Illinois Firm Fosters Culture of Learning

By Deanna C. White

When staff accountant Megan Angle, CPA, visits with her clients in suburban Chicago, she is not only well-versed in the vernacular of her specialty - auditing - she is also cross-trained and comfortable fielding client questions on potential tax credits, such as the research and development credit or strategic decisions regarding the purchase of new assets given current deprecation limits.
 
That's because the firm Angle works for, Elk Grove, Illinois-based Porte Brown LLC, makes an ongoing and substantial investment in helping its employees cultivate one of the greatest assets for success: the culture of learning.
 
According to Pam Metzger, director of marketing for Porte Brown, the intensive training program the firm puts its employees through is essential in helping Porte Brown provide traditional accounting services like tax returns and audit reviews; stay abreast of changing financial rules and regulations; and provide additional assistance with accounting technology, such as QuickBooks and TRAVERSE.
 
"The appetite and demand for learning in this firm is insatiable. Everyone in the whole firm is not only encouraged, but expected, to keep up on topics in the industry and increase their professional knowledge," Metzger said. "This is a place where ideas really matter. The office has a positive, can-do energy that you can feel when you first walk in the door. I think the clients pick up on the positive environment and it has helped to foster further growth."
 

Create a Culture of Learning

Bruce Jones, CPA, managing partner of Porte Brown, offers the following tips for any firm hoping to establish a culture of learning:

  • Set clear expectations within your firm. All professionals are expected to spend personal time (four-six hours per week) educating themselves and increasing their depth of knowledge. 
  • Force monthly staff meetings with breakout sessions on niche topics lead by rotating staff members. 
  • Embrace a cascade-style training philosophy. "Train-the-Trainer" programs are much more likely to embed the content in your organization's culture. 
  • Empower staff with high-tech communication tools; for example, an intranet with team collaboration pages and research libraries.
 
And Porte Brown puts its time, and money, where its mouth is.
 
Each month (outside of tax season), Porte Brown brings together its three offices and takes the entire team off-line for a full day of structured training and best practice sessions. 
 
On September 5, more than seventy-five employees gathered at Porte Brown headquarters to explore the implications of pressing issues, like health care reform and financial planning for families, and to share information in their various areas of expertise, including retirement, audit, and compliance.
 
The education sessions began with a monthly exchange of topics gleaned from various accounting and finance periodicals. 
 
Each member of the firm was required to select an article on a topic of interest and then summarize the article for their colleagues. September's topics included "reasonable" retirement savings rates, Illinois tax updates, and how to attract top clients. 
 
Porte Brown staff compiled the summaries into a booklet that was distributed to employees and then used as a springboard for discussion at the monthly meeting.
 
Bruce Jones, CPA, managing partner of Porte Brown, says employees know there is no slipping by on their monthly "homework." They understand they can be randomly called on to dissect their own article or offer opinions on other articles provided by their colleagues.
 
"Everyone is expected to read every single page of the material," Jones said. "At any point, somebody can be called on. You have to be on your toes. It's understood."
 
Each month, three people are also called on to explain how they have used an article from a previous session to enhance a client relationship. Employees round out the session by testing and defending their tax knowledge in scenarios provided by Porte Brown - a kind of virtual word problem for CPAs.
 
During the afternoon, smaller groups of employees meet in practice group sessions for in-depth discussion on such topics as valuation, retirement planning, and state and local taxes (SALT).
 
One of the main goals of the Porte Brown training, Jones said, is to encourage excellent communication skills, both with clients and colleagues, and "out-of-the-box" thinking.
 
"Our expectations are very high. From day one, people know they will be expected to hold their own in conversations with clients," Jones said. "People know they can't be shy. They can't be a wallflower. They have to be able to intelligently listen and engage with the client."
 
Angle, who joined Porte Brown four years ago right out of college, said Porte Brown's culture of learning has been invaluable, both in helping her provide the best service to her clients and in her development as a young professional.
 
"It's great to be part of a firm that's willing to take the time to make sure everyone's on the same page," Angle said. "Everyone is involved and everyone is staying up to speed. The benefit really transfers up to the client because we are so well trained. 
 
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