Serve Up the Training Your Staff Needs - and Wants

Group of Business People in a Modern OfficeAre you giving your staff the training they need to best serve your clients? Sure, you’ll pay for the tax courses, but are you giving them the people skills—like problem solving, customer service and supervisory skills—that they need to make your firm the best it can be?

You may be surprised to learn that your accounting staff hungers for more training. Consider some findings from a recent CPA Trendlines Career Outlook survey:

  • Less than a quarter of respondents agree that their firm always pays for the courses they want, not just what they need.
  • Fewer than 20 percent of respondents say their firms pay for soft skills learning. Offering your staff an expanded menu of training that includes soft skills and other education can improve client relationships and staff retention, as well as develop future leaders.

“Solid communication and interpersonal abilities are becoming just as important to accounting professionals in addressing client needs” as traditional training, writes Paul McDonald, senior executive director with Robert Half in a recent CPA Practice Advisor article. “Your team members also need business acumen that extends beyond accounting to understanding clients’ bigger-picture business goals and concerns.” McDonald identifies desirable soft skills: diplomacy, customer service, problem solving, adaptability, and communication.

These important skills are also the ones that staff wants to learn. For instance, problem solving gives accounting and finance professionals the most career satisfaction, according to recent a Robert Half survey. In fact, problem solving outranked number crunching in the results, which is pretty amazing given the importance of numbers for accountants!

Soft skills learning can help accountants at any stage of their careers, says Kathy Ryan, CEO, CFO and co-founder of RoseRyan, a CPA firm serving the San Francisco Bay area, in an Accounting Today article. “I challenge anyone who feels they are being held back in their career but is not sure why, to get a reality check on their soft-skill set and do some fine tuning. I also encourage those in leadership positions to consider ways they can cultivate the ‘softer’ side of their teams’ abilities (and their own).” It isn’t a surprise to learn that Ryan’s firm regularly teaches soft skills.

Asking staff about the courses they would like is now a trend at accounting firms, the AICPA says in its white paper, The Evolution of CPA Firm Learning:

  • Staff can learn better when they have a say in their learning plans. - The white paper cites an American Society for Training & Development article, “The Amazing Era of Self-Service Learning,” that suggests your firm may see as much as a 500 percent increase in learning benefits when staff manage their own training.
  • Real knowledge rather than “getting training hours in” is becoming the focus. - More experience-related, simulation, and “mock” programs build real-life skills.
  • Succession needs require staff to learn more than technical topics. - Firms are including more leadership, management and other personal development courses, and they’re introducing them earlier in their staff members’ careers.

Staff who are hungry to learn about running the firm, interacting more efficiently with clients, managing support staff, and the other ingredients of a successful CPA firm should be consuming the appropriate soft-skills training. Serve staff what they want, and your firm will have a banquet of talented professionals to build your firm.

Soft skills training is critical for both your staff accountants and your firm. Merit Career Development offers leadership and communication courses specifically designed for accountants plus the opportunity to earn CPEs. For more information, please contact Jim Wynne at jwynne@meritcd.com.

Making Real Connections in a Virtual, Global Training Environment (V4)

Coordinating virtual instructor-led training courses can be challenging when participants are literally signing in from around the world. Timing and coordination are hurdles, but one of the most common barriers to learning is simple communication.

According to Jim Spaulding, Ed.D., technical instructor at Merit Career Development, managers can make training come alive through calculated decisions. With international employees, trainers can facilitate connections and communication through personal experiences, stories and insight.

Bringing Classmates Together

The immediate benefit of virtual training is obvious: global reach. But that geographic range necessitates fluid communication for effective learning. Conversation is much more than just discussing ideas among peers. By talking with one another, participants create meaning out of the information being presented and can glean valuable conclusions from the data.

