Lifetime Learning with Kathy Klang
Randy talks to Kathy Klang of Cummings, Keegan on Episode 53 of The Unique CPA. She helped grow the firm as its Managing Partner for nearly 15 years, and she now serves as Success Management Partner. In this role, she has developed a pathing system within the firm that helps new and existing employees alike get on the right career track. She discusses the process of developing this, the pitfalls, and the ethos necessary to make it work.
Today, our guest is Kathy Klang. Kathy is a partner at Cummings Keegan out of the Minneapolis area. She started with Cummings Keegan in 1984, right out of college, which we’ll have to talk about that, the whole career at one place, but what we’ll get into that. She actually became a partner at CK—I’m gonna say CK, it’s easier for me to say, so we’ll go with CK—in 1996. And she served as the Managing Partner from 2006 to 2020. She was the first female board director at CPAmerica, which is an association of CPA firms. That is where I met Kathy, probably over 10 plus years ago at conferences that we’ve been able to attend together. Kathy and I had the good fortune of having a drink together at a conference just last month in Park City, Utah, and it was actually nice to be back in person with people. So Kathy, welcome to The Unique CPA.
Thank you, Randy.
That’s one thing I think we do when we go to conferences, we make sure we have a drink together, don’t we? So
Yep! Pretty much every time.
We’ve had twice this year already, haven’t we? Yeah, we were in Boston together, and then we were in Park City, Utah together, right?
It’s nice. It’s nice to get back out again.
So a couple things that we’ll get into: we’ll gonna eventually get into some learning, some lifetime learning programs that you’re setting up at the firm. But before we do there, I’m really thrilled first, that we got to set this up, because I know you and I probably talked about it, pre-pandemic, so well over a year ago, two years ago.
We did, yeah.
And so I’m glad we finally got this set up. But the first question I do have is: An entire career at one firm. That is not the norm these days, and especially with, you know, hiring issues many firms are having. Was this your goal going in, or you knew immediately, or it just it was like, “This is my place?” How did this, how[ever] many year run happen at this point?
You know, it was not my goal going in. But at that time, I was just happy to get a job.
I mean the market was completely reversed from what it is now.
Jobs were not as easy to get. And it took me a little while once I finished college—it took me a few months to even start to get any significant interviews. I don’t remember—at one time, I knew how many applications they got, or how many resumes they got at the time I put mine in—it was many tens to maybe even as close to a hundred. Who knows.
But I was fortunate enough to get an interview. I feel that I am very fortunate to have gotten in at Cummings Keegan and Company when I did. It’s hard for me to say this because it sounds so self-aggrandizing or whatever, but it’s a great firm.
Everybody there is great. I’ve not, I mean, I have people that I’ve worked with there for my entire career. And it’s crazy to think about, but I never had a reason to want to leave.
Well, that’s good. I mean, that’s a good—that, right there, you should put that on your website as your when you’re hiring promotions, when you’re trying to attract people now ‘cause that’s great.
So I got a quick question: Is Tim one of the ones that’s been there the entire time?
Yeah, he started a year before I did. He’s been there even longer.
Right. So he’s an old guy. You know, you and I are young.
Well, I just was curious about that, because you don’t see that that often. Even—so ‘84 is when I should have graduated college. I decided to take an extra year, or I needed to take an extra year, one of those two—but yeah, the same thing. It was a tougher market then, and I have by no means been at the same firm since 1984. So yeah, that’s awesome to see.
So what you and I talked about before we got on this call, and you know, we actually talked about in Boston, was this new program that you’re working on. You were managing partner, you did that for a long time as well. You do things for a long time, apparently.
I guess so, yeah!
And so that run ended last year, and obviously, I’m sure you won’t say it, but I’ll say it—I know you’ve been great for the firm and I know the firm’s done great under your leadership. So congratulations on that.
