HBR: Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Are you setting learning goals? Is your company helping you identify your learning opportunities? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Susan J. Ashford, Peter Heslin, Lauren Keating:

Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programs are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.

Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Like most of us, leaders often go through their experiences somewhat mindlessly, accomplishing tasks but learning little about themselves and their impact.

Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

Building on Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue’s mindful engagement experiential learning cycle, we found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to…” For some leaders, the goal might be to become more persuasive or to be more approachable. With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it. These could include a new project, an international assignment, a job rotation, or simply striving to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.

Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. A leader interested in increasing their persuasiveness, for example, might experiment with sitting in a different place or speaking first or last in a critical meeting. Creating and capitalizing on learning opportunities can be bolstered by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.

Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in future are essential though often neglected initiatives for learning from experience and discerning what to focus on learning next. Understanding these principles is important for organizations not just because it means that leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but also because it means that leadership skills can be systematically learned and practiced.

How can leaders enter learning mode? Leaders can construe setbacks as meaning they have not yet developed the required capabilities, rather than them being just not cut out for the task at hand. They can also avoid the trap of constantly seeking out places and tasks to highlight their strengths, as well as feedback that affirms their innate talents and self-esteem. Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus, or refocus, on their leadership development, as well as their leadership performance, and thereby truly learn from their experiences.

How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organizational leaders can help rising leaders focus more on being progressively better than they were in the past, rather than on constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They can model construing mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than as indicators of leadership inadequacy. In hiring and promotion, organizational leaders might give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role. Finally, they might conduct an audit of fixed mindset cues in their organization — such as the use of psychometric testing to select the most “innately qualified” high-potential leaders; forced ranking performance appraisals; and winner-take-all reward systems — and tweak them to focus more on developing than diagnosing leadership capabilities.

The bottom line is that by supporting leaders being in learning mode, organizations can develop the capabilities that leaders need to anticipate, respond to, and continually learn from the stream of emerging challenges to organizational prosperity.

HBR: Lifelong Learning Is Good for Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life

As we age, though, learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning. Every day, each of us is offered the opportunity to pursue intellectual development in ways that are tailored to our learning style. So why don’t more of us seize that opportunity?  Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by John Coleman.

Lifelong Learning Is Good for Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life

In 2015 Doreetha Daniels received her associate degree in social sciences from College of the Canyons, in Santa Clarita, California. But Daniels wasn’t a typical student: She was 99 years old. In the COC press release about her graduation, Daniels indicated that she wanted to get her degree simply to better herself; her six years of school during that pursuit were a testament to her will, determination, and commitment to learning.

Few of us will pursue college degrees as nonagenarians, or even as mid-career professionals (though recent statistics indicate that increasing numbers of people are pursuing college degrees at advanced ages). Some people never really liked school in the first place, sitting still at a desk for hours on end or suffering through what seemed to be impractical courses. And almost all of us have limits on our time and finances — due to kids, social organizations, work, and more — that make additional formal education impractical or impossible.

As we age, though, learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning. Every day, each of us is offered the opportunity to pursue intellectual development in ways that are tailored to our learning style.

So why don’t more of us seize that opportunity? We know it’s worth the time, and yet we find it so hard to make the time. The next time you’re tempted to put learning on the back burner, remember a few points:

Educational investments are an economic imperative. The links between formal education and lifetime earnings are well-studied and substantial. In 2015 Christopher Tamborini, ChangHwan Kim, and Arthur Sakamoto found that, controlling for other factors, men and women can expect to earn $655,000 and $445,000 more, respectively, during their careers with a bachelor’s degree than with a high school degree, and graduate degrees yield further gains. Outside of universities, ongoing learning and skill development is essential to surviving economic and technological disruption. The Economist recently detailed the ways in which our rapidly shifting professional landscape — the disruptive power of automation, the increasing number of jobs requiring expertise in coding — necessitates that workers focus continually on mastering new technologies and skills. In 2014 a CBRE report estimated that 50% of jobs would be redundant by 2025 due to technological innovation. Even if that figure proves to be exaggerated, it’s intuitively true that the economic landscape of 2017 is evolving more rapidly than in the past. Trends including AI, robotics, and offshoring mean constant shifts in the nature of work. And navigating this ever-changing landscape requires continual learning and personal growth.

Learning is positive for health. As I’ve noted previously, reading, even for short periods of time, can dramatically reduce your stress levels. A recent report in Neurology noted that while cognitive activity can’t change the biology of Alzheimer’s, learning activities can help delay symptoms, preserving people’s quality of life. Other research indicates that learning to play a new instrument can offset cognitive decline, and learning difficult new skills in older age is associated with improved memory.

