The HR Helpline: A feeling for feedback

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

In this installment of the HR Helpline, consultants Tamera Loerzel and Jennifer Wilson of ConvergenceCoaching answer tough HR questions they’ve heard from real firms. (A slideshow version of this article is available here.)

The experience Catch-22

Q: At our firm, senior leaders keep saying our people need more experience to step up into bigger roles, but we need to transition work now. How can we speed this process up?

A: You are so right! We don’t have the luxury of waiting for time to pass so that our people have the experience they need to progress! Those days are gone. So are the days of paying lip service to providing shadowing and experiential learning opportunities to our people. Experiential learning is a must and it should be intentional.

Use the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model developed by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.

It emphasizes instruction that helps people become capable thinkers and learners when handling the tasks that they have not yet done. The model follows these four-steps:

1. You do/learner watches – focusing on the lesson and teaching.

2. You do/learner helps – providing guided instruction while the individual completes some of the tasks, but you’re still primarily responsible.

3. Learner does/you help – collaborating where the individual completes most of the tasks and you assist or review where necessary.

4. Learner does/you watch – acting independently, the individual owns completing the task and you’re only available for help if needed.

Following this model, you can break responsibilities down into bite-size pieces and transition smaller responsibilities that build on each other. Be proactive and intentional about identifying, planning and communicating the responsibilities your team members can begin learning. Avoid doing the work yourself because it’s quicker, taking the work back to finish lagging jobs, or not planning enough in advance to schedule the time to teach and allow your team member to practice.

This model will help you speed up the development of your team members in a more structured manner – and you will see results!

Stronger softer skills

Q: Our firm does a good job of developing our staff technically in their few first years. As they progress, though, they don’t seem to have the leadership and management skills needed to be effective in the role of supervisor, manager or partner. When should we invest in soft-skills training and what is the best approach to doing so?

A: Start early, even for interns and brand new staff, setting soft-skills expectations and providing learning opportunities to develop them! Define the core competencies expected in areas of leadership, communication, personal marketing/business development, people management, and business process/practice economics. Then, map the skills, behaviors and responsibilities you expect to be demonstrated at each level within each area. From there, you can develop learning plans to teach these skills and be sure to include opportunities for your people to practice new skills and receive coaching on their progress.

For example, your 1-3-year staff accountants may have a learning plan that includes time management, business writing, communications, professionalism, ethics, leading by example, and networking. Then 3-5-year seniors and supervisors may have a learning plan that includes project management, conflict management, supervisory skills, expanded networking and referral source activities, and firm economics.

Defining the competencies expected by level doesn’t have to be daunting either. You’ll likely need to do so by service line, but you’ll find overlap for the main skills you are trying to develop. You can start with a simple Excel spreadsheet like this Audit Skills by Competency or Tax Skills by Competency matrix.

Recurring recruiting

Q: Like most firms, we are challenged to find experienced candidates. How can we find the seniors and managers we need while also developing them internally?

A: In today’s market, continuous recruiting is a must for firms of all sizes. Your leaders have to invest above and beyond what they think they should, or may want to, to position your firm as an employer of choice. Avoid “squeezing recruiting in” between your other HR priorities. Firms at or over 100 employees should consider hiring a dedicated, full-time recruiter. Smaller firms can contract with an outside HR consultant or hire a part-time person to manage many of these activities.

Three must-have recruiting activities to ensure you have in place – or that you may need to revisit – include:

1. Get everyone in your firm on LinkedIn. Run incentives to have all team members build their profiles and make connections; quantity and quality matter. Encourage everyone in your firm to connect to those responsible for recruiting. In a labor shortage, you must reach out to passive candidates to fill your pipeline or the time to hire when you have a need will become increasingly lengthy.

2. Spreadsheets! Build a “low-tech” Excel workbook for each discipline (audit, tax, accounting, consulting, etc.) and a tab/page for each level to manage your recruiting targets pipeline. Identify how you are connected to each and devise ways and assign ownership to reach those who look most promising (and pay a referral bonus to those you request reach out to potential candidates – see below!).

3. Pay a worthwhile employee referral bonus. Be sure your bonus is a large-enough incentive that employees will take the time to review their personal network, identify people who might have an interest, and then reach out to them to “sell” the firm and the position. For a few hundred dollars, they may not feel it is worth the time and risk. We recommend that you offer at least $3,000 for entry level positions. Some firms are paying five-digit bonuses – and when you consider the fees you’re paying to outside recruiters, this might be a bargain.

Feeling the feedback

Q: We keep hearing that we should provide more frequent, specific feedback to our people. However, they don’t seem open to hearing the feedback when we deliver it. How can we overcome this and create a culture that embraces feedback?

A: Most of us would agree that we should be open to receiving feedback. However, most of us would rather not hear it – unless it’s good, of course! The tone starts at the top and it’s crucial that your firm’s leadership team is open to, and even invites and solicits, feedback. And to truly develop a culture that welcomes and embraces feedback, train all team members on how to be open to feedback during your performance review process.

One method that applies really well to inviting feedback is “keep, stop, start.” Ask those you are asking for feedback to consider:

  • What is working in my performance that I should keep doing? (Things you’re doing well or that are of great value.)
  • What isn’t working in my performance that I should stop doing? (Things that aren’t working or things you need to give up, delegate or relinquish.)
  • What should I start doing that I am not yet doing? (Things that will benefit you, our team or the firm if I were to start doing it going forward.)

When hearing the feedback, accept it graciously. Don’t make the other party wrong – they are entitled to their viewpoint. If you don’t like the feedback, ask the giver to clarify by saying, “Say more about that” or “Tell me more on that point.” Use “I see,” “I understand,” and “I can appreciate that” to show you’re tracking without necessarily agreeing with the other party. Pay special attention to your body language and non-verbal cues so you are not accidentally sending a message that you’re not open to feedback. For example, don’t put your eyebrows too far up or down, purse your lips, or avoid eye contact; instead, relax your face and eyebrows, look the other party in the eye (but no piercing stares!), nod your head and maintain a slight smile.

Ultimately, perception is a form of reality, so thank the giver for the feedback and look for ways you can change your behavior, actions or the situation itself to address the feedback you received. Then, be sure to follow through with new actions or behaviors and check in with the giver to discuss progress.

To have your questions answered by the Helpline, send them to AcToday@SourceMedia.com. All questions will be answered anonymously.

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Recruiting Employee retention