This article was first published in the March 2014 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
It used to be that hard work, the ability to crunch numbers correctly and a penchant for delving into details could set you up as an accounting professional for life, with a direct line of sight to the CFO or CEO’s chair in the not-so-distant future. However, times have changed. Along with technical competency and work experience, those aspiring to the C-suite must seriously consider developing characteristics previously regarded as beneficial but not entirely essential for the top roles.
‘Technical expertise enables us to provide quality services and solutions to our clients,’ says Tan Theng Hooi, Deloitte Malaysia’s country managing partner. ‘But it is the ability to communicate effectively, with integrity and openness, which will help engage and inspire clients’ confidence. Tenacity and good judgement are equally important.’
Tan stresses that while the workplace today places a high premium on technical capabilities, anyone operating at senior management level will find their interpersonal skills put to the test. ‘A solid knowledge of leadership and management skills is therefore crucial. An organisation’s success or failure is highly dependent on the “people” component,’ he says.
OCBC Bank CEO Jeffrey Chew offers a different perspective. ‘Senior management tends to find itself at a crossroads when tackling grey areas,’ he says. ‘When we find a right way being pitted against another equally right way, a judgement call is required – and this is where we find all those soft skills being put into practice in the real world.
‘For instance, a decision in favour of lower financial gain in return for higher staff morale will require effective communication to relevant stakeholders, who need to be convinced that, in the long run, the organisation will benefit more through improved bottom-line results and increased shareholder value.’
A plethora of technical skills is required by accounting professionals – whether or not they aspire to the C-suite. But, says Hazurin Harun, CFO of property developer Bolton, ‘these technical skills need to be complemented with soft skills in order for them to contribute meaningfully to the organisation.
‘At senior level, these skills become relevant and very important,’ he adds. ‘The ability to communicate effectively internally and externally is probably the most important soft skill that any accounting professional could have – and unfortunately, not all of them have it.’
C-suite veterans agree on one thing: while young professionals may begin their careers relying heavily on technical competencies, this changes over time. Says Chew: ‘As employers, we look for hard skills in every one of our new hires at junior level, but as the company develops, and they progress up the corporate ladder, soft skills begin to outweigh the hard. There are other aspects as well, which will necessitate a broader range of soft skills among potential C-suite candidates. One of these is an increasingly diverse workforce.’
Meanwhile, Tan believes that rapidly changing social, technological and business conditions will lead and shape business models. This means that, in the very near future, senior management will have to engage Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y effectively in order to sustain growth. ‘I expect senior management staff to recognise that 80% of the skill sets required to run their job functions are soft skills; the technical part of their work is already supplemented by their subordinates,’ Chew says. ‘At senior level, they have to critically apply their IQ and EQ [emotional quotient] to leadership, be aware of their shortcomings, and take steps to overcome these.’
But with the mix of generations imminent, friction may be unavoidable. ‘Gen X and Y are not afraid to voice their opinions,’ Hazurin says. ‘It’s the way these opinions are articulated that need soft-skill application.’
The right blend
These observations point to a future workplace littered with soft-skill landmines, so what are young accounting professionals just entering the industry to do? Chew acknowledges that accountants have been traditionally thought of as lacking in interpersonal skills. But, he says, ‘I think the perception is changing.’
‘Accounting professionals today are far better off, soft-skills-wise, due to the changing demands of the profession. But we could perhaps do better in the way we blend soft skills with hard ones,’ he adds.
The need to create better understanding between people with different skill sets and training has never been so urgent. Citing his own organisation, Hazurin says: ‘We have civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, project architects, quantity surveyors, accounting and finance professionals, marketing professionals and legal professionals – all who need to be able to understand and be understood.
‘Communication is of paramount importance, and finding a way for these diverse groups to work cohesively is akin to finding the “holy grail” of human capital management!’ he adds.
Those aspiring to the C-suite should note the advice of three who are already there.
‘I’d like to see initiative,’ remarks Hazurin. ‘Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes. Learn from them. Take short courses that teach you skills; ask lots of questions, and study how your superiors articulate themselves among peers, subordinates and their bosses. Learn to speak well; learn to speak good English, or Mandarin – and always aspire to be better.’
Chew believes that good academic qualifications and a firm grasp of technical skills will always be in demand. ‘But any basic soft skills are most welcome. Improve adaptation skills, and don’t always use the same approach for different scenarios. Instead of running for help, develop the ability to solve your problems independently.’
‘Accounting professionals need to be more adaptable,’ Tan concludes. ‘To meet the ever-changing expectations of the profession, they should find a balance between continuously developing technical and soft skills. Technical skills are necessary but they are not sufficient, and what sets leaders apart from others is their drive to continuously learn and improve themselves. Understand the choices you have, set goals and be responsible for creating the career you want.’
The 10 key competencies
Every accounting professional needs a little help, and in the wake of ACCA’s survey of more than 500 CFOs in the course of developing its report, The complete finance professional 2013, it has unveiled a new competency framework that lists the 10 key competencies that finance professionals must have.
These competencies are professionalism and ethics; governance, risk and control; stakeholder relationship management; strategy and innovation; leadership and management; corporate reporting; sustainable management accounting; financial management; audit and assurance; and taxation.
Six of the 10 items are directly related to what has come to be defined within the contemporary commercial environment as ‘soft skills’
Majella Gomes, journalist