A CPA leader’s approach to changing check-the-box training

Hosted by Neil Amato

Stephanie Palmertree, CPA, CGMA, saw a need for better continuing professional education at the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor. The speakers were the same every year, and the issues weren't necessarily the ones faced by staff at her agency. So, CPE offerings were revamped, becoming more meaningful and targeted. Palmertree explains the why and how of those changes, along with reasons for enjoying the Harry Potter book series and how she relies on her favorite tech tool.

Also, listeners can get caught up on recent news related to a new auditing standard and new PCAOB guidance on audit evidence.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The reason Palmertree was getting the "blank stare" in some post-training conversations.
  • The obstacles specific to some government-focused CPE.
  • Why Palmertree said that changing CPE focus can help grow her state's financial mindset.
  • How a favorite tech tool helps her stay connected to staff.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Stephanie Palmertree is the director of the Financial and Compliance Division for the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor. She is the subject of The Last Word in the Journal of Accountancy's October issue, and she's joining me, senior editor Neil Amato, on this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

The Last Word is a feature that runs in each issue of the JofA, and it introduces readers to accounting leaders. One of those accounting leaders is Stephanie Palmertree. Stephanie is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation. The feature highlights professional issues that matter, but also a bit about their personalities. Stephanie, first, welcome to the podcast. We're going to get into one of those personality questions first. In The Last Word article, you said your favorite book was the Harry Potter series. Do you have a favorite book from that series or a favorite character you'd like to tell us about?

Stephanie Palmertree: Well, I don't necessarily have a favorite book, but I do like the books more as the series progresses because they become more of an adult book series. They have some darker overtones. They start dealing with consequences and that gray area between good and evil, I think.

Really, at the Order of the Phoenix on, they really take a different tone, and I think that I just really enjoy reading them. I try to reread the whole series every year. That has not been something I've been able to accomplish the past couple of years, especially now that I have an 8-month-old son. That has been put off for some more important things right now. But I'm trying to get my 8-year-old interested in the books now so that he and I can enjoy them together. Trying to let him watch the movies and enjoy that and took him to Harry Potter World in Orlando and he really enjoyed that, so I think he's starting to get into the books more now that he can visualize what the world may look like.

Amato: I think that's a good plan, to get the kids involved in the Harry Potter series.

Palmertree: Oh, yes. He will love it because he loves fantasy.

Amato: Well, the article mentions how your organization, the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor, has revamped its training practices. Tell me how you went about accomplishing that and why you thought it was necessary.

Palmertree: Well, it was necessary for a couple of reasons. When I started in management and then I became the director of the division, it was apparent to me that we were going to these training sessions, we were doing our CPE, the whole organization was sitting in a room for 16 hours listening to somebody teach CPE, and nobody was paying attention.

It was obvious that nobody was paying attention because we would say later, "Remember when we talked about this," and everybody would give that blank stare. You can't blame them. Nobody wants to sit in a room for 16 hours and listen to the same person talk. I don't care how interesting they are. I don't care how interesting the topics are. It just gets monotonous after a while, and you start playing with your phone or you get up and go the other room and you start chatting with people and you just don't have that concentration that you need.

The second reason it became apparent that we need to revamp the training program was governmental training is becoming very difficult to find people who are specializing in teaching governmental CPE, teaching Yellow Book CPE. It's becoming harder and harder to find, even on some of these online platforms where you can just buy CPE. The governmental and the Yellow Book CPE is very small in comparison to all of the other CPE that you can get.

We were finding that we were having to use the same speakers year after year after year. Not only are we talking about having to sit in a room and listen to people talk, it's the same person twice a year saying the same things. Well, that's just getting CPE to check a box. It's not a meaningful training program for your staff.

That's what guided this whole "we need to revamp this" process. When we started revamping the process, we realized that our staff learn best from the people they work with every day, because we see the same things every day. We see the same counties, the same agencies, the same problems. We're not speaking from a hypothetical perspective necessarily. We're speaking from a real-world, real-time perspective.