Additionally, Spaulding recommends that instructors encourage sharing pertinent personal stories and insights throughout the lesson. Integrating participants’ perspectives as much as possible can help form connections between students, which can lead to deeper and more practical discussions. Generally speaking, when learning is couched in stories, participants learn better. Even digressing into interesting off-topic conversations can tie the class together and allow participants to be more engaged.

Making real connections in online international training environments can make the difference between wasted resources or effective learning that translates back to the workplace and creates viable business solutions.

Review a course list or contact Merit today for more information.

4 Engaging Techniques to Improve Team Learning

Create Project Management Training with a Focus on Fun and EngagementNo matter how informative the content of a project management training session is, employees won’t benefit from the content if it’s not engaging. In order to get the most out of your training investment, project managers should use fun, interactive teaching methods. Here are four examples of training techniques that help teams learn better.

  1. Involve Corporate Culture

    Every business has a specific culture among its employees, services and leadership. Training that doesn’t take the organization’s culture into account can come off as boring and out-of-touch. Chief Learning Officer (CLO) magazine recommends that managers engage employees through understanding and adopting the corporate culture as their own.

    "Understanding a company’s cultural strengths, then effectively tapping into the energy and emotional commitment those strengths engender in employees, provides incredible momentum to accelerate transformation," CLO explains. "Learning leaders can instill a sense of employee pride and commitment. Look for ways to connect workers to something larger than a new policy on paper."

    Using culture as a tool is a subtle but powerful leadership technique that can bring people into the conversation. This can mean appealing to pop culture—a marketing firm implementing metaphors or examples from "Mad Men" - or the office culture. Integrating culture into training reinforces a sense of community, but it can also be played for humor. Does the office have a notoriously small kitchen? Is there a row of coveted parking spaces in the lot? Use these as corporate "in-jokes" to reinforce the content of your presentation.

  2. Take Advantage of Simulation Training

    It doesn't matter how important the information being taught is if it’s not put into practice. Simulation training allows you to teach, test and improve your team’s habits for quick decision-making in high-pressure situations without the risks of an actual crisis.

    Customized simulation training solutions engage a team more than standard presentations because they force employees to learn and apply the information in real-time. With multiple team-based training sessions, simulations can give your team experience by testing how they’ll work under accelerated timelines. For example, by turning weeks into minutes within the realm of the simulation, the ticking clock function of simulations allows employees of a pharmaceutical company to balance Food and Drug Administration approval deadlines with website redesign projects ahead of launch within a span of a few hours. This allows employees to have real experience about prioritizing one project over another and managing time and resources.

  3. Leave Room for Improvisation

    While practicing a training exercise or presentation is important for effective execution, Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications, explains in Training magazine that leaving space for improvisation in your presentation can be an excellent tool for engaging a diverse team. Yorton suggests starting light and negative. Discuss ten bad team management ideas that people have experienced. This can be fun and will bring people into the conversation. From here, you can talk about why these didn’t work and bridge the conversation to new ideas that will work. Everyone’s brains will be firing on all cylinders as they improvise fresh ideas.

    By using the same techniques that improv comedians use, Yorton argues that corporate managers can think better on their feet, be more receptive to new concepts and come up with cost-effective solutions that are out-of-the-box. This method engages employees because it’s focused on participation from everyone and thinking about concepts from different angles.

  4. Incorporate Cross-Training or Cross-Teaching

    It’s important for team members to understand their own roles. Set some time aside during your training to allow each member to teach or explain their role and how it affects the other employees. Not only will this improve communication among team members, but increased understanding can help streamline tasks through the project. Rather than burdening the project manager with questions, team members may be able to better communicate issues directly among one another.

    Cross-training or cross-teaching improves interaction among team members in multiple ways. Not only do they get a chance to learn about other positions, but they’re also involved as presenters within the training session.

    Think back on the most memorable lectures, classes or training sessions you’ve experienced. Chances are, they hooked you because they shared certain qualities: entertainment, a feeling of inclusion, hands-on practice or improvisational exercises, to name a few. Take these qualities to heart and make them a part of your own memorable management training.