As professionals advance in an accounting or finance career, soft skills become increasingly important. In a world that is becoming more digital, computerized, and automated, soft skills can be the differentiator between two employees competing for the same promotion or position.
In fact, in a recent survey reported by the Society for Human Resource Management, 97% of employers stated soft skills were either as important or more important than hard skills. Whether a professional is looking for a new job or seeking a promotion, focusing on and developing soft skills can help employees be more well-rounded and employable professionals.
What I am seeing, for my own team and firmwide working with hiring companies, is the importance placed on various soft skills for accounting and finance professionals, which can help take the company's work to the next level.
For professionals looking to improve their work and their employability, the four soft skills listed below are most prominent.
Time management is an essential skill for any accounting professional because of not only how deadline-focused the profession is, but also because of the time management discipline required by the large-scale shift to remote work. It can be challenging to avoid procrastination, and it is easier to get off track when working virtually.
Because of accounting's cyclical nature, employees have ample opportunities to hone time management skills. Most significant projects and deliverables will happen at the same time of year, depending on the organization. Here are a few tips I have found to help develop time management skills and stay organized.
Start with leveraging calendars and tasks. Using the organization's digital tools can help move projects along and keep them organized. For example, if working within a team setting, use a shared spreadsheet with colleagues to track each person's responsibilities for month-end close or whatever project the team has prioritized. For sole practitioners, diligently using a calendar can help with keeping on task and meeting deadlines.
Another way to develop time management skills is by talking to managers and colleagues. Ask how they keep their tasks aligned. They might be planning their days in a way that can work with other projects and tasks. CPAs who demonstrate good time management have a leg up both for new employment opportunities and for promotions within their organization.
Various hiring managers we work with often request that candidates have "strong critical-thinking skills," but what does that mean for the accounting and finance profession? Critical thinking — analyzing problems and finding the causes and solutions to those problems — is a major facet of the accounting profession.
Organizations are constantly facing new financial challenges. Most recently, COVID-19 created a range of challenges for accounting and finance teams to solve. Reallocating funds and cash management, managing payroll changes, reacting to new legal changes to internal reporting practices, and other changes required employees to think critically and creatively to meet organizational needs.
While COVID-19 was unexpected, there are other challenges accounting teams can plan for. What we are seeing most employers ask for is accounting and finance professionals who not only look at the problems of the past and find solutions, but who also can predict problems before they occur. From first glance to final analysis, accounting professionals should look at all the information they have and be able to communicate why something happened and what can be done in the future to plan or account for it.
When working to develop critical thinking skills, I've found it extremely important to first question how and why processes are done the way they are and ask how they can be done better. This "professional skepticism" and general curiosity can help ensure accuracy across all tasks. Professional skepticism will make it easier to ask the right questions and find the "why" instead of just trusting information at face value.
Leveraging other successful accounting professionals' advice can hone critical thinking skills and make any accounting professional a stronger asset to their organization. Webinars, conferences, and networking with other accounting professionals can give insight into what other organizations are doing and offer vendor recommendations, process improvements, and more.
Our recruiters regularly see communication as a top skill for accounting and finance talent. Nearly every function of an organization interacts with the accounting and finance teams. Therefore, professionals need to have exceptional communication skills, both written and verbal. Important projects need to be communicated in an easy-to-understand way to executives and colleagues (especially if they are unfamiliar with accounting or finance terminology) to ensure proper completion.
If accounting and finance professionals have poor communication skills, making clear points, sharing their reports and creating action items from the findings can be difficult.
When working to develop strong communication skills, reach out to a manager for feedback. Have them review emails, reports, and other communication before sending out or sharing.
Ask them if the communication gets the point across and if they believe the end user will understand the report or the solution being communicated. It's important to recognize who your audience is and the best way to present the information.
Avoid using too much jargon and ensure that anyone can understand the information, not just accounting professionals. Along with asking a manager for help, do a self-review of any communication. For written work, read it out loud to catch errors. Hearing versus reading something has a different impact. For oral communication, practice in advance so that the meeting's goal or call is adequately communicated.
Collaboration with teammates and other employees is paramount for accounting professionals. Since accounting and finance teams touch every area of the business, they are expected to work cross-functionally and collaborate well with other employees. Projects that involve other employees — like budgets, cash flow projections, or strategic planning — can be complicated and require a high degree of collaboration.
While entry-level accountants might not lead these projects with other company leaders, they will eventually be expected to meet with teams across the organization, so developing this skill now is crucial for continued growth. Even for sole practitioners who work relatively independently, collaboration is absolutely key while working with clients and any other stakeholders in various projects.
One way I've found helpful in practicing to become a stronger collaborator is spending time before a meeting writing down questions and thoughts to bring to the conversation. Make speaking up in meetings and calls a regular habit, and eventually, it'll become muscle memory. Preparing questions and engaging with the topic will encourage other team members to do the same and create more dialogue and collaboration in the discussions.
— Ryan Chabus, CPA, MBA, is the controller at LaSalle Network, a staffing, recruiting, and culture firm based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.