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Apr 12, 2021

Help Staff Conquer CPA Exam Fears with Coaching

Passing the CPA Exam is an arduous process, but one with immeasurable rewards for those who achieve their goal. Organizations with staff members who attain the CPA designation also experience extensive benefits and return on investment. Therefore, it behooves organizations to help would-be CPAs on their payroll to pass the test with flying colors. Enter, CPA coaching. Erin Daiber, CEO of Well Balanced Accountants in the San Diego area, joins us to explore CPA coaching and why it is more beneficial than traditional mentoring when it comes to the CPA Exam.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor

Podcast Transcript

The attaining of the CPA designation is an arduous process, but it reaps tremendous rewards and benefits for an organization with staff who are seeking to pass the CPA exam. It only behooves them to be as supportive as possible in helping their staff achieve their goal. According to our guest today, Erin Daiber, CEO of Well Balanced Accountants in the Greater San Diego area, part of that support is taking up the mantle of being a CPA coach. Today she tells us what CPA coaching is and how it differs from traditional mentoring.

For a little bit of context here, can you explain what CPA coaching is as it relates to the CPA exam and how it's different from traditional mentoring and other support systems that are out there?

[Daiber] I think it'll actually be helpful to dive into what mentoring and coaching are and how they differ from each other. Then, we can layer in CPA exam coaching.

When I think about mentoring, mentoring is really about teaching. It's about guiding somebody by giving them advice from personal experience as someone who's been there. And that could even include making introductions or opening doors and making suggestions in the case of a career mentor. It's generally a relationship between someone who's more experienced or who is a subject matter expert and someone who is maybe newer in their career and pursuing a similar path. You're leaning on that person for their advice about the path that they've taken.

Then, as a coach, I help people to discover their own path. By asking questions, clients gain clarity about what it is that they want to achieve, they uncover new awarenesses about their situation, and can also find some creative ways to overcome any of the obstacles that get in the way of those goals that they have. But the key here is that these answers with clarity, it was already inside of them. They just needed help to get it out, to become clear about it. Just needed to be drawn out. That's the difference. Mentoring, I'm really relying on someone else's experience and the path that they're walked. Coaching, I already have those answers. It's just a matter of eliciting them in that person.

So, coaching for the CPA exam is really a mix of coaching and maybe more consulting because there's definitely some things where I make recommendations regarding an ideal study plan, for example, but first and foremost, it really is a coaching relationship where I'm helping these clients, these future CPAs, to understand what's in their way, become more aware of what's going on for them in the process if they're experiencing maybe fear or resistance or avoidance in the process. I'm asking them questions to help them figure out what's going to work best for them, and then guiding them in the process.

We talked about the idea of this being an arduous process. It's one thing to get help with the content of the CPA exam, but how does coaching help conquer the mental aspects of that exam?

[Daiber] I always say that this exam is just as much about the technical content as it is about the mental side. And you can have the best study approach, you can have all sorts of study materials available to you, but if you're not showing up strong mentally, and if you're not in a good place to go and perform well on Exam Day, all of that technical stuff doesn't matter. We can basically undo all of that hard work by not being in a good place mentally.

The best example I have of that is a former CPA exam client of mine. His dad was also a CPA. He grew up around the profession and when he decided to enter the profession himself, his dad started to talk to him about taking the CPA exam. He had said one day, just sort an offhand comment that FAR, the financial section of this exam, is so hard. "That's the thing that everybody struggles with. If I had to predict, I think that's where you're going to struggle." That’s what he said.

So, years later, now my client is in the process of taking the exam. He had passed all three other sections of the test and was down to Financial, and he could not pass it. He's struggling over and over. In fact, it had caused him to lose credit for the other exam because he couldn't pass it in time. It was this seemingly harmless comment that his dad had made that he had really taken on, like planted a seed inside of him. He was relating to FAR as this, almost like an enemy to overcome this foe, this thing that had to be conquered. He was even using that type of language. It was like he was gearing up for battle every time he sat down to attempt this exam.

So through the coaching, we were able to rewind that tape and rewrite that story that he had about the exam and make it more accessible, make it easier for him to study. Have it be less of an adversarial relationship and more of a learning opportunity. He started to be able to see it as something that would help him move forward in his career. Then he was able to actually enjoy the studying and he passed on his next attempt. So, whether it's something that specific or another type of mental demon, every CPA candidate has something like that that is playing in the background, that can be costing valuable points on the exam. That's what coaching really aims to uncover and help candidates move around to have that not be the thing that holds them back from success on this exam.

Who would you say would be the ideal candidates for a CPA coach, and what sort of qualities do they need to have?

[Daiber] I think first of all, anyone who's taking the CPA exam can benefit from coaching and having a partner in this process. Feeling like they're not alone in the process and that they have someone to talk to. I think those are some of the biggest benefits. Generally, someone who is an ideal candidate for coaching is open to new ideas, open to doing things differently. Really, we talk about someone being coachable or open to coaching ... if you were to show up to a coaching call really set in your ways, very fixed ideas about how you have to study in order to pass the exam, I'm likely to not be able to make much of a difference for that person. So, showing up open to coaching and motivated. It's not easy, but there is ... I always talk about there's two different types of candidates. One who sort of buckles down and tackles this process and becomes a CPA. The other still becomes a CPA, but they also learn about themselves through that process. So, if that's interesting to you, that's where I think CPA coaching could really benefit.