What’s more, while the causation is inconclusive, there’s a well-studied relationship between longevity and education. A 2006 paper by David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney found that “the better educated have healthier behaviors along virtually every margin, although some of these behaviors may also reflect differential access to care.” Their research suggests that a year of formal education can add more than half a year to a person’s life span. Perhaps Doreetha Daniels, at 99, knows something many of us have missed.

Being open and curious has profound personal and professional benefits. While few studies validate this observation, I’ve noticed in my own interactions that those who dedicate themselves to learning and who exhibit curiosity are almost always happier and more socially and professionally engaging than those who don’t. I have a friend, Duncan, for example, who is almost universally admired by people he interacts with. There are many reasons for this admiration, but chief among them are his plainly exhibited intellectual curiosity and his ability to touch, if only briefly, on almost any topic of interest to others and to speak deeply on those he knows best. Think of the best conversationalist you know. Do they ask good questions? Are they well-informed? Now picture the colleague you most respect for their professional acumen. Do they seem literate, open-minded, and intellectually vibrant? Perhaps your experiences will differ, but if you’re like me, I suspect those you admire most, both personally and professionally, are those who seem most dedicated to learning and growth.

Our capacity for learning is a cornerstone of human flourishing and motivation. We are uniquely endowed with the capacity for learning, creation, and intellectual advancement. Have you ever sat in a quiet place and finished a great novel in one sitting? Do you remember the fulfillment you felt when you last settled into a difficult task — whether a math problem or a foreign language course — and found yourself making breakthrough progress? Have you ever worked with a team of friends or colleagues to master difficult material or create something new? These experiences can be electrifying. And even if education had no impact on health, prosperity, or social standing, it would be entirely worthwhile as an expression of what makes every person so special and unique.

The reasons to continue learning are many, and the weight of the evidence would indicate that lifelong learning isn’t simply an economic imperative but a social, emotional, and physical one as well. We live in an age of abundant opportunity for learning and development. Capturing that opportunity — maintaining our curiosity and intellectual humility — can be one of life’s most rewarding pursuits.

HBR: Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

What is your approach to leadership development? Which of the following approaches would work for you? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Deborah Rowland 

Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

Too many business leaders today are out of touch with the employees they lead. Edelman estimates that one in three employees doesn’t trust their employer — despite the fact that billions are spent every year on leadership development. Part of the problem: Our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.

The vast majority of leadership programs are set curricula delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individual-focused methods. Participants are taken out of their day-to-day workplaces to be inspired by expert faculty, work on case studies, receive personal feedback, and take away the latest leadership thinking (and badges for their résumés). Yet study after study, including my own, tells us the qualities that leaders in today’s world need are intuitive, dynamic, collaborative, and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.

The mismatch between leadership development as it exists and what leaders actually need is enormous and widening. What would work better?

Over the last 16 years I have carried out research into how leaders create change, and I’ve worked in the change leadership field for 25 years in multinational corporations. Over that time, I’ve come to appreciate four factors that lie at the heart of good, practical leadership development: making it experiential; influencing participants’ “being,” not just their “doing”; placing it into its wider, systemic context; and enrolling faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas.

Make it experiential. Neuroscience shows us that we learn most (and retain that learning as changed behavior) when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. Visceral, lived experiences best activate these circuits; they prompt us to notice both things in the environment and what’s going on inside ourselves. If leadership development begins in the head, leaders will stay in their heads. We can’t simply think our way out of a habit. But in experience, and novel experience in particular, our intentional mind can be more engaged as we make conscious decisions about our behavior.

In practice, this mean setting up what I call “living laboratory” leadership development. Throw out pre-planned teaching schedules, content, lectures, and exercises that ask you to think about your world and how you need to lead it. In its place, switch to constructing self-directed experiences for participants that replicate the precise contexts they need to lead in. In such experiences the group dynamics at play in the room become the (at-times-uncomfortable) practice arena. Business simulations or unstructured large group dialogues are examples of this. I have also used experiences that challenge participants to self-organize visits outside of their companies to stakeholder groups that matter for their future, such as a carbon-dependent energy provider visiting environmental NGOs. All can act as powerful experiential catalysts for learning and change.

Influence participants’ “being,” not just their “doing.” In soon-to-be-published research, Malcolm Higgs, Roger Bellis, and I have found that leaders need to work on the quality of their inner game, or their capacity to tune into and regulate their emotional and mental states, before they can hope to develop their outer game, or what it is they need to actually do. So leadership development must start by working on the inner game. It’s very hard for leaders to have courageous conversations about unhelpful reality until they can regulate their anxiety about appearing unpopular and until they’ve built their systemic capacity to view disturbance as transformational, not dysfunctional.

