CPA firms seeking to stem employee turnover and build capacity in a disruptive world need to provide an avenue for staff and managers to learn and practice leadership development, in addition to technical training.

That is the message from numerous studies and surveys by the accounting profession, talent placement firms, academics, and other human resources experts.

Offering PD sends a signal to employees, candidates
In her article “Why accounting firms should implement a learning strategy,” AccountingWEB’s Terry Sheridan noted that employee turnover is over 13 percent at large CPA firms and over 8 percent at smaller firms.

“Potential candidates are increasingly viewing an organization’s professional development offerings, or employee training, as a required element or critical benefit. If firms do not demonstrate the value of investing in employees, it sends a strong signal to any prospect and may push them to a firm that does invest in their employees’ futures,” said Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting’s Justin Hummel, as cited in Sheridan’s article.

Similarly, Marc Rosenberg, president of The Rosenberg Associates, says CPA firms need to “get serious about training and mentoring.”

“A lot of firms say staff (are) just as important as clients, but few walk the talk,” Rosenberg said. “Staff leave when they stop learning and advancing.”  

What skills are needed?
According to talent firm Randstad, here are the seven essential accounting skills you need in 2017:

  1. Technology savvy 
  2. Getting certified and staying updated 
  3. Relationship-building capabilities 
  4. Big picture knowledge 
  5. Demonstrated leadership 
  6. Communication and interpersonal skills 
  7. Flexible and deadline driven 

CPA firms traditionally have ready-access to technical training and sometimes turn to outside providers soft-skills training such as leadership development, communications and interpersonal skills. Indeed, as pointed out by Business Learning Institute thought leader Jeff Nischwitz, soft skills are anything but.

The benefits of outside training
In building leadership capacity and bench strength, smaller firms in particular may be challenged to have the resources to offer leadership development training and coaching. Firms of all sizes can benefit by offering leadership development programs that are run outside the firm. This provides an opportunity for participants to engage with and learn from their peers from other firms, and an environment in which they feel free to speak openly about challenges.

Bersin by Deloitte calls this part of fostering an ecosystem of leadership growth. Andrea Derler, citing a recent Bersin study, says, “Exposure to peers and colleagues, as well as to consumer feedback, new external contexts, and social networks is a highly effective learning method for leadership development.”

Connection to the real-world is key
So what happens when staff return from leadership training, externships or retreats?

As stated in the Bersin study, “If your leaders are immersed in a workplace that does not support their formal leadership development efforts, returns on leadership programs will likely be limited.”

An even darker view was voiced in a Harvard Business Review article, “Why leadership training fails — and what to do about it.” The authors explain, “For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.”

The antidote? Tying the learning to real-world application and reinforcing it when employees return to work.

Rage against the machine?
CPA firm leaders worried about the encroachment of artificial intelligence and machine learning face a new challenge in determining where training dollars and time should go: Can they afford to offer soft skills and leadership development when the needs to ramp up training to survive and thrive in an A.I.-powered world are so great?

This is a choice that falls under “both-and.”

As Bill Sheridan of the MACPA and BLI has pointed out in “Robots aren’t stealing our jobs. They’re setting us free” and “In a tech-filled world, our competitive advantage is our humanity.

Among the new initiatives announced by the MACPA and BLI is the partnership with IBM, which MACPA and BLI CEO Tom Hood notes is putting accounting and finance professionals in the driver’s seat of the data-driven economy.  

Leadership Academy, for CPAs, offers Insights to Action
CPA firms looking for a leadership development program that ties the learning close to real-world challenges need look no further than the Leadership Academy offered by the MACPA and BLI on Aug. 9-11 in Towson, Md.

The MACPA/BLI Leadership Academy, co-authored by Hood and Gretchen Pisano, president of Sounding Board Ink, is centered around the Insights to Action (i2A) strategic thinking system. It includes:

  • Instruction: New learning, new ideas, new perspectives
  • Integration: Combining new learning with what you already know to develop insights in your current context
  • Action: Development of personal action plans

The MACPA and BLI also offer personal and firm coaching, a series of related white papers, and programs and mentoring opportunities for young professionals. The application deadline for the Leadership Academy is July 28.

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