I will say most of the people that I work with personally are individuals who have attempted the exam on their own and have not had success and maybe one or more parts, some have been at it on their own longer than others. Oftentimes, too, they're juggling other responsibilities, whether it's work, family, personal life, in addition to studying. Those are the people that I think benefit most.

What sort of attributes would the ideal CPA coach possess? What has to be in their makeup?

[Daiber] Coaches, in general, should be certified. So, if you're to hire a coach, whether it's for the CPA exam or for your leadership development or a life coach, for example, I would always look for someone who is certified, who's gone through some sort of a credential program. That's just in general.

For CPA coaching, I think a coach should be an excellent listener so that they can find and sort of ... what I always find myself doing is listening for what the client is not saying, listening between the lines of what they're sharing to figure out and uncover those things that may be holding them back that they're not aware of. So, being a good listener, I think you've got to be genuinely curious about what's going on for this person, what their experience is like with the exam, and to really want to help.

There's certainly things that I could be doing that would earn me more money. Maybe there'd be other incentives for me and other aspects, but I keep working with CPA candidates because I get so much joy from hearing that they passed, especially after years of struggling. When I get that email or that text message that they got their score and they passed, that's more exciting to me than when I passed the exam. It's really about having that passion for the profession, passion for helping people pass this exam. I think it doesn't hurt that I've been through that process as well and I passed the exam. I know what it took for me to have success with it. So, I understand and I can relate to parts of their journey also.

Organizations are always focused on return on investment, which of course they should be. Why would you say engaging in CPA coaching is vital to an organization?

[Daiber] Well, in public accounting specifically, we have a major pipeline issue. We're losing a lot more CPAs to retirement and people leaving the profession than we do have coming in. They're leaving at a much higher rate. I speak with firm leaders every day and most of them would give their left arm for an experienced tire. Somebody who has a few years of experience and could come and join their firm. That's part of it. We already don't have enough people. We certainly want to make sure we can keep the ones that we have. We don't want to be losing those staff as well. I think most especially not for the reason that they're struggling with the CPA exam.

A lot of times when young people leave the profession, they do it for a job that doesn't require the CPA exam, either because they don't want it or aren't passionate about it, or because they've simply had a hard time and don't know what resources are available to them, don't know where to get help, or maybe are afraid to ask for help, or don't feel they should need to get help with this process. I think that's a huge reason just in and of itself is this will allow you supporting these individuals and passing this exam quicker. Navigating some of the challenges that might be in their way is a way to secure them in this profession longer and not have them leave for that reason in particular.

It really is an opportunity to invest in the staff to help them pass while balancing everything else. Most importantly, to do it without burning out. That's another huge ... people end up leaving the profession. Investing in something like this goes a long way in terms of easing tension.

Then you mentioned ROI, and I think there's a clear path to having something like this pay for itself. If you just think about even conservatively, if you could charge 10 extra dollars an hour for a licensed CPA as opposed to an unlicensed accountant working in your practice, and they work 2,000 hours a year, which we know accountants work a lot more than that, that's an extra $20,000 in billing immediately in the next year. Now we know not all hours are billable hours. Even if it was half that, $10,000 in extra billing, you're not going to spend $10,000 on CPA exam coaching. So, it pays for itself as soon as that person gets licensed, just in terms of extra billing opportunity.

Then you think about, "I'm retaining this person. So I'm protecting the investment I've already made in training them. The institutional knowledge that person has from working here, I'm protecting that investment. I'm also not having to pay a recruiter to replace this person if they were to leave in another situation." I always make the argument that this pays for itself almost instantly.

How can a firm, once they've decided to move into this area, be successful in setting up a CPA coaching program? What are the initial steps they have to go through?

[Daiber] One of the first questions that I always ask them is, who do you want to help first and foremost? You can look at helping people proactively. This may become part of your onboarding process for new hires, just like you would offer them study materials or a bonus once they pass. This is just another part of their benefits package and could be something that you do for everyone when they join your firm. Other firms take the approach of choosing to help the people who have been struggling for a while and who are now at a position where they need to pass the exam in order to promote. You could do one or the other or both. That's just the first question you need to answer as an organization: How do we want to approach this?

Then you have to basically identify, how are we going to know who needs our help? There needs to be some sort of an identity process. That happens through systems you already have in place. Your annual or semi-annual evaluations, maybe through the career counselors or mentors who you already have in place in the organization to help you as a firm identify people who are struggling who might be good candidates.

Then moving to the process of making that candidate open to the support. Again, coaching doesn't work if that person is not open to it. So just because they need help doesn't mean that everyone is a good candidate.

Then, I think just answering the question for your organization of how do we want to present this. In terms of best practice, I think the coaching for the CPA exam, coaching of any kind, should really be used as a support structure. I generally recommend that there aren't extra strings attached, especially for the exam coaching, because that can be seen as extra pressure, which candidates don't need. I don't now need my boss, having made an investment, expecting more of me when I've already put so much pressure on myself. That doesn't help the learning process. That's really critical.

Just to answer the question, how are we going to measure success for our firm: Those are questions that I run through with clients all the time or firms who are considering putting these things in place. Just things to think about before you start the process.

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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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