Kathy Scherer develops talent at Deloitte Tax Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

At the start of Kathy Scherer’s career, her path seemed simple. The ladder above had a set direction and a certain length.

“I sort of thought that when you got to partner, that was it,” she says. “You were on a flat-line once you got there.”

Now, after more than 10 years as partner at Deloitte Tax LLP, Scherer knows better. That ladder is more like a lattice because development and growth happen constantly in every direction.

“The really surprising thing to me is how I’ve had to keep redeveloping myself and reinventing myself to do different things,” says Scherer, Midwest regional tax managing partner.

That philosophy of continual development is prevalent at Deloitte. It’s a priority that underlies the culture and feeds the business model.

“Talent development for us is critical because we don’t have hard assets,” she says. “We’re not like a manufacturing company. Our business is really two things: It’s clients and people. For us to be able to deliver to our clients, we have to have the best people and motivated people and technical people and people that think innovatively. So for us, it’s very much a cornerstone of our business to develop our talent.”

To foster growth in her 1,151 employees, Scherer supports development as an informal ingredient in the firm’s overall culture and devotes resources to more formal training to customize each person’s growth track. As employees hone their skills, the level of service they provide continually rises, in turn growing the business.

“At various points in your career, you’re going to need to have different competencies to continue to progress,” she says. “What got you where you are today isn’t going to take you where you need to go tomorrow. You always need to keep developing.”

Individualize learning

Scherer’s employees don’t all see the same ladder she envisioned 23 years ago. When you consider the demands of various positions and the individual skills and preferences within those, the development path gets less predictable.

“People don’t necessarily want to just climb straight up a ladder,” she says. “Figure out ways to provide them flexible ways to advance in the organization.”

Let employees participate in planning their development. Deloitte employees work with counselors — who are usually part of their team — to set individual goals.

“Having it part of the goal-setting and evaluation process is very important,” Scherer says. “That says to the younger people that not only are we grading you on the chargeable client hours or on other hard metrics, but we’re also evaluating you on your ability to take learning seriously.”

Keep personal goals within corporate expectations by building a framework. Deloitte’s planning form breaks goals into four categories — technical aptitude, industry knowledge, professional skills and leadership development — and outlines capabilities employees should possess in each.

“Everybody’s getting (those four areas) all the time, but the emphasis and focus around them will be very different depending on what level you’re at,” Scherer says. “For a brand-new staff person, they’re going to be much more heavily weighted toward the technical side.

“The form will change, obviously, as they move up. As a manager, we’re expecting them to get proficient in soft skills like leading a team and communicating effectively. As they get further into the manager level, maybe it’s business development.”

You may not know each position’s detailed skill sets, especially in a larger company. Pull in subject matter experts who do to articulate expectations and design coursework around those skill sets.

Then let employees set the pace and direction of their growth. Instead of fostering a strict “up or out” culture, Deloitte encourages individualized development through Mass Career Customization.

“MCC stands for the proposition that everybody has their own ability to develop their career path, how quickly or how slowly they want it to go,” Scherer says. “Individuals decide whether they want to be dialed up on a fast career path or dialed down, which may be a more flexible arrangement or a reduced workload arrangement or what we call common profiles … a mainstream progression.”

Instead of moving from senior staff to manager, an employee might want to pursue an opportunity developing another business strategy at the company. Just because they’re not climbing the ladder doesn’t mean they’re not developing.

“You might be moving sideways instead of straight up, and that’s OK,” she says.

Offer development options

When Scherer attended school, she often sat in a classroom, listened to lectures and viewed slides on an overhead projector. But that’s not everyone’s preferred learning style.

Deloitte spent several years re-evaluating how adults learn.

“What we found was that, especially with our people coming in today, the old-style lecture format … the traditional classroom-style learning, that isn’t necessarily the best way or the only way for people to learn,” she says.

After employees set developmental goals, offer plenty of options for them to achieve those goals. Deloitte mixes live and virtual training with indirect growth opportunities.

Technology has morphed the traditional classroom. Deloitte uses an online platform loaded with interactive tools.

“You definitely have a risk when you’re doing something that’s more Web-based that people will lose interest,” Scherer says. “It’s hard to gauge whether or not they’re learning because you’re not sitting there right in front of them. … There’s a bunch of different tricks that we teach people in a virtual classroom, where you can call people out and you can have them write on the board to show that they are actually getting a concept.”

Those tools include chat boxes for asking private questions and whiteboards for public sharing. Employees can also request the microphone to speak, raise their hands to be called on or applaud to show interest.

The physical classroom is also becoming more interactive through case studies, simulations and hands-on practice. At milestones, such as promotions to manager or partner, Deloitte employees receive actual client proposals and work in teams to prepare mock oral presentations. Then, they receive feedback from superiors.

