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ACCOUNTING SPOTLIGHT - Big accounting firms have various employee training programs, but they all come back to one key emphasis: Leadership skills

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Ashley Goodall, who serves as the chief learning officer at Deloitte, says one key to leadership is simple: Leave your smartphone behind.
Ashley Goodall, who serves as the chief learning officer at Deloitte, says one key to leadership is simple: Leave your smartphone behind. - (PHOTO COURTESY OF DELOITTE)

Christopher Stout has heard all the old jokes about his profession — and what his job supposedly says about him.

He's an accountant. You know, usually not the first person you seek out at a party.

Stout, however, doesn't fit the stereotype.

When he clocks out at the end of a long day, he's the kind of guy that strums a guitar and draws with charcoal.

“People think accounting is a solo thing with unapproachable people,” said Stout, an audit manager in KPMG's office in the Short Hills section of Millburn.

So many of the big accounting firms are going out of their way to teach their employees to be approachable, be social — be, dare we say, the life of the party.

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Stout has applied soft skill training on a daily basis.

“Things come up every day where we're faced with difficult conversations we might have to have with the companies we audit or within our team internally,” Stout said. “We try to provide those real-world situations in the training.”

These types of soft skills programs are common among accounting firms. Other big four firms PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte have implemented similar courses.

PwC, which has offices in Florham Park and Jersey City, has a slightly more individualistic approach to leadership training, using a program it calls Discovery.

“Discovery itself is a program that's linked to a significant career milestone,” said Tom Evans, partner and chief learning officer. “It is designed to allow our new seniors to explore leadership in the context of self-leadership and how they can develop the skills and capability to make an effective choice.”

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PwC's Discovery asks its participants to engage in the development of more personal values, belief and character. As such, Evans is reluctant to call this a course on “soft skills.”

“We've defined it as a leadership experience, which is focused on the ability to develop skills that increase your capacity and capability to make an effective choice,” Evans said.

Deloitte's approach to leadership training shares this focus on the individual and building a value system. Its program is called My Way to Lead.

Ashley Goodall, director and chief learning officer at Deloitte, said part of the development process for new partners includes simply asking them to leave behind their smartphones and go for a walk.

“Leaders have to go figure out what they stand for and that's a conversation you have to have with yourself,” Goodall said. “And for that conversation to take place, you're probably best not holding a phone or plugged into a laptop. You're probably best going for a walk.”

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Goodall, whose firm has five offices in New Jersey, asserts that strong individuals make strong leaders.

“The leader of a team has to understand that their job is not to line everybody up and make everybody the same height,” he said. “Their job is to figure out, 'How am I going to deploy this collection of strengths to the best service of my client?'”

One common thread running through the programs is the concept of travel, or at the very least, an overnight stay.

“Moments of reflection and contemplation are vanishingly rare in the world we live in,” Goodall said. “That exercise and discipline in itself is a bedrock of leadership.”

E-mail to: andrews@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrewsnjbiz

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Andrew Sheldon

Andrew Sheldon

Andrew Sheldon covers technology and education. His email is andrews@njbiz.com and he is @AndrewsNJBIZ on Twitter.

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