CPA INSIDER

Use online resources to develop soft skills

Technical skills are important, but social skills can lead to true professional success.
By Jennifer Bringle

While accounting is a profession based on numbers, to truly be successful CPAs need to hone soft skills alongside technical proficiencies.

"Accounting is such a people business," said Rebecca Johnson Chase, senior associate director, market readiness and employment at the Wake Forest University School of Business. "People think about the technical and analytical skills, which are so important, but what really sets accounting professionals apart are their soft skills, interpersonal skills, and people skills."

Luckily, in the post-pandemic world of web-based workshops, Zoom conferences, and other online-based learning tools, it's easier than ever for CPAs to improve their soft skills without leaving home.

Identifying needed skills

Before choosing an online course or workshop, CPAs should identify the skills most relevant to their jobs and the areas in which they could improve.

Interpersonal skills such as active listening, offering and accepting constructive feedback, and building relationships through open communication are a huge part of successful accounting.

"Being willing to participate and listen — it's not just, 'I'm going to speak up all the time' — you have to show you can listen to someone else and hear their perspective," said Steven Kachelmeier, CPA, Ph.D., Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at the University of Texas at Austin.

And while a profession focused on numbers may not seem like the place for creativity, being able to think of alternative ways to handle situations, as well as being nimble enough to adapt as those situations change, can be invaluable for accountants.

"Creativity is a skill that doesn't sound like an accounting strength, but it's really important for you to be able to think about things differently and solve a problem in an efficient way that makes sense," Chase said. "And you've got to be able to do one thing, and then if you encounter a roadblock, you are able to adapt and quickly find a way to do it a different way."

Finding help online

For accountants who want to improve their soft skills, be it interpersonal communication, public speaking, or project management, a wealth of resources can be found online — many with minimal time or monetary requirements.

Dorie Clark, author of "The Long Game" and professor of business administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, suggested online resources available through LinkedIn Learning. Clark has taught several video courses there on topics such as improving listening skills, networking, and communication.

"And in addition to LinkedIn Learning, Toastmasters is a great resource for those who want to improve their speaking and presentation skills," she said. Online, Toastmasters offers a range of video courses on public speaking, interviewing, and body language, among other topics.

Chase said completing CliftonStrengths assessments has been valuable for her and her team. The evaluations, which are available online, help participants recognize and build on their strengths in areas such as leadership, management, and more so they can better apply them in professional settings.

"The premise is we spend so much time trying to correct our weaknesses, so instead of doing that, you operate from a position of using and enhancing your natural strengths," she said. "I come back to thinking about my top strengths when I'm facing challenging situations — if you can arm yourself with those tools and you have a mindset of strength, you go into things with a lot of confidence."

When choosing an online course to improve soft skills, the most important thing for CPAs to keep in mind is how it will allow them to build stronger relationships with both clients and colleagues.

"Ultimately, professional success for all of us depends on our relationships with other people," Clark said.

Regardless of how technically proficient we are or the knowledge we possess, it's almost impossible to advance if other people don't want to work with you. 

Jennifer Bringle is a writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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