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Developing tomorrow's top accountants

Greg Rakozy

As a record number of baby boomers head toward retirement, the accounting industry must prepare itself for a major brain drain. But more than just making sure your firm is prepared for this lost experience, you need to create a learning framework to help your younger staff grow, fill the gap left by retiring senior staff, and become trailblazing accountants in their own right. 

You have a great amount of control over how soon your younger staff will develop into leading accountants, and with a deliberate strategy, you can ensure your team quickly learn the right things for your firm and also for their own personal growth. 

Rethink your staff's training

Every day accountants receive emails about 'technical' training of some kind—something to do with new technologies, legislative changes, or anything else that you need to keep up with in this industry. Less heard of by accountants are 'non-technical' skills training—those soft skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving and leadership you desire in any of your staff. Both technical and non-technical skills are equally important to accountants, and they can be taught in two forms of training—formal and informal.

Formal training is any channel specifically made for the intention to teach something, such as conferences, webinars, training videos and exercises. Everyone learns differently, so it's important that the formal training made available to your staff is a mix in terms of content and delivery. Do you attend conferences and talks? You should allow time for your employees to attend them as well to maintain a balance of internal and external training. It's also important for your staff to look outside of the industry for education. There are lessons to be found in other industries that can benefit them and your firm, such as how some cafés encourage customer loyalty. Or how airline carriers handle a surge in customer numbers. Can your firm learn anything from these industries?

Informal training is less structured and can happen at any time—on the job, in the lunch room, personal reading, or sharing between co-workers (more on that next).

Document a plan that identifies the mandatory and optional training you will make available for your staff that covers technical and non-technical skills. To really encourage learning and support your staff in their pursuit of education, you need to consider the value in formal and informal delivery.

Make a habit of sharing

Your goal should be to have a platform in place for every single one of your staff to share what they learned every day.  

How you share isn't too important. If you already have an internal messaging system in place, use that. If you don't, here's a guide that shows one of many Karbon uses: as your practice's learning hub. This is ideal because your firm's dedicated learning channel can become a bank of knowledge that people can easily refer back to. This will undoubtedly save people from researching the same thing over and over again.

In practice, at the end of every day, everyone makes an effort to share something that they learned that day. What they share does not always have to be technical in nature, it could be something they learned about a particular client or something interesting they read on a blog. The focus should be to make sharing a daily habit for every person in your team.

This method encourages your staff to always be on the lookout for things to learn throughout their day, not only in the obvious areas. They'll pay more attention to the specifics of what they are learning, and to be exposed to what their teammates are learning as well.

There are also benefits to managers. Occasionally, what is shared will be of interest to a number of your staff. When this happens, it's an excellent opportunity to bring someone in and train the entire team on that subject. Furthermore, by paying attention to who shares what and who is progressing at what pace, you can better mold your team and get the best of out each member.

Make learning a KPI

If you're truly serious about wanting your team to grow and improve, then each staff member must have a KPI that incorporates learning.

Ask everyone to identify three things they want to learn this quarter. Work together to come up with a way to measure how they will meet these learning goals so that it will be easy to judge how much progress they make. You will want to check in with your staff regularly to make sure they're on track or to meet this learning KPI.

Provide the time and money

The majority of your team's learning will be done informally, but it is a good idea to also give each employee their own budget for training. You can reserve the right to sign-off on where this money is spent, but it's important that you keep an open mind about where it should go.

If you are committed to your team improving themselves through learning, then you also need to set aside the required hours. Allocate time to every employee specifically for learning. Let them know that you understand that learning and developing skills takes time and that you want them to take the time necessary. But once they have learned something, they must share that information with the rest of the team.

Building a learning framework takes dedication from the entire firm, but the benefits of supporting this are undeniable. Your firm will retain its knowledge despite the brain drain that is to come, and your staff will progressively become better accountants as they work for your firm. The results that this will bring will make any investment in time, money and effort, more than worthwhile.

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To compare the challenges your firm is facing acquiring, training and retaining staff with accounting practices from around the world, download The talent challenge: insights from Karbon’s 2017 talent survey.

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