The case for collaboration

Modern accountants must develop collaboration skills that go beyond traditional teamwork capabilities. Iwona Tokc-Wilde reports

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More than three-quarters of accountancy jobs advertised today call for candidates who can demonstrate strong soft skills, according to research from accountancy recruiter Randstad Financial & Professional. Employers want to see excellent communication and listening skills, the ability to build and maintain strong relationships, management and strategic leadership skills, and the ability to work under pressure.

However, the research also shows that accountancy employers are now starting to look for more and more candidates who can demonstrate that they are willing and able to collaborate with different teams, so collaboration is set to become the soft skill of the future. Robert Half’s 2016 Salary Guide also lists ‘collaborative personality’ as one of the current in-demand attributes.

‘Informal working relationships and networks have always been important but, over the last several years, we’ve seen an increase in work requiring active collaboration,’ comments Paul Dennis, finance advisory leader at global best practice insight and technology company CEB.

‘We’ve also seen an increase in the number of stakeholders needed to make decisions and a rise of working across multiple geographies. In this new work environment, collaborating with others will be a key component of success.’

The way we work now

The accountancy profession has changed over time. In the past, accountants worked mostly on compliance and reporting issues, crunching numbers in their small cubicles, and the need for collaboration with other departments wasn’t that great.

‘However, recent research points to a developing trend towards closer involvement of the accountant in business processes, especially in supporting business decision-making,’ says Dr Philip Cooper, senior lecturer in accounting at University of Bath’s School of Management.

‘The idea is not new, but traditionally only more senior accountants were expected to play this role. Now that technological change facilitates or supplants the accountant’s more routine activities, and the business environment has become more dynamic, organisations expect a more value-added contribution from accountants at various levels of experience.’

This means close and active partnering with their business counterparts in IT, human resources, marketing and operations, efficiently imparting expertise by translating data into useful information.

‘It is during the interpretation of data that accounting and finance professionals need to call upon their collaboration acumen, to be able to articulate relevant information and actively support decision making,’ says Phil Sheridan, managing director at Robert Half UK.

Collaboration is especially important when people and teams don’t sit together at the same physical location.

‘We expect demand for greater virtual collaboration in the next few years, as teams become more and more geographically dispersed,’ says Dennis.

Accountancy practices also note a trend towards greater collaboration – with clients and with other advisers.

‘The implementation of cloud-based accounting software makes our job easier because we’re now dealing with accurate, real-time information, but the pressure has shifted on to ensuring this information is correctly interpreted,’ says Jackie Hooper, director at JDH Accountants. 

‘We find that business owners consult us more on decisions that are centred around growth, such as property purchases and acquisitions. When big decisions are made, we are being used as part of a consultancy team that includes business consultants and legal representatives.’

Collaboration skills-set

Collaboration calls for abilities such as clear communication, problem solving, empathy and accountability. It goes far beyond what is ordinarily understood as teamwork.

‘The need to be effective at working in a team seems self-evident but collaboration involves many other implicit skills, especially the abilities to understand business situations, define informational needs, deliver on those needs and communicate the implications of financial information to non-specialists,’ says Dr Cooper.

The ability to collaborate is an all-round and demanding skills set because projects involving working together across departments can be challenging. Different parties may have different priorities, skill sets and conflicting personalities. In fact, a recent survey from Robert Half shows that interacting with a variety of personalities is the greatest challenge when working with colleagues in other departments. Other challenges include managing stress arising from crisis situations and prioritising conflicting deadlines throughout the organisation.

‘Developing collaborative skills early on in your career will support your development, but it’ll depend on your ability to communicate,’ says Sheridan. ‘To start with, it can be as simple as knowing the right questions to ask, to involve the right people with the right expertise.’ 

Ultimately, you will want to establish and maintain a trusting, credible and respectful partnership with colleagues in other teams and departments, making it possible for all of you to work towards a common goal.

‘It is this relationship based on trust and credibility that enables the accountant to make an effective contribution to business decision making,’ says Dr Cooper.

However, true collaboration goes beyond simply partnering with others to get a job done, says Dennis: ‘Effective collaborators identify opportunities to build relationships with stakeholders to then help them understand trade-offs when making decisions, and to create buy-in for change.’ This is when negotiation and influencing skills come in handy.

Dr Cooper believes that for some people, the ability to establish and maintain effective working relationships within the business will be innate, while others will develop it through on-the-job experience: ‘That’s why many businesses ensure their finance trainees are exposed to the whole business at an early stage and continue to do so as the individual develops – for example, through job rotations.’

Forward-looking accountancy practices also ensure that their trainees get a breadth and depth of experience.

‘Trainees need to get an all-round, practical experience at every opportunity they can – they need to embrace audit, accounts, as well as restructuring and taxation,’ says Jill Evenden, managing director at EBS Accountants. This is in addition to a strong emphasis on the development of communication skills.

‘You might be brilliant technically, but if you are not able to converse and communicate effectively with your colleagues and clients, your job will be a very difficult one,’ adds Evenden.

JDH Accountants also encourage their trainees to gain experience at communicating and collaborating with internal and external parties.

‘We regularly collaborate with external bookkeepers and other professional services personnel for the good of a client – with the client’s permission of course,’ says Hooper.

‘We find that having transparency at the heart of our firms’ culture helps encourage our staff to openly communicate. What also helps is having regular, focused team meetings and one-to-one sessions discussing progress and issues surrounding specific work.’

"Now that technological change facilitates or supplants the accountant’s more routine activities, and the business environment has become more dynamic, organisations expect a more value-added contribution from accountants at various levels of experience "

Dr Philip Cooper - University of Bath’s School of Management