November 1, 2020
By Cheryl Meyer
Years ago the small firm of DeLeon & Stang, based in Gaithersburg, Md., took a halfhearted approach to continuing professional education (CPE). "We'd figure out what class was out there, and try to go to it in the least expensive way possible," Richard Stang, CPA/ABV/PFS, one of the firm's founding partners, acknowledged.
Today, though, Stang's firm, now with 45 employees and growing, is more proactive in its approach to CPE. Firm leaders realized that its staff is its greatest asset and that, in the current environment of rapid change and new information, learning is all-important. DeLeon & Stang now offers staff educational opportunities that include lunch-and-learn training, in-person webinars, and self-study choices, along with CPE options.
The firm also creates work plans for employees, assessing their goals, strengths, and weaknesses, before it determines the best CPE options.
"We are trying to make our work plans custom for each staff member," Stang said. "For instance, one member of our tax team may need specific technical training, while another member may need more training on soft skills to help them be better with client interviews."
CPE training has taken a drastic shift recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most opportunities for in-person CPE no longer exist, and firms have had to "pivot to virtual and online training," said Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) and the Business Learning Institute. CPE providers and firms have had to experiment and try new approaches, he said. For instance, the AICPA converted many conferences, including the multi-track ENGAGE conference, to an online-only format. “We had to move quickly to transition our conferences to virtual-only events,” said Todd Helton, senior director for meetings and conferences at AICPA. “Similarly, firms and individuals have adapted quickly to maximize the education and networking opportunities still available with virtual events and have embraced them as their primary learning options this year.”
The shift to online professional education is why, Hood said, it's important for firms to make formal plans for directing staff to the most appropriate CPE. "The need for new skills and the advent of new ways they are available online make CPE easier to incorporate into staff development plans for busy professionals," he noted. "This increases the likelihood that staff will take the courses and offers the ability to 'rewind and review' key concepts for deeper learning."
"Smart firms," he said, "are working on a structured curriculum and learning approach to accommodate the upskilling and reskilling necessary" for success.
WHY FIRMS NEED TO HAVE FORMAL PROCESSES FOR GETTING STAFF THE RIGHT CPE
Many firms don't have set processes in place to address CPE, said Edward Mendlowitz, CPA/ABV/PFS, an emeritus partner at WithumSmith+Brown PC in East Brunswick, N.J., and an active CPE instructor.
This lack of structure can mean firms aren't getting the full benefit of CPE. Without formal programs or processes to lead staff to the right CPE, firms may end up "not sending people to the right programs," Mendlowitz said, and employees may not put what they've learned into practice in the workplace. Firms also don't get a clear picture of how their CPE money is being spent, said Tracy White, chief human resources officer at Clark Nuber PS, a 220-person firm in Bellevue, Wash.
Many firms allow employees to determine which CPE they take and how much. Though this approach gives staff greater freedom, it can also lead to missed opportunities. When staff aren't given any guidance as to what CPE they should take, they may fail to challenge themselves enough, wait until the last minute to take CPE and, as a result, limit their choices, or choose CPE options that don't necessarily align with the firm's needs, Stang said.
What's more, most people don't know what their "blind spots" are and, thus, might not know what CPE can be of most use to them, said Melisa Galasso, CPA, founder and CEO of Galasso Learning Solutions LLC, a CPE training firm in Charlotte, N.C.
HOW TO CREATE A CPE PLAN FOR YOUR FIRM
Creating a process or plan to get staff the right CPE can benefit both them and the firm. Here are steps firm leaders can take to do so:
Outline your firm's vision and strategy
Each firm has a different mission, so it's imperative to determine where you want to go before creating a CPE plan. "Start with your goals," advised J. Michael Inzina, CPA, CGMA, founder and CEO of Audit, Litigation, Training and Efficiency Consulting Inc., a Monroe, La., consulting firm that serves public accounting firms in the areas of CPE, ethics, and more. "Think about where you want to be five to 10 years from now," he said.
Then, brainstorm about the competencies, knowledge, and skills it will take to help you reach those goals. Ask yourself what clients need from you as a firm and which "knowledge capabilities you need to serve them and help them to grow their businesses," said CPE trainer Jon Lokhorst, CPA, founder of Lokhorst Consulting LLC in Andover, Minn. Then, you'll be in a better position to know what CPE your staff needs.
Specify what skills are needed at each stage of an employee's career path
To pair CPE to the needs of staff members at different stages in their careers, White suggested creating an "expectations grid": a listing of core competencies for each employee level in the firm and which skills are expected at each level. Define key job functions, such as associate, senior, supervisor, and partner, and outline what employees at each level need to know and when.
One way to start creating an expectations grid is by modeling it after the PCPS Firm Competency Model or the AICPA Core Competency Frameworks in areas such as tax and audit, she said, then "aligning it to your mission and needs." Some state societies also offer sample curricula for staff at different levels and areas such as audit and tax.
Map specific CPE to skills gaps or areas where staff want to grow
Ask yourself these questions: What does each employee need to not only meet their CPE requirements but to also grow professionally? Where are the skills gaps? What type of training will help each employee and your firm? "Prioritize the skills you need that will make the most difference," Hood said. Then, research where each person can get the best CPE training to enhance those skills and knowledge. In addition, said Galasso, include some customized training for the specific industry or industries you serve.
Create personalized plans for each staff member
Employees should be involved in planning their CPE but should do so "collaboratively with firm leadership," Lokhorst said. "That ensures a balance between the employees' interest and the business needs of the firm."
Give each staff member some "measure of choice" regarding their CPE training, he said. Ask them about their interests, aspirations, and preferred learning styles, and whether they prefer daylong training or shorter increments such as webinars and nano-learning.
Not all staff members will aspire to become partners, Lokhorst said, but they should all have access to training. "The same planning and effort should be made to set all staff up for success at whatever level they desire," he said.
Create an annual growth plan for each person, with their help, and then meet with them about it quarterly, Stang said. The PCPS Firm inMotion Staff Assessment and Career Development Plan (AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) member login required) outlines a process and guidelines for creating employee development plans.
Integrate CPE with career and performance management systems
When creating annual growth plans for employees, make sure you tie any plans in with your firm's career and performance management systems. "It's always important to provide education and specialized training based on employees' career goals as part of their annual review," White said. "This supports employees to enhance their skill sets and improve their technical or soft skills." It can also help firms create budgets for continuing education, she said.
Incorporate nontechnical skills
Alongside technical skills, CPAs need leadership, communication, strategic, and critical-thinking skills. The MACPA calls these "success skills" rather than soft skills "because there is nothing soft about them," Hood said. "CPE has to incorporate all of those things. If you don't invest in some of these higher-level skills, when you need them, it will be too late."
Once a CPE program is completed, ask attendees: "What were your top three takeaways, and how do you plan to integrate what you learned into your daily work?" White suggested. You can also stipulate that employees present a short summary on what they learned, often to a small group over lunch. This also enhances their presentation skills.