But now you’re into this new—obviously you’re continuing what you were doing in other cases, but you’ve taken on this program of—and you’re gonna have to explain it to me— but it’s, you kind of said, a lifelong learning, learning culture, developing career paths. And you know, and basing this on learning management systems, so that’s a mouthful. What does this mean? And what are you doing? How’s this keeping you busy?
Well, a learning culture and lifelong learning has been a core value of ours for a number of years, and we’ve talked about developing a more formalized process and more formalized career paths for a long time. And we just never had enough traction. Nobody’s had enough time really, to devote to it.“Learning management system” is just a fancy way of saying we're using a tool that helps us to develop these career paths. Click To Tweet
So when I decided to step down as Managing Partner, I talked with the other partners and the management leadership in the firm, and I said, “This is how I’d like to fill the time that becomes available to me is to head up this area, and really work it.”
So “learning management system” is just a fancy way of saying we’re using a tool that helps us to develop these career paths that show not only what technical training you need, along that path, but also what other kinds of learning and knowledge and skills you need to advance in that path.
There are several online tools that help with that sort of thing; there’s probably some internal ones as well. But with the current technology, they link into providers of continuing education so that you can pull out information and make it available to people.
You can set up, like I say, so learning paths: let’s talk about a career path and a learning track. Let’s just say you start out as a staff accountant with the firm, and your focus is going to be tax. You’ll be able to look at these learning tracks and say, “Okay, in my first two years, these are the kinds of things I can expect to learn, and the kinds of knowledge that I need to acquire in order to continue to move up to someday be the director of the tax department”—if that’s your goal. And you’ll be able to walk through this, and as a firm, we’ll be able to help you manage that, and we can assign different internal learning tasks that we develop. We can assign external CPE that we have attached to this area. And it gives us a little bit more clear direction and ability to assist people in choosing the track they want to follow, and also in moving on their career path.
It’s a big job, and it’s gonna take us a while to get there.
And so, got a bunch of questions after that. But so, do you have a specific tool you’re using—an online tool for this?
Yeah, we’re using a system called Prolaera. And we actually got onto them because a vendor that we use, Upstream Academy Network, for members of that network, and they started using it. So the way they use it is they provide their management presentations, their one hour webinars—and then once they’ve recorded it, they post it to the Prolaera system. And since we’re part of the network, we have access to that information, and we can have anybody in the firm have access to that if we want. The benefit to it is, Prolaera’s system allows us to have somebody else in the firm listen to a recorded version of that, and still get CPE credit for it.
I was gonna ask if that recording is available for CPE. So it is.
So because in general, I mean, lifetime learning, that’s something you know, you and I, and all CPAs are used to because we have to. I mean, we’re required to keep our license for one, and to stay relevant in this industry, you have to anyways, because tax laws are constantly changing, accounting procedures are constantly changing—you need to keep up on this. And so putting this path in, to make the education probably more directed at your career path is great, because for me, I come to the end of the year, and I need hours? I’m picking any course out there. So I probably should be on something like this, and then that’s what this is for, right? It’s to help you in that path. I mean to keep you to educate you on the skills you’re going to need, like you said to be the Director of Tax someday.
Yeah. The other thing that it provides for us is it is a mechanism for tracking people’s CPE, and where they are with their required hours. You put in your credential—so for instance, I have both a CPA and an ABV, Accredited in Business Valuation. And the ABV has a subset of CPE requirements. So it tracks both of those for me, and it gives you a dashboard of how far along you are, and whatever the period is. We have an enrolled agent working for us, we have that information in there, so hers is different. And it tracks ethics and all of that. So, and as a firm management, we can go in and look at the entire firm on a dashboard and say, “Okay, who’s missing ethics as we come up to the June 30 deadline here in Minnesota?”
Yep, yep. Yeah, that’s an important one. Four hours, right?
Eight in three years.
Eight in three years—I think we are four every three years. So well, I guess, I guess we’re already more ethical, apparently here than Minnesota, unless I got it wrong.
