Arthur Andersen was well known for its training program and facilities at St. Charles, Ill. While Accenture now trains at that site, the requirements and strategies for training are far different than those prevalent when most firm owners entered the profession. Time changes many things, but the urgency of instilling a training-learning culture within your firm has never been greater. Now is the time to act.I know your first reaction: “We’re not Accenture or a Big Four firm.” True. But you’re a professional services firm that competes for quality talent — and a learning culture is integral to sustained profitability and even existence in today’s economy. Small accounting firms compete in a knowledge-based business, and must understand the value of training and learning in good times as well as bad.

Value (real and perceived) must be derived from any training initiative for it to grow. Don’t be timid in talking about a return on investment. It all starts at the top, and the managing partner and executive committee are keys to success. Your firm’s training-learning committee must have representation from its stakeholders, as well as political clout. Their primary mission is to motivate, enable, change and develop strategies to overcome obstacles.

The most frequently cited obstacle I hear from smaller firms (those employing fewer than 25 people) is, “We can’t afford a training program.”

I believe what they are really saying is, “Our firm needs a training program, but we don’t have anyone responsible and qualified to manage one.” I know of some small firms that have overcome this obstacle by sharing a learning coordinator or aligning with a larger regional firm that has an excellent program. For each of these firms, innovative strategies reaped significant results.

WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?

An excellent training program generates many soft benefits; however, most accountants only calculate return in hard dollars. Let me give you a few examples of how a training-learning culture can make and save huge sums for your firm:

1. Turnover. Deloitte estimates that it costs $35,000 to find a new professional, 75 percent of a non-managerial employee’s salary to find a replacement, and 150 percent of a manager’s salary to replace them.

2. Increased production. Gartner reports that for each hour invested in training, firms earn five hours of capacity in return. The big question: Are you selling and billing for that capacity? Metrics at the national level reveal that firms average 50 percent chargeable time.

3. ROI. Accenture reports that the top half of its trainees had an ROI of 353 percent. Are you focusing on minimums, or maximizing your return and promoting excellence?

YOUR OWN UNIQUE CULTURE

A training-learning program should integrate with a firm’s strategic plan. If your firm does not have one, develop it immediately. If done properly, most firms can document a strategic plan in less than a week.

The amount that your firm spends on training is not as important as how it is invested. Focus training on those who can make the best use of it. Partners often need soft skills training to become more competent managers and effective leaders. New employees need orientation, technical skills and cultural indoctrination. And don’t forget about administrative personnel — they also need training, and the ROI for training these employees is especially high. A firm’s training program must recognize unique abilities and train people accordingly.

EXPECT RESISTANCE

Like gravity, mediocrity and resistance to change are powerful forces. Resistance generally comes from negative comments and behavior. Governance, along with a dedicated task force, is especially useful in overcoming these obstacles. All employees — including partners — must be held accountable to the firm’s commitment to learning.

Partners who pull staff members out of training should be confronted by the managing partner and publicly admonished. Training-learning coordinators in firms of all sizes say that this is their No. 1 frustration. Training is not a cost center. It requires governance and accountability. Having a training budget is not enough. You must have objectives, requirements, learning ladders, curricula and accountability. Aggressively market a training-learning culture within your firm, with prospective employees and with clients.

SHARING IS CRITICAL

The old adage about knowledge being power is only true if that knowledge is distributed to others. For firms to develop future leaders, knowledge must be shared and leveraged. Openness and support are important to a training-learning culture. The perfect can be the enemy of the good. Get started now, and your program will improve with experience. Make sure you have the right person in charge. Typically this position calls for a professional adult educator, not a partner or accountant with the part-time responsibility.

Train your managers

Most firms are deficient in training those in management. High IQ and technical expertise are not enough to succeed as a manager in today’s firm. People are often promoted based upon their technical skills, but this is a mistake. In fact, once individuals reach this level, technical skills often become a liability.

A classic error is to assume that someone can manage and lead just because they have mastered a particular skillset. Firms need outstanding accountants in accounting positions and outstanding managers in management positions. Rigid attitudes and under-developed people skills are the reasons most people fail at management (e.g., resistance to change and unwillingness to work as a team) — not a lack of technical skills.

Another common mistake is allowing continuing professional education to drive a training program. CPE is certainly a component, but it should not be the driving force.

GETTING STARTED

Here are 10 action steps to start or improve your firm’s training-learning program.

1. Place someone in charge with authority, responsibility and an adequate budget.

2. Inventory skills and learning requirements.

3. Establish learning ladders.

4. Develop individual curricula.

5. Join a peer network.

6. Devise an orientation program.

7. Document management and leadership traits.

8. Conduct training on a regular basis.

9. Use technology as a tool.

10. Celebrate success and return on investment.

A training-learning culture fosters not only new capabilities, but also leadership skills and healthy working relationships. Fostering a culture where everyone learns, everyone teaches and everyone enhances their abilities will keep your firm competitive for new talent, as well as increase the satisfaction of those you already employ.

Begin taking steps in this direction today!

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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