Our Generational Viewpoints article this issue features Baby Boomer John Nicolopoulos, born in 1956, assurance partner of Boston-based Caturano and Co. (www.caturano.com), and Generation Y assurance manager Nichole VanPelt, born in 1981, of the same firm. We asked Nichole and John the following question: "How important is soft-skills training to your firm?"
VAN PELT'S GEN Y VIEWPOINT
Historically, the public accounting profession is known for knowledgeable and technical professionals, but not so much for other key business attributes. Since its inception, my firm has recognized that and tried to differentiate itself by valuing soft skills equally with technical skills, and investing resources to ensure that people are provided with the means to build these skills.
One of the things that attracted me to Caturano, and keeps me here, is that I can relate to the people here and learn more from them than simply how to apply the latest pronouncements. Our organization values interpersonal skills that foster professional relationships. From Day One, we are provided soft-skills training opportunities that align with the particular phase of our career. The training is structured to address skills necessary to navigate within the firm, like supervisory skills, time management, delegation, and motivation skills. In addition, training is offered to focus on the skills necessary to navigate outwardly, such as business networking, social media, and conducting difficult conversations with clients. Our training is provided at all experience levels, and the firm fully supports us attending external leadership conferences and professional association meetings.
We are also encouraged to get involved and have a voice. We are provided access to all levels of the firm and are encouraged to participate in various forums, where we share ideas and discuss the progress of the other firm committees and groups established to drive the strategic initiatives of the firm. The partners also include younger team members in client meetings, proposals and communications, so we are exposed to those experiences earlier in our careers.
In today's world, the roles and expectations of a public accountant are increasing beyond the technical skill set. Clients are looking to us to be well-rounded business advisors who have more to offer than textbook accounting knowledge. We need to be equipped with the skills to communicate effectively with clients and build relationships that will grow and deepen over time.
Caturano recognizes the importance of this, and they are preparing me for this challenge in the years to come.
NICOLOPOULOS' BABY BOOMER VIEWPOINT
Soft-skills training is enormously important to our firm. We've always emphasized the importance of these skills, but we believe they are more critical now than ever.
For years, the accounting profession has been lax in this area. Historically, associates have been promoted to senior associate because they've achieved a certain level of technical expertise and we reward them with supervisory responsibility - without any real supervisory training. They master that role and we promote them to manager and reward them with engagement management and client relationship responsibility - again with limited or no real formal training. If they survive that challenge, we make them our partners and reward them with business development responsibility - yes, again, with no formal training. As an industry, we've assumed that professionals will learn by simply observing their supervisors. The problem is that their supervisors may not have mastered these skills because they, too, have been part of the same ridiculous cycle!
Faced with constant fee pressure, we need supervisors with strong delegation and coaching skills that will enable us to deliver the same high-quality product in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. We need managers and partners who understand how to develop strong relationships with our clients that invoke loyalty, retard the commoditization of the work product, and mitigate the threat of another service provider swooping in and "taking" the relationship. Perhaps most importantly, the days of "order taking" are over. In this competitive environment, business development skills are essential to the continued success of any firm. While some organizations may be cutting non-technical training to control what they consider discretionary spending, we're maintaining our soft-skills training and pushing it down to lower levels to better prepare our staff to take on these responsibilities earlier in their careers.
We've recently revamped our supervisor training to augment traditional delegation, coaching and feedback modules with modules on managing difficult client situations and managing upward. The training is being provided to all staff across all service lines and is now based on their experience level, rather than pinning it to promotion, so we provide the foundation they need before they're faced with the responsibility. At the more senior levels, business development modules, ranging from basic networking skills to informal and formal presentation skills, have been created and are being offered to staff much earlier in their careers as well. We have placed a greater emphasis on involvement in firm business development activities at the manager and experienced senior associate level to put the formal training in practice and build confidence in their abilities.
In this economic environment, it's tempting to focus on short-term expense control, and learning and development budgets are an easy target - particularly as it relates to non-technical training. However, we're in the people business. We sell knowledge, not widgets. Being shortsighted today may have an exponential impact on the future. Finding the right balance is critical to continued success.
This column is facilitated and edited by Krista Remer, the Generation X consultant, and Jennifer Wilson, the Baby Boomer co-founder and partner of ConvergenceCoaching LLC (www.convergencecoaching.com), a leadership and marketing coaching and training and development firm that specializes in helping CPA and IT firms achieve success. To have your firm's generational viewpoints considered for a future Accounting Tomorrow column, e-mail us at email@example.com.
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