EY Talks about Coaching: the Keys to Its Success

Oct 6th 2014
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The use of executive coaching as a leadership development tool is becoming increasingly popular within the accounting profession. And as it gains momentum, the way in which firms are using professional coaches is advancing. While most organizations choose to hire external coaches, some—like EY—are moving toward the use of in-house coaching teams.

As a fellow coach working with CPAs, I was curious to learn what the EY team is up to and how we can all learn from an industry leader. Fortunately, Alison Hooker, EY Americas Chief Talent Development Officer, and Dawn Pons, EY Americas Director of Executive Coaching, were happy to give me the inside scoop.

Integrate Coaching into Existing Development Initiatives

At EY, coaching is part of a holistic career development framework named EYU (EY and You). The framework focuses on three key development areas: learning, experiences, and coaching. Many CPAs are familiar with learning; these are the courses we need to keep our license current and the skills we need to perform well in our jobs. Experiences are drawn from the on-the-job learning that takes place throughout our careers.

Then comes coaching, which at EY, comes in two different forms: what Hooker and Pons described as "Big C" coaching, which represents formal coaching engagements, and "Little C" coaching, or the informal, day-to-day conversations that help professionals to develop.

Actually, Little C coaching is not small at all. In fact, it is widely used and is a prominent part of EY's culture. Little C coaching takes place whenever coaching skills are employed. Coaching skills outlined within the International Coach Federation's (ICF) Core Competencies include active listening, powerful questioning, planning and goal setting, and creating accountability.

EY's use of Little C coaching serves two important functions. First, it creates a coaching culture. In the accounting profession, we get paid to be the expert. Yet being the expert is not always the best method for developing people. If you don't agree with this, think about the times when people gave you advice that didn't all. Did you take it? Was the impact a positive difference in your life? Probably not. Coaching assumes that individuals are the experts of their own lives. After all, you know your aspirations better than anyone else. By asking powerful questions and actively listening to one's response, you can better understand what will keep others engaged in the workplace and how to best align their goals with the organization's business needs.

Second, coaching strengthens leadership development. Overuse of mentorship can create dependency; the less experienced professional is trained to get answers from the experienced person, thereby making effective delegation impossible. Instead, a coach says",What could you do about that?" Coaching moves people away from depending on others for answers and toward taking leadership in a variety of situations.

Coach the Transitions

There are also times when Big C, or formalized coaching, is appropriate—certain transition points. Hooker described these transition points as windows when people are most willing and open to start seeing things differently. These transitions include:

  • Promotion to partner
  • Executive on-boarding upon joining the organization
  • International assignments—preparation and repatriation
  • Transition to parenthood
  • Promotion into titled leadership roles reaching beyond partner

These are great coaching opportunities and can provide your professionals with the support they need to further elevate their performance.

Overcoming Resistance

With all the advantages to coaching, however, there is still resistance to it. Staff at some organizations will say",I am working a 65-hour week and don't have the time" or "how will one hour of coaching per week impact my utilization rate"? But EY has managed to avoid these kinds of objections. First, At EY, coaching is not mandated. People are invited to the process, and this is critical. The best results in coaching are created by people who are ready to fully embrace the process. Coaching is the most powerful when people are ready to be introspective and let go of who they were for who they can become.

Another important aspect is that Big C coaching is delivered proactively and not reactively. Reactive coaching can be viewed as remedial and can send the wrong message: act poorly, upset others, and we will spend thousands of dollars on coaching for you. In contrast, proactive coaching positions the service as an investment in the potential for a high performer to become even greater. At EY, having an in-house coach is seen as a perk that further propels a professional's growth.

How Coaching Works

There is a scene in the film Remember the Titans that captures a sign posted to a mirror. It reads",Reflection is the better part of a champion." Coaching provides leaders with a moment to pause and reflect on who they are, where they are going, and the most effective course of action.

According to Pons, coaching at EY has created moments for its leaders to pause and reflect. In highly confidential and supportive coaching conversations, they can be reflective and gain the self-awareness that empowers them to cultivate their competencies as a leader. Hooker built on this point, stating",We want a group of partners who want to dream big and play big. Pausing allows for unleashing untapped potential."

Coaching is one of the most powerful leadership development tools because it is entirely personalized and infused with accountability, a sometimes elusive skill in matrix reporting environments. EY's initial team of eight in-house coaches in the Americas has grown to 17 in addition to a coaching culture that is woven into the fabric of the organization globally. "We really feel that it is a key differentiator for us", said Hooker.

About the author:
Amber Setter, CPA, MA, is a professional coach, leadership consultant, and university instructor. More about her is available


Replies (5)

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By Darlene Selena Williams
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT


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By Don Sturgill
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

My favorite Executive Coach, Debbie White, says "Everybody is in sales" ... even accountants and lawyers. So true. Her "Inevitable Sales" program is a ringer for the service professions.

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By CV Subash Mentor Coach
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Thanks for the post & kudos to EY. Great to note more sectors and key players are discovering the power of Coaching as the 'most powerful leadership development tool'. Great they have aligned with ICF's competencies. Big C/Small C coaching, interesting! Not sure of the idea of 'internal' coaching though for holistic outcomes...

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Replying to meonan8:
By CV Subash Mentor Coach
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Employees may open up & trust more if coaches are external, with no stake in the organization. Based on my limited experience, in-house coach will come with lot more internal knowledge/awareness. Also a bit of industry/subject-matter expertise. So, coaching may shift to mentoring. Even though ICF credential may be a good way to prevent.

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Replying to bstonercpa:
By Amber Setter
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Excellent points. There are certainly pros and cons to the use of an internal coach. I suspect that at firms that are as large as the Big Four an internal coach can feel more like an external. As an example, an employee would not necessarily see them walking down the hall with an HR manager like they might at a smaller firm.

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