Take a Cue From Big League Coaches

Mentoring is every professional's job number one.

April 3, 2008
by Rick Telberg/For the Finance Executive

Forget the strategic stuff, the visionary exercises, the long-term planning. What keeps most finance and accounting executives awake at night lies closer to home:the day-to-day management of their jobs and departments.

That's no small task considering the many roles finance managers are expected to play, the layers of new rules and regulations and the competitive demands of just keeping up.

Little wonder that all too many finance managers overlook the human and personal aspects of their jobs. Accountants are people, too and they need as much hand-holding, mentoring, encouragement and coaching as anyone else.

In this extremely competitive era of employee recruitment and retention, coaching underperforming workers can be one of the best investments you can make. The best finance managers, of course, already know this.

Sure, you have to know when to cut your losses if you've hired a genuine clunker, but there's a growing school of human resources (HR) thought suggesting that underperformance by high-integrity people can be turned around by smart and effective management. The question is: Are you up to the task?

For starters, good finance managers look first at themselves before pointing the finger of blame at others who may be underperforming. While these co-workers can sometimes be converted into top producers with a little coaching, managers are too often afraid to take that step. The reasons may be because they're uncertain about their organization's performance standards, fearful of alienating the co-worker altogether or concerned that other managers, including the HR department, may not approve.

For finance executives, it may be critical to cut through those uncertainties and help the marginal staffer, as long as his or her attitude is ready, willing and able to accept coaching. It is, at bottom, a two-way street.

Coaching your staff is similar to coaching football halfbacks or baseball outfielders. You need a system for providing feedback, direction and support to get individuals first to recognize and accept their issues, then resolve to fix their problems then build the self-confidence they need for future success. But business coaching includes an element that could cause Joe Torre or Bill Parcells to spit — negotiating coaching arrangements with the subject workers.

That negotiation can merely entail telling the employee that he or she will be the subject of one-on-one attention and that it's not punishment, but rather the employee's opportunity to improve and prove their value. The negotiation could also set timelines for improvement — perhaps tied to the organization's worker-review schedules — and should let the employee offer his or her proposed solutions.

The coaching itself involves telling the employee specifically where the performance is lacking, advising them and then offering other resources that can help the situation with consistent feedback on the employee's efforts to improve.

The tricks to that feedback include

  • Offering it in private,
  • Delivering it with the intent to improve, not to berate,
  • Making it timely, and
  • Being very specific.

For example, you don't merely tell an employee she is unknowledgeable about a process or policy. You should tell her what that lack of understanding means to you, your team and the organization at large: It may mean the loss of a budgetary battle that could hurt the department or an incorrect projection that could derail a major marketing push.

Similarly, don't just tell an employee his is "always late for meetings." Identify the specific dates and times that he has been tardy, find out why and work together to fix the issue. It could be as simple as starting a meeting five minutes later to allow him drop his child at school.

Still, many managers object to coaching, saying it is not their job and the time necessary takes away from other things that they should be doing. But "not" coaching means otherwise good workers don't meet their potential and the organization suffers even more.

The idea of corporate coaching is nothing new, but it is gaining more notice in the current scrap for talent while workforce numbers are dwindling. The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail, published by Harvard Business School Press, makes an extended argument for coaching. The potential to cultivate underperformers into the lifeblood of organizations is being lost amid a currently trendy mindset to only identify and cater to so-called top talent.

To be sure, the vast majority of underperformers are not diamonds in the rough. But uncovering just one or two gems may make the effort worth it.

WHAT DO YOU SAY? Comments, questions, rants or raves — contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2000–2008 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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