CPA INSIDER

10 steps to a coaching culture

Create a climate at your firm where coaching is rewarded.
By Jennifer Wilson

In a recent Ted Talk, Bill Gates opened with the statement, "Everyone needs a coach." Almost everyone can benefit from the straight talk and support of a performance coach, especially at critical junctures in their career. To elevate future leaders faster, encourage traditional leaders in new ways of thinking, and to facilitate transition, more leaders are working to create a culture of coaching in their firms. 

I am encouraged by this trend, and yet I'm not sure that firm leaders fully understand the changes and investments they'll need to make to foster a coaching ecosystem. To build a coaching culture, keep in mind Marshall Goldsmith's great book title: What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

That's why this article will explore these 10 attributes of great coaching cultures and help you identify the changes you'll need to make to get there:

Commit to "get better" and "be better." In a get-better culture, nothing is perfect or above feedback. Many firm leaders have a "why change?" or a "we already know" mindset, in which ideas for improvement meet with "prove it" responses. Those who do give feedback upstream or to peers receive an almost adversarial or defensive response. To avoid creating an impression of hypocrisy when developing a coaching culture, senior leaders must step away from their desire to defend the status quo and examine their own readiness for personal improvement.

Create a feedback-welcome environment. Firms with a great coaching culture teach their people to be truly open to feedback. They expect their people at all levels, in all roles, to take 100% responsibility for feedback delivered and to express gratitude for the opportunity to get better. Ideally, they embrace the adage "the big dogs eat the dog food first" and senior leaders submit to feedback and coaching themselves before they ask it of others. Those leaders are then transparent about the feedback they receive — about both themselves and the firm — and their plans to address it. They model feedback-welcome behavior.

Develop 360-degree feedback systems. Coachable firms create 360-degree feedback loops. They seek inputs from team members, clients, prospects, referral sources, and others in formal and informal ways, such as through surveys, suggestion boxes, social media, listening tours, town halls, advisory boards, and performance management systems. 

Identify, develop, and empower real coaches. Firms create great coaches as a separate talent management process and take that task seriously. They seek coaches who improve themselves; are feedback-ready; can be trusted with sensitive information; are curious, persistent, and patient; listen actively; are willing to try many approaches; and are able to coach others on their mindset, behavior, and actions.

Not everyone is drawn to people development — which will eliminate some of your firm's current CPAs and consultants as potential coaches. If that's the case, consider enlisting coaches from all levels of your firm, hiring people with nontraditional backgrounds, and engaging with outside consultants to teach and mentor your coaching team as you're starting up. Your most significant hurdle will be identifying your coaches and providing them the framework, learning, time, and rewards to pursue their coaching passion.

Reward being a coach. Firms with a great coaching culture reward people development, and they allocate time, money, recognition, and increased responsibility to their best coaches. As I've written before, most firms make promotion and raise decisions based on individual revenue production. Few firms promote based on people development or coaching skills, so there are very few tangible benefits to investing time in coaching others. Until firms address this inequity, they will fail in their quest to develop a true coaching culture.

Create an agreed-upon coaching framework. Coaching cultures rely on consistency of process.  Your firm's coaching process might include:

  • Developing a coaches' code of conduct (outlining things such as confidentiality, conflict of interest, and escalation processes);
  • Designing the process your coaches will use for intake (for example, 360-degree feedback, the firm's current performance management system, personality assessments, etc.);
  • Defining a functional goal-setting system;
  • Developing an agreed-upon coaching methodology and investing in learning and coaching for the coaches;
  • Instituting systems to document outcomes from coaching sessions; and
  • Providing mechanisms for tracking and reporting results and outcomes.

Ensure those who pursue coaching won't be penalized. When firms adopt a growth mindset and reward those who submit to feedback and coaching, it is critical that those who choose to embark on self-honest assessments, ask for critical feedback, and admit shortcomings don't regret placing themselves in a vulnerable position. If the firm uses that information negatively, team members will believe that coaching is punitive, not beneficial. Instead, firms must invest in those who seek coaching and give them time and support to grow and achieve their goals.

Make goal setting meaningful and achievement expected. Firms with a coaching culture expect the goal-setting process within the coaching relationship to be rigorous. They want goals that will cause the participant to stretch in ways that are uncomfortable and include both mindset and behavioral goals as well as action goals. They ensure that the coaching goals align with other performance goals (if applicable). They expect participants to achieve their coaching goals and to report on their progress transparently.

Celebrate coaching successes. Smart firms celebrate and promote the accomplishments of those being coached and the coaches, too. Doing so reinforces the new behaviors and activities practiced, and it also inspires others to grow and raise the level of their performance. This perpetuates the desire for feedback, coaching, development, and achievement — the hallmarks of a true coaching culture. 

Work to expand the number of people receiving coaching. A coaching culture is achieved when many are positively impacted by the coaching framework. At first, firms may have to limit the coaching offered to their highest-potential future leaders, those taking on large roles, and those with must-have behavioral or performance improvements. This is because firms will likely have a short supply of coaches initially as they build their coaching processes and develop their coaching bench. As more coaches are developed, great firms seek to expand coaching offered to more team members — ideally until every person has had the benefit of a coach.   

If your firm is truly committed to developing a coaching culture, don't skim the surface. Instead, be clear that firm leaders are not above coaching and feedback — and realize not everyone is cut out to be a coach. Engage those who have the right attributes and disposition to be your coaches. Don't expect coaching behavior from the others, but reward them for other behaviors instead. Make these and other necessary changes to drive the performance of your people and transform your firm's culture.  

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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