In order for leadership development to influence being-level capacities, the learning experience needs to offer stillness and space for intentional, nonobstructed contemplation. It’s difficult to teach how to be! Training people with tools and models is very different from simply holding a space for leaders to be. In practice, I have found that offering participants experiences such as mindfully walking outdoors in nature, sitting silently in peer groups to hear colleagues share their life stories, and providing out-of-the-ordinary tasks such as stone carving, enables leaders to tap into their inner world as a powerful instrument for cultivating the vital skills of purpose, self-awareness, empathy, and acute attentional discipline.

Such approaches might sound a million miles from the chalk-and-talk model on which leadership development was built over the last century. But do we really believe that inner capacities can be developed in this way?

Place development into its wider, systemic context. In their HBR article, “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It,” Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader talk cogently about the need to attend to the organizational system as a vehicle for change before companies simply send their leaders on training programs to think and behave differently. Too often I have seen the “parallel universe” syndrome, in which leaders attend courses that promulgate certain mindsets and ways of working only to go back to the workplace and find that the office (and especially top leadership) is still stuck in old routines.

I have an additional spin on this need. And that is to use the lived leadership development experience as an opportunity to tune into and shift that very system, because they are intimately connected. Recently I directed a three-year change intervention in which the top 360 leaders of one company (including the board) attended a leadership development program in 10 waves of participants, with 36 leaders in each. Given the uncertainty in their industry, it was impossible for senior management to know what their long-term business strategy or organizational model would look like. However, the CEO did know that all he could do in such a dynamic context was build new capacities for agility and change in his organization. Each wave of participants joined the leadership development at a different stage of the company’s change journey, and at each stage we used the development experience not just for personal training but also as a vehicle to import and work with the shifting systemic dynamics of the company through time — helping them move through the “change curve.”

This meant, of course, that the program for each of the 10 waves felt very different, all set course designs had to be thrown out, and we as faculty had to continually adapt the program to the shifting context.

Enroll faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas. Finally, you have to attend to the required skills and characteristics of the people who lead these programs.

In the above example, we found that no single provider could provide a facility that was holistic enough. We needed a faculty group with egos not wedded to any particular leadership methodology or school of thinking and who could work skillfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries. We required the educational equivalent of Sherpas, people able to carry part of the load in order to guide participants toward their personal and organizational summits.

This required not just hiring a bunch of individuals with such guiding skills but also developing ourselves continuously as a robust faculty team. We needed to be able to work with a continually changing curriculum design, and with the group projecting their discomfort with the wider change — and how it was being experienced in the program — onto the faculty.

Make no mistake, attending to all four of these factors is a sizable challenge. Whether you are a corporate or business school leader, a head of leadership and organizational development, or a senior business leader sponsoring and attending leadership development programs, take a long, hard look at how you are currently delivering leadership development. The price of failed leadership is already too high for us not to attend to the process through which we develop it.

HBR: How One Fast-Food Chain Keeps Its Turnover Rates Absurdly Low

In this blog post Bill Taylor explains why Pal’s Sudden Service has a low turnover. They hire for attitude and train for skill. New employees get 120 hours of training before they work on their own. This one is my favorite: employees are given pop quizzes on the specific job they perform. Does your company spend time training, teaching, and coaching? What are your thoughts on pop quizzes from your employer? Is your personal growth keeping up with your company’s pace of growth? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Bill Taylor.

How One Fast-Food Chain Keeps Its Turnover Rates Absurdly Low

Many of us who are hungry for the latest dispatches from the war for talent look to to Silicon Valley. We want to know Google’s secret to hiring the best people or Mark Zuckerberg’s one tip for hiring employees. But in a world where most companies don’t operate on the frontiers of digital transformation, and most employees aren’t tech geeks or app developers, our appetite for unconventional talent strategies should probably extend to more conventional parts of the economy. Like, say, an amazing fast-food chain called Pal’s Sudden Service.

At first blush, there’s nothing all that amazing about Pal’s. It has 26 locations in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, all within an 80-mile radius of its home base in Kingsport, Tennessee. It sells burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, fries, shakes—standard fast-food fare, although the taste and quality have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

Dig deeper, though, and you see that nothing about Pal’s is standard for its business, or any business. The most obvious difference is its fanatical devotion to speed and accuracy. Pal’s does not offer sit-down service inside its restaurants. Instead, customers pull up to a window, place their orders face-to-face with an employee, pull around to the other side of the facility, take their bag and drive off. All this happens at a lightning pace—an average of 18 seconds at the drive-up window, an average of 12 seconds at the handout window to receive the order. That’s four times faster than the second-fastest quick-serve restaurant in the country

But Pal’s is not just absurdly fast. It is also staggeringly accurate. You can imagine the opportunities for error as cars filled with bickering families or frazzled salespeople zip through in under 20 seconds. Yet Pal’s makes a mistake only once in every 3,600 orders. That’s ten times better the average fast-food joint, a level of excellence that creates unprecedented levels of customer loyalty, as well as loud acclaim from management experts. Indeed, back in 2001, Pal’s became the first restaurant company of any kind to win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award—an award that’s gone, over the years, to the likes of Cadillac, FedEx, and Ritz-Carlton.

