Get the Most Out of Training Day

Be systematic about finding trainers who understand your business.

A CPA FIRM THAT'S EXPANDING, with more staff at various professional levels and perhaps scattered among different offices, may find it increasingly difficult to manage its training through its human resources department.

A FIRM SHOULD IDENTIFY its long-term goals and organize its training around them. It should be clear about its policies and initiatives as well as methodical in its development approach. The partners can use needs assessment to decide what training to give and how to proceed.

PARTNERS MUST BE CLEAR about what benchmark skills and attributes the firm’s staff members should display at each career stage before choosing training programs to develop them for successive professional levels. Firms should look for gaps in staff competencies or skill sets by office or industry groups served.

OUTSIDE TRAINERS WHO OFFER GENERIC programs without developing and incorporating an understanding of the firm’s culture into their presentations won’t do the most effective job.

PARTNERS NEED TO ALLOW ENOUGH TIME to vet trainers by checking their Web sites, interviewing them and talking to their clients to determine whether their services and style are compatible with CPA firms.

IMPORTANT QUESTIONS INCLUDE: Has the trainer worked with CPAs? Does he or she understand the target market (for example, midmarket companies, regional clients or Fortune 1000 businesses)? Does the trainer understand how the skills he or she teaches will be applied in actual work settings? A good trainer will ask to speak with managers and staff to learn about the firm.

KERRY McDONALD is president of Point of Action, a Boston consulting company that trains professional services staff. McDonald’s e-mail address is ; her organization’s Web site is .

ou know it will be a long morning when the consummately proficient-looking trainer of the business and marketing strategies session you’re attending begins by asking the audience: “Do you know what your customers want?” No, you think, because I have clients , not customers. CPA firms and other professional service providers say outside trainers who understand their culture—or even their special vernacular—are rare. The problem that arises: When firms obtain instruction not tailored to their profession, they may waste money and time—resources better used for billable work and practice development.

But don’t despair. This article offers tips to help a CPA firm analyze what employees should learn—a process known as needs assessment—and choose trainers appropriate for its staff.

Often a workplace crisis or one chronic irritant too many will push a firm to make a quick decision to get its people training directed at solving the problem of the moment. For example, a partner may ask the human resources manager to find a public speaking course for a promising senior accountant who lacks confidence in his presentations. Or poor report writing may prompt a frustrated principal to insist her staff take a business writing course. Or a disillusioned manager may decide he needs to learn how to conduct successful meetings after a disorganized, contentious assembly drags on and accomplishes nothing.
A Popular Perk

In a recent survey, 81% of responding firms said they preferred to invest in career-related continuing education for employees over all other types of benefits.

Source: 2002 PCPS National MAP Survey, .

In reaching for a remedy, be aware that haste can make waste. Fast solutions sometimes help the parties emerge stronger, but generally such efforts are Band-Aids. Instructors for “soft skills” programs (such as public speaking or leadership courses) who don’t connect with the CPA culture aren’t as effective as those who do. Don’t choose a trainer for a nearby office or cheap rates, either. Without a well-thought-out staff development program designed for a firm’s long-term objectives, results are likely to be disappointing (see “ Firm Up CPA Skills ”).

Administering effective staff training requires a firm to be clear about its policies and initiatives and methodical about professional development. A firm should start by identifying its strategic goals: Perhaps you want to become the local leader in servicing banking clients within three years or have senior accountants in different segments reach a cross-selling revenue target within a certain time frame. To get there, begin by examining your current training strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) in the goal-setting context. Highlight what your firm does well and where it needs to improve. Create an action plan to train employees in skills that need to be stronger. (For more information see “ Strategic Planners Lead the Pack, JofA , Dec.01, page 26 and “ Meyners Mines Its Talent ,” JofA , Sep.02, page 47.)

To develop a training program that supports firm goals, partners should discuss—and answer—the following questions:

What are our training-and-development needs? Identify what programs you have in place to develop the skills and attributes needed for each career level. As you inventory your firm’s current technical and nontechnical training programs, break them down by professional level, location and industry group. List your training offerings and identify gaps between the firm’s expectations and what its education program teaches. Determine the number of training hours each employee gets throughout the year, both internally and externally.

