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Practice Management / Professional Development

Give Your Skills a CAT Scan

Compare where you are with where you want to be by using the AICPA Competency Self-Assessment Tool.

By James Feldman
July 2004
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
PRACTITIONERS CAN USE the AICPA Competency Self-Assessment Tool (CAT) to evaluate which professional performance areas they need to strengthen to refine skills for their present jobs or train for positions they aspire to. Firms and companies can purchase it as a multiuser tool to help with staff development at all levels.

THIS ARTICLE TAKES READERS THROUGH an exercise to show them how to use the tool, which can be done at any time and is confidential. Users can complete an assessment in one to two hours on average.

CAT COVERS TRADITIONAL PRACTICE AREAS such as audit, tax, business and industry and government, and evolving areas such as forensic and litigation services, antifraud, business valuation, personal financial planning and ElderCare/PrimePlus services.

FOR ALL USERS, CAT OFFERS personalized career development and training plans and ways to promote individual strengths. For managers, it addresses skills for project delegation, giving feedback, targeting a training budget and enhancing productivity.

FOR STAFF DEVELOPMENT, CAT GIVES guidance for staffing, training-needs analysis and job redesign. At the organizational level, it can help with staff deployment, developing continuing professional education programs, achieving a common vernacular to improve communications and enhancing workplace morale.

EACH CAT MODEL IS CAREFULLY constructed to provide users—be they individual practitioners, supervisors or human resources managers—with the insight and guidance to boost professionalism, performance, productivity and pay.

JAMES FELDMAN, CPA/ABV, is the AICPA’s manager of business valuation and forensic and litigation services. His views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation. His e-mail address is jfeldman@aipca.org .

hether your skills are basic, intermediate or advanced or you’re a general practitioner or specialist, understanding your performance-improvement needs can help you become a better accounting professional. The AICPA’s Competency Self-Assessment Tool (CAT) is a Web-based resource to help you identify the skills you require, compare what you know with benchmarks and prepare an action plan for career advancement. It covers traditional practice areas such as audit, business and industry, government and tax as well as evolving specialty areas. Individuals can use CAT to refine skills for their current jobs or train for positions they aspire to. Firms and companies can use it to raise their overall level of excellence. This article will take you through an introductory exercise to show how to use the tool to better prepare for the many opportunities available to today’s CPAs.

A FLEXIBLE TOOL
CAT applies across the entire professional spectrum, from students to practitioners, senior management, human resources and training managers to CPA staff at firms and companies. The original CAT, for business and industry practitioners, went online in 1999. “The concept was to provide a comprehensive analysis of core competencies for all career phases, from ‘cradle to grave,’” says John Morrow, lead developer of the program and AICPA vice-president of new finance. In 2002 the Institute redesigned CAT to include other competency models and “proficiency benchmarks that users could intuitively follow online,” says Morrow.

“To thine own self be true and it must follow,
as the night the day, thou canst not then
be false to any man.”
—Polonius , Hamlet, William Shakespeare

“The greatest homage to truth is to use it.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The eight available CAT models are Audit; Business and Industry/New Finance; Business Valuation and Forensic and Litigation Services; ElderCare/Prime Plus; Fraud Prevention, Detection and Investigation; Government; Personal Financial Planning; and Taxation. The models produce a personalized analysis, and each assessment suggests appropriate educational resources, including continuing professional education (CPE) courses, seminars, books and conferences. “Users can complete an assessment in one to two hours on average,” Morrow says. “They can stop if they need to and pick up where they left off at any time.” The tool is confidential, too.

CAT offers all users personalized career development and training plans, ways to promote individual strengths, self-assessment compared with supervisory feedback and information to improve earnings capacity. For senior managers it addresses skills for project delegation, giving feedback, targeting a training budget and enhancing productivity. For human resources and training professionals, CAT provides guidance for staffing, training-needs analysis and job redesign. At the organizational level, it can help with staff deployment, developing CPE programs, achieving a common vernacular to improve communications and enhancing workplace morale.

The tool is free to individuals who are AICPA members at www.cpa2biz.com/CAT . Nonmembers also can subscribe for $49 a year. Companies and firms can purchase it as a multiuser tool with enhanced reporting capabilities for human resources managers.

THE MAJOR COMPONENTS
All CAT models evaluate the following areas:

Personal attributes. These are characteristics that enable a professional to effectively communicate well-reasoned points of view. The competencies specific to the personal attributes section include integrity and ethics; insight and judgment; continuous personal improvement; commitment and performance stability; interpersonal orientation; project management skills; innovative/creative thinking; presenting/speaking; business writing; and professional demeanor.