Ultimately, what’s truly intriguing about Pal’s, what allows this small company to cast such a large shadow, is the level of intelligence and intensity with which it approaches the human side of its business—how it hires, trains, and links its identity in the marketplace to its approach in the workplace. “If you watch professional athletes, everything they do looks so smooth and fluid,” says CEO Thomas Crosby. “But eventually you realize how much work went into that performance, all the training, all the skill-building, all the hours. It’s the same for us.”

So what can the rest of us learn from Pal’s? First, the best companies hire for attitude and train for skill. Pal’s 26 locations employ roughly 1,020 workers, 90 percent of whom are part-time, 40 percent of whom are between the ages of 16 and 18. It has developed and fine-tuned a screening system to evaluate candidates from this notoriously hard-to-manage demographic—a 60-point psychometric survey, based on the attitudes and attributes of Pal’s star performers, that does an uncanny job of predicting who is most likely to succeed. Among the agree/disagree statements: “For the most part, I am happy with myself.” “I think it is best to trust people you have just met.” “Raising your voice may be one way to get someone to accept your point of view.” Pal’s understands that character counts for as much as credentials, that who you are is as important as what you know.

Second, even great people need constant opportunities for improvement. Once Pal’s selects its candidates, it immerses them in massive amounts of training and retraining, certification and recertification. New employees get 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work on their own, and must be certified in each of the specific jobs they do. Then, every day on every shift in every restaurant, a computer randomly generates the names of two to four employees to be recertified in one of their jobs—pop quizzes, if you will. They take a quick test, see whether they pass, and if they fail, get retrained for that job before they can do it again. (The average employee gets 2 or 3 pop quizzes per month.)

“People go out of calibration just like machines go out of calibration,” CEO Crosby explains. “So we are always training, always teaching, always coaching. If you want people to succeed, you have to be willing to teach them.”

Which speaks to a third lesson: Leaders who are serious about hiring also have to be serious about teaching. Pal’s has assembled a Master Reading List for all the leaders in the company, 21 books that range from timeless classics by Machiavelli (The Prince) and Max DePree (Leadership Is an Art), to highly technical tomes on quality and lean management. Every other Monday, Crosby invites five managers from different locations to discuss one of the books on the Master List.

Meanwhile, every day, he identifies at least one subject he will teach to one person in the company. Actually, that’s a requirement for all leaders at Pal’s, who are expected to spend 10 percent of their time on teaching, and to identify a target subject and a target student every day. “All leaders are teachers, whether they realize it or not,” Crosby says. “So we have formalized a teaching culture. We teach and coach every day.”

The end result of Pal’s commitment to hiring smart and teaching continuously is that employees show the same sense of loyalty as its customers. Turnover is absurdly low. In 33 years of operation, only seven general managers (the people who run individual locations) have left the company voluntarily. Seven! Annual turnover among assistant managers is 1.4 percent, vanishingly low for a field where people jump from company to company and often exit the industry altogether. Even among front-line employees, turnover is just one-third the industry average.

“People ask me, ‘What if you spend all this time and money on training and someone leaves?’” Crosby says. “I ask them, ‘What if we don’t spend the time and money, and they stay?’”

That may be the most important lesson of all.

HBR: The Best Ways to Hire Salespeople

How are you hiring salespeople? Do you use talent assessments to insure your they are successful? The Northeastern Retail Lumber Association (NRLA) has a great tool to assess your salespeople. Click on this link to get more information. NRLA/LMS Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Frank V. Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter.

The Best Ways to Hire Salespeople

Many firms talk about talent management, but few deal systematically with a basic fact: average annual turnover in sales is 25 to 30%. This means that the equivalent of the entire sales organization must be hired and trained every four years or so, and that’s expensive.

Consider these stats. Direct replacement costs for a telesales employee can range from $75,000 to $90,000, while other sales positions can cost a company as much as $300,000. Moreover, these figures don’t reflect the lost sales while a replacement is found and trained. In sectors like medical devices, big capital equipment, and many professional services, including these opportunity costs can push turnover cost to $1 million or more per event.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that there is no easily identified resource pool for sales positions. According to Howard Stevens in Achieve Sales Excellence, more than 50% of U.S. college graduates, regardless of their majors, are likely to work in sales. But of the over 4,000 colleges in this country, less than 100 have sales programs or even sales courses. And, even if companies are lucky enough to find qualified grads, the increased data and analytical tasks facing many sales forces mean that productivity ramp-up times have increased. Each hire is now a bigger sunk cost for a longer time.

