Catch Up? Coach Up!

April 30, 2009

To be the best, finance people need good coaching.

There are some areas where increasing performance demands are easier to see than others.  Take English soccer for example.  The Premier League is today regarded as the best in the world.  And increasing standards can be seen in the lower divisions too.  Watching a game last week in the Championship, the old second division, it was faster, more skilful and more entertaining than most top-tier games were 20 years ago.

It struck me that same is true of accounting and finance, though perhaps the changes are not so visible.  Accountants don’t have to juggle a ball like Ronaldo, but they do have to juggle increasingly complex sets of rules and regulations, systems and applications, technical tools and the like.  They don’t usually need the emotional resilience needed to come from 3-nil down at half-time to win on penalties, but it would be wrong to underestimate the stresses of working under constant and sometimes extreme time pressure, where errors can have serious consequences.  And now, more than ever, accountants need to be team players, able to contribute to the game plan and adjust it on the fly, to cover defence solidly, support attacks with flair and help control the game from midfield.

I don’t want to overwork the comparison, but there is a serious point here.  Football’s advances have been made with the support of increasing numbers of expert coaches focusing on every aspect of player performance: ball-play; physical strength and endurance; emotional and psychological strength; and team play and tactics.  Accountants have mostly had to do without such support.

A recent report from the ACCA shows that accountants are beginning to catch up, but still have some way to go.  Traditional forms of training are usually best for developing basic technical knowledge and skills.  But for a rising accountant, such core knowledge and skills are taken as read.  What is harder to teach in a classroom is how those skills can be applied creatively to solve complex, situation-specific challenges.  These challenges punctuate our well-controlled routines and test not only technical know-how, but often ethical, organisational and political skills too.  These are the situations where effective coaching can be most effective.  Traditionally, coaching has happened almost by accident, as a by-product of other interactions.  But conscious, skilled coaching can strengthen and accelerate learning and development, generate better decisions, and permanently raise the standard of performance of individuals and teams.

The challenges of developing emotional skill sets among accountants are famously, and not entirely without justification, judged considerable.  Let’s face it, we’re all, to some extent, congenital technocrats and not always comfortable with our own, never mind others’ emotions.  Yet it is almost impossible to succeed as a first-level supervisor, never mind as a senior manager, without developing good “people” skills, and these become more important, the more senior we become.  If the key to dealing well with others is to deal well with ourselves, this is where a different form of coaching is invaluable: one which accelerates and deepens our understanding of how we operate in given situations, and how we interact with our colleagues.

It is also increasingly the case that accountants have to be active team players, engaged with and contributing to all aspects of the business.  The FD cannot be “the one who says no”.  The challenge is to help make strategy possible by finding the best ways to finance new developments, manage the financial risks, and maximise the returns from existing business.  The current recession places even more emphasis on this role: there are enormous opportunities out there, but capturing them  will require real financial strength and ingenuity – the markets and the banks will no longer look kindly on proposals built on hopes and aspirations, or on clever manipulations.  And again, the challenges of getting accountants into this position are best met through skilled and experienced coaching.

If we expect finance people to perform at the highest level then, just like top-class footballers, they’re going to need expert coaching and development at all levels and covering all aspects of their game, and particularly for the emerging challenges in dealing more effectively both with people and relationships, and with roles that require them to be at the very heart of business strategy development and execution.  In my next pieces, I’ll follow-up with some thoughts on how best this can be achieved and, critically for us finance types, some thoughts on defining and measuring the benefits.

Gerry Quinn