The Challenge of Support

When our first child left our ‘nest’ as a college freshman, it was an exciting time that brought on a lot of ‘I can’t believe it happened so fast’ conversations and advice to stay focused on his education. As his parents, we prepared for the difficult decisions that would inevitably come regarding the challenges he would face and the amount of ongoing support that would be needed.

In a professional context, this same scenario of reaching milestones, overcoming challenges, and providing support is continuously transpiring with professionals in accounting firms. People spend time working in a firm with the hope of progressing in their career, while their leaders and mentors work to hopefully provide an environment that allows them to be successful. For this career progression to work successfully, both sides need to work to find the right blend of challenge and support that creates a positive, growth-minded culture for everyone. Challenge with no support is a recipe for failure, and, likewise, providing too much support with little to no challenge will leave everyone disappointed.

The Theory of Challenge and Support, developed by Nevitt Sanford in 1966, states that “for growth to occur, a person needs a balanced amount of challenge and support as appropriate for the task. In addition, a person must be ready, physically and psychologically, in order to grow.”

According to Sanford, when a person is given too much support, they fail to learn, and, when they are given too little support, they tend to get frustrated by their challenges and quit trying. Many firm leaders today struggle with the tension that is created through this growth development process.

So how can we, as leaders, determine the right balance for providing support and challenges in the workplace?

First, it is important to understand everyone comes with unique backgrounds, differing degrees of training, and personal bias developed from the time they were born. Peoples’ level of readiness needs to be understood and placed into context, which puts a premium on getting to know, in a significant way, each person individually. Creating a win/win relationship then becomes easier and more manageable. The level of support and challenges each person needs or can take on can vary significantly. When a firm takes the time to examine the nuances that exist among team members, it promotes a positive culture and a successful retention.

Next, firms need to determine what is needed and required from a learning and development perspective. This requires that a firm put thought into the process of their growth development program, which begins with knowing and understanding the culture and the types of people who are going to work well in the environment surrounding them.

Below are 6 strategies any firm can implement when developing their growth culture.

  1. Workplace Survey- Survey and interview the team to gain insight into the current support/challenge culture, receive input, and allow for suggestions.
  2. Workstyle Profiles- Prior to anyone being hired, provide workstyle and behavioral assessments. This allows the person being considered for the position a good chance of fitting with the culture and what is required of the role. Firm leaders and employees benefit from gaining initial insights into their personality and communication styles and can understand early on how to effectively communicate with each other.
  3. Broaden Job Place Experience- Allowing people to try different things and express themselves in different ways will assist in getting to know peoples’ skill levels, aptitude for certain kinds of work, comfort level with challenging work, and individual needs for support.
  4. Mentors- Firm mentors can play a meaningful role in providing guidance, measuring success, knowing the individuals personally, understanding where people are in their development, and advocating to firm leaders regarding any adjustments (e.g. increase challenge, provide more support) that need to be made.
  5. Skill Development Resource- In addition to the myriad of technical skills that every CPA must develop, there are personal skills they must grasp that include things like project management, communication, leadership, business development, client service, and an endless array of other topics. These may be known as ‘soft skills’; however, they are most definitely hard to master skills that require major effort to become proficient in. Very often an outside partner can work with a firm to provide staff development expertise that the firm will find difficult to match. It is important that the right resource is chosen to be able to challenge individuals (and the firm) at all levels while also providing the correct amount of support to make the partnership successful.
  6. Work Accountability- Having a culture whereby team members are answerable to their work goals and activities is an important piece of getting things done as an organization, as well as providing individuals with challenges they agree to meeting. Too often overcommitted leaders fail to set regular meetings with people on the team to discuss their work, their challenges, and the amount of support they need to be able to succeed.

For firm growth to occur, the right amount of support and challenge per person is needed. If your firm is struggling with finding the right balance, know you are not alone. It is worth stating the obvious here: people are the greatest investment and asset for any firm. Unlike other capital investments though, people require a two-way working dialogue to help govern the level of understanding and commitment from both sides. Everyone on the team needs to know what is expected, thrive in the challenge, and trust in the support.

Next Steps

If you are interested in creating a strong challenge and support system for your firm, we would be happy to provide additional insights to any of the strategies listed above. Contact us to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Patrick Pruett – Executive Vice President of The Rainmaker Companies