Bottom line: companies typically spend more on hiring in sales than they do anywhere else in the firm. So how do you improve the returns on this investment? Here are four places to start:

Hire for the task. In business, you hear so many opinions about what makes for a good salesperson. But most are a bland summary of the Boy Scout Handbook, with traits like extroversion, assertiveness, empathy, modesty, and an “achievement orientation.” These platitudes are often reflected in firms’ competency lists and are so broad that, at best, they simply remind us that people tend to do business with people they like (but not always and not as often as many sales trainers assume). At worst, these abstractions are irrelevant to the execution of business strategy, and they make hiring, in sales and other functions, a classic example of the cloning bias: managers use these slogans to hire in their own image.

Selling jobs vary greatly depending on the product or service sold, the customers a salesperson is responsible for, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and the people contacted during sales calls. A review of hundreds of studies about sales productivity finds that “[t]he results of this research have simply failed to identify behavioral predispositions or aptitudes that account for a large amount of variance in performance for salespeople. In addition, the results of this research are quite inconsistent and, in some cases, even contradictory.” Common stereotypes about a “good” salesperson (e.g., pleasing personality, hard-wired for sociability, and so on) obscure the realities you face.

Selling effectiveness is not a generalized trait. It’s a function of the sales tasks, which vary according to the market, your strategy, the stage of the business (i.e., startup or later stage), the customers targeted by your strategy, and buying processes at those customers. This is true even for firms in the same industry. Think about the difference between sales tasks at Nordstrom, where personalized service and advice are integral to strategy execution, and Costco, where low price and product availability make sales tasks less complex and variable.

The first step in smart hiring and productivity is understanding the relevant sales tasks in your market and strategy and then reflecting those tasks in hiring criteria and a disciplined hiring process.

Focus on behaviors. Research based upon thousands of exit interviews shows that a primary cause of poor performance and turnover is poor job fit. People, especially salespeople with a variable pay component, become frustrated when they’re hired for tasks that are a poor fit with their skills and preferences. Conversely, as the saying goes, “You hire your problems.” Zappos CEO Tony Hseih estimates that bad hires have cost his firm $100 million. Famously, Zappos will pay people to leave voluntarily after a few months on the job.

The key is to focus on the behaviors implied by the sales tasks. In many firms, this means upgrading assessment skills. Managers are excessively confident about their ability to evaluate candidates via interviews. In reality, studies indicate a low correlation (generally, less than 25%) between interview predictions and job success, and some indicate that interview processes actually hurt in hiring decisions: the firm would have done better with blind selection procedures! The best results, by far, occur when those making hiring decisions can observe the potential hires’ job behaviors and use a recruitment process based on a combination of factors, as illustrated in the following graphic:

There are many ways to do this, including simulations, interviewing techniques, or (as at Zappos) providing an incentive for self-selection after recent hires experience the required behaviors. Especially in expensive sales-hiring situations, many organizations could emulate the practice used by investment banks and consulting firms when hiring MBAs: the summer job is, in effect, an extended observation by multiple people at the firm of the candidate’s abilities before a full-time offer is extended.

Then, immerse reps in the tasks they will encounter in working with customers. At HubSpot, which provides web-based inbound marketing services to businesses, Mark Roberge has sales hires spend a month in classroom-style training but also doing what their customers do: create a website from scratch and keep that site populated with relevant content. Roberge notes, “they experience the actual pains and successes of our primary customers: professional marketers who need to generate leads online. As a result, our salespeople are able to connect on a far deeper level with our prospects and leads.”

Be clear about what you mean by relevant “experience.” Previous experience is the most common criterion used by sales managers in talent assessment. In one survey, over 50% of respondents cited “selling experience within the industry” as their key selection criterion, and another 33% cited “selling experience in [an] other industry.” Driving this view is a perceived trade-off between hiring for experience and spending money on training. But because selling effectiveness depends upon a company’s sales tasks, “experience” is an inherently multidimensional attribute. It may refer to experience with any (or any combination of) the following:

  • A customer group: e.g., a banker or other financial services recruit hired by a software firm to call on financial firms; or, in health care, firms sell different products, but many sell to hospitals.
  • A technology: an engineer or field-service tech hired to sell a category of equipment.
  • Another part of the organization: a service rep moved to sales because internal cross-functional support is a key sales task and that rep “knows the people and the organization.”
  • A geography or culture: a member of a given nationality or ethnic group who knows, and has credibility within, the norms of the relevant customer’s culture.
  • Selling: an insurance agent or retail associate with experience in another sales context.

The relevance of each type varies with your sales tasks. So consider what type is, and is not (see below), relevant, and require the people doing sales hiring to clarify what they mean by experience.

On-going talent assessments. Markets have no responsibility to be kind to your firm’s strategy and sales approach. It is leadership’s responsibility to adapt to markets and develop the competencies required today, not yesterday.