Well, I won’t comment on that!
Yeah, I’m probably wrong on that one. So we’ll let that one go!
Alright, so some questions, then on this whole—and I don’t know, if I cut you off and there’s more expansion there.
Alright. So identifying the career path. If I’m coming—I mean, I graduated college, I didn’t know my career path. I was working for thirty years before I knew my career path probably! Or maybe not that long. But let’s say you get into this tax track, and you realize that’s not for me. One, is this program going to help identify that? Or is it going to be more the personal identification—it’s like, okay, yeah, I’m not passionate about this. How does that work? And then can I switch?
Yeah. So for our firm, we have a supervisor assigned to each person, and part of the supervisor’s role is to make sure that the person is moving along in the right direction—talking to them about, you know, where do you want to be? What do you want to do? Traditionally, our firm has not been highly departmentalized, but we are moving more in that direction.
So the way we’re approaching it right now is, if we hire somebody who’s on a CPA track, we do our best to give them some background experience and training in both tax and audit and accounting, assurance, whatever—so that they can help to figure out what they think they want to do long term. We also have a client accounting services department, and then a basic consulting services department that I head up. And so we try to give people a broad range of experiences in their first one to two years.
Yeah, I like that a lot.If we hire somebody who's on a CPA track, we do our best to give them some background experience and training in both tax and audit and accounting, assurance, whatever—so that they can help to figure out what they think they want to do. Click To Tweet
So they can try different things out.
Yep. I think that’s important. I learned in my first couple years, I did not like auditing.
I like tax. Yeah. And so I don’t know if I would have known that beforehand. So yeah, go ahead.
So we try to hire people for a department, but they are not slotted there forever, if it doesn’t work for them oor us, or if it’s not where their interest lies.
So yeah, they’ll—if it’s somebody who’s hired by the tax department, and they start out on a tax career track, they still have access to, and can see, what the other career tracks are. We haven’t gotten this part done yet, but I suspect that the first one to two years, career tracks will be very similar, regardless of what department you’re in.
As far as the learning that and training that you get.
Yep, that makes sense.
The other thing that we’re going to do with this is, you know, we tend to talk just about the CPA track, or the members of the firm who are in the quote-unquote, production world. But we’re also going to set up tracks for our administrative area. You know, we have a marketing person—marketing and director of growth and operations, you know, she’s gonna need a replacement someday. Somebody that’s hired to the administrative area maybe wants to move more in that direction on a longer term basis. So we’re going to have tracks for those kinds of things.
The first one we’re developing right now is for onboarding.
Okay, yep. Makes sense.
Yeah. Firm orientation, and what do they need to learn? And we’re recording a lot of stuff that we used to do every time with a new person, somebody would sit down with them and go through something, you know. And then, so we’re recording that and then when you sit down with the person, it’s more of a discussion, a Q&A, about that topic instead of a, you know, here’s what I have to say.
Right. Building in some efficiencies then as well.
Which obviously we all need in public accounting right now with the you know, the, well, in most industries right now with the inability to find all the people we need.
So a couple more questions then on this. Let’s say that I am deficient in one area. Is this going to help identify that and maybe suggest I do more training in this specific area?
Yeah, potentially. We’re also going to integrate into this whole thing some assessments.
And we haven’t quite landed on what those assessments aren’t going to be yet, but it’ll be things like when somebody comes out of college. You know for a long time we just assumed that the new accounting students coming out of college were proficient in Excel. Well, that’s not necessarily true. So we’re gonna do some assessments of, you know, what is their skill level in Excel and Word?
Same with the admin area—what’s their skill levels and what kind of training do they need for that?
So I don’t know that the learning management system specifically will help identify the deficiencies. I think that’s going to be more of a interactive approach between supervisor, supervisee, and people that are working with the individuals. But the assessments will be built into the career track portion as well.
