It's been years since most senior executives earned their last diploma, but for many finance professionals, education is an ongoing commitment. Whether they are required to log hours of continuing education every year to maintain a public accounting certification or simply feel the need to keep up with the latest regulations, finance professionals never entirely leave the classroom.
Maintaining a CPA license takes up to 40 hours a year, depending on the state in which it is issued. Lisa Pavelka McAlister, finance chief at Nexaweb Technologies Inc., a software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notes that in Massachusetts, CPAs face more continuing-education requirements than doctors or lawyers do. "For folks who are nonpracticing CPAs," she says, "it's a huge burden," adding that the hours are more critical for those actively practicing in public accounting. Typically unable to block out a solid week of time to complete the annual requirements, most CFOs "fit it in around everything else," says Janice DiPietro, managing partner of the New England practice of Tatum Partners. Holders of the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Financial Manager (CFM), and Certified Treasury Professional (CTP) designations must also log 12 to 30 continuing-education hours a year, while chartered financial analysts (CFAs) are offered voluntary education programs (see "Study Hall," at the end of this article).
It's no surprise, then, that finance executives place a premium on efficient, practical programs. They have little time — or tolerance — for theoretical discussions. McAlister remembers a session she attended about "some management tool," delivered by a consultant. "I loved the topic," she says, "but then we really never dug into how to apply it. It was a waste of time."
Instead, McAlister prefers sessions on Sarbanes-Oxley, FIN 46, and tax law. And Joe Levanduski, CFO of Hawk Corp., a $220 million industrial-components maker in Cleveland, says he seeks seminars that address issues specific to his company's situation. "There are some topics you need to stay on top of whether your company is involved or not," he says. "But you really need to weigh what's going to affect your business in the next 12 months. You can't just look at the calendar and say, 'OK, I'll go to this because it fits into my schedule.' "
At Financial Executives International (FEI), Web conferences and live seminars about regulatory issues draw the largest audiences. Not surprisingly, governance and ethics issues have also proven to be hot topics. (This year's largest draw was a session about how companies select board members.) At the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which provides many continuing-education programs, "anything having to do with internal controls, the [Public Company Accounting Oversight Board], or [Securities and Exchange Commission] reporting" has done well recently, according to Robert Bouchard, the group's vice president of professional education. "A course on international standards has also had a big surge this year." The Association for Financial Professionals, sponsors of the CTP designation, delivers a selection of courses in treasury management. (CFO Publishing Corp. also provides continuing-education programs through conferences and Webcasts.)
No More Books
While self-study programs might seem to be the most flexible option, many people find them ineffective. Levanduski sheepishly admits that he has "the best intentions," but generally ends up toting coursebooks around for months. DiPietro says she's tried such programs, but didn't find time to finish. "It's almost impossible to say I'm going to take this block of time and close my door and work on this program," she says. Diane Albergo, FEI's director of career services, says it's too soon to know how its online-education courses are faring.
Many find that only by scheduling appointments for lectures or Web broadcasts can they force themselves to complete their continuing-education requirements. Levanduski prefers to travel to conferences. "It keeps you away from the distractions of the office and allows you to focus on the topics," he says. "It also allows you to network and share best practices with a wide variety of people." DiPietro relies on Webcasts for technical topics for which a lecture format suffices, but in general she, too, prefers live interaction. "You really need that face-to-face coffee break, where you can go up to someone and say, 'I had a similar experience,'" she says. McAlister, former president of the Boston chapter of FEI, chalks up at least a few hours each month at the chapter's monthly dinner, which features a speaker on a creditworthy topic.
Perhaps the easiest approach is to bring the teachers into the office, as DiPietro does, frequently attending seminars hosted by Tatum's network of partners. Karen Kupferberg, president of consulting firm Millwood Management Solutions Inc. and chair of the audit committee at private banking firm Fiduciary Trust Co., organizes in-house training sessions for the company's audit committee. In at least two meetings a year, the company's auditors present updates on such topics as the implications of Sarbox for private companies. Kupferberg, who has an MBA but does not hold a CPA or other financial designation, says she thinks ongoing education is critical for finance professionals regardless of their certifications. "You're responsible for your own development," she says. "You have to keep up with the new stuff. Otherwise you're not relevant."
Despite the struggle to fit education into their schedules, most finance professionals admit it's worth it. "People want CFOs to have that certification," says McAlister. "It's hard for a C-level person to be out of the office for that amount of time just to keep those letters, but in this environment, I'm glad I do." — Kate O'Sullivan
|Study Hall |
Continuing professional education hours required to maintain various certifications.
|Certification||Annual CPE Hours|
|CPA||40 on average; varies by state|
|CFA||20-hour voluntary program|
|CTP||36 every three years|
|Sources: NASBA; CFA Institute; IMA; AFP|