve their performance. It offers guidance on how to deal with a feast-or-famine cycle; an online library of practice-improvement tools and documents designed for CPA firms; affinity chapters, workshops and retreats; and a networking program for firm owners.
Allred recommends that CPAs considering entry into coaching first get their own house in order, reviewing whether they’ve been able to plan, manage and meet challenges in their own business. “For some strange reason, some people think they’re able to do for someone else what they’ve never been able to do for themselves,” Allred says. Once a CPA has perfected her own procedures for developing repeatable, successful business events, then she can move on to teaching others to do the same. As a niche for the profession, says Allred, coaching is not yet ubiquitous. “I think we’re on the forefront of it, and it will build substantially.”
SO WHAT DOES IT PAY?
Fees quoted to the Journal of Accountancy by coaches in fall 2001 ranged from as low as $400 a month to as much as $3,000 a month. For specialized projects that require extensive preparation and research, such as on-site group crisis coaching of a firm’s partners, some highly experienced coaches charge as much as $5,000 for a single day. CPA coaches with less experience than other business coaches in the same market charge at the low end of that range. The highest fees are charged by those who coach corporations rather than individuals, work in expensive cities such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, or who have many years of experience in specialized areas such as IT. Many coaches, like Ewing, have a sliding scale that gives a break to not-for-profit organizations or unemployed individuals.
To compete against coaches from other backgrounds, CPAs should emphasize their status as trusted business advisers, experienced both in keeping secrets and helping businesses improve performance. Because CPA coaches serve existing clients, practitioners will find that they already have most of the costs covered in the form of their own education, experience and familiarity with the clients’ companies. Some see it as a way to take financial, management and general business knowledge, gained primarily through providing traditional compliance services, and create a new advisory business that pulls together all those skills.
Often, CPAs will have the inside track in informal conversations and be able to point out to clients what coaching-related services they already provide. Established coaches recommend that CPAs assign greater value to their own advice and market to clients during such conversations. It’s a hot service right now, says Wilson: “So far, we haven’t actively marketed our services because of significant demand.”
It isn’t automatically repeat business, however. “Coaching does not have the annuity nature of the accounting business,” Metzler says. “You can’t expect business to fall out of the sky.” And it can be lonely. “There’s a lot of travel time, bad food, lonely nights,” Metzler says. The profit potential is high, yet the satisfactions involve more than money. The intangible rewards can be enormous for the CPA who helps clients achieve their personal best by making the most of their strengths. It’s a point of pride for many coaches.