That becomes a more meaningful training, a more meaningful continuing education. Because it speaks to what you do every single day. When we started revamping it, I don't want to say we got resistance at first, but the staff weren't used to it. When we started doing it, we were having to really push for engagement.

Ask us questions. Don't just sit there and listen. If we say something you think is wrong, raise your hand or speak up and say, "Hey, wait. That's not how I do it. Why are you telling us to do it a different way?" We can talk about it because the important thing is also they realized that no speaker, no trainer is perfect. We're going to say things wrong every now and then. We're going to say something that we think is what you're encountering every day and it's not what you're encountering every day.

We really had to push for that engagement. I feel like we've gotten to a place now where we have that with our staff. Our new staff don't really want to speak up and I can't blame them. It's a little intimidating to be asking people who have all this experience and here are your bosses [saying], ''Hey, are you sure that's how we do it?'' But we haven't been in accounting school, we haven't been getting our master's, we haven't even taken our CPA exam again for years, so it doesn't hurt for these new people to say, "Can you explain that a little bit more?" I think that that's benefiting our organization.

Amato: I think that's a good point. In addition to just the revamping of the training because you thought the training was sounding the same, it helps the employee to feel valued when you make the training more personal to them.

Palmertree: Absolutely. Here's the thing that I think we lose a lot of times when we're talking about mentoring and training new staff. Especially in a governmental realm, is that they're not going to stay in my office forever. They're not always going to be staff at the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor. They are going to go to different state agencies for various reasons.

They might be offered more money, they just want to do something new, they can become a director of something, and they're also going to go work at other CPA firms around the area. Investing in that individual and showing them how important they are to us is also growing our state's financial mindset, and also benefiting that person in the future. And that just makes all of us better as CPAs and for our state.

We're in a shortage of having qualified individuals to do some of these jobs. We're helping get individuals qualified. If they come and they work with us for seven years and we can invest in that person, and even if they leave us, that investment is still paying off every day.

Amato: You also said in the article that the Apple Watch is your favorite tech tool. Has it been life-changing for you, or do you have just one feature that you like about it most?

Palmertree: I do. But right now, I don't have my watch on unfortunately because I've just got a new phone. You have to resync it all, and I've been lazy and I haven't done that. I've missed having the feature that I don't have to carry my phone around with me all the time, because people know in this office they have to get in touch with me through my cellphone, because I am never in my office sitting down. I'm always in a meeting, or always moving, so if you want to get me, you have to text me or you have to send me a Teams message.

Since I have all that stuff on my Apple Watch, it's really great that I'm not having to tag along my phone everywhere I go, and I'm available for my kids if they need me throughout the day, if the school needs me. I'd like to say that I use the fitness feature a little more than I actually do. I wish it had changed my life. I wish I was one of those people that close my three rings every day, and maybe that could be a goal for next year, my next year's resolution.

But really just the fact that I'm more available when I wear my watch, especially at work, is very beneficial to me. I know some people don't want to always be available. I know that when you go home, you want to turn it off and all that, but that's just not my personality. I like to know if you need me, I like to be there immediately, and so that's been a real benefit for me.

Amato: Stephanie, thank you very much for the time today.

Palmertree: No problem. I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me, Neil.

Amato: Again, that was Stephanie Palmertree. Thanks to Stephanie for her time. You can read about her in The Last Word in the October Journal of Accountancy. That article will be linked in the show notes for this episode.

In other news, the AICPA Auditing Standards Board sharpened the audit profession's focus on risk-based auditing with the release of a new standard on audit risk assessment. Statement on Auditing Standards No. 145, titled Understanding the Entity and Its Environment and Assessing the Risks of Material Misstatement, is designed in the simplest terms to help auditors determine which areas pose the greatest risks of material misstatement in an audit engagement and spend more of their time performing procedures in those areas.

Also, the PCAOB has issued staff guidance recently on considerations for auditors related to the relevance and reliability of information from external sources that the auditor plans to use as audit evidence. In addition, the guidance addresses the relationship between the quality and quantity of audit evidence. Ken Tysiac has both of those articles, we'll link to them in the show notes for this episode. For more news, visit journalofaccountancy.com, and thank you for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.