What benchmark skills and attributes do we expect staff to display at each career level (staff, senior-in-charge, manager, senior manager)? Apply well-thought-out competency benchmarks to each level. Partners should determine skill categories essential for client service (accounting expertise, client relations, leadership ability and technical, communication and management skills, for example) and describe what proficiency at each level looks like (see the exhibit “Competency Benchmarks for CPAs”). For example, staff-level accountants might show management competency by allotting time productively, asking for clarification on assignments and understanding where a specific task fits into the larger client deliverable. Senior staff’s management skills could encompass delegating, explaining an assignment and managing client and staff expectations, for example. A manager or senior manager would be able to assume overall engagement responsibilities including staffing, billing and client satisfaction.

Competency Benchmarks for CPAs
Each successive level of expertise incorporates the skill level as employees
learn more and develop within the firm. The left column indicates the business skill category.
  Staff In-charge/
Manager Senior manager
Professional knowledge Reads and interprets financial statements; performs specific accounting tasks as delegated. Demonstrates solid judgment when interpreting data; helps staff to develop professional acumen. Stays current on regulatory and industry changes affecting clients. Develops expertise in a particular industry or service area; identifies ways to share knowledge firmwide.
Technical skills Demonstrates proficiency in use of firm-specific/ industry-specific software. Trains others on software applications. Identifies ways to manipulate technical software to client needs. Shares technical best practices meet firmwide.
Client relations Responds quickly to client inquiries and demands; builds relationships with peers at client sites; forms community/
association alliances.
Serves as the primary client contact on engagements; identifies ways to provide additional and better service to clients; reads client industry publications. Takes responsibility for client satisfaction; takes a leadership role in professional and community organizations; identifies and sells client service opportunities. Speaks frequently at conferences and writes articles for trade publications; meets or exceeds firm benchmark for revenue generation; develops the client service skills of the team.
Communication skills Writes concisely and coherently; prepares and assists in the delivery of both internal and client presentations; demonstrates confidence and assertiveness when interacting with clients, colleagues and supervisors. Writes concisely and persuasively; provides useful feedback on staff writing; speaks confidently and knowledgeably when presenting to others. Reviews and develops staff writing and speaking skills; defuses conflict and confrontation and develops a high-performing team of staff members; speaks confidently and persuasively to clients. Identifies overall strengths and weaknesses of team communication skills and recommends individual and collective improvement plans; serves as a model for effective writing, speaking and interpersonal communication.
Management skills Manages time and tasks appropriately; asks for clarification on assignments as necessary; understands where a specific task fits into the larger client deliverable. Delegates tasks appropriately; explains purpose and goal of each task to staff; manages staff and client expectations. Assumes overall project management responsibility, including staffing, billing and client satisfaction. Develops the management and
supervisory skills of the team; ensures overall work-product quality, including efficient allocation of billable time and resources.
Leadership ability Seeks learning opportunities; assumes responsibility for tasks that challenge current level of ability; takes calculated risks. Determines personal career path at the firm; provides effective coaching and timely feedback to develop staff. Recognizes talents and weaknesses of staff and intervenes with constructive feedback and action plans as appropriate. Serves as a role model for leading a successful engagement team; monitors both formal and informal performance feedback processes to ensure effective staff development.
Source: Point of Action, Boston, .

Are there skill gaps for staff in other offices or service niches? Make sure your training program doesn’t overlook the needs of staff members who work in regional offices and service niches. Do they meet the firm’s competency benchmarks? Construct new training programs or alter existing ones to ensure all your professionals learn the skills you want them to have to serve clients well.

Should we train in more than one way? If your firm relies on only one teaching format (lectures from senior internal staff, outsourced external training at colleges and universities, self-study or on-the-job training) branch into other types of education. Use online training providers and other CPE opportunities in partnership with local colleges, clients and the community. Bringing in ideas from other sources can enliven your business; it keeps staff more interested and is more efficient, sources say. Also capture on-the-job training: Recruit some of your staff members and coach them in effective training techniques so they can serve as internal instructors. Offer their services both one-on-one and to groups.

