Coaching programs get new partners off to a great start

Coaching can be a powerful investment in your firm’s future.
By Courtney L. Vien

Joseph Longo, CPA, says turning to his in-house coach helped him with his transition to partner at EY.
Joseph Longo, CPA, says turning to his in-house coach helped him with his transition to partner at EY. (Photo by Mark Stehle/AP Images)

Like many new partners, Joseph Longo, CPA, felt isolated at first. After the excitement of being made a partner wore off, he found that the people he used to work with didn't come to him as readily with their concerns. He was also reluctant to ask others for advice, feeling that, as a partner, he needed to be viewed as an authority.

"Sometimes I'd think, 'I'm in charge of the project, of the team. I have to know all the answers,' " said Longo, a partner in the assurance division of EY since 2013.

Fortunately, Longo had someone who could address his concerns: his coach, Dawn Pons.

Pons, the director of EY's in-house executive coaching program, recounted anecdotes about the struggles longtime partners had when they first started. "It clicked with me that someone who's done this for 10 years has the same uncertainties and nervousness I had when transitioning to partner," Longo said.

Pons's coaching helped Longo reach out to others in the firm for information and guidance. "Once I started to feel less isolated, I asked more questions," Longo said. "I realized that my job is not always to find the answer, but to find someone who knows the answer. Understanding that you don't know all the answers is a sign of strength, not weakness."

Why new partners can use coaches

The transition to partner can be rocky. New partners struggle with delegation, increased workloads, and changed relationships with their co-workers. (As Tamera Loerzel, a coach and partner at ConvergenceCoaching, put it, "Suddenly, you've got three jobs.") They're making decisions with higher stakes, transitioning from the mindset of an employee to that of an owner, and deciding where their careers will take them now that they've reached a key career milestone.

But new partners are also developing their identities as leaders and owners of their firms. The decisions they make at this juncture will affect the course of their careers—and the culture and direction of their firms.

That's why many organizations now offer key employees executive coaching. In one survey of companies in various industries, 87% of respondents said their companies provided coaching to employees they considered "high potentials." The case for coaching new partners is that it reduces their stress levels while helping them acclimate to their roles more quickly, so that they're able to make a contribution to their firm that much sooner. Coaching new partners "puts them on a higher growth curve," said Karen Hutchison, an executive coach at EY. "They'll then be able to contribute at a higher level over their whole career."

Coaching also lets firms take a more active role in shaping their future leaders. "The payoff to the firm from coaching is creating a culture of effective leadership," said Michelle Arnold, chief regional officer of independent accounting firm association PrimeGlobal North America. "It helps develop high-yield, low-maintenance partners."

How coaching works

Coaches tailor their approaches to each client, but many of them use certain techniques. A coach may have a client reflect on past experiences, ask pointed questions about goals and preferences, and act as a sounding board for the client's concerns.

A coaching engagement may follow a loose structure. Executive coach Amber Setter, CPA, owner of Intention Setter: Leadership Coaching & Consulting, said she starts her engagements by building a foundation. Through an initial intake process, she asks new clients to identify what they want to get out of the coaching process. Sometimes they come with clear examples, such as earning a promotion or becoming more effective at leading their team or firm. Other times they aren't clear on what's next for their careers, so the initial sessions are designed to clarify their goals. Clients then work with her on bridging the gap between where they are and where they want to be, she said.

Though coaches may recommend certain strategies, clients are hardly passive during coaching sessions. "Sometimes people assume the role of a coach is to bring all the answers, to have a playbook that says 'this is what you do and don't do,' " Hutchison said. But she and her clients "are really a creative duo," she said. "I'm guiding the dialogue, but they provide the answers for themselves."

In fact, many coaches create accountability by giving clients "homework": asking them to try new behaviors or perform certain tasks and then report back. "Coaching is a safe place to talk about what worked and what didn't," ConvergenceCoaching's Loerzel said.

Coaches also use formal assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or 360-degree leadership assessments, to better understand clients' temperaments and leadership styles. "Leadership behavior can be esoteric. It's not like debits and credits and balances," Setter said. "Assessments give people a clear, data-driven response associated with certain behaviors." For example, they can give new partners insight into their preferred communication style, how they work with others, and how others perceive them.

Coaches can then combine their knowledge of a client's goals and personality with the data from assessments to help him or her devise strategies for success. Loerzel, for example, once helped a new partner from a top 100 firm improve his business development skills.

"His MBTI showed he was an introvert," she said. "He sometimes found conferences and networking events overwhelming. I had him identify specific clients and referral sources for a conference he was attending, and specify what a positive outcome would be. I also reminded him to take time to recharge and to have one-on-one conversations." The partner returned from the conference with more contacts and follow-up than ever before—and exceeded his new business goals for the year.

Coaching is also valuable in that it can give busy partners much-needed designated time for reflection. "We live in a world of constant busyness," Setter said. "Coaching is a wonderful structure that lets you unplug from the internet and go into a quiet internal environment and ask yourself, 'What's the best way to handle something?' "

Coaching options for firms of all sizes

EY's program has garnered some encouraging results. Though partners typically do very well on their performance reviews, coaching helps them achieve even better results more quickly, Pons said. Plus, she noted, "we've seen our overall partner engagement metrics, which were already very high, increase since we've started the program." The 5-year-old program, which employs 19 full-time coaches and has served around 300 new partners in the United States, has been successful enough that EY has implemented it in several of its overseas locations.

