[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]With recruiting and retaining top talent a major concern for accounting firms – and with more and of that talent expecting more from their workplaces – human resources issues are popping up all over the profession.

In this column, consultants Tamera Loerzel and Jennifer Wilson of ConvergenceCoaching answer tough HR questions they’ve heard from real accounting firms.

Q: I keep seeing posts on developing people and improving performance feedback in discussion forums, conferences and national publications. Our firm’s performance review and feedback processes are not being consistently applied, so are not providing consistent development opportunities for our people. What one thing will most improve performance feedback in our firm?

A: Performance feedback is the No. 1 HR challenge firms are facing right now! The most important step you can take is to ensure you have the right people assigned to provide feedback.

First, clarify who owns performance feedback in your firm – and don’t say “everyone” because that means “no one”! Every person in your firm should be assigned a “shepherd” or career advisor who “owns” their assigned advisee’s career progression, personal development and feedback delivery. Ideally, your firm’s career advisors will opt in and only be assigned as shepherds if they have the desire and the competency to do so. Then, provide regular skills-building sessions to work with your career advisors on methods for effectively delivering feedback – verbally and in writing.

Q: I have a young manager who is dynamite technically, puts her time in, and does many of the right things, but she lacks executive presence. She has expressed interest in progressing to senior manager and then, at some point partner. I’m concerned because the other partners and managers say she doesn’t project the right image or doesn’t feel like “partner material.” What can I do to help her develop in this sensitive area?

A: “Executive presence” is a murky term and needs to be clarified before you can develop a plan to enhance her professional image.

First, identify what is lacking in her executive presence:

  • Is it her physical packaging and dress?
  • Is it a lack of confidence that is exhibited by speaking softly or not speaking up at all?
  • Does she second-guess herself, or is there some other communication challenge?
  • Can she command a room and organize and share her thoughts in a concise and articulate manner?
  • Is she too outgoing, overly familiar, or over-the-top?

There are a lot of possibilities here and you can’t prescribe change strategies until you’re clearer on what isn’t working in her overall presence. If it has something to do with her physical appearance, here is some suggested language to consider:
“I’d like to deliver some feedback to you regarding the image you’re projecting at work. While this may be awkward, I care about you and think you could project a more professional, crisp image if …your clothes fit in a more tailored way. I am concerned that they may be too [tight/loose/casual, etc.] and don’t project the professional image that will garner you respect from other, more conservative professionals. Instead, I’d love to see you visit a tailor to see what they suggest to ensure your clothes fit just right. How do you feel about this idea?”

Also, consider having her read the book Presence by Amy Cuddy for some other concrete strategies to improve.


Q: We need to address an issue with an employee in one of our offices who is a good employee but has a personal hygiene (odor) issue (she apparently does not shower regularly). It has gotten to the extent that it is an issue for other employees that work with her, so it needs to be addressed. What suggestion would you have to handle this delicate situation? Also, we intend to have a female shareholder in charge of personnel in that office address this with her.

A: This is a tough one but it has to be dealt with head on. We like to have these types of conversations in the context of “You may not be aware” – so it’s more like:

“I wanted to share something with you that is a little personal, but it is something I want to make sure that you’re aware of. I’ve noticed [avoid saying that others have noticed, because that is likely to upset her] that there are times when you come to work where it seems like you might not be as fresh or crisp as we’d expect. To garner the respect of your peers and clients, you want to project a truly clean and professional image. When it seems like you may not have taken the time to shower before work and use deodorant, perhaps, then it doesn’t project that crisp image we should all be striving for. I’d like to ask that you put in more effort to come to work each day as fresh and clean in appearance and hygiene as possible. What do you think of this request?”

We agree that it makes sense to have a female shareholder engage in the conversation with this employee, as it is easier to have personal hygiene issues handled by a same-sex manager when possible, given that the employee will probably feel more comfortable discussing this issue with someone of her own gender.

Q: We have several young staff and seniors who think that they should be promoted faster than they are. The partner group feels that they just need more time on the job to get the experience they need and to engage in a broad array of experiences with clients and technical engagements. We’ve heard that we need to fast-track some of our young staff, even though this isn’t how most of our partner and manager team has progressed in their careers. What would you recommend to speed the development of our people?

A: In general, most firms give lip service to providing shadowing opportunities, or experiential learning, for their staff. At best, it’s an afterthought and a partner or manager might grab someone on the way out the door to attend a client or prospect meeting with them. However, the 70-20-10 Model for Learning and Development pioneered by Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger says that learning happens in this way: 10 percent of learning happens in classroom or formal training (CPE), 20 percent in coaching and mentoring one-on-one and 70 percent of learning comes from experiences. So experiential learning is the best way to fast-track your staff members’ learning and progression, and most firms are desperate for their people to take on more responsibility and higher-level client work.

If you want to speed the development of your people, your leadership team must make it a priority to intentionally provide a variety of individual opportunities to learn by “experiencing” it and applying new knowledge or skills they have learned. Some examples include shadowing prospect or referral meetings, leading portions of client engagements while the client relationship and/or engagement manager shadows, or spending time observing client meetings. We incorporate experiential learning into our training courses through role playing, undertaking practical application exercises and asking each participant to make one commitment to produce a specific result from that they learned so they can practice and apply it and report back to someone on the results.

If you are afraid of not being able to track the time, or having to write it off, set up an Experiential Learning non-charge code for every job and have your learners put their time to it when they are shadowing. And think about the miniscule investment this really is compared to the advantage of being able to leverage off of your people faster – and retain them, too!

Q: We have a group of three seniors who started at the firm together. Two are excelling in their role technically, are able to lead their team members and garner respect from their clients. The third senior needs further technical development and more soft skills in communicating with her team members and clients. We are worried about advancing the two stronger seniors in the group, fearing we’ll lose the other. What do you think?

A: One element of people engagement that isn’t typically discussed is moving past parity in your people management, which is often a philosophical hurdle for your leadership to overcome. We see a lot of firms that try to treat all of their people identically based on level, years of experience or their “starting class.” The trouble with this is that you are at greater risk of demotivating your two brighter stars, diminishing their enthusiasm or worse, having them leaving the firm, because they are being managed the same as your “OK” people – or even worse, your underperformers.

Work with your partners to agree on your firm’s reasons for identifying who your firm’s best and brightest are based on competency and character factors. When you do this, it will become clearer about who is performing at or above the expected level and warrants accelerated investment, promotion or pay differential. When you identify your high-potential people, assign a partner or key leader to shepherd each high-potential person as their career advisor. The career advisor should be charged with guiding their high potential(s) in mapping their differentiated career progression and timing and the training, experiential learning, coaching and/or other investments or activities you both will undertake to achieve that plan.

The career advisor for the senior who is not quite ready for more should also provide specific feedback as to what is missing or needs to happen and to devise a plan for that individual’s career progression, too. This person should be clear on what distinguishes the other two seniors from their current performance and whatever you are doing to elevate them should be transparent to the one who still needs to make progress so she can see it like it is and get going, and also trust in her leadership to be straight with her.

The HR Helpline is written by Tamera Loerzel and Jennifer Wilson, partners in ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management coaching and consulting firm that specializes in helping leaders achieve success.

Got questions for the HR Helpline? Send them to AcToday@SourceMedia.com.

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