Posted December 28, 2017

Creating a Culture of Learning

This article was originally published in the August 2017 CPA Journal, The Voice of the Profession, a publication of the New York State Society of CPAs. It has been posted here with permission of the Publisher.

When hiring a new team member, the most important thing is cultural fit. A new hire can be trained to do just about anything in accounting or fill another role in team (e.g., IT, marketing, office management). What can’t be taught are the social aspects—can they get along with other team members? Are they a hard worker? Thus, when hiring, the author’s firm only focuses on the soft skills, personality traits, and social acuity that make a great team member.

It is management’s responsibility to teach the accounting and management skills required to succeed as a CPA. When a new hire comes in, management should assume they know absolutely no accounting (unless they already know otherwise). The biggest mistake firms make is expecting new hires to know everything about how to do their job. On average, a student graduating from college has one to four classes in tax; this author personally only had one, individual income tax. It is therefore highly unlikely that a new hire coming directly from college will have the tax skills needed to complete a tax return. Therefore, it is the firm’s responsibility to teach and train new team members, starting from the ground up if necessary.

The best way to train a team is to incorporate learning into every aspect of what the firm leadership does. This means that every meeting, every client interaction, should be shared with another team member and used as a teaching moment. For instance, when a complex subject is being discussed during a client meeting, this is the time to stop and make sure that not only the client understands what is going on, but also the team member. This work is the laboratory in which others can research and learn how to become great CPAs.

When reviewing work, review notes should be given in person and not by email. Management should never make changes to work; always make the team member that prepared the work fix the changes. People learn by making mistakes, and the great part about the profession is that it’s literally not brain surgery. No one is going to die because of a messed-up tax return, and there are three years to amend if necessary. The freedom to make mistakes—not sloppiness, but honest errors as part of a sincere effort—should be encouraged as part of a culture of learning. It is management’s responsibility to catch these mistakes and teach the team member what they did wrong so that they are able to learn. Too often management doesn’t tolerate any mistakes at all, and often singles out team members who make mistakes to embarrass them. This type of management creates a culture of paralysis, where the team members are spend most of their time scared of making mistakes instead of spending it working.

The best part about learning is that it works both ways; often the teacher can learn more from the student than vice versa. The teacher should be open to the reality that the journey of learning is constant. This is what the real culture of learning is all about—everyone learns from everyone, always, in all situations. A new hire might not know anything about tax, but she probably knows how to use a computer better than the firm leaders do. When a firm leader is willing to learn from a new hire, it becomes acceptable for the entire firm to learn from everyone in the firm. This is how a firm can quickly become great.

Creating a culture of learning takes time, so start with something easy. Next time there is an off-site client meeting or lunch, take a young team member along. These experiences are invaluable for the team member and for management, and before long can become a firm standard, making learning into an indelible part of the firm’s culture.

By Jason Ackerman, CPA, CFP®, CGMA