Leadership qualities. These skills allow a professional to inspire others by using resources to solve problems and embrace opportunities throughout an organization. The section covers strategic thinking and planning; facilitating; negotiating and persuading; teamwork; coaching and empowerment; problem solving; decision making; and cross-functional perspective (information from a variety of functional areas ).

Broad business perspective. This section encompasses organizational understanding and industry practices. The specific components are customized for each CAT model practice area.

Functional specialty. This identifies the technical skills unique to each practice area at each major career phase, from entry-level to partner or CFO.

NAVIGATING THE TOOL
A new subscriber to CAT may be a registered AICPA member, an unregistered AICPA member or a nonmember, and the steps to access CAT are a little different for each. A user should start by going directly to www.cpa2biz.com/CAT and signing in (see exhibit 1 ).

Before activating the tool, AICPA members must log into CPA2Biz or register to do so. Once you log in, CAT will appear under My Online Products on the left vertical navigation bar. Click on the link to launch the tool (be sure to turn off the pop-up blocker). If you’re a member who must register first, have your AICPA membership number handy. Once registration is complete, click on Launch . (If you have trouble signing in, call 888-777-7077 for help.) Nonmembers need to click on the Buy button and follow its prompts to subscribe. When that’s done, click on Launch . If you logged in successfully but returned to the CPA2Biz home page, click the Back button until you come to the Launch button; click on it to begin using the tool ( exhibit 2 ).

If this is your first time using CAT, click on Start a new assessment. A drop-down menu, shown in exhibit 3 , below, will show several competency models. You will select one for self-evaluation. For illustration purposes we’ll click on the Fraud Prevention, Detection and Investigation model.

Note: If this is not your first time and you saved the assessment model from a previous session, it now will appear under the heading “Your Current Assessments,” with the date started and last modified. To edit saved models, click on Select , or delete earlier versions by clicking on the Delete button.

Selecting a competency model gives you a profile drop-down menu (see exhibit 4 ). The profiles are model-specific. Select an appropriate profile category.

In this example we’ll select Investigative/Forensic Accountant or Investigator—8+ years . Click on the Next button to proceed ( exhibit 5 , below). If you want to change your selection to a different CAT model and profile, click on the Reset button and start over.

Now you’re ready to complete each of the four major CAT components: Personal Attributes, Leadership Qualities, Broad Business Perspective and Functional Specialty. The program starts with Personal Attributes. In our example the default desired level of proficiency is “Advanced.”

Exhibit 6 shows a multiple-choice evaluation-level selection box for Integrity and Ethics.

There are descriptions of characteristics at each level and a tracking menu on the left-hand side of the screen to show where you are in the process. You can use the menu to navigate directly to other sections of the model. If you must stop before you finish, click on the Save Assessment button in the toolbar at the top of the screen.

In this run-through you have moved into the self-assessment phase (which, in multiuser versions, can be used to evaluate other staff members). Read the descriptions for basic, intermediate and advanced levels for each characteristic shown and select the appropriate multiple-choice response.

PRACTICAL TIPS TO REMEMBER

Use the personalized analysis in the AICPA CAT to pursue appropriate educational resources, including courses, seminars, books and conferences.

Before launching CAT, AICPA members need to register with CPA2Biz ( www.cpa2biz.com/CAT ). Those not registered or who have trouble signing in can call 888-777-7077 for help.

If you’re interrupted and must stop before you finish, simply click on the Save Assessment button in the toolbar area at the top of the screen.

Because growth comes only from recognizing which areas need further development, a less-than-candid entry will sabotage the goal of self-improvement. Don’t sell yourself short, either; acknowledge relevant accomplishments.

It’s generally best to select no more than four characteristics to improve at one time.

Think carefully about which level best expresses your current situation. Be completely honest. Your level may be advanced in one characteristic, but you may need to select Intermediate , Basic or even None as the best match for another. Because growth comes only from recognizing which areas need further development, overrating yourself will sabotage your goal of self-improvement. Don’t sell yourself short, either; acknowledge relevant accomplishments.

For this example, after considering the descriptions, we conclude that “Advanced” ( exhibit 7 ) is the best selection from this multiple-choice menu. Click on it. Then click the Submit button to continue to the next characteristic. Do the same for the remaining individual Personal Attributes characteristics. Then repeat the process to enter your responses for Leadership Qualities, Broad Business Perspective and Functional Specialty .

When you finish you can edit the current assessment if necessary or continue on to Generate a GAP Analysis, Build/Edit Your Learning Plan, or download an Assessment Report ( exhibit 8 ).

The GAP Analysis summarizes the assessment results, and you use it to build a Learning Plan . If your current proficiencies are below your desired level, your learning plan will show needs or “gaps.” The model identifies a weak area, and you choose how to remedy it. To illustrate how to use the tool to pursue learning opportunities, we select “business writing” and “knowledge of legal procedures and substantive law” ( exhibit 9 ).

