Great Experiential Learning Is Key to Growing Top Talent

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IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]Many accounting firms have robust formal learning programs for their staff early in their careers.

Over time, the amount of formal training declines to some ad hoc programs plus required CPE training, and most meaningful learning takes place on the job. This is not a bad approach in principle. The key is how this experiential learning is delivered and whether it encompasses the breadth of technical, industry and leadership training that can make a real difference for clients.

In a recent article, we discussed the importance of sharpening the focus and execution of recruiting at all levels (see Winning the War for Talent). This article discusses experiential learning as a key to developing great talent. Let’s look at some critical tenets of great experiential learning.

Partner Involvement
Nothing has a greater impact on the quality of experiential learning than partner involvement. Let’s face it. Most staff members spend several years on engagements that are heavily compliance focused. This affords little opportunity to learn about client relationships or about the client’s business or industry.

The exception is when staff gets to spend time with partners. In these situations, staff is exposed to the softer skills required to be a great accounting professional. They also get a business perspective on the technical work they are doing, moving from numbers on a spreadsheet or tax return to beginning to see the broader value chain that drives business results.

There’s a story we love to tell. We were talking with several partners at a midsize accounting firm in a focus group on staff development. One partner told us that early in his career he had worked as a staff member on the annual review of a family real estate business. One day, the partner on the account called him in to discuss some quality control comments. As part of the discussion, the partner explained the dynamics of profitability of the client’s real estate investments as well as restrictions on the use of cash contained in covenants imposed by the client’s lender. Then they talked for an hour about this client’s “sweet spot” for new investments that distinguished the client from less successful competitors. This was the day he decided to become a real estate partner at the firm. What until then was a job became a passion. Today, he is a prominent real estate industry expert in the accounting profession.

Many firms have mentoring programs. Most firms acknowledge they do not do it well. Great mentoring is heavily tied to partner involvement. While not all mentors are partners, the way that partners mentor staff sets the standard for mentoring throughout the firm. It starts by not overloading partners with staff to mentor. A partner can only really mentor one or two people properly. So assign these relationships carefully, making sure that each partner “connects” with his assigned mentees and that the mentees are engaged, high-potential staff.

Once the relationship is in place, the partner should take a close interest in the mentee, make a proactive effort to identify opportunities where the mentee can acquire valuable experiential learning and proactively advocate for the mentee to get these assignments.

The mentoring relationship needs to be a safe place. Sometimes, otherwise great mentors become too attached to their mentees, keeping them on the mentor’s team rather than recommending them for challenging new assignments. Our strong advice in these situations: keep the mentoring relationship but let the mentee do what’s best for his career and the firm.

Career Frameworks
The compass that directs experiential learning is a career framework. These frameworks define the capabilities—hard and soft skills—that are needed to excel at each level within the firm. This sets the stage for staff to commit to focused development plans and identify the experiential learning that will support achievement of these plans. Well developed career frameworks provide strong capability statements for technical skills, industry skills and behavioral competencies.

Our favorite story about career frameworks involves an accounting firm that designed and piloted a career framework for its advisory service line. Before the career framework was in place, the results of the firm’s staff engagement survey were similar for all three of the firm’s service lines—audit, tax and advisory. A year following adoption of the career framework, staff engagement jumped for the advisory service line. That really got the attention of the firm’s managing partner. A year later, after audit and tax adopted career frameworks, they each got similar bumps in staff engagement, and the staff engagement level for advisory services had increased further.

Development Planning
If you want to develop great staff, your firm needs to adopt a formal goal-setting/progress-tracking process for staff development. Under this approach, staff would set development goals at the beginning of each year, specifically listing the experiential learning needed to achieve each goal. The staff would then review these goals with their supervisors and agree on how the experiential learning would be accomplished, listing types of assignments and, where possible, specific clients. At year-end, experiential learning progress would be reviewed and discussed as part of the annual performance discussion. The success of staff in achieving these goals would play a big part in crediting advancement on the career framework.

Staff Deployment
Experiential learning is all about staff deployment, often referred to as scheduling, particularly during busy season. Historically, accounting firms have tended to measure deployment based on efficiency. The more staff that could be kept fully utilized while meeting client deadlines, the better.

This approach has its benefits. It also has a major weakness. It focuses on avoiding “white space” in the scheduling process. Since white space is inefficient and possibly increases labor costs, it is a good thing to minimize. The weakness of this approach is that it does not stress assigning staff to clients based on individual development needs and also undermines staff continuity at a client. In short, it can hurt the opportunity for experiential learning. In contrast, giving staff the opportunity to do new things at the same client can afford a strong opportunity for experiential learning.

A better approach is to prioritize experiential learning by matching staff with client assignments based on planned experiential learning as the first step of the staff deployment process. Then, any meaningful amount of white space in the schedule can be filled by tweaking assignments in ways that have the least negative impact on experiential learning. 

When we explained this approach to a client a few years ago, our suggestion was met with some skepticism, but the benefits of trying it were also appreciated. Our client gave the approach a test by trying it for a six-month period for staff serving real estate clients. Here were the results: Most experiential learning goals for the affected staff were achieved, staff engagement for this group increased significantly, the HR team agreed that deployment actually took less time to accomplish once they embraced this approach, and for the period measured the real estate group had less scheduled white space than any other group within the firm.

Two Final Points
Think seriously about rewarding partners that drive great experiential learning. In the accounting industry, client service and business development tend to get the most attention when it comes to rewarding partners for obvious reasons. It’s time for more firms to recognize the value of experiential learning as a key component of the success equation and to reward it accordingly. In addition, experiential learning can be as important for partners as it is for staff, particularly less experienced partners. This aspect should be considered when setting partners’ annual goals and objectives.

Richard Stanger is the CEO of StangerCarlson LLC. Carolyn K. Carlson is the president of StangerCarlson LLC. You can reach them at and, or (646) 797-4000.

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