Mentoring or coaching ambitious accountants

Accountancy magazine (July 2006) ran an article “Coaching: the new religion”  written by Wilf Altman.  In it he suggested that ‘leading firms of  accountants are surprisingly coy about coaching.’

In my experience however all of the largest firms run partner development programs and most of these include a form of coaching or mentoring.  I agree with Wilf that there is no single definition of ‘coaching’ in the context of “the new religion”.  Many accountants have heard of life coaching, business coaching or success coaching.  We have probably also heard of mentoring – typically where a suitably senior person shares their experience and their wider knowledge of the profession to speed up the development of a less experienced person.

What the process is called however is less important than whether prospective partners and rising stars are motivated to enhance their skills. Most firms tend to rely on senior partners to act as coaches or a mentors.  In practice such partners rarely have the training, talent or time to be reliably effective in such roles.  The candidates cannot complain for fear of damaging their potential for progression and upsetting the senior partner.  The firms imply that the best candidates would take that chance but few people have the confidence that requires.

Increasingly therefore ambitious firms are engaging experienced credible mentors from outside the firm.  Mentors such as myself are not subject to conflicting time constraints or political manoeuvrings within the firm.   We are there for the candidates when required and can provide a tailored programme that includes coaching in those, generally non-technical, skills that the candidate needs to develop further.

Most firms that are not large enough to run their own internal partner development programmes are increasingly looking to find cost effective alternatives.  They want to ensure that their rising stars stay and develop the key business skills they require to be effective and profitable as partners.  Some firms may describe this as ‘coaching’. Others will see this as mentoring – which is possibly more relevant for all but the really experienced partners.  Offering new recruits the (tax-free) benefit of a credible mentor can also assist the recruitment process during the ongoing ‘war for talent’.

This entry was also submitted as a letter for Accountancy magazine and has now been published as such on p23 of the September issue.

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Fixed fees

I was recently discussing fixed fees with a forward thinking accountancy firm.

I asked them how ‘fixed’ were the fixed fees that they advertise? They confirmed that once they give a fixed fee quote that they will never seek to bill more than that.

All of which is what I was hoping they would say. But I then asked the crunch question. What happens if the fee is insufficient to cover all of the time charges that are recorded on your time sheets? They admitted that some partners are better at accepting a ‘write-off’ than others. They recognise there is an internal training issue ere, and they are trying hard to deal with it.

The point is this:If the aggregate WIP is greater than the fee that can be billed, someone normally wants to know why, and often tries to ensure that a bigger bill is sent to the client. This is particularly true when fees for an additional service have not been agreed in advance

Where the excess WIP is written off and not billed to the client, the firm will need to ensure that client service does not suffer. The firm may effectively discourage anybody working for that client to spend less time looking after them in the future than they have done in the past. The objective being to have a lower ‘write-off’ of WIP next time round.

Thus the level of client service falls and the level of the client’s satisfaction with the accountant’s service also falls. Within a short period of time the client is bad mouthing the accountant and looking to move elsewhere. A situation to be avoided I would suggest.

My advice would be to ensure that everyone needs to agree how the firm will operate its fixed fees policy, any caveats that need to be given to the clients, how to learn and share the lessons when write-offs arise and how to avoid client service levels falling such that the firm gets bad-mouthed by an unhappy client.

Many firms do operate such policies and it’s my view that such firms will win an increasing amount of new client business. They are satisfying a demand and (currently) such an approach makes them stand out as a better choice than old fashioned firms.

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