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Wanted Globally - Coaches and Mentors

Coaching and mentoring looks and sounds interesting to those of us who would love to develop their careers - but unfortunately most of us do not enjoy the opportunity to have mentors or coaches. So says Sherry Muganzi, a student accountant reader. Sadly, her view is not uncommon. And it's largely reflected by the findings of a global survey by ACCA, which revealed that, while coaching and mentoring is widely regarded by employers as beneficial for developing finance professionals, only three out of five (60%) use coaches or mentors.
The main reasons cited included a lack of buy-in to the idea of a coaching culture among senior management. Meanwhile, in those organisations that embrace coaching and mentoring, their use is largely the preserve of senior management and executives.
But why would accountants need coaching in the first place? Isn't a professional qualification enough?
Marielena Sabatier, former accountant and CEO of Inspiring Potential, which coaches teams and individuals, believes that executive coaching's focus on developing communication and interpersonal skills makes a critical difference. 'These areas are often overlooked by firms,' she says. 'But accountants need to be able to translate data into meaningful information that can be understood by clients, or by the board and by stakeholders - so it's vital that they learn how to communicate effectively.' 
In Sabatier's experience, many accountants often don't understand how best to communicate with people like line managers, or colleagues in marketing and sales who have to understand certain metrics. 'I recently worked with a financial controller who used to lose line managers' attention when talking figures with them,' she says. 'So we discussed exactly what he was trying to communicate and why. Just the process of asking him to think about the three key points he really wanted to get across made him really focus on the impact he must have been making.' 
Karen Tweedie, president of the International Coach Federation, which certifies and sets professional standards for some 16,000 coaches in more than 90 countries, points to more short term gains: 'Coachees may seek to develop in-the-moment practical skills as well as moving toward long-term goals. In many cases, accountants with highly developed technical skills can benefit significantly from coaching that helps them position their skills with key people in their organisation.'

Focusing on individuals

A major advantage that mentoring and coaching have over conventional training is the intense one-to-one approach. Stephen Slater, a partner in RMT, a firm of accountants and business advisers, has experienced this first-hand. 'I didn't really know what to expect but I found the whole process fascinating,' he reports. 'My coach helped me to set priorities in terms of what I wanted to cover - issues like leadership, the future, and succession.
'It was the first time in my professional development that I'd had time to think just about me,' he continues. 
'As a partner, you're always thinking about other people - so I was highly aware of the coaching being geared around me. And having the time to reflect on myself as a person has resulted in me thinking and behaving in a different way.'
Those who act as mentors - helping people to shape their current actions and beliefs around long-term goals - have a powerful questioning role. The subjects of their mentoring are encouraged to think differently - something that Sabatier says eventually comes naturally. 
'It's just practice,' she says. 'For instance, a client might relay their anxieties to me about a meeting that went wrong. Perhaps they just weren't able to get their message across, and as a result were unable to influence in the way they wanted. 
'My role is to ask: what could you have said or done differently? What would you say the others were thinking when you were talking? What impact did you have? Making that kind of self-questioning habitual is what develops a new, more effective way of thinking.'
Embedding a coaching and mentoring culture - where acceptance of these techniques is the norm, not the exception - is critical if all employees (not just those in the boardroom) are to benefit. Coaching experts say managers at all levels can help to promote this cultural change by being more proactive in how they develop their own teams. 'Managers can use coaching skills in their everyday interactions with staff,' says Tweedie. 'They can ask instead of tell, eliciting solutions from their people instead of giving all the answers to them. Managers who are trained as coaches can then offer coaching services to other staff.'

Reap the rewards

By listening, probing, and facilitating, mentors and coaches aim to empower their subjects. 'I've worked out what my skills are, and what areas need to be improved,' says Slater. 'Together, we've worked out a plan for me to take things forward and work on them as an individual.' 
His experience has resulted in more than simply better self-awareness - it's translated into revenue generation for his firm: 'A large motivating factor for me was that I wanted to be better-equipped to develop a new part of the practice,' he says. 
'I just wouldn't have had the time if everything had stayed as they were. But since spending time with my coach, I've been able to grow the section from nothing into a highly successful business in a year.'

Buy-in from the top

Professional coaches and mentors say Slater's experience is far from exceptional - which raises the question of why those who hold the purse-strings in the boardroom appear so reluctant to implement similar development strategies down through the business.
But even organisations where more junior staff are developed via traditional courses and classroom training can enjoy universal benefits - provided that managers who have been coached and mentored cascade their knowledge and skills down through the ranks. 
'Change at the top has the potential to affect change at many other levels,' says Tweedie. 'For instance, when a senior manager works with her coach to improve her ability to more fully engage staff, she's then in a position to leverage the motivation and enthusiasm this generates.'
Slater is keen to see how coaching might work for others in the firm - but is convinced that management teams need to really believe in making fundamental changes first. 'In business - especially today - there's often lots of fire-fighting going on,' he explains. 
'Coaching requires people to stand back and plan; it's more strategic in its outlook. Business managers who are programmed only to react instead of being more forward-thinking will never put their people through this kind of development.' 
Many in senior management positions are highly driven by cost, especially in the light of current global economic conditions. Perceptions that one-to-one development techniques like coaching and mentoring are expensive seem widespread. Advocates, though, insist that this is short-sighted, saying that organisational benefits from employees' personal growth significantly outweigh the costs. 
'People are naturally more enthusiastic,' says Sabatier. 'They feel valued, they feel listened to, and, as a consequence, they're much more motivated.'
Loyalty is also likely to shoot through the roof; Sabatier says that on several occasions, she's helped people come to decisions not to quit their jobs: 'They realised that many of the problems they perceived were challenges to face up to - and not just get-out prompts. Mentoring and coaching helped them to give better feedback to their own managers, even if that meant having difficult conversations.'
So how can those who have been missing out convince the powers-that-be?

'Highlight the benefits - but not just to you; to your manager and to the organisation as a whole,' says Sabatier. 
'Going the extra mile to perform better can make a winning argument. Look at people who have experienced coaching - many say it's been life-changing, and that shows how lasting the benefits can be.'

Real World: After Mentoring

'It's not easy - when you come back into the commercial environment, with everyone making demands on your time and all of them still doing things the same old way they always did, you have to consciously alter your attitude and your actions. Letting go is a good place to start - the single most important thing I learned from my mentor was that I wouldn't have the capacity to make the changes I needed to make without trusting my people more.'

My Boss: The Coached Coach

'I haven't been formally coached myself - but my supervisor was, and we've all noticed it on our team. If you ask him a question, he turns it back on you, and you know he's behaving like his coach did with him. It's quite strange in a way, as he used to be quite dictatorial - but it also challenges us all to be less dependent. We think twice before asking about things we could work out for ourselves. In that sense, he's turning into a workplace coach himself.'

by Calum Robson

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