How successful are our training programs? Develop measurement tools to see whether you get what you want from each training program. Use control group studies, impact assessments, cost-benefit analyses and/or management surveys. Systematically track on-the-job accomplishments by surveying supervisors, analyzing performance evaluations or using self-assessment questionnaires. Most firms gauge a teaching program’s effectiveness solely by asking participants to fill out postsession evaluation forms that rate how well stated objectives have been met.

Find out how new information and a trainer’s methods affect staff performance as well. The firm needs to know whether benefits outweigh costs and whether the desired effects last. Evaluate training efficiency and impact by performing a cost-benefit analysis. Add expenditures for outside trainers, materials, facilities and administrative expenses. If your trainer is a staff member, add other less evident costs such as the opportunity cost of time (the instructor’s net hourly billable rate times the total number of training/preparation/travel hours) and staff participants’ time. Then assess the effect training has had on employee performance. Business writing instruction should measurably improve a CPA’s competency; if the trainee’s communications are clearer, he or she should make fewer mistakes and get more work done. If supervisor feedback or staff performance evaluations show this hasn’t occurred, then costs outweigh benefits (and you won’t want to use that trainer again).

How do we decide when to make changes to our training program, and what changes should we make? Use periodic (annual or semiannual) needs assessments and analyze surveys to help your firm gauge when economic, industry or firmwide shifts call for adding to the firm’s program. Create a training database (a consultant or an internal IT department can do this in Access, for example) that tracks and reports all programs by category, cost, staff level, hours and industry area. Once the firm has such a database, the administrator who oversees training will be able to click a button to generate detailed reports and get guidance for deciding what CPE to add as well as how to construct new programs, develop internal staff trainers or choose outside trainers.

How can we align our training with the firm’s short- and long-term strategic goals? Whether your firm creates a new training program or modifies one that’s already in place, use SWOT analysis to make sure its short-term goals support the organization’s overall aims. For example, a firm that aspires to be the leading health care advisory firm in its region within three years will need to make sure its training gives its professionals skills that will wow health care clients.

After a CPA firm decides what its development needs are, the next step is to choose the trainer. A firm should be as organized about selecting one as it is about conducting an audit. Check trainers’ Web sites, interview principals and talk to vendors’ former clients to determine whether their service and style support your objectives (see “ Web Resources ”). Make sure the trainer understands how the skills she or he teaches will be applied in actual work settings. Ask whether she or he has worked with CPAs before and find out whether the trainer understands your target market (midmarket companies, regional clients or Fortune 1000 businesses, for example).

Does the trainer offer a one-size-fits-all approach to his or her educational programs? A cookie-cutter approach to training is less effective than one that presents materials specific to CPA firm culture.

Does the trainer express sincere interest in getting to know your firm’s structure, vocabulary, expectations and goals? Expect a good trainer to ask to speak with several managers and staff and meet with them on-site to learn more about the firm. He or she should obtain and read the organization’s client alerts, newsletters and professional publications to better understand its marketplace. A trainer who is committed to serving the needs of accounting professionals will read the business literature you read and will be aware of the issues confronting your firm and its clients.

Firm Up CPA Skills

Needs assessment tools
Growing firms that have personnel at different levels, in regional offices or in niche markets may find it a challenge to stay on top of staff members’ needs to learn new skills or strengthen core competencies. The AICPA Competency Self-Assessment Tool (CAT) delivers gap analysis to enable CPAs and financial professionals to assess their proficiencies in specific areas or gain insights and strategies to plan new career moves.

CAT—which a firm or an individual can use to identify business strengths or where growth and skills are needed—offers competency models for fraud prevention, detection and investigation; audit; business and industry/new finance; government; personal financial planning; and Eldercare/PrimePlus. A user can employ the CAT to assess his or her level of proficiency in a functional specialty, a broad business perspective, leadership qualities and personal attributes. For more information, go to or .

These organizations provide valuable online resources related to staff development:

The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), .

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), .

Does the trainer provide customized case studies, hypothetical examples, role-play scenarios and other training materials that accurately reflect workplace challenges? A trainer who understands the challenges CPAs encounter during an engagement can create case studies and other tools that make sense to the audience. For example, a CPA firm supervisor can better learn conflict resolution techniques from a case study about handling a staff person who doesn’t meet a tax season deadline than one about an author who misses a book deadline.

