You are a student accountant, so you’re probably a little bit preoccupied with passing your exams and gaining as much practical experience as you can – which is just as it should be. After all, your finance qualification and technical expertise will form the foundations on which you build your future. But if you want to improve your chances of long-term career success, you must complement these with some softer skills. ‘The best finance professionals are well-rounded individuals,’ says Helen Goold, associate director of accountancy, finance and business change with the recruiter Badenoch & Clark. But what exactly does this mean?
The answer varies slightly, depending on whom you ask, but there are some common themes. ‘How you present yourself each day, how you interact with colleagues, handle a discussion, deal with problems, and manage your time, all contribute to your success as an accountant,’ says John Watkins, national head of training with the UK accountancy firm PKF, adding: ‘Soft skills are an essential part of your armoury.’ So you need to balance your hard technical skills with communication, interpersonal and organisational skills, and you should be able to work as part of a team, reason and negotiate, and explain your decisions and reasoning using non-technical language.
All of these skills – and more – are important in business too. ‘You will need to work with people from different disciplines on a daily basis,’ says Sarah Hunt, a director with the specialist recruiter Equity FD, and you must be able to communicate equally well with all of them – whether you are doing this in writing or face-to-face. This means choosing your language carefully, particularly when you are trying to communicate with non-finance people. You may understand the difference between amortisation and depreciation and know that IFRS means International Financial Reporting Standards, but they may not.
‘The role of finance is evolving and the traditional image of the accountant buried in a spreadsheet is changing,’ says Goold. In practice, business and even the non-profit sector, you will increasingly be expected to demonstrate commercial awareness, seeing finance in the wider business context. ‘The finance function now is very customer-facing, and needs to take a collaborative approach,’ reports Matt Muldoon, who trained with Coopers & Lybrand and also ran his own small business before moving into the technology industry, where he is now vice president, product marketing, at Epicor, a developer of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.
‘The finance team has to focus on its place in the business,’ says Muldoon. ‘Because of the economic crisis, this can mean being more empathetic with customers because everyone is suffering a little,’ he says, giving credit control as an example of the need for strong people skills, such as negotiation, and the ability to see the wider business picture. ‘You have to telephone people and ask when they are going to pay, but this is not a sledgehammer-type job,’ he says. ‘Our day sales outstanding have gone down as we’ve been more open to agreeing payment plans with companies that are struggling’, because helping its customers to keep going benefits Epicor too.
When Robert Half International surveyed 1,400 chief financial officers (CFOs) about what they wanted from their finance teams, many rated ‘communication and interpersonal kills’ more than technical competence. Just over half said that they would employ a candidate with fewer technical skills if they had stronger soft skills than other candidates. ‘Accountants need to be able to explain the meaning behind the numbers,’ comments Paul McDonald, executive director, Robert Half Management Resources, ‘and this requires a broad skill set.’
Knowing the difference between an asset and an expense, and being able to learn and apply accounting standards, may have helped get you through your exams, but don’t expect to get ahead based just on your grasp of theory. ‘Over and above academic excellence, we look for qualities such as good character, professionalism, ethics, leadership and teamwork skills,’ says Evgenios Evgeniou, partner, board member, and human capital leader with PwC Cyprus. ‘We need people who are technically competent, but who have the courage, integrity and emotional intelligence to engage with clients.’
Courage and integrity are (hopefully) fairly self-explanatory; the concept of emotional intelligence can be more difficult to grasp, but understanding it (and yourself) is one of the keys to identifying and developing the soft skills that are valued by so many employers and potential employers. ‘Emotional intelligence is concerned with understanding oneself and others, relating to people, and adapting to and coping with your immediate surroundings,’ says Pat Griffith, who is an accountant, executive development coach and an assessor of EQ-i, which measures your emotional intelligence quotient.
‘It’s about being able to read other people’s signals and react appropriately to them,’ explains Griffith, ‘and, as individuals, our success and the success of the profession depends on our ability to do this.’ Emotional intelligence and self awareness can be invaluable ingredients in your finance career, whether you are working in business, practice or the non-profit sector, so understanding and developing your EQ is a worthwhile pursuit (see ‘The hidden you’ below). ‘The emotionally intelligent accountant is best placed to be successful in client and corporate relationships and the one most likely to achieve their personal and professional goals,’ asserts Griffith.
Exploiting her strong interpersonal skills has certainly helped Toni Hunter FCCA in her career. ‘I make it very clear that I am not just a number cruncher,’ says Hunter, who qualified in 2001 and became the youngest and only female partner with a ‘fairly traditional’ six-partner firm, six years later. ‘I’m a networking junkie,’ says Hunter, who is as enthusiastic about social networking as she is about the face‑to-face variety.
‘When I first qualified I was out and about a lot at local networking events, meeting other business people and developing my contacts,’ says the accountant, who now complements this by writing her own blog and tweeting to her 2,454 followers.
‘For people my age, social networking is the usual way of communicating, but I think it’s a good idea to mix online and offline networking,’ suggests Hunter, and she has used her facility for both to her advantage. ‘I think I seem a lot less intimidating than an archetypal, grey-suited finance professional, so younger professionals in business find me easy to identify with,’ she explains. Her approach to networking has helped her to build a massive profile online and it’s driven significant extra traffic to the firm’s website. ‘Although I don’t think any of this is the only reason why I got promoted when I did, it was definitely a factor.’
Clearly, you need to convey your soft skills in your CV. Use it to tell a story about yourself and show how well rounded you are as a person, as well as detailing your qualifications and technical experience. ‘Don’t just include a paragraph stating that you are an adaptable and self-confident team player with well-developed soft skills,’ says Goold. ‘It’s important for your CV to include tangible examples.’ Ideally these examples should be work-based, but examples from extra-curricular activities are fine. After all, you are just setting off down the long and winding road to becoming a well-rounded finance professional: you are a work in progress.
What are your soft skills?
The phrase ‘soft skills’ brings together a confusingly broad range of personal qualities, but they can be easier to understand (and to develop) if you think of them as being split into two categories that focus (1) on you and the way your manage your own feelings and emotions, and (2) on the way you manage your interaction with other people.
- focus inside yourself
Consider skills such as self-awareness, self-confidence and self-control, adaptability, determination, resilience, along with the ability to control your emotions, manage stress, and so on. How do your perceive yourself?
- focus outside yourself
Consider skills such as communication, teamwork, how well you relate to others, deal with difficult people, get buy-in for your ideas, respond to negative feedback, and so on. How do others perceive you?
Changing yourself takes time and it is not easy – and improving your soft skills is no exception – but the following hints should help:
Don’t take on too much
Focus on one soft skill and, once you have made progress, move on to the next.
Get to know yourself
Understanding what makes you angry or insecure is the first step towards managing it.
Walk a mile in their shoes
Appreciating other people’s perspectives and priorities is one of the keys to motivation and negotiation.
Involve other people
Get friends and colleagues to help you identify and develop the soft skills you need to improve.
Try, try again
Get into the habit of practising your soft skills at work, and elsewhere, until they become part of who you are.