Conducting a personal skills "audit" can be useful at any point in a career, but it's especially useful for finance and accounting professionals who want to move ahead, make a pivot, or transition into a different industry or role.
"We want to grow, develop, and become more than we are," said Douglas Slaybaugh, CPA, performance and career coach for accountants and founder of The CPA Coach, based in Denver. "With better skill development we can have a bigger impact, not just for ourselves, but on our organizations and culture."
The first step to improving or growing your skill set is to take stock of your current strengths and weaknesses and identify which gaps you need to fill to accomplish your career goals. A personal skills audit is one way to start.
TAKE A BASIC INVENTORY OF YOUR EXISTING SKILLS
Avoid overthinking and start by simply listing the skills you have accumulated over your life and career.
"It's a simpler process than you think, and you need to avoid overcomplicating it," said Gary Cox, ACMA, CGMA, a business and individual performance coach based in Leeds in the UK. "The big danger is people look at roles instead of skills and experiences, and I think you have to reverse engineer that. Before I even think about what I want to do going forward, let's have a look at the skills I've got."
Cox recommended listing technical skills, business skills, and soft skills, which he said are all necessary for finance professionals. For example, technical skills might include data analysis and software proficiency; business skills could include collaborating on sales and marketing projects; and soft skills could include communication and emotional intelligence.
If you're struggling to compile all your current skills, you could revisit the job requirements for your current and previous positions to jog your memory about which skills were vital for those roles.
HONESTLY ASSESS STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Once you have listed your current skills, go through them and try to objectively rate yourself as low, medium, or high proficiency.
It will likely be easier to measure your technical and business skills than your soft skills, but it might help to reflect on your situational behavior over the past year to evaluate skills such as communication, empathy, resilience, and other less tangible skills.
For example, Cox recommended considering a skill like emotional intelligence and figuring out what high emotional intelligence (EQ) would look like in action. If one major component of EQ is self-awareness, you can reflect on how you typically act during work meetings and whether you truly listen and allow others to finish their thoughts, or if you have a habit of talking over others. If you're trying to assess your level of courage, you might think about times when you had an idea and consider whether you had the confidence to suggest it as a possible solution.
As you're conducting this self-assessment, you might start to notice which skills could use some improvement and which ones you probably don't need to worry about. Take note of any glaring shortcomings as candidates for your skill development plan.
PINPOINT ESSENTIAL SKILLS FOR YOUR DESIRED CAREER GOALS
Now that you have a basic idea of where you are, it's time to figure out where you want to go and what skills you need to get there. For example, if you know you want to be promoted into a managerial role, you will likely need to improve skills related to leadership, communication, and empathy. If you have a specific role in mind already, you could also look up detailed job descriptions and hold them up against your current skill set to locate any gaps.
Those gaps will likely be more significant if you're trying to pivot into a different role or industry. For example, when Jim Martin, CPA, professor at Washburn University School of Business, transitioned from working at a large company to teaching at a midsize university before moving into an administrative role, he had to reassess his skills to determine if he was up for the pivot.
"The world had changed, but in the end, it wasn't being a master of accounting that allowed me to fulfill my administrative role, it was the 'remastery' of my management skills, the ability to communicate, listen, and plan," Martin said. "And that's the hallmark of a good CPA. It's not necessarily being the best in the world at debits and credits; I can shake a tree and I'll find good debit and credit people, but the successful ones have also developed those softer skills."
If you're not planning a major pivot, you could instead look at which capabilities your current employer or organization is lacking and grow to fill those gaps. For example, if you notice your company isn't using data to drive decisions, you can bone up on that skill to bring greater value to the organization. Another way to pinpoint skills worth developing, according to Slaybaugh, is to speak with your manager, colleagues, clients, and customers and ask them what skills they expect or would like you to have.
SELECT KEY SKILLS FOR IMPROVEMENT AND MEASURE THE GAP
After taking inventory and pinpointing which skills might be most essential to achieving your career goals, it can be helpful to narrow the list to one or two that make the most sense to focus on, according to Jackie Meyer, CPA, founder of Meyer Tax, SaaS software TaxPlanIQ, and coaching program Certified Concierge Accountant.
For example, you might decide it's most worth your time to hone your critical-thinking skills. Once you've selected a skill, Slaybaugh recommended getting more specific about how you could improve in that area by creating your own scale.
Say you have measured your critical-thinking skills on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most proficient and one being you have no idea what you're doing. You might rate yourself as a six, but what does a six actually look like? Slaybaugh suggested figuring out what moving up a notch on that scale would mean for you. For example, if you rate yourself a six because you're not as influential as you would like, maybe a seven would mean people listen to you more, an eight would mean people are seeking out your opinion, a nine would mean you're getting more attention from the critical thinkers of the organization, and a 10 would mean the critical thinkers are coming to you for insights.
"Ask yourself, 'What does it actually look like if I'm a seven compared with today,'" Slaybaugh said. "Because then you can start to see differences; otherwise, it's just an arbitrary number."
BRING IN A THIRD PARTY FOR A REALITY CHECK
With any audit, one pair of biased eyes is never going to be enough for an accurate rendering of the situation. After you've conducted a self-assessment, it's a good idea to have someone you trust check your work. Martin said the person could be a manager, mentor, colleague, or even a friend or family member, provided they are willing to tell you the hard truths.
"In these situations, you definitely don't want a 'yes' person, and I've found my brother to be the best critic of me," Martin said.
Meyer recommended doing your self-reflection and then handing it off to one or more people to pinpoint any major inconsistencies.
"I think it would be interesting if there's a big discrepancy between what you put and what they put," Meyer said. "And then you can try to identify why you gave yourself a four and they gave you an eight, and figure out how you can bridge that gap."
Another option for gathering feedback on your skill set is conducting a 360-degree feedback evaluation, which is anonymous and might therefore return more accurate results. Or you could ask a colleague to observe you during a presentation to gauge your public-speaking skills and then ask them to tell you afterward what you could do to improve. When asking for feedback from colleagues, managers, and clients, Slaybaugh recommended being specific with your questions. Instead of asking, "How did I do?," try asking, "What is one thing I could have done differently to keep the audience engaged?"
"Another one of my favorite questions is 'If I worked for you again next week, what would you like to see me do better?'" Slaybaugh said. "There's opportunity in the future to 'get the next one' if you are intentional."
About the author
Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, the JofA's lead publisher, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.
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