For most Minnesotans, the day after Labor Day marks the first day of the school year. As I watched my children prepare for the learning that they will engage in this year with new schedule planners, sharpened pencils, crisp, untouched notebooks and even the decorator pins on the new backpacks, I was saddened by the thought that a lot of our learning stops when we finish our “formal” education.The accounting profession – like so many other professions – implements rigorous continuing education standards to help practitioners keep up with change, but it seems that many practitioners I meet in my travels have “arrived” and are no longer striving to build new skills and master new ideas.

I believe in life-long learning - versus “early-in-life learning” – and I demonstrate it by attending courses, reading books and other materials and changing behavior or practicing new skills based on my learning. A life-long learning mindset is required by all leaders in you firm instead of an attitude that “I’m done learning” when we reach a certain point in our career. This kind of approach can foster a feeling that a firm’s leaders are somehow above it all, not open to new ideas, not progressing, or not sharpening their skills. Most young people like to work for progressive thinkers – movers and shakers -- and your team morale can suffer if they feel their leadership is stagnating.

This is especially important to consider as the economy begins to recover and competitors come calling on your team members for opportunities outside your four walls. Committing to life-long learning will motivate your team and build morale, confidence and a sense of pride in your teams. But life-long learning is not always easy.

According to Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, learning is defined as the “1: act or experience of one that learns 2: knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study 3: modification of a behavioral tendency by experience (as exposure to conditioning).” As I contemplate that definition, I think about the inordinate amount of information we are expected to absorb and demonstrate a myriad of technical, client service, administrative, people and managerial skills. Doing so requires a personal commitment to gain these new skills, explore new behaviors and further our understanding of the issues facing our clients every day – and a commitment by our firms to value and invest in this kind of continuous learning.

To help foster a culture that supports life-long learning in your firm, consider some actions you could take:

Plan your learning – Each of your team members should understand what is expected of them at the various points in their career, including technical skills, business process, and soft skills. You can use a Team Learning Ladder to define your firm’s expectations and then each individual can plan their learning using an Individual Learning Roadmap.

Participate – Ensure that you are participating in learning opportunities and that your leaders are, too, especially if they are firm-wide learning events for all team members. Don’t be guilty of “do as I say, not as I do,” which will derail your efforts to build a learning culture. Model the behaviors you expect – learn something every day!

Share your new knowledge, skill or behavior – There are many things I would love to learn, but sometimes I just don’t have time to go through the entire learning process myself. I am so happy when someone on our team shows me a new trick with social media, a new communications idea, or a business development idea. Consider sharing the knowledge that you and other team members gain from your learning through lunch and learns, updates at your team meetings or a brief email summary of the “high points” with links to additional information for those who desire it.

Make it fun – Include “decorator pins” to make your learning activities fun. I facilitated an in-firm training day for a firm last year and I was surprised – and pleased - at the luau in their training room. They had decorated the room in a Hawaiian theme, provided leis and other trinkets to each participant and served a “themed” lunch. They encouraged their people to wear beach attire to the two-day training, which made the environment both fun and comfortable. Find ways to make your training events fun and different and at the same time valuable. Then, they will be rewarding experiences your team looks forward to.

When you commit to ongoing learning and make it a priority in your firm, you will improve client service, increase capacity, enhance team performance, and boost employee satisfaction and retention, too. What are you doing this fall to engage in learning opportunities yourself and to make learning opportunities available for your team? We’d love to hear about your learning ideas and successes!