As organizations confront new buying processes, required competencies are changing. The figure below, based on an extensive database of company sales profiles, indicates the changing nature of sales competencies at many firms. Competencies that, only a decade ago, were considered essential are now lower in priority.

Does this mean that developing leads, qualifying prospects, and adapting to different buyer motivations are no longer important? No. Rather, as one should expect in a competitive activity where success is ultimately measured by relative advantage, the focus of productivity improvement in sales is shifting. Yesterday’s sales strengths have become today’s minimum skill requirements.

This underscores the need for on-going talent assessments to stay in-touch with changing tasks and required behaviors. The good news is that the tools for doing such assessments, based on behavioral research findings, are more available and have more granularity and practicality for sales leaders. Conducting a skills inventory and determining the best fit for your sales tasks need not be the standard mix of folklore, various embedded biases by front-line managers, and the content-free platitudes about “selling” that populate many blogs. And it is increasingly necessary because companies must ultimately be worthy of real talent.

It’s often said that many firms maintain their equipment better than they do their people. If so, you ultimately get what you don’t maintain, especially in sales.

How to Start and Run a Mentoring Program

Below is a great article on how to start a mentorship in your company. I think mentoring is very important for succession and developing future leaders.

How to start and run a mentoring program.

 The right people, processes, and reporting structure are key to meeting goals.

By Jeff Drew

March 2014

Paul Martin had a lot more questions than answers when he started as a staff accountant at Apple Growth Partners. At the top of the list: Where did he want to go with his career in public accounting?

“I didn’t know what path to take,” he said.

Martin found direction in the mentoring program at Apple Growth, a 90-employee firm based in Akron, Ohio. Following the firm’s guidelines, he worked with his mentor to create an individual development plan that would help him chart and progress down a career path.

“My mentor really helped me stick to a plan of action goals,” Martin said. “It really helped me start on the path I want to go, which is ultimately to partner level.”

Four years after starting at Apple Growth, Martin is making progress on his career aspirations. He just finished taking the last part of the CPA exam and hopes to have his license soon. He has been promoted to senior staff accountant and even has begun mentoring three staff accountants at the firm.

Mentoring programs have long been desired by young, and sometimes not-so-young, CPAs. Firms are increasingly finding real value in these programs because they help prepare the future leaders of accounting firms and, therefore, play a pivotal role in succession plans. The AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS)/Texas Society of CPAs 2012 Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey found a significant jump in the percentage of firms that include mentoring and training as part of their partner compensation formula, from 3% in 2010 to 15% in 2012.

There is room for improvement, however. The AICPA’s PCPS 2011 Top Talent Survey found that while 80% of the brightest young CPA talent participated in some form of mentoring, fewer than half had access to a formal program. Of those who did, 84% reported that they benefited from the mentoring program (see “The Lowdown on High Potentials,” JofA, Dec. 2011, page 36).

For the better part of 20 years, Gatto, Pope & Walwick LLP (GPW) was one of those firms that provided mentoring but did not have a formal program. The San Diego-based practice enjoyed success with its mentoring efforts, but it decided about a year ago to formalize and document the program. The goal was to solidify the parts of the mentoring system that worked well and to shore up its reporting and accountability mechanisms.

GPW’s system is similar to the mentoring program used at Apple Growth and follows many of the guidelines laid out by consultant Rita Keller, an expert in mentoring programs. This article draws from all of those mentoring plans to outline a framework for designing and deploying a formal mentoring program.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESS

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue, Keller said. The committee should include stakeholders from different levels within the firm, which should select one of the committee members to spearhead, or own, the project. The committee should research mentoring programs through CPA firm associations, state societies, and the AICPA, among other sources. The firm should then draft a mentoring document that fits the firm’s goals and culture.

At many firms, not all partners will be on board with a mentoring program. Some will question the advisability of devoting nonbillable hours to the project. Supporters can counter such resistance by listing the benefits of a mentoring program (see Exhibit 1). In addition, an analysis of time worked likely will show that there are hours available to devote to a mentoring program without affecting the number of billable hours (see Exhibit 2).

Mentoring Exhibit 1

Mentoring Exhibit 2

Keller cautions firms not to confuse training programs with mentoring. “Firms need good, strong training programs to set the stage for the mentoring,” she said. “Mentoring should not be how to fill out a tax form.”

Instead, a mentoring program is established to develop future firm leaders and to foster healthy work relationships, said Katie Lee, Apple Growth’s human resources manager. Apple Growth set up its mentoring program almost a decade ago because it needed to have a better understanding of its staff’s succession potential. “We had no answers where our employees were going in the future,” she said. “It was a shot in the dark who wanted to be a manager or a partner.”

The mentoring program helped Apple Growth learn about its personnel’s career desires. Mentoring arrangements also establish connections that can help guide CPAs down their career path.