“When we do those types of simulations, we get the leadership at the highest levels of our firm to participate in those — which not only is a great experience for the participants going through it, but it also helps reinforce this culture that learning’s important because they see our top leaders in the classrooms with them,” Scherer says.

Employees will echo executive commitment, so get involved. Don’t just attend; be attentive.

“We really encourage people to be there and be fully present,” Scherer says. “So turn your BlackBerrys off. Don’t bring your computer to class. We really try, if we’re there facilitating, to do the same. We’re not cutting out on an early flight, but we’re staying there until the end of the training. When people see the leaders doing that, they know that it’s more than just us saying that development’s important — that we’re actually living it too.”

Other informal opportunities can drive development into your culture. Deloitte offers Global Development Programs where employees can take assignments across the organization to get experience in diverse cultural environments — similar to studying abroad.

The CEO also holds quarterly diversity think tanks with senior managers.

“You gain a bunch of skills there, not only just the awareness of the issue but the ability to present something to the CEO of our company,” Scherer says. “That helps them to learn executive presence. A lot of times, too, they may take on projects that require them to work in a team, not only within their function but cross-functionally.”

Community involvement also contributes to development. Deloitte employees participate in an annual Impact Day to serve local organizations. It may be painting a school, but Scherer often seeks opportunities that hone business-related skills: preparing tax returns, conducting mock job interviews or presenting tax updates to small business owners.

“Getting involved in aspects of the business outside of just pure client service delivery [is important],” she says, comparing it to the balance of educational experience with extracurricular activities on your first resume. “Client service is the most important thing that we do, but we think that people actually are better client service professionals if they are doing some of these other things.”

Check progress

Before and after course evaluations can gauge employee development in certain areas, to some extent. But scores alone can’t reveal nuances of individual progress. That requires personal interaction.

“It’s important to set goals and then it’s important to provide honest feedback against those goals,” Scherer says. “If people aren’t progressing against those goals, then you really need to try to determine the root cause of it. People develop in different ways and different experiences affect them differently, and so you really have to, as a counselor, get underneath that.”

Initially, counselors are assigned to employees for biannual checkups. But the key is to be flexible — let employees choose new counselors and recognize that mentoring isn’t up to a single source.

“We definitely try to spread out the counseling responsibilities and instill in our managers that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be a counselor and to be a mentor,” Scherer says. “While someone may not be a formal counselor, they can still be a mentor.”

Deloitte offers periodic counselor training to refine skills. But generally, it comes down to three things.

“The first thing that’s really key is listening,” Scherer says. “We all like to go into meetings and have agendas and say our own things, but the first point is really getting that gut check with the person that you’re counseling and finding out how they think they’re doing, where they’re at.”

Listening means really digging in and asking employees to elaborate.

“Take a lot of notes and then come back and try to clarify points that you don’t understand,” Scherer says. “Sometimes, particularly when people are having career issues, they might not be able to articulate … what it is that’s causing them to not be able to meet their destination.”

For example, if your mentees have difficulty expressing themselves in a group meeting, find out what that means.

“Explain a situation to me where you were in a group setting and you weren’t able to present a part of the agenda and you wanted to do that,” Scherer might ask. “Why was that? Was it that your partner didn’t let you do that or you didn’t feel confident doing it or you didn’t ask your partner to do it?

“It’s really peeling back the onion and trying to figure out exactly what those root causes are. Then try to put together a plan to help a person get through a career issue that they might be dealing with.”

The second secret to effective mentoring is giving honest feedback, which is especially difficult when conducting a bad review. Scherer offers to sit in and show new counselors an example of how she handles tough conversations.

“Usually what I try to do is to talk through what the developmental points are — that’s how I refer to them — and acknowledging that we all have them,” she says. “Then try to put specifics around things that they can do to improve upon them. We always, when we’re giving feedback, want to try to then match it up with something that’s very tactical that they can do to help develop.”

If employees score low on a post-test, don’t dodge it. Address it, maybe sprinkling in a weak spot of your own, then suggest specific fixes. If they’re struggling on technical skills, for example, external classes may help. The more specific opportunity you can provide, the better — which leads to the third key.

Good counseling means connecting the dots. Stay informed of different opportunities within the company so you can match needs with solutions.

Scherer encourages mentors to reach out to others to feed a broader awareness of offerings to keep their mentees informed of opportunities.

That personal attention reveals the difference between an employee approaching burnout or thriving on additional responsibilities. It determines whether you should reduce their client load or simply encourage their hard work.

“There’s usually not one thing that we want them to be focused on,” Scherer says. “It really gets to what they want with their career development and then really working with their counselor to figure out the different experiences that will allow them to get to where they want to be.”

How to reach: Deloitte Tax LLP, (312) 486-1000 or www.deloitte.com