When you think about how to increase your firm's profits, what comes to mind? My guess is that training and learning may not make your short list. Soft skills are even less likely to make the cut. The reality is that preparation precedes profits, and many firms miss out on great earning opportunities because they do not invest enough in training their people the right way.

Consider often-maligned "soft" skills, most of which fall into three categories:

*Leadership;

*Communications; and,

*Relationship management.

In my experience, most accountants learn best by answering questions, so I pose several related to each category indicated above. In addition to yourself, think about each of your firm's partners and managers and take some notes as you answer.

LEADERSHIP

1. Does the individual possess an executive presence (dress, speech and relationships)?

2. Does the individual possess a clear and communicable vision?

3. Does the individual manage himself or herself, as well as possess the capability to manage others?

4. Can the individual make tough decisions?

5. Does the individual understand his or her own "unique abilities"?

COMMUNICATIONS

1. Does the individual have good written and oral communications skills?

2. Does the individual know how to take and give instructions?

3. Does the individual know how to listen?

4. Does the individual know how to professionally utilize presentation tools?

5. Does the individual know how to motivate others?

RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT

1. Does the individual know how to work in a team environment?

2. Does the individual know how to manage conflicts?

3. Does the individual have the desire and ability to make contacts?

4. Does the individual have good client service skills?

5. Does the individual have project management skills?

This list is not all-inclusive, but it does highlight the critical nature of skills other than continuing professional education. (Many firms offer training to meet CPE requirements and technical competence, but pay little attention to leadership, communications and relationship management skills.)

A quality training and learning culture is a must for firms interested in growing profits. The skills mentioned above are not imparted during a single class or seminar - they are developed throughout one's career. As such, a program that offers positive and insightful learning experiences is paramount.

Training and learning should be a part of your strategic plan, and a professional educator should be on board to administer the program. With an outstanding training and learning program, firms can hire for attitude and train for aptitude. Such a program can have a significant impact on your firm's future.

According to Gartner research, every hour invested in training results in five hours of added productivity. The problem may be obvious, but it's imperative to formulate a clear and consistent statement about your firm's existing learning environment, along with a strategy to get it to the next level. Ignoring problems will only exacerbate them and stunt individual as well as firm growth. Moreover, firms without quality training and learning programs will not be able to attract and retain quality people.

The return on investment may not be immediately obvious enough to get buy-in from owners and others, but there is definitely a long-term return. Ask the doubters, "What will happen if we don't change?" According to our model, most firms will experience an annual $12,000-$15,000 increase in capacity per full-time employee with a comprehensive training and learning program.

To date, many firms choose a reactive approach. Now is the time to change your firm's image and differentiate it by being proactive. You can do that by following these steps:

1. Hire or designate a professional educator to assist in developing a training and learning program.

2. Conduct annual organizational assessments of training requirements.

3. Develop a firmwide learning plan that integrates with your firm's strategic plan.

4. Develop measurable and realistic performance metrics.

5. Conduct quarterly performance evaluations to ensure accountability.

6. Approve a training/learning budget.

Your goal should be to develop a program and reputation so that clients and competitive firms say, "I would always hire someone who has worked for that firm." Take action today, and remember - it's about progress, not perfection.

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