In Conversation with CA Magazine. Investing in Excellence - Sharing The Expertise of World Class Business Professionals

Investing in excellence is – or should be – a key priority for all businesses. Developing not only skills but the mindset and resilience to deal with pressure, demanding standards and a competitive environment is crucial. The CA, in association with recruitment expert Global Jobs Network (GJN), brought together a panel of business leaders to discuss ways to approach “Investing in excellence” and the part that coaching and mentoring can play in this. Gordon Nuttall, senior partner and founder of GJN, told the group: 

“In early 2009 I was introduced to the benefits of coaching. With the challenges of running a business in quite tough economic conditions, I had found that my energy levels and my enthusiasm were being tested, and this was starting to have an impact on other aspects of my life. I invested personally in coaching and it was a hugely positive experience. It allowed me to identify my own goals and priorities, as well as actions to try to achieve them.” 

GJN has been working with Marion Graham, director of Soul Success. She is an award-winning executive coach and a co-founder of the Association for Coaching, who has worked with leading companies from independent firms to blue-chip organisations, and charities such as the Prince’s Trust.

Marion Graham led off the discussion by asking:  “How does your organisation approach ‘Investing in excellence’? What are the key priorities?” John Meeten, head of tax in Scotland with KPMG, commented: “We invest a lot in formal coaching and sometimes people think that’s where it stops. But the most useful conversations I’ve had have been not in the context of a formal appraisal session, but in the car on the way out to clients, and sometimes we underestimate that.” Dougie McAndrew CA, a partner with Deloitte specialising  in the financial services sector, said: “Development is often seen as a process, whether it’s part of the appraisal process or some other process. 

This is often seen as 80 per cent of development, with the less formal part of it taking 20 per cent, but in fact it should be the other way around.” David Glen CA, head of tax in Scotland with PwC, said: “You start investing in excellence right at the start, when you first recruit people.” Jim Bishop CA, senior partner, Scotland with EY, said that professional firms used to focus almost entirely on academic achievement: “Now we are looking for someone a little different, someone who stands out. Maybe someone who started a business – even if it failed. Prize winners don’t necessarily turn out to be the best for the firm.”  “Coaching” and “mentoring” are different, as Marion Graham explained. As she put it: “Mentoring is giving guidance in a field in which you have expertise; coaching is the opportunity to buy thinking time.” She added: “Coaching doesn't go into your history – it takes you from where you are now to where you want to be.” Different organisations can use different labels – for example, Dougie McAndrew said, for Deloitte, “coaching” is more short-term and task-focused while “mentoring” is more strategic – but the concepts still hold true.

How do you target that investment? Richard Ellison CA, financial controller at Clydesdale Bank, said: “When you are in a business – as opposed to a professional services firm – you must be targeted in your investment, investing heavily in leaders, who will in turn invest in the people they lead and coach.” Development, he said, often focused on “new to role” employees, first-time people leaders, core-based role learning and on the most senior people, potentially under-investing in those in the middle.

Making time for development was an issue for everyone, the panel agreed. Martin Darroch CA, chief executive at law firm Harper Macleod said that, at his firm, the idea of “chargeable” and “non-chargeable” time has been replaced by the concept of :investment time”. Time is seen as an investment that is judged by measurable outcomes. nIt is important that the coach is distanced from the individual’s day-to-day environment. Jon Meeten, for example, said that in-house coaches at KPMG are drawn from a different part of the business from those they are coaching.

Creating a culture of “quality conversations” and honest, meaningful feedback is at the heart of Deloitte’s development strategy, said Dougie McAndrew. Also, he said, the firm is piloting mentoring of senior people by juniors within the firm. Aileen Mathieson CA is CFO at Nucleus Financial, a “wrap” platform provider in the field of personal finance. She said Nucleus had started encouraging staff to work with a mentor from another part of the business. It is not just about the older, experienced people teaching younger members of staff, she said: “We think that everyone can learn from each other.”

“The label ‘mentor’ can scare people,” said Martin Darroch, adding: “If someone is joining our business then they will have a ‘buddy’. It’s about introducing them to the business, getting them used to the systems and having someone to talk to.” Angela Vickers CA is managing director of Apex Hotels, a family-owned group with hotels in Edinburgh, London and Dundee. She said the hotel industry faced the challenge of a young workforce with a high turnover of staff, but Apex tackled training and development through structured apprenticeships. She said: “It is very labour-intensive for a chef to invest time in developing a young person, but the upside is that two or three years down the line you have a fully qualified chef.” She added: “Staff development has to have deliverables. I’ve worked with youth programmes that have fallen apart because you are just having a chat and nothing comes out of it.” Coaching and mentoring can also take place across different organisations. 

For example, David Glen said, PwC’s people work with social enterprises, and Deloitte’s “Workout for Sport” scheme provides similar help for sporting organisations. Martin Darroch said that his firm’s “Leadership Forum” brings together business leaders from among Harper Macleod’s clients, and the internal development programme involves regular contact with external stakeholders. Angela McCann, a director with GJN, described her experience of being coached: “It centres you – we never take enough time out to reflect. 

It really helped me and brought me back to thinking about what it is that I'm aiming for.” Finding time for reflection and to renew one’s energy is important, the panel agreed, although as Jim Bishop pointed out: “Many of my friends and colleagues are successful and have never had an executive coach. They find other ways to recharge their batteries and find inspiration.” The panel also discussed common obstacles that get in the way of personal development, including time pressure, fear, a short-term culture focused on immediate results, lack of confidence, a desire to stay in one’s “comfort zone” and a lack of good role models in the organisation.

It’s also important to celebrate success. The panel discussed various examples of how this can be done, including regular sessions to keep the business as a whole informed about successes, and public rewards for individuals. One of the outcomes people should be looking for from coaching, Marion Graham said, is a better work/life balance, although she preferred to talk about “life/work balance.” She added: “If you get better at life, you get better at business. People love leaders who live as well as work.” Gordon Nuttall said that his own experience bore this out: “I invested in executive coaching, both personally and for our team – in a market where people were cutting costs and salaries – and we managed to achieve higher billings than most of our people had ever achieved.” It’s a strong argument that “investing in excellence” is not a cost, but an investment that can pay dividends.