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Learning Adds Up To Revenue Growth Driven by the employment motto, “From campus to partner,” employee

Learning Adds Up To Revenue Growth

Driven by the employment motto, “From campus to partner,” employee learning and development at Grant Thornton is guided by a stair-step framework that includes all online and in-person offerings.

The senior managers, all CPAs, who work at Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, a public accounting firm, provide professional services to clients in one of the firm’s areas of specialization, including tax, audit, advisory, and industry services. Since the economic downturn, however, they’ve been tasked with an additional responsibility: revenue growth. Economic pressures and the end of most of the Sarbanes-Oxley work led the firm to create financial targets for senior managers a couple of years ago.

“I’ve been in the industry for 15 years,” comments Don Beeman, national director of leadership development. “Although the concept of ‘selling’ was not always widely accepted for a professional services firm, we have realized that we must focus on building a sales culture in order to be successful.”

What the firm’s Strategic Learning Group (SLG) soon realized, however, was that many newly promoted senior managers lacked business development skills—and the firm lacked formalized training to teach those skills. SLG members revamped Grant Thornton’s annual senior manager development program to achieve two goals: mark the milestone promotion and equip participants with the skills to develop their business. They built a sales training curriculum into the annual three-day conference for newly promoted senior managers, focusing on a simulation approach to replicate realistically the business and competitive conditions participants would face.

The curriculum combines formal learning with team work sessions and simulated client interaction. Teams compete for business by meeting “clients,” played by experienced Grant Thornton personnel, and presenting to a “board,” played by firm executives. The teams that are best aligned to client needs and firm values get the business; all receive executive feedback.

“We wanted to demystify the process and make it less scary,” says Beeman. “The curriculum emphasizes understanding clients’ businesses and experiences through conversation, and encourages these new managers to be curious, ask questions, and identify opportunities.”

Win rates for program participants are nearly double those of nonparticipants, while win size and total wins are triple those of nonparticipants. Beeman estimates that the program has directly driven almost $30 million in new business over the first three years, and that return-on-investment tops 1,000 percent.

Other less tangible benefits also have been felt. Tenured employees who have participated as mock clients and board members have reported to Beeman that sitting on the other side of the table has helped them identify areas in which they, too, could improve their business development skills.

The success of the program has been so great that it drove the creation of a new initiative, an innovative four-part Business Development Foundation Series that is offered to all client-facing professionals. Its parts focus on preparation, engagement, proposals, and presentations. Each part includes online prework, gaming-style scored simulations, and libraries of short instructional videos, and all are capped off with a face-to-face simulation exercise.

“We keep the simulations realistic by including unexpected twists and turns, such as a sudden change in client decision makers or having ‘clients’ cut meetings short due to an emergency,” says Beeman.

Learners have turned in rave reviews, giving the programs an average score of 6.2 out of 7. Business development executives have completed the program and have been trained to coach the behaviors, and the series is being adapted for use by international member firms.

“Strategic alignment is the key to our success,” says Anne Lang, chief human resources officer for the firm. “Each activity that our team engages in aligns with our firm’s strategic drivers, so our efforts focus on what is most important to the business and help drive the desired results. Our business leaders recognize this and give strong and consistent support to investing in the development of our people.”

Revenue growth is but one of the strategic drivers supported by the SLG. A second is talent—the firm strives to attract, develop, engage, and retain skilled professionals.

“This can be a tough job at first, and it’s not always a great fit. Our hiring model is to recruit heavily among recent college graduates,” says Lang.

The firm hires about 1,000 new associates each year. To help prospective employees make informed decisions, Grant Thornton offers 350 nationwide college internships annually, plus job shadowing and student employment programs. Simultaneously, hiring managers have been trained to make better hiring decisions through behavioral interviewing, which helps them to identify the core behavioral traits common to high-performing employees.

“Many of the initiatives designed to acquaint young people with the firm and the profession have had a positive effect on our retention of entry-level employees,” Lang adds.

Grant Thornton’s approach to integrated talent management is evident in its employment motto, “From campus to partner.” Employee learning and development is guided by a stair-step framework known as LEADS, the umbrella for all online and in-person offerings.

All employees have individual development plans, documented competencies, tracked learning histories, and annual performance reviews. Grant Thornton’s Professional Competency Framework was developed in 2008 to create a clearer link between individual contribution and organizational success. It outlines the skills and behaviors expected at each professional level, and how they align with organizational strategy. About a year ago, the firm added a Career Aspirations piece to the annual review: Managers ask employees where they want to go, and help create a development plan to help them get there.

The firm also is piloting a new sponsor program with 15 female high-potential senior managers who aspire to be partners. In the accounting industry, women make up 50 percent of new hires but only 12 to 18 percent of partners. To combat that talent loss, Grant Thornton has partnered with McKinsey & Company to create a customized leadership program, and launched a women’s mentoring network in 2008. The sponsorship program is designed to take things a step further: Partner-track women are matched with senior sponsors to pursue a goal of 20 percent female partners by 2015.

About 30 percent of employees are eligible for high-potential development programs, and about 30 percent of executive positions have succession plans. Although Grant Thornton employs 5,000 people in the United States, it also operates in 100 countries around the world. Executives are keenly aware of the need to build a global leadership pipeline.

Chicago-based SLG members partnered with their colleagues around the world to create a bold new advanced manager program for high-potential employees, a yearlong curriculum led by firm executives and renowned business thinkers in occasional onsite sessions at various locations. The inaugural session brought together managers from 20 member firms, representing 24 countries and 26 languages, for sessions in Chicago, Brussels, and Hong Kong. Several graduates have already made partner, Beeman says.

“This can be a tough job at first, and it’s not always a great fit. Our