Does the trainer tailor programs to the firm’s educational and organizational development objectives? Look for trainers who want to know why your firm wants a particular program, where it fits into overall objectives and how they can help the firm achieve broader professional development goals. The trainer should be concerned about your firm’s overall approach to training and development—not just one training session.

Does the trainer provide evaluation methods to enable the firm to measure the effectiveness of each training session? Good trainers recognize the importance of accountability and as part of their services offer a measurement system that can capture the success of the training program in meeting stated course goals and evaluating the impact of the program on technical or behavioral change. Recruit a trainer who provides you with the tools to help you account for every professional development dollar.

Does the trainer recognize time constraints and handle most of the administrative details associated with running the program? The less hand-holding the better: You want a trainer who makes his or her own photocopies and brings a laptop and supplies, for example.

Is the trainer a problem solver? Does he or she try to find innovative ways to add value, such as conducting a joint training session for key clients and the staff members who work most closely with them? Good trainers act as business partners and suggest ways to solve your firm’s problems, increase staff productivity and improve client service. Look for a trainer who is dedicated to serving your firm.
MAP the Way
Practitioner’s Symposium, the AICPA practice management conference, June 8–11, 2003, highlights many development issues. For more information, go to or .

It takes time and patience to put a high-quality professional development program in place, but firms that organize how they want to grow and identify what their staff members need can avoid short-term fixes and be more productive than firms that don’t. Careful preparation and clear goals help firms recruit trainers who understand the accounting profession and can impart the skills their people need to propel the business. Such groundwork also reduces development costs while providing the firm with professionals who are more highly skilled at each career level and, better yet, able to give your clients the excellent, up-to-date service they expect.

Web Resources
The following organizations offer training in a number of different disciplines.
1 to 1 Coaching. Business, executive and life coaching training, books, articles and other coaching resources. .

360-Degree Feedback. The process in which you evaluate yourself on a set of criteria, your manager evaluates you, as do your peers and direct reports. .

Academy of Coaching. Offers a 10-month program to become a certified management effectiveness coach, plus coaching workshops. Located in California. .

BPR Online Learning Center. A learning center for reengineering teams. Provides change management resources, benchmarking and best practices. .

Cornell Management Simulation. For business students, offers executive seminars, not-for-profit training. Participants play against other teams, not the computer. Can be used as standalone training or with other materials. .

CyberU. Comprehensive guide to online management courses with a broad selection of accredited classes and learning resources in all facets of management. .

Digital Distance. E-learning that addresses corporate and professional competency, growth and certification. Consumer education courses online. Demo courses and free online resources. .

Hay Resources Direct. Provides self-scoring assessment tools on areas such as competency, learning, management development and values.

HR Outfitters. Teaches organizations to meet training, development and human resource challenges with leadership and sales training products, as well as related consulting services.

Initiative Tasks & Leadership Training. Includes icebreaker exercises, warm-ups, games, group work activities, trust activities and initiative tasks for group work and leadership training for all ages. . This Institute of Management Administration site contains free articles on all aspects of business management, including how to manage a specific department, how to handle employer/employee relationships, how to save money on technology and more. .

J.J. Oehler Corp. Coordinates with your business to train employees and document performance in many subject areas and industries. .

Know Me. Interactive board games that are training tools for team building, managing change and developing trust and relationships. .

Learning Circuits. Presents a monthly suite of feature articles, departments and columns that examine new technologies and how they are being applied for workplace learning. .

Manage Train Learn. Provides e-learning courses and online management training. You can test-drive e-learning courses. . Tutorials and readings on leadership, delegation, behavior and communication. Interactive learning for aspiring and practicing managers alike. .

Managers Forum. Web-based training/online learning tools for sales, management and leadership. .

MasteryWorks Inc. Provides talent management systems and Web-based tools that enhance leadership skills and position organizations to achieve a competitive edge. .

Mega Learning. Offers experiential learning through business simulation training modules. . Offers synchronous and asynchronous online learning programs. .

WorkTracks. Explores workplace issues facing new supervisors and managers, offering guidance on these key issues to help define your management style: ethics, hiring, firing and teamwork. .


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