Small or medium-size firms without the resources to hire in-house coaches can still benefit from coaching. These firms can hire an outside coaching firm to work with an individual partner or a cohort of partners, enroll new partners in a leadership training program run by a training firm, start a formal or informal in-house mentoring program, give key leaders coaching training so they are able to coach new partners, or any combination of the above.

The cost of such coaching services varies significantly depending on what type of coaching a firm uses, but executive coaches charge an average of $335 per hour, according to Sherpa Coaching's annual executive coaching survey and earnings report. Intention Setter charges $1,200 a month for clients with over 10 years' work experience, while ConvergenceCoaching's Transformational Leadership Program (TLP) costs $5,250 per participant per year.

Many coaching and training firms run leadership programs for new partners that incorporate coaching. They're all structured a bit differently but typically include a combination of individual coaching calls, in-person workshops, and online content, such as webinars. In ConvergenceCoaching's TLP, for instance, a cohort of 20—25 new partners and employees who are in line for partnership attend two two-day in-person conferences, receive coaching calls every other month, and participate in skills-building workshops, webinars, and online study.

These programs, Arnold said, are an excellent way for new partners to learn essential soft skills. PrimeGlobal's program, she said, "spends a large percentage of its time on situational leadership, accomplishing goals, capitalizing on strengths and weaknesses, and leading by example. These kinds of skills have a huge payoff to the partner group in total. The qualities the newbies exhibit change the culture of the partner group."

Some leadership training programs, including the TLP, incorporate final or "capstone" projects with the assistance of an in-firm mentor. These projects are major undertakings that affect the day-to-day operations of participants' firms. New partners in PrimeGlobal's leadership program, for example, which is run by an outside firm called the Succession Institute, have completed such capstone projects as reengineering their firm's auditing and assurance process, overhauling their firm's website, and restructuring their firm's high-net-worth and small business division.

A major benefit of attending these programs is networking, said Tonya Futrell, CPA, a partner at WellsColeman who attended the TLP. "One of the best things about it was to be able to be with people who are at a similar point in their career paths," she said. "It's comforting to know you aren't the only one facing similar issues." She still keeps in touch with several of the other partners who went through the program with her.

Tonya Futrell, CPA
Tonya Futrell, CPA, a partner at WellsColeman, says a benefit of participating in a leadership program was networking with others on the same career path. (Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP Images)

Smaller firms, or ones that infrequently promote partners, may opt to hire individual coaches to work with new partners. Setter said her engagements usually last six months, during which she speaks with clients weekly. Her individual coaching engagements have a targeted approach. "I help someone form a comprehensive plan, such as forming a book of business worth a certain dollar amount, and break it up into bite-size goals along the way," she said.

Coaching can be an excellent way to help new partners ease into their roles. Something one of Hutchison's new partner clients told her perhaps said it best: "At the beginning of my first year of coaching, I felt like the guy who showed up late to the party. Now I feel like one of the people throwing the party. I fit right in."

Advice for firms starting a coaching program

If you're thinking of implementing a coaching program at your firm, consider this advice:

Start small and focused. "I tell people who want to start coaching programs to start with a small area that will have a big impact," said Dawn Pons, director of EY's in-house executive coaching program. "Choose a population or purpose or context that you think will have relevant results for your business."

Offer coaching to high potentials, not poor performers. "Coaching is best used in a good-to-great scenario," said Karen Hutchison, an executive coach at EY. If you only send your problem employees to coaching, she said, your program may be viewed as a punishment rather than as a reward, and employees won't want to participate.

Don't make coaching mandatory. "That is one of our program's requirements—employees can't be forced to do it," Pons said. "It won't be effective if they go through the motions."

Have coaches and coachees meet in person at least once, even if the majority of their meetings will take place over the phone. Though coaching over the phone can be very successful, Pons said it's important for the coach and client to meet face to face. "The initial stage of any coaching engagement is about rapport building," she said. "Meeting in person makes a world of difference."

Advice for firms hiring independent coaches

If you're considering engaging an outside coaching firm, here are some tips:

Look for coaches with credentials. "Unlike the heavily regulated accounting field, coaching is a nascent profession. A lot of people take a weekend seminar and call themselves coaches," said Amber Setter, CPA, owner of Intention Setter: Leadership Coaching & Consulting. She recommended that firms seek out coaches with International Coach Federation (ICF) credentials. "The ICF credential is the most prominent and is very rigorous," she said.

Choose the right coach or program for your firm. "Review the curriculum very closely, because the person teaching it will have their own biases and their own ideas," said Michelle Arnold, chief regional officer of PrimeGlobal, an association of independent accounting firms. "You want to be very careful that the vision and culture of your firm is reinforced by what participants are learning."

Have partners choose in-firm mentors who can work alongside their coaches. Many outside leadership programs, in fact, require that participants have in-firm mentors who attend some coaching calls with them. "They're the feet on the street," said Tamera Loerzel, a coach and partner at ConvergenceCoaching. "They understand the climate of the firm, the players." New partners should be allowed to choose these mentors themselves, said Dawn Pons, director of EY's in-house executive coaching program.

About the author

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA associate editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at or 919-402-4125.

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