Learning Beyond Technical Training

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By Alexandra DeFelice

Most accountants possess a similar level of technical training as their peers, but the most successful firms are those creating a true learning culture in which business processes, soft skills, and the art of running a company are all taught and viewed as crucially important.

This is not to say that partners have to hold an all-hands-on-deck meeting and change the way they do everything immediately. If there's some executive sponsorship, slight changes can be made in the near term that can improve the knowledge base of the staff at large.

Thought leaders from The CPA Consultants' Alliance presented a webinar – "The Quest to Build a Learning Culture" – on this topic, explaining that this quest consists of far more than simply supporting CPE requirements. Rather, it's a "combination of technical, leadership, management, and technology training paired with experiential learning and coaching opportunities that allow each individual to climb the learning lattice as they experience the chapters in their life at the firm." 

In other words, the path to success is not just up a ladder. It can be woven to accommodate the different needs of each staff person within an organization – not just emerging leaders.

Current leaders have wisdom that's walking out the door. Future leaders need a path and someone to draw the dotted lines of where they are and where they want to be. New talent is hungry not only for new jobs, but for new opportunities to continue learning. 

"Learning is a competitive advantage", said Sandra Wiley, COO and shareholder of Boomer Consulting, Inc. "We teach core technical training. Maybe there should be some other things that are just as important, like personal development."

Firm leaders should ask what their core values really are. If an outside party talked to some of the firm's newer managers or employees and told them not to look at the firm's written statement on the website, what would they say those values really are? Would one of them be development and growth? Do the employees live the dream of learning and development? That's a requirement in firms of every size, Wiley said.

Sixty-nine percent of webinar participants said they spend the most training dollars and training hours on technical skills training. While that aspect of training is critical, other areas, such as leadership and business development training, often are introduced way too late in an accountant's career – five to seven years in or sometimes not until the partner level – according to Tamera Loerzel, partner at ConvergenceCoaching LLC.

"[Tell a new manager], go market, do public speaking, network, and you see deer in headlights because they didn't go to school for that and aren't experts", Loerzel said. "Not everyone is created equal, but see who has the strengths where; [for example, if they're] really good public speakers, put them there and keep other people technical."

Consider individual learning styles: Do they like to see it, hear it, practice it? When possible, provide a style that appeals to them and tailor training to them through tools like Myers-Briggs, Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory, or different assessment tools.

Start training very early. At Clark Nuber, leadership training starts at senior level and in areas such as e-mail writing and communication, which employees can complete when they walk in the door, according to Lisa Iwata, the firm's manager of learning and development.

The reason this doesn't typically happen isn't because this type of learning isn't viewed as a priority, according to the webinar attendees, but rather because of lack of a process (according to 52 percent of poll respondents), followed by a belief that firm training is viewed only as CPE (24 percent).

To overcome these barriers, first firms need to have some level of executive partnership. They need to appoint a "learning manager" to define the training needs, manage the different aspects and activities, and act in a supporting function. They also must find counselors to provide feedback and help set goals.

At Boomer, staff members are asked what they want to accomplish in both their professional and personal lives, what they will do this year to get there, and what they will do in the next three months to get there. They participate in quarterly game plans and discuss what each employee will learn each quarter. 

"If they don't write anything down that they plan to learn, we coach them through that and tell them everyone can learn something", Wiley said. "We want them to be goal setters, and learning and training should be something they do every day."

Read more articles by Alexandra DeFelice.

About the author:

Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at [email protected].

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