Some local and small regional CPA firms have been surprisingly adept at successfully attracting—and retaining—top-notch talent. That’s impressive, given today’s competitive market.
I interviewed members of the management team of several firms who designed and implemented some innovative programs, along with some of the participants to see what they had to share about what is making all the difference in their firms’ overall success.
“What was the catalyst for launching a coaching program at your firm?” I asked.
“We had initially offered our partners one-on-one coaching as a catalyst to bolster individual marketing plans,” said Christine Bott, a partner at Novak Francella, a CPA firm that specializes in employee benefit plans and labor unions with offices in Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, Boston and Washington, D.C. “Over the past few years, however, there has been a shift in the profession toward leadership development and succession planning, due to the shrinking talent pool as boomers exit the workforce. I’m proud to say that Novak Francella was ahead of the industry on this and recognized the need to develop future leaders early on. We launched an internally developed customized Leadership Development Program of which coaching is a major component. Individual coaching assists in helping our future leaders develop those soft skills that are so crucial in key management positions. Our proprietary Leadership Development program incorporates one-on-one coaching for managers and partners and is one of the most effective options within the program.”
Laura Lampron, marketing and business development director of Nisivoccia LLP, a CPA firm in Mount Arlington, N.J., explained, “There were a few factors involved in my efforts to get a more formal program for the firm. First was the fact that many of our partners are approaching retirement status in the next few years. I started asking questions like, ‘What will our firm leadership look like in five to 10 years? Who will be my next rainmakers?’ After discussions with the executive committee, it was decided that we would utilize one-on-one coaching for our immediate future leaders and some of our newer partners.”
Jenni Fleck Jones oversees marketing & college recruiting at Belfint Lyons & Shuman, a CPA firm located in Wilmington, Delaware. “BLS started its Professional Development Program in 2011,” she said. “We continually evolve this customized program in an effort to address many different areas which contributes to the positive impact it has had on the firm. Managers and above are invited to participate in the coaching program, which serves as a facet of our leadership track. We have managers, principals and directors all participating. Each program is tailored, depending on what each individual’s goals are for the program.”
I asked them what have the greatest benefits been and how have they been tracked. “I believe the greatest benefits cannot be tracked as a metric because the results are purely individual,” said Bott. “As the individual benefits from each small success/goal through coaching, it tends to have a ripple effect throughout the entire firm. As an employer, we recognize the importance of human capital and are making an investment in our greatest asset: our people. If we can make our people better, happier, more productive, etc. it’s a win-win! I often find myself using the same techniques my coach uses on me on the staff I mentor. I’m a big fan!”
“Our firm benefits in many ways: improved communication, conflict resolution, client service, management skills, business development, networking, leadership, self-confidence, and organizational skills,” said Jones. “We track the program through monthly reports provided by the coaching firm, annual coaching program surveys sent to each participant from the marketing department, ongoing/open discussions with participants, and discussions in every review cycle. The benefits are also visible in the way people interact or handle a situation that was once tough for them to handle and the fact that new business is regularly being brought into the firm.”
Lampron added, “Working with a coach has allowed us to view ourselves from the outside-in and let us see areas where we could improve and needed to improve. One of the results was the achievement of a ‘staff-level’ training program that we have implemented to guide our people through their career with us. It addresses soft skills and technical skills that our people will need to develop over the course of their career with us. I was able to work directly with our coach to help us implement the program.”
What about using a coaching program as a draw for hiring talent?
All three firms agreed that having a customized program in place that assists professionals to reach their potential offers them a cutting edge above their competition when recruiting, at all levels.
“At this point I would say our leadership development program is what makes us stand out to potential recruits,” Bott noted.
Lampron said, “Our HR director regularly promotes the coaching program as part of ongoing development training and always make note notes its existence is there to help staff advance in the firm.”
Jones offered a resounding yes. “The fact that our firm dedicates resources to help our team grow professionally and personally says a lot about our culture which provides a meaningful work/family fit that centers around flexibility, technology and collaboration, as is evidenced by our low turnover and top workplace awards,” she said. “We recently had a high-level person join our firm who said that one of the deciding factors was our coaching program. We are also updating our website with the main force being an upgraded careers section, which will promote in more detail, the many benefits of our coaching program.”
How influential was the coaching program in their decision to join or remain with their firm, I asked some of the participants. Here’s what they said:
Michael Novak is a strategic advisor and auditor at Novak Francella and is very active in the firm’s marketing and business development efforts. “Our firm has spent a great amount of energy creating a performance development system,” he said. “This system continually provides associates with feedback on each individual engagement. When I heard the firm was launching an official coaching program as part of this system, I became very interested. It was exciting to be offered a personal coach! The firm does a great job of recognizing future leaders of the firm and providing them with coaching is invaluable.”
Valerie Middlebrooks is a seasoned CPA professional who returned to work at Belfint, Lyons & Shuman after an eight-year absence. “The coaching program, as part of this firm’s professional development program, was very important to me as it reinforced the values embodied at Belfint Lyons & Shuman,” she told me. “I felt assured because a firm that promotes this type of program is forward-thinking and willing to invest in the tools its employees need to support their career progression.”
Deirdre Hartmann, a partner at Nisivoccia LLP, has been working with her coach for over a year. She reports seeing improvements both personally and professionally. “I’m learning how to operate at my highest level. I communicate more clearly and effectively—understanding and asking the power questions for sure,” she added with a wink. “I have learned to elevate myself. I have improved leadership skills and my perspective is better.”
Bott agreed. “I am a better communicator, leader and manager,” she said. “I’m asking power questions and making power statements. I can see the other perspective. I also don’t take things as personally as I sometimes did before.”
“Coaching has provided tools for me to approach my challenges in unique ways that fit my comfort level and style,” said Middlebrooks. “It has also helped me stay focused on trying to identify what I want in my career and what makes me happy. I think it will also help me feel empowered to trust my natural instincts in navigating a variety of professional situations.”
“I have a ton of energy and motivation to be the best person I can be, and coaching has helped me harness that energy in the right direction,” said Novak. “Coaching has provided me with alternative view points and practices that have helped me develop my most enriching career path. Coaching has helped me to manage and communicate with a variety of personalities, helped me to be less passive and to take things less personally. I’ve gained confidence in and can now communicate my ideas and plans more effectively. I’ve always had a vision of where I want to go, but coaching has helped me take that vision and transform it into action.”