The Challenge of Support

My first child is leaving our ‘nest’ this fall as he approaches the next milestone in his life (and ours too), as a University of Tennessee freshman. It’s an exciting time that brings an awful lot of ‘I can’t believe it happened so fast’ conversations, and advice about staying focused on his education.  As his parents we are preparing for the difficult decisions that will inevitably come regarding the challenges he will face, and the amount of ongoing support that will need to be provided.

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.

There is a theory dating back to 1962, known as Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and patricks graphSupport ( The basic premise of Sanford’s theory is 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 (A) they fail to learn, and when they are given too little support (B) they tend to get frustrated 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 entails 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 development culture.

Workplace Survey- Survey and interview the team to gain insight into the current support/challenge culture, receive input, and also allow for suggestions.

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 employee benefit from gaining initial insights into their personality and communication styles, and can understand early on how to effectively communicate with each other.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.