Tackling a Key Staff Development Need

by Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA

September 13, 2017

When you send staff members to networking events, are they engaging with the other participants or standing on the sidelines checking their phones? Whether it’s your own in-house training or external CPE options, firms have many choices for developing the technical and business skills that will ensure excellent work. When you think about staff development, though, don’t forget to consider the help staff members may need in learning the important personal skills they will use when working with clients, referral sources and peers.

In my own six-person practice, these are some of the steps we took to develop the soft skills our people needed to succeed in our profession.  

Get off on the right foot. We included new recruits out of college in client meetings beginning in their first week on the job. We knew our new people would enhance their technical skills through everyday assignments over time, but we also wanted to offer them chances to improve their people skills on a regular basis. In addition to bringing them along, CPAs should also do some coaching before and after the meeting to make the experience meaningful. Think back about how you felt before your first client meetings, and try to anticipate the questions or concerns they might have. Let them know that you understand they may be anxious about being involved, but reassure them that you won’t let them sink and you’ll be there to help them out if necessary. Try to invite them into the conversation as appropriate, asking them for a comment or opinion on something they’ve experienced to build their confidence.

Clarify that they’re not being tested. Knowing that meeting clients or representing the firm at events can be stressful, reassure them that it is part of their education, not a test of their fitness for the job. Whenever possible after a meeting or event, take some time to ask them how they think it went and whether they have any questions, then offer any observations you may have. If they had trouble meeting people at events, for example, discuss some of your own successful networking tips or challenges you’ve overcome.

Urge them to get involved. Recommend that new staff members begin to join organizations in the local community during the first year on the job. In addition to introducing our people to organizations related to our specialty in real estate, we also encouraged them to become active in our state CPA society. In fact, an alumnus from our firm was recently named outstanding young professional by the state society. He received that honor not just because of his technical expertise, but also for his success in making an impact in the profession locally, an accomplishment that depended on his soft skills. One area that offers great opportunities to expand experience is a state society’s legislative affairs committee. Staff members who join will be exposed to professionals inside and outside the profession and to activities such as legislative fundraising and lobbying, and they will gain a deeper understanding of the many issues affecting our work.

Think of them as ambassadors. Why would talented young people want to work for you? Firms often gain a recruiting advantage because they have reputations as interesting places to work, ones where staff have the opportunity to challenge themselves and advance their careers. The confident, outgoing staff members who represent your firm whenever they meet with a business contact or attend an event can serve as ambassadors who make your firm more attractive to other talented new professionals, raising your profile in the competitive recruiting market.    

An Investment in the Future

When a firm hires a recruit, it is investing time and money in them in the hopes that they will develop all the skills they need to succeed in the profession, including the soft skills that will help them build contacts and expand their business knowledge. Fortunately for small firms, a little bit of coaching can go a long way. In addition, you can enhance your staff development efforts using resources in the PCPS Firm inMotion e-Toolkit and the PCPS You Are the Value Workshop. Given the advantages to your firm and individual staff members, you’ll find this area of development is well worth the effort.

Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA is the Association’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at carl.peterson@aicpa-cima.com or 651-252-4618. And mark your calendars for Carl’s next Small Firm Update Webcast, which will be held on September 28 from 2 to 3 ET.