Soft skills have become a recruitment need for many roles, including that of accountants.
Why, in a job that deals with numbers, is communication, creative thinking, flexibility, problem-solving, critical thinking, and conflict resolution so important? Why do employers look for these skills, and how can you develop them?
Your future could depend on them
“My prediction is that the future of accountancy will consist of two types of people: those who are technical A-players, and those who are technically competent, and have mastered soft skills,” says James Poyser, CEO of inniAccounts.
“That’s because AI and automation will continue to have a huge impact on the profession. Technology has the ability to eliminate vast swathes of entry to mid-level technical roles – because computers can do it better, faster and cheaper than people.”
What will be left, he says, will be the really tricky technical problems, which are so unique that it’s not economical to build an algorithm to solve them. These complex problems will be solved by the most technically proficient accountants: the mediocre need not apply. There won’t be many jobs here, and there will be no problem filling them.
But what if you’re not a technical A-player? Now’s the time to start thinking about your future: you won’t be able to get by with average technical skills, as the computers will out-do you. This is where soft skills come into play, he says.
Soft skills can make or break a business
Hugh Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour, has taught undergraduate and postgraduate accountants and says that soft skills are often harder to develop than technical skills.
“To progress higher up the hierarchy as an accountant in a large organisation you will have to manage and lead people,” he says. “Soft skills are often harder than technical skills as you have to understand people as individuals, what makes them tick, and you have to treat each of them differently.”
He says companies are still making the mistake of taking on people who have technical expertise and thinking that they can train them in soft skills, but staff can’t necessarily be trained unless there is something there to start with.
“Young graduates who are going to be able to inspire and lead people need to have some of those skills already. There has to be some ability around teamwork, listening skills, communication, negotiation and empathy.”
Soft skills might make the difference between a company growing and being effective or going out of business or stagnating because staff need to be good at communicating with customers and practising truly effective listening and understanding the customer’s needs.
“Customers might be delighted with great products, but it is the after sales service that they will remember, and it is about the continuation of the relationship,” he says.
Understanding your clients
“Technical accuracy is an essential component in delivering a high level of service, but good soft skills can be beneficial when it comes to really understanding a client’s needs and wants,” says Carlo Fardella, Operations Director at First Freelance, a London-based specialist accountancy service for contractors, freelancers and small businesses.
“Good interpersonal skills have always been a really important aspect of our service, so when it comes to recruitment, we do look for people that are excellent communicators and good listeners too.”
In a numbers-driven profession, many accountants focus on their qualifications.
“Qualifications might get you an interview, but soft skills will get you a job and help you to keep it, says Paul Russell, co-founder and managing director of Luxury Academy, which covers softs skills training for the luxury market.
“Often, as students, we’ll focus on gaining qualifications but it is soft skills that allow you to put your qualifications to use,” he says. “Without soft skills, progress becomes stunted, environments become difficult and conflict quickly ensues.”
Building long-term relationships
Growing your business and your client base is important for any accountancy practice, and a key part of that is building a core of repeat business.
“Our clients are typically contractors, freelancers and small businesses, so each of their needs can vary,” Carlo Fardella says. “We want our teams to be able to adapt to those requirements, and then act upon them when needed. We believe it’s the key to providing true value and building lasting, long-term relationships.”
Aimee Bateman is the CEO and founder of Careercake, a company that aims to help organisations who want to help their staff build confidence in their careers and the challenges they may face in their working lives.
“The term soft skills encompasses so many things from communication skills to how you engage within a team and much more,” she says. “If you can communicate and explain accounts to your colleagues who work in other departments, you will inevitably improve your working relationships. Those that haven’t studied in accountancy won’t always be familiar with the terminology used, or how to read finance spreadsheets, so if you can tell the story behind the numbers in an approachable way – you’re going to win people over.”
James Poyser says there is one soft skill that blows all others out of the water: empathy. “Empathy has universal power,” he says. “By truly understanding people, empathy will improve the relationship you have with your peers, your manager and your direct reports.” It will allow you to build deeper and more valuable relationships with clients.
“It’s even a prerequisite to innovation,” he explains. “Effective innovations are those that solve peoples’ problems, and to do so, you need to be empathetic, and listen.”
He says that’s the perfect place to start building your empathy soft skills: listening.
“Spend time really actively listening to people. Minimise your own mental distractions,” he says. “Ask questions to seek understanding. Start putting this into practice and you’ll be lightyears ahead of AI.”
A competitive edge
Carlo Fardella believes that having a team with a broad range of soft skills can help your practice stand out from the competition and be more than just a commodity service.
“We acknowledge that all of our clients have busy careers and what’s paramount to them is having the peace of mind that their accountancy needs are in safe hands,” he says. “We become a trusted partner to our clients with a team that is prepared to go over and above to meet client expectations. That’s where soft skills can make a huge difference.”
Using skills that go with emotional intelligence enables an accountant to be proactive, too.
“Having the awareness to know when a client might be feeling frustrated or under pressure, and then taking action to overcome that, is something we really encourage as it gives our clients genuine added value,” he says.
He cites having a strong work ethic, high regard for teamwork and the ability to be decisive as really important soft skills. People with these qualities often demonstrate an ability to better manage their time and workloads and are able to create a healthy work-life balance.
The key to effective team work
In today’s working environment, collaboration and a good understanding of how teams work are essential, says Julie Provino, an international HR leader and founder of VeryHR.
“As we move up in our career, we become more exposed to politically charged situations,” she says. “We are also responsible for motivating teams and dealing with complex issues. These require greater self-awareness and the ability to understand how to engage with others effectively.”
Liz Sebag-Montefiore, Director and Co-Founder of 10Eighty, a career management and leadership training organisation, says communication is key to any job in any profession.
“It’s important to be able to get your message across and check understanding, learn how to listen, use body language to help your ability to communicate and implement the critical aspects of giving and receiving feedback.”
For a team to be successful, it is necessary to understand how emotions affect the team’s work and in turn strengthen the team’s ability to face challenges.
“Employees need to acquire the skills to be able to recognise conflict within their team and coach team members through it,” she says.
Is emotional intelligence something you can learn?
“By the time people are ready to join the workforce, it’s evident that some people have got the skills, and some haven’t,” says James Poyser. “There’s a small minority who naturally have these skills and an equally small minority who are always going to struggle to acquire them. But for the rest of us – the majority – I believe it’s about nurture.”
If you’re in an environment that values and practices soft skills, you’ll soon take in these skills via osmosis, he says.
“I’ve witnessed this in my own firm, where our own soft-skill superstars have a positive halo effect on the rest of the team – improving balance, happiness and performance. It’s something to keep in mind for those looking to change firm in the coming years.”
He suggests you ask yourself to what extent do you think you’ll be able to develop your soft skills to future-proof your career at your target firms?
Carlo Fardella says experience and background can play an important role in helping to shape interpersonal skills, but many of them can actually be developed through workplace learning.
“We place a lot of emphasis on supporting our staff with continuous professional development and with the right coaching and refinement throughout their careers,” he says. “I think it’s possible for people to enhance their range of soft skills. Having a good mix of hard and soft skills really is the icing on the cake when it comes to finding ideal candidates and, in our opinion, accountants that have the full package can really flourish in this industry.”
Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.