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Soft Skills development – Coaching Moments

‘Coaching and training within audit teams is important, and this should not be restricted to technical matters but also skills such as application of judgement, interviewing techniques, guiding and providing feedback to staff, as well as dealing with difficult conversations.’

A quote from the ICAEW’s Audit Monitoring Report 2022/23.

The report notes that the key drivers for improvement in many of the audits reviewed related to broad technical areas (including group accounts, stock and long-term contracts, valuation and revenue).  These topic areas were neither new/emerging issues nor particularly complex.  They note that technical training in these areas should help and that a common theme is the ability to analyse and challenge judgements.  The report goes on to call for a focus on coaching and training in the ‘softer skills’. Our file review team regularly reports that, ‘it’s not the technical but the soft skills that need improving’ and we’re increasingly combining technical and interpersonal skills on our practical audit courses.

We know that a key challenge for firms is time!  Recruitment and retention continue to be a huge issue – also noted in the ICAEW report. Incomplete files are often finished off by the audit manager as the senior/in charge has moved on to another job.  Junior staff who weren’t necessarily on the original audit team are having to clear review points, which is inefficient and detracts from the learning opportunity.

It’s a vicious circle.  Coaching and delegation aren’t always done well.  ‘It would have been quicker to do it myself.’  Well, yes, it probably would if you are the more experienced person but the more you do, the more you lose the coaching and training opportunity. Not taking opportunities to coach and train junior members of staff also has an impact on motivation. 

Extrinsic motivation (or the carrot and stick approach) works to a point but more powerful is intrinsic motivation.  This is an internal sense of drive, that means people will give their best for their own sake, not just because there is a reward at the end or because they are afraid of getting into trouble.

Intrinsic motivation relies on three factors – challenge, autonomy and purpose. Challenge is all about growth and development, and a sense of progression.  Purpose is about an end goal or objective.  Autonomy is a need for self-direction, not being micromanaged.

Crucially motivation isn’t about having an easy life – quite the opposite.  But many clients tell us that many of the more junior staff members seem to want things easy, that they don’t seem to want to put in the hard work or the hours needed to get things done.  Or sometimes that they are so short staffed that they don’t dare push them hard, in case they lose them. 

So, more coaching is needed, more motivation is needed.  The two go together but how can hard pressed managers and partners find the time.  There might be more opportunities to fit ‘coaching moments’ into your day than you think.

Here are six practical tips:

  1. Ask don’t tell

Or at least ‘ask before you tell’.  People don’t think for themselves if they are always given direct orders!  Inviting a more junior member of the team to give their opinion first, tell you what they think the key risks are or how they might challenge a particular piece of information, lets them know that their input is valued.  Even if they don’t get it right, it encourages them to get involved.

  1. Listen (properly)

When you have asked a question, listen to the answer – and listen to understand what the other person is saying, rather than waiting for your turn to speak.  Even if the junior colleague is on the wrong track, there is a great deal to be gained by them articulating their view and knowing that you’ve heard them.  And you never know – they might have a better idea than you!

  1. Involve them at an early stage

Get junior staff along to team meetings as soon as possible.  And get them to do some preparation.  Even the most junior person should be expected to find out a bit about the client, read the standing information, look at their website.  Getting them involved as soon as possible gives that sense of purpose and expecting them to contribute adds to a sense of challenge.

  1. Feedback the good as well as the bad

Reviewing an audit file is often, by its nature, focusing on what’s wrong.  But it’s as important to someone’s development to know what went right, as well as what went wrong.  Making an effort to feedback the positive as well as the negative can be hugely motivational.

  1. Feedback in person

Time pressure often means senor level reviews may not happen early on and feedback isn’t given very timely.  A focus can be on writing up feedback for a six-month appraisal – more of an admin task than a coaching tool.  Whilst it’s important for training records that feedback is documented, it can be so much more impactful when given in person.  Not only can it be actioned straight away, but you’ll find the write up so much easier if a conversation has already happened.

  1. Point out development opportunities

Many of the junior staff members will be ‘millennials’ or ‘Gen Z’ – younger generations who are driven by a need to feel they are progressing.  They’ve grown up used to being given challenges and goals, meeting goals and then being given a reward.  It’s important to actively point out that their work is appreciated and how it can help them progress in the future.  Making the link between taking responsibility for a section this year and progressing to leading the job next year for example. 

All of the above can be done as quick check ins and conversations, and can make a difference to the motivation and commitment of junior team members.

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