Okay, that makes sense. Anything I missed on that whole system? I’m sure you’ve got a lot going on up above that I kept interrupting you with and go in different directions, but anything else to expand on that system and the setup?
No, not the tool itself. Really the biggest part of the job is identifying what the various training needs to be, and integrating it into the system.
And is this something that all firms, many firms, some firms are doing? Do you have an idea?
Within our association, we mentioned it earlier, CPAmerica, I think there are a few firms that have done this, you know. Some of them will call it like “Cummings Keegan University” or whatever, you know.
Right, right, yeah.
And all of that. To be honest, I don’t know how how robust or how successful they have been. I think obviously the larger firms, the big four, however many they are these days, I know that they have very robust training and leadership programs and that and a lot of internal stuff for their people. But again, I don’t know if they have like a career development type of program—”this is what you need to do to get to this spot out in the future.”
And I think that’s huge and you mentioned Upstream—I know that’s something that they talk about a lot too, is just, you know, having people come in and know what their future is, what the path is, and how to get there. They are some of my favorite people there at Upstream, so I’m glad you mentioned them.
So the one thing then—so this, do you think, new college grads, are they gonna know this is a benefit to them? Is this something you’re going to use to promote when you’re out hiring?
Absolutely we are. Whether they’re going to know what’s a benefit or not, I don’t know. I do know that the current college grads they want to know what it’s going to take yep to move along in their career.
Yeah, whatever path they choose, yep.
Right. So I think that they will recognize that it’s worthwhile—that this is something that other firms our size anyway, aren’t doing yet.
About five or so years, or maybe it’s more than five years ago now, we developed kind of getting started on this process. We developed basically a handbook—we called it a career roadmap. And it had, it’s not very long, you know. It’s maybe a couple dozen, three dozen pages, but it has things in it like “Here’s what you can expect in your first year, here’s what your supervisor’s responsibility to you is, this is what it means to be a senior, this is what it means to be a manager.” And then we had a grid of, “here are some of the kinds of skills in the various areas that you need to move up to these positions.”
But there wasn’t any training-specific piece attached to it.
So this is hopefully just expanding on that. We got a lot of really good response in recruiting using that handbook. People were very interested in that, and they thought it was a very useful tool for them coming into the firm. So to me this is an expansion on that handbook.
Nice, nice. So the one thing that I know is important to you and your firm in general, is—and we’ve talked about this before—is just passions, and this is a big thing with my passions outside of work too. I know on your website you list everybody’s passions and what they do, and I know for you it’s outdoor sports and what, skiing, and the twins and softball, and beer?
Yeah, I like my beer!
So I don’t think—you probably can’t build that into the system somehow. But I think it’s important to somehow be able to take those passions and use them at work as well. And so that’s probably not a way, but if you, I guess, select the right path, hopefully those passions become involved. I don’t know. What do you think?
No, I agree. I mean, it speaks to the one of the speakers in Park City at the conference we were at a month or so ago—
—John Garrett. Love John Garrett—
—yep, and talking about “What is your ‘And’?” And the “And” is all the things that are about you, that don’t have to do with work.
Part of our firm’s culture was instilled by Jim Keegan, one of our founders—where he was kind of a benevolent dictator type leader. But he always felt like the firm was an extension of his family, and he wanted to know what was going on with you. What is your “And?” And so we’ve tried to continue that over the years. I mean, we’re at a point now where there are three of us in the firm, who ever worked with Jim Keegan. So it’s, you know, we’re losing some of that direct connection.
But we’ve tried to keep that part of our culture, and to be honest, it’s something that’s a little bit harder to do virtually.
So we’re, we’re very aware of that, and we’re trying to keep that. Now, how do you integrate that into your career path? I mean, certain things like we, you know, we had a guy who was very interested in craft breweries. And so now, unfortunately, he’s no longer with us, but he tried to start up a little niche, and, you know, getting to know some of the craft brewers and I mean, if there was some way that we could help and have a niche in that industry.
