Jennifer Wilson
Jennifer Wilson
Tamera Loerzal
Tamera Loerzal

The Why and How of Developing a Learning Culture

With baby boomer retirement looming, the single most important investment you can make is in developing the skills and abilities of your up-and-coming leaders.

March 22, 2010
by Jennifer Wilson and Tamera Loerzal

Developing business and managing your firm’s revenue stream may have become your most important leadership initiative this past year, but the need to invest in and develop your people remains a critical success factor today and in the future. With baby boomer retirement looming and the security of the buyouts hinging on the success of your practice going forward, the single most important investment you can make is in developing the skills and abilities of your up-and-coming leaders.

When you invest in learning in your practice, the benefits go beyond the assurance of practice continuation. They include:

  • Transforming behavior
  • Enhancing performance
  • Expanding capacity by increasing the number of people who can do certain tasks
  • Increasing efficiency
  • Enhancing employee satisfaction and retention
  • Differentiating your firm in the recruiting process

In this article, we explore the benefits of developing a learning culture and identify a few simple steps you can take to create your firm’s learning plans.

Before you can develop a learning plan, though, you must first assign ownership of your learning functions. Depending on the size of your firm, you may have a “learning owner” that drives your firm’s learning programs with input from a partner sponsor. Or, if your firm is smaller, the learning owner may be a partner or owner with other responsibilities in your firm.

Your firm’s learning owner should create a Learning Initiative Plan with input from your leadership team. Your learning plan should include a mission, objectives and both short-term and long-range measures to gauge the effectiveness of your learning plan. Some examples of short-term measures are:

  • Establishing a written firm-wide learning plan by XX/XX/XX
  • Developing individual learning roadmaps for each individual in the firm by XX/XX/XX
  • Ensuring that XX team members pass their CPA exam by XX/XX/XX

Some longer term measures might include the number of people promoted in a year, an increased satisfaction rating on your next annual client and/or employee survey or profitability improving by a certain percentage.

Once you’ve developed the mission, objectives and measures for your plan, the next step is to identify the types of learning required in your firm with an overview of your firm’s learning options. All learning in the public accounting profession seems to fall under one of four educational categories: technical skills, soft skills, business model education, and business process topics. We find that most firms do a solid job of delivering the technical education required to maintain certification and stay current in each individual’s specialty areas. Where we lack, though, is in consistently building soft skills in our people and in defining exactly what our people need at each level in their career in all four categories.

To develop learning ladders or curriculum by level or position in your firm, identify what learning you expect in each of the four learning categories for each staff level or position. For instance, the combination of technical, soft, business model and business-process skills you might expect to develop in a first-year auditor may include:

  • Professionalism and ethics (soft skills)
  • Organization and time management (soft skills)
  • Client service and communication (soft skills)
  • Time entry and other administrative expectations (business process skills)
  • The importance of capturing all time and meeting budgets (business model skills)
  • Audit preparation and client file setup (technical skills)
  • Trial balance set up (technical skills)
  • Creating and updating schedules, including calculations, analyses layout, and referencing (technical skills)
  • Vouching and tracing to and from client documents (technical skills)
  • Reconciling and rolling forward client balances (technical skills)
  • Updating financials (technical skills)
  • Meeting audit standards (technical skills)

You may have some learning that is expected at all levels, such as ethics or time management, and other skills that are required as people advance in their career, such as business development, people management, presentation skills, billing and specialized technical skills.

When you’ve identified learning by level or position, your learning owner should then determine what type of instructional methods your firm will use to develop the skills for each level. PCPS offers (to PCPS member firms) a modifiable firm competency model that itemizes the core competencies (technical knowledge, productivity, client service, people development & teamwork and business development) needed by each level or position (associate, senior, manager, senior manager, partner) within the firm. It identifies the knowledge, skills and abilities needed by team members at each stage in the development of their professional career. This firm competency model can assist with identifying the attributes for roles in a CPA firm to facilitate learning. The most common instructional methods include:

  • Classroom training
  • Seminars and workshops
  • Conference attendance
  • Web-based facilitated training
  • Self-study courses (DVD, online, podcasts)
  • Self-guided reading
  • One-on-one training, discussion and mentoring
  • Experiential learning by doing and problem solving (on-the-job training)

You will want to decide which of these methods (or perhaps which combination of methods) you’ll use and who the provider of the instruction will be to impart each of the skills by level. Once you have identified this across the four content types and organized them by the level, you’ll be ready to create customized learning roadmaps for each individual.

Creating Individual Learning Roadmaps

Ideally, each person in your firm will have a learning roadmap that outlines the “required learning” for them at their current level, in their current role. To move into a more senior position, each person must first complete their learning roadmap and be able to demonstrate the associated skills, knowledge and behavior outlined in their learning plan.

Consider creating individual learning roadmaps as part of your annual performance review and/or goal-setting process. For each skill or competency on the individual learning roadmap:

  • Identify the priority
  • Determine the “by when” date
  • Identify who will assist the team member in accomplishing each learning objective
  • Define the method by which the learning will occur
  • Include professional texts, articles, web sites, databases, manuals and other resources that may help them in their learning in each area

Creating individual learning roadmaps can be as simple as identifying two or three skills that each person needs in the coming year and choosing the courses or other learning methods that they will access to develop those skills. Start simple and identify the learning objectives that will have the biggest impact in developing your people and their learning goals.

If you are at the place in your firm where you’re ready to further your learning program, then plan to:

  • Identify a learning owner,
  • Create your learning plan,
  • Identify learning by level and then
  • Develop individual learning roadmaps.

And be sure to check out the Learning Guide and other resources and templates in the Learning Culture section of the PCPS Human Capital Center to simplify your work considerably. If you are investing in training of any kind for your people, the Human Capital Center resources can help you formulate a program to ensure that your training is delivered consistently and that real skills and competencies are developed (and can be relied on) out of those investments.


No matter where you decide to start, choose one thing you can commit to undertake today. By committing to invest in your firm’s learning culture, you’ll ensure that your firm’s people will be ready and able to lead in the years ahead!

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Jennifer Wilson and Tamera Loerzel are partners at ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and training firm that specializes in helping CPA and IT firms achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencelearning.com.