Click on the Next button to produce a list of the educational opportunities for “business writing” that are available from several sources, shown in exhibit 10 , at right. To view descriptions of the individual resources click on each one.

To see the next set of educational resources in our example, “knowledge of legal procedures and substantive law,” click on Next ( exhibit 11 , below). You also can enter your own suggestions.

Even if your assessment shows your current proficiencies are at your target level, it’s useful to choose areas to strengthen. It’s generally best to select no more than four characteristics to improve at a time, users say.

STATE OF THE ART
CAT is a modern career-planning tool for CPAs working in the diverse disciplines available in today’s marketplace, whether their skills are basic, intermediate or advanced. It covers the traditional fields of audit, taxation, business and industry and government, and evolving practice areas such as forensic and litigation services, antifraud services, business valuation, personal financial planning and ElderCare/PrimePlus services. Designed by experts in their fields, each model is carefully constructed to provide users—be they individual practitioners, supervisors or human resources managers—with the insight and guidance to boost professionalism, performance, productivity and pay.
Need to Know
These CAT users say they found the self-assessment process relatively easy and straightforward.

Anne E. Dalzell, CPA, a Cleveland sole practitioner since 1993, used the personal financial planning model to measure her strengths and identify areas for future development. Dalzell, whose practice is in taxation, personal financial planning, small business consulting and software installation, says, “The tool pointed out the need to develop a plan to determine what I need to know.” After using CAT, she obtained the AICPA’s personal financial specialist (PFS) credential. She recommends using the tool periodically as a way to gauge career advances.

Jennifer Sims Vu, CPA/ABV, business valuation manager in the Houston office of Mann Frankfort Stein & Lipp Advisors Inc., recently used the tool for the first time. She completed the advanced business valuation (BV) custom track and found the process quick and effective. Because she works for a large firm, some material seemed not too different from familiar HR performance-review techniques, but she feels CAT can be particularly valuable to sole practitioners who get little on-the-job feedback, she says.

Sims Vu is experienced in estate and gift tax, matrimonial dispute and transaction-based BV work in a variety of industries. She says the BV model helped her decide which CPE to focus on and provided guidance on resources to advance a broad range of skills, including leadership. “You can’t just be involved in the technical phases of the work—you also need to be a well-rounded businessperson,” says Sims Vu.

Debra Wright, CPA, audit manager at Hereford, Lynch, Sellars & Kirkham, PC, in Conroe, Texas, has used the audit and ElderCare CAT models both for periodic self-assessment and in the employee-performance-review process for the people she manages. Her firm is a multiuser subscriber, and her approach to using the tool for performance review is to identify the differences between employees’ perceptions of their own skills and her assessment of them. The firm is in its second year of using the tool, and she says it has made the human resources function more efficient because it promotes objectivity. So far there has been little disagreement between employees’ self-assessments and her opinion of their skills, she says.

Wright says the model’s gap analysis report provides information about the individual’s competencies and development needs, but “it’s important to evaluate whether the improvement areas identified by the model are work-related.” Not every skill set is critical to the specific job, she says. “I’m not too concerned if an employee has not demonstrated skills in public speaking, for example.” The tool can be particularly effective when both employees and supervisors or HR professionals use it to customize the employee job analysis.

After doing the AICPA’s CAT, the employee and Wright talk about which on-the-job experience and CPE programs will best address any needed improvement areas the CAT identified. She then implements the appropriate plan for her staff members. Wright says CAT has made the HR function for the 24 people in her firm more efficient and greatly helped with the process of planning their professional development. “One new employee commented that it made the next step clearer,” she says.

Steve Cooper, CPA, is a junior auditor and one of Wright’s employees at Hereford Lynch. Cooper found the CAT Audit model “a humbling experience,” but says it pinpointed areas for improvement. Cooper says he’s addressing those areas with guidance from supervisor Wright. He completed a major career milestone by passing the CPA examination and meeting his state’s certification requirements. With about two years of experience in audits of local governments, financial institutions and other organizations—including exposure to many phases of the audit process—he is optimistic about his prospects for success in the accounting profession.

Pat Brady, JD, national director of forensic services at the Chicago office of Clifton Gunderson LLP, says the Fraud Prevention, Detection and Investigation model “defined the levels of competency very well” and was “easy to navigate.” Brady formerly served as fraud and financial crimes prosecutor with the fraud section of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago. Brady had selected the most advanced level profile and says that while the model confirmed many skill sets, it “crystallized what I need to know.” The assessment process “opened my eyes to areas to develop further, such as long-range strategic planning,” he says. “You have to be honest with yourself; that’s what makes it useful.”

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