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Taking Account of Learning

Professional services firms have a reputation for grinding through employees without much focus on individual development. A small Miami-based accounting firm, Kaufman Rossin, has chosen a different approach.

August 21, 2008
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development
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Raul Garcia has been on both sides of the fence in the accounting world. The 20-year industry veteran spent the early part of his career with Deloitte, one of the largest professional services firms in the world. But for the past 11 years Garcia has plied his trade at Kaufman Rossin & Co., a smaller, Miami-based organization that quietly has built a reputation as one of the most respected firms in the industry.

Although Garcia has fond memories of his time at Deloitte, it is in the more intimate setting at Kaufman Rossin that he is emerging as a leader. "At a smaller firm, you run the whole gamut and get involved in many aspects of the company," says Garcia, a manager with the company’s audit financial services division in Miami.

That includes getting involved with learning and development. In addition to managing his own staff, Garcia, 41, helps other professionals prepare for continuing-education requirements related to the complex hedge fund industry. He helps design curricula, prepares coursework and delivers in-person training through the company’s Kaufman Rossin University.

Being able to share his technical knowledge with others contributes to his own job satisfaction, Garcia says. "With 20 years under my belt, if I can help somebody learn from my experience, then I feel I’m doing my part."

Kaufman Rossin, which posted $50 million in revenue in 2007, is noted for its historically low turnover and exceptional retention. Nearly 20 percent of its employees have spent at least two decades with the firm. The firm’s family-style corporate culture is something of a mini-legend in the accounting industry.

Experts say the company’s aggressive stance on learning is a key factor in its ability to compete with bigger firms in wooing talented people like Garcia. In particular, the accounting practice’s in-house university is designed to encourage and instill learning across all levels of the organization, from senior partners down to support staff.

"It’s a phenomenal company with a phenomenal culture," says Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a New Haven, Connecticut-based consulting firm that helped Kaufman Rossin design management and staff training for its in-house university.

"Jim Kaufman’s employees think the world of him," Tulgan says, referring to one of the firm’s co-founders.

A corporate university may seem like overkill for a company with only 280 employees. It is a learning structure usually associated with complex organizations with large, globally dispersed workforces. Yet few industries depend as much on sustained knowledge development as accounting, where laws are constantly in flux and complex, new regulations must be digested, understood and implemented to help customers.

     "We felt one of the benefits, both to our firm and our employees, would be the creation of a more formal, dedicated and deeper education program," says Janet Altman, a marketing principal with Kaufman Rossin in Miami.

The company’s professional staff, including accountants, auditors and tax specialists, routinely pursues ongoing training for certification to stay current in their respective fields. But there was concern that some people weren’t getting enough detailed training in technical and other strategic skills, Altman says.

The in-house university provides four categories of learning: technical and professional certifications, technology training, management and life-enrichment classes. The last category includes foreign-language instruction, yoga, a book club and art appreciation.

"We think of our university as something that enriches the lives of our employees, and it’s one reason we are [considered] one of the best places to work in South Florida," Altman says, referring to an honor conferred three years in a row by the South Florida Business Journal.

A sizable chunk of the curriculum is devoted to helping white-collar professionals grow into management and leadership roles, specifically by helping them "learn how to manage, and [help] staffers learn how to be managed," says Samantha Snyder, the director of Kaufman Rossin University.

Unlike most U.S. industries, the accounting profession is seeing its ranks swell as new college graduates enter the field. According to a survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, more than 64,000 students in 2007 graduated with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting. That is 19 percent higher than the trade group’s last survey in 2005, and also marks the largest one-year number of new accounting graduates since it began tracking the data 36 years ago.

Fueling the surge are tougher reforms like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which imposes stricter corporate governance requirements on U.S. companies.

Identifying potential leaders among this crop of newly minted professionals remains a problem for professional services organizations, which often promote their best people without first assessing their managerial skills.

As a result, fledgling managers often take a hands-off approach and "end up managing only by special occasion, when things go wrong," says Tulgan, the Rainmaker Thinking consultant.

Moreover, the grueling pace of the professional services sector creates an ethos of "chewing people up and spitting them out," not one that focuses on individual development or growth, Tulgan says.

Kaufman Rossin University’s curriculum exposes managers to some fundamentals intended to boost their success rate. Most of these skills seem intuitive, yet learning them can seem daunting to people who have never managed others.

"Coming from other industries, we realized that management is a skill that can be taught … and that it’s vital to the success of the organization," Altman says.

For example, managers are encouraged to have daily one-on-one sessions with employees, learn to clearly communicate expectations, and provide performance coaching to prevent small issues from turning into major crises.

"I’ve learned a lot more patience," Garcia says of his exposure to management training. "You learn to walk yourself through [managing] a difficult situation, rather than flying by the seat of your pants."

Another beneficiary is Meredith Tucker, who joined Kaufman Rossin as an intern in 2003 while pursuing a master’s degree in accounting. Upon graduating from Florida State University, she was hired at the firm and now serves as a supervisor of accounting services at its Fort Lauderdale branch.

Tucker’s job duties begin to change once the annual tax season closes. In addition to her regular job duties, Tucker, 28, carries the title of part-time faculty at the corporate university. She says she spends "20 percent to 30 percent of any given week during the summer reading about changes in accounting laws, preparing lesson plans and developing courses that teach use of commonly used accounting software and other tools. The courses are aimed at both accounting professionals and support staff.

Aside from teaching them how to use the software, Tucker helps people "understand things from a client’s perspective," including anticipating commonly asked questions and providing knowledgeable replies, she says.

Last year, Kaufman Rossin introduced a mentoring program and upgraded its performance evaluations around a set of leadership competencies. "We’ve identified for the first time specifically what it takes for a person to perform not only in their current job, but also jobs at the next level," Snyder says.

The company plans to offer a leadership program through its university later this year, consisting of two tracks. One track will provide basic management training— the "how to manage and how to be managed" philosophy—to all employees. The second targets a select group of managers whose performance suggests they could emerge as the company’s future partners and senior leaders.

The initiative grew out of internal discussions regarding the need to create specific succession plans for key positions.

"Our partner track gives back to the program by [producing] the mentors that will assist people moving up the ranks," Snyder says.

At the other end of the experience spectrum is the firm’s 12-week internship program for college graduates. Those selected as interns spend three weeks each in the company’s tax, accounting, auditing and litigation consulting departments.

Interns receive traditional coursework in each area, but the more important material is learned through hands-on assignments. The program is "extremely effective," Altman says, since many new graduates aren’t sure which discipline they want to pursue.

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