“It’s finding someone who really cares about you and your career,” Keller said. It’s the type of relationship that has facilitated young CPA learning for decades, she added. But while informal arrangements work, having a written mentoring program helps to establish accountability and reporting standards while making sure everyone gets a chance to participate, said Thomas J. McFadden, CPA, a GPW partner who heads the firm’s mentoring program. A formal program also helps to make sure the mentoring process and expectations are the same across the firm, Lee said.

That’s a lot to work into one program, but Keller warns firms not to overcomplicate it. “You want to come up with something that’s not too difficult,” she said. “You want something that’s natural, that’s easy. Having a little bit of a framework is important.”

Once that framework is written and the firm is ready to unveil it to the staff, leadership should hold an event or do something else that lets everyone in the firm know that the program is a big deal, Keller said.

GETTING STARTED

Firms should emphasize the importance of the mentoring program to new hires from day one and should actively engage them in mentoring relationships soon after their start date. GPW requires new hires to be paired with a mentor after their first 30 days. Apple Growth connects mentors and mentees around the 90-day mark.

Opinion is divided on whether new employees should select their own mentor or whether the firm should do the matchmaking. Apple Growth’s human resources department assigns mentors to new hires. “It’s hard to choose when you don’t know people really well,” Lee said.

GPW lets new hires choose their own mentors. Most new hires at the 30-day mark have reached a comfort level with a potential mentor, who is a partner or manager but not their direct supervisor, McFadden said. If a new hire is not comfortable selecting a mentor, McFadden or another partner goes through the choices with the employee and assists with the selection.

Keller prefers seeing new hires pick their own mentors, but she places greater emphasis on firms making sure they pick the right people to serve as mentors—a view McFadden and Lee share. Not everybody is suited to be a mentor. Accounting firms usually make promotions based on a CPA’s technical prowess, but many CPAs at the manager level or above lack the soft skills—the ability to motivate, coach, listen, etc.—required in an effective mentor.

“What we’ve found is that not everybody is a mentor,” Lee said. “It’s just not built into them. Some are strictly practitioners, and that’s OK.”

At Apple Growth, 25 of the firm’s 90 employees are mentors, from the senior associate staff level up to partner. All of the firm’s employees are mentees, including the chairman, who is mentored by a member of the board of directors.

“We have found that everyone in the firm needs a mentor,” Lee said. “Mentoring is not necessarily to advance one in their career, but to have an advocate or someone who believes in you. We encourage our team members to always set goals and continue developing new skills. … A mentor is an important figure in your career and is important at every level.”

At GPW, partners and managers serve as mentors. The firm implemented a training program for mentors and guarantees them at least two hours of training per year. Apple Growth introduced a rating system that allows mentees to rate their mentors.

THE MEETINGS

Mentoring programs usually consist of two types of meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set goals and make progress in achieving those goals.

“We set up goals once a year,” said John Valle, CPA, a tax manager and mentor at Apple Growth. “Once we establish goals, we document them at the initial meeting and check in on the progress toward achieving these goals in follow-up meetings.”

Lee said that Apple Growth emphasizes setting S.M.A.R.T. goals—i.e., goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and apply for a defined period of time. GPW’s individual development plans track the following for each goal or objective:

  • Action steps required.
  • Resources needed.
  • Milestones/target dates.
  • Rewards.

Formal meetings generally last an hour to an hour and a half and often are held over lunch. Formal meetings usually involve the mentor checking the mentee’s progress on goals and determining what steps the mentee needs to take and what assistance the firm can provide. Goals and action steps often are written down during the meeting, and business items can be documented in a report filed with program or firm leadership (see Exhibit 3).

Mentoring Exhibit 3

Conversations between mentors and mentees sometimes broach sensitive topics. To protect privacy, GPW requires mentors and mentees to sign a confidentiality agreement. The firm wants mentees to feel safe discussing sensitive in-office and even personal issues with their mentors. No personal information is shared outside of those meetings without the mentee’s permission.

“You feel a little more comfortable sharing confidential information because you know it was going to be kept quiet,” said Brent Gastineau, CPA, a tax manager at GPW who has been both a mentee and a mentor with the firm. “You could talk about someone you were not getting along with.” While open, honest dialogue is desired, mentors must be careful not to allow the meetings to devolve into complaint sessions.

Formal meetings can operate outside of, or as part of, the firm’s official employee evaluation and performance review. At Apple Growth, the official performance review takes place during the meeting held just after the close of busy season, Valle said. Other firms believe that performance reviews should always be kept separate from the mentoring process.

INFORMAL BUT IMPORTANT

Informal meetings between mentors and mentees can be just as valuable as formal meetings, said Martin, the Apple Growth senior staff accountant.

