CPA INSIDER

How one government auditor improved employee training

Stephanie Palmertree receives an Impact award for designing an effective CPE program that increased efficiency.
By Teri Saylor

Stephanie Palmertree, CPA, CGMA, is the director of the Mississippi State Auditor's financial and compliance division, which routinely conducts and manages annual audits of 134 state agencies and component units, 158 school districts and community colleges, and 82 county governments.

She has been recognized for her efforts to ensure the 80 employees in her division and other government auditors across the state receive high-level certified professional education (CPE) and training to enable them to excel at their jobs.

The AICPA has presented Palmertree with the 2020 Outstanding CPA in Government Impact Award at the state level for developing an effective continuing education program for her agency. Her work includes designing professional and personal development programs that have improved teamwork and made her division more effective.

Palmertree outlined the challenges she faced and described the tools and tactics she and her senior staff used to improve the state auditor's continuing education program.

Reformatting education

After she joined the state auditor's office in 2013, Palmertree noticed her division offered a standard governmental CPE program using a traditional two-day format with a single speaker, she said. She worried the program was dull and uninspiring.

"No matter how skilled a speaker is, when you sit in a room for eight hours listening to them talk, it can become tedious," Palmertree said.

The Mississippi State Board of Accountancy requires 40 hours of CPE per year, allowing for up to 20 hours for personal development. So Palmertree designed a curriculum that factors in personal development topics to improve her team's skills in communication, leadership, and time management.

Instead of setting up classes consisting of eight straight hours of coursework, she scheduled four hours of education in the morning and devoted the afternoon to personal development and team building.

Palmertree's division comprises five smaller sections that often trained and worked independently of each other, so she developed cross-training activities to help employees build relationships with others outside their individual sections, thus creating a more cohesive unit.

"I scheduled days when we would have training for our entire staff together and get to know each other by discussing issues unique to each unit, and also to talk about the types of issues we all face," she said.

Working around budget limitations

Because the Mississippi State Auditor's office is taxpayer-funded and its staff is mandated to be stewards of those funds, Palmertree has a limited budget for speakers. There's also not enough money for special perks for her staff, such as breakfasts or lunches on training days. Still, she found a way to create rich continuing education. One way is by identifying good speakers from within her division.

"We don't have the money to pay high speaker fees, so we have decided to bring a lot of the training in-house to get the best bang for our budget," she said.

As a bonus, empowering her senior staff to teach helps enhance their own professional growth, she added.

Palmertree also brings a personal touch to her employee reward system. She enjoys bringing in home-baked treats for her team, and she rewards their achievements by designing and printing certificates herself and purchasing frames and trophies with money from her own pocket.

Working around the pandemic

As in most organizations across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic threw up a barrier to continuing education in the Mississippi State Auditor's office, forcing the agency to cancel CPE scheduled for April and May.

But Palmertree is focused on bringing continuing education back and prefers to do so in a face-to-face format, following her state's health guidelines.

She is designing targeted instruction on specific topics geared to groups of 10 attendees at a time to allow for social distancing. She will repeat the sessions as many times as it takes to give all staff a chance to participate.

"What I enjoy the most is being face-to-face in the same room with people and having them feel it is OK to ask questions and be engaged," she said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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