Heather Weber had noticed the disconcerting trend for quite a while.
As a partner at ParenteBeard, she often saw firsthand how the younger accountants at the firm communicated with clients — and she knew there was plenty of room for improvement.
“More and more of our younger staff are going about dealing with clients just through email,” said Weber, who is based in the firm's Clark office. “It's important — we stress with everyone — that you talk to them and show them that we're real people.”
She's not the only one at ParenteBeard who felt that way. And it's just one of the reasons why the accounting firm started its LEAP program — short for Leadership, Entrepreneurism, Achievement at ParenteBeard — which provides two years of instructional classes and seminars that help its employees do their jobs better.
Here's the catch: The program is not built around the typical number-crunching side of the business. It's all about communication.
“We had 'How to do an elevator speech,' so that when you meet new people or new clients, how's the best way to come across in selling yourself,” Weber said. “And we also had formalized projects where we had to give a formal presentation in front of a large group.”
The program was created by John Park, principal at ParenteBeard, which also has an office in Cherry Hill.
Participants meet four times a year, starting in May, for two- or three-day meetings. And they always meet away from the office. Park feels the change in environment is essential to allowing members to focus on the business at hand.
“We get everybody away from everything and really focus on learning and leadership,” he said.
Here's how it works:
Accountants are often paired up in groups, given a case study and asked to present a response. This sort of hands-on learning allows for practical application in a controlled environment.
“We would take them into a situation and have them work together to solve problems, some kind of team-building environment where they would be in a competitive environment to see how they could work collaboratively together to really enhance team effectiveness,” he said.
For Park, the idea is to provide participants with new information at the first meeting of the year, then allow them time to cultivate those ideas in the workspace.
These experiences are then presented and discussed with the group at the following meetings to further build the learning culture.
Park doesn't look at this program as a cost to the firm, but rather an investment in its workforce. Its return, Park admits, is hard to measure, so the firm tries to quantify it with a “Do Difference” report filled out by the participants.
“After the first year, we ask them to talk about what they've done differently, how they are aware of their own communication skills and the communication of their clients and co-workers,” Park said.
Park sees another benefit of cultivating the communication skills of the firm's members: business development.
“Long-term professional service firms, whether it's accountants, attorneys or engineers — they have to have the ability to generate new business,” he said. “And you do that by being able to have foundational skills in consultative selling, in how to make effective presentations or how to interact with clients in a networking situation.”
The participants also learn how to interact and network with each other.
Weber feels the chance to build a sense of community among co-workers can not be understated.
“Getting away really gives us a chance to interact with other professionals and leaders in the firm, which normally I wouldn't have … with some of my senior managers in Pittsburgh,” she said. “A lot of it is learning how to deal with people, and having that interaction overnight definitely added to the experience.”
But this focus on communication and teamwork does not mean the individual loses out, according to Weber.
“We all are different people coming from a different perspective,” she said. “So a one-size-fits-all program or way to do something might not work.”
The key, Weber said, is for every participant to learn these communication skills. She finds there is a fine line between performing an accountant's responsibilities and keeping the client happy with the service.
“We have to be able to do our job, we have to be able to communicate that, usually show value in what we're doing and solutions on how to fix problems versus just point them out,” she said. “Then being able to explain it to them in a way that they understand it and want to fix it, versus getting defensive and just blaming us.”
As these relationships are built, Weber feels communications open up and the defensiveness of clients drop, allowing the firm to perform its job more efficiently.
“It's so important to be able to communicate and build these relationships so they understand why we're here,” she said.
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As part of the LEAP program, participants must complete a personality profile, which aims to help them better understand both themselves and those around them. The exercise breaks people down to the following groups: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness. This understanding is used to help participants understand how they would communicate with different types of people.
“It kind of taught you how to evaluate the kind of people you’re dealing with,”ParenteBeard partner Heather Weber said.