“I would ask my mentor, ‘Hey, can we go out to lunch?’ ” said Martin, who would ask for further explanation of technical issues or general advice. “We would go over it for a half-hour or an hour, and then I’d really understand the issue.”

Informal meetings can take place at any time. Sometimes, mentees walk into their mentor’s office to ask questions or discuss concerns. Other times, mentors will take mentees to networking events or to client meetings. Those expeditions provide opportunities for mentees to learn to connect with potential clients and work with current clients.

“We try to get them involved with networking,” Valle said. “I’ll let them shadow me in a client meeting, but we won’t charge the client for their time.”

REPORTS AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

Reporting mechanisms are key to the mentoring process. As head of the mentoring program at GPW, McFadden is responsible for making sure all mentees have a mentor and for keeping a list of those relationships. He also oversees the orientation and training of mentors and handles the termination or alteration of any problematic mentor-mentee relationships.

In addition, McFadden makes sure meeting reporting forms are turned in. Through those, he monitors the progress of each mentee, ensuring that meetings are occurring, advice is being followed, and goals are being set, pursued, and achieved. Finally, he makes twice yearly reports to the partners on the progress of the mentoring program and its participants.

Mentors occasionally step into roles beyond those of meeting with mentees and submitting reports. One of the most difficult situations is resolving a conflict between a mentee and the mentee’s manager. The discord can result from a personality conflict or a disconnect between a mentee’s goals and the supervisor’s goals for the mentee. When goals don’t match, the mentor can be called upon to work with both parties to align the goals. When there is conflict between the mentee and the supervisor, the mentor may choose several courses of action: speaking with the supervisor without the mentee; speaking with the supervisor with the mentee; having the mentee discuss the issue with the supervisor; or convincing the mentee that he or she is in the wrong.

“This is probably the toughest situation a mentor in our firm will face,” McFadden said. “Luckily, it doesn’t come up that often.”

GROUP EFFORT

One-on-one pairings are not the only way to facilitate a mentoring program. Firms can employ a group mentoring approach.

Keller encourages group mentoring because it allows mentors to serve more people. For example, an “engaged” mentor might have three mentees. If the mentor spends 90 minutes in formal meetings with each mentee on a quarterly basis, then the mentor has devoted four and a half hours to mentoring meetings in the quarter. The same mentor could accommodate six mentees, meeting with them in two groups of three each quarter. Even if those meetings are two hours, the mentor has committed less time (four hours vs. four and a half hours) and served twice as many employees.

In a group system, mentees can still request informal one-on-one time with a mentor as needed. And mentors can still take mentees to networking events and client meetings.

THE VALUE PROPOSITION

In the end, mentors and mentees agree that mentoring programs are beneficial. Mentees receive valuable career guidance and develop lasting business and personal relationships. Gastineau, the GPW tax manager, said that the biggest thing he has gained from his mentoring relationships is confidence and support.

“I’ve had somebody on my side who can tell me from their perspective where I’m at in my career and what I need to do to reach my goal,” Gastineau said. “My goal is to be a partner, and I’m going to get there. I’m right on the cusp.”

Mentors often gain from their mentoring activities as well. Martin, who has served as a mentor for a year, credits the process with helping him learn more about the profession.

“When you teach something, it helps you have a better understanding of what you are trying to teach,” he said.

Firms also benefit. McFadden said GPW’s mentoring program is the main reason for the firm’s low turnover—which has contributed to the firm’s top-heavy structure, with 15 managers and partners out of a total of 35 employees. Staff stability also bodes well for Apple Growth, said one of the firm’s tax managers.

“People aren’t leaving,” Valle said. “It says something about our organization that we are developing a strong group of young leaders for the succession of our firm.”


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Mentoring programs help to develop the future leaders of firms and, in the process, solidify succession.

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue. A member of the committee should step up to “own” the project, and the committee should spearhead the drafting of a document outlining how the mentoring program will work.

Formalized and documented mentoring programs often have reporting and accountability mechanisms that help make sure everyone gets a chance to take part and the expectations are consistent across the organization.

Firms should engage new hires in mentoring relationships in the first few months after the on-boarding process. New hires can select a mentor with whom they feel comfortable, or the firm can pair mentors and mentees. It is important that mentees feel comfortable talking with their mentors and that they are offered confidentiality for personal and sensitive issues.

Mentors must be able to motivate, coach, and listen to mentees. Not all CPAs are cut out to be mentors. Group mentoring is an option when a firm doesn’t have enough mentors for one-on-one pairings.

There are two types of mentoring meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year, for 60 to 90 minutes each, and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set and meet career development goals. The meetings usually result in a report with objectives and action items.

Informal meetings can be just as valuable as formal meetings. The types of informal meetings include impromptu discussions between mentor and mentee as well as mentors taking mentees to networking events or on client visits.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.