Nice. Well, there’s probably something you can build in with that, because I think that’s important as well.
So anything I missed any advice, any last statements on this whole system, you’re getting set up?
Well, advice. Hah, if anybody’s looking to do it, just realize that it is a very big job, and it’s gonna be kind of a living, breathing thing, because skill requirements change in this profession. And one thing that we did wrong to start with, before we found the Prolaera tool, we were identifying specific courses, that, you know, for like a staff accountant—you need to take these courses. That didn’t work well because they’re constantly changing. Yeah, there’s some of the core ones, there’s, you know, “Tax Staff Training I,” or something along those lines. But now we’re trying to define it more as a type of course, what kinds of things they’re learning, versus a specific course, until it gets to where we’re signing them up, or assigning them to a specific thing to take.
And we know—I’ve been doing this now for a year. I mean, it was a year ago that I stepped down as leading partner—and we’re just scratching the surface at this point.
So not a fast process.
But very valuable process once it gets up and going.
I think it’s going to be very helpful for people that come to work there, people that are currently working there, and will honestly then be very beneficial to clients as well.
Because of the of the expertise, everybody’s gonna learn, and going down that right path.
Alright, well, that was awesome. I had no idea what that was before we started talking today, so I appreciate the education. That’s the one goal that I have in this show is educate—well, two goals—educate and have fun. I had fun, and you educated, so we’re good.
Good! I enjoyed it, too.
Any, if anybody wants to look up more on you? LinkedIn, website, any other place, any place to send them?
Yeah, the website is www.cummingskeegan.com.
So that’s probably the best place to find me. I am on LinkedIn as well. I don’t know what my LinkedIn handle is.
They can just look up your name and find you that way. So alright. Well, Kathy, thank you. It was great to see you again. This is almost like three months in a row, even though this one’s virtually.
And I got a good suspicion we’ll be doing this in a year again, to see the update of where you’re at, and find out how everything’s going, if it’s—
—that would be wonderful, yeah! Thanks, Randy.
Let’s plan on that!
About the Guest
Kathy Klang serves as Success Management Partner at Cummings Keegan. She specializes in strategic planning, business valuations, and mid-market business accounting. Kathy can quickly sort through data, learn from previous scenarios and think strategically to recommend best practices suitable to each situation.
For years, Kathy has been setting trends and breaking barriers. Her entire career has been spent at Cummings, Keegan & Co. During that time, she became the first female Board Director for CPAmerica International, Inc. She was one of the first CPAs in MN to receive the ABV, Accreditation in Business Valuations. She led the Success Management Division for CK&Co., and became the firm’s Managing Partner.
Meet the Host
Randy Crabtree, CPA
Randy Crabtree, co-founder and partner of Tri-Merit Specialty Tax Professionals, is a widely followed author, lecturer and podcast host for the accounting profession.
Since 2019, he has hosted the bi-weekly “The Unique CPA,” podcast, which ranks among the world’s 10% most popular programs (Source: Listen Score). You can find articles from Randy in Accounting Today’s Voices column, the AICPA Tax Adviser (Tax-saving opportunities for the housing and construction industries) and he is a regular presenter at conferences and virtual training events hosted by CPAmerica, Prime Global, Leading Edge Alliance (LEA), Allinial Global and several state CPA societies. Crabtree also provides continuing professional education to top 100 CPA firms across the country.
Schaumberg, Illinois-based Tri-Merit is a niche professional services firm that specializes in helping CPAs and their clients benefit from R&D tax credits, cost segregation, the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction (179D), the energy efficient home credit (45L) and the employee retention credit (ERC).
Prior to joining Tri-Merit, Crabtree was managing partner of a CPA firm in the greater Chicago area. He has more than 30 years of public accounting and tax consulting experience in a wide variety of industries, and has worked closely with top executives to help them optimize their tax planning strategies.