Accounting is essentially about recording, reporting and interpreting financial information, so it’s a given that accountants need excellent technical skills to do this. However, the changing and expanded role of today’s accountant means they also need a range of professional skills that go way beyond being a whizz with numbers and Excel
ACCA has developed 12 ‘behaviours’ (see right) in its Competency Framework that it believes are the most important to acquire and nurture. They include everything from having a healthy sense of scepticism through to being a good problem solver. By way of example, Gareth Owen, qualifications development manager at ACCA, explains ‘scepticism’: a requirement that has come about from the scandals and perceived shortcomings of accountants and auditors during the recent financial crisis.
‘Unfortunately, in too many instances, auditors have signed off financial statements as being a true and fair statement of a company’s affairs, which are subsequently shown to misrepresent the economic reality,’ he says.
‘It’s hard to say "don’t trust people", but today’s accountants must exercise due diligence and check out that the things presented to them are supported by facts. So, scepticism has become much more important in recent years.’
Speak to most experienced accountants and they will say they also need to be more than simple number-crunchers and much more commercially aware these days; effectively, they need to be strategic leaders.
‘They need to be able to look beyond the numbers and take a view of the whole business,’ explains Emily Coltman, chief accountant at accounting software provider FreeAgent. ‘Accountants have a bad name for ruthlessly trying to cut costs and, therefore, damaging a business’s brand.
‘You will be a far more valuable member of a business’s team if you can take a holistic approach. For example, recognise that not all marketing initiatives will pay off immediately, and some won’t pay off at all. Let your colleagues do their job – within reason of course!’
This commercial awareness is also championed by Ellis King, manager of accountancy and finance at Morgan McKinley. He believes newly qualified accountants should try to get involved in business strategy and commercial activities as early as possible in their careers.
‘Although many individuals are understandably keen to begin their careers with large blue chip organisations in order to work on major projects,’ he says, ‘small to medium-sized businesses make up a large percentage of the market, and it’s with these companies that you’re likely to gain more experience in business and commercial strategy, as well as other skills such as networking and commercial awareness.’
As can be seen, the value of good communication skills can’t be overstated and are firmly on ACCA’s list desired of professional behaviours. Peter Johnson, a partner at chartered accountants and business advisers Cassons, also supports this view. He believes that, as an accountant and business adviser, you must be able to build relationships with clients and be able to communicate with them on a personal level.
‘In this environment of IT-reliance it is very easy to hide behind an email,’ he says. ‘We encourage all of our team to pick up the phone or meet face-to-face with clients; they appreciate our time and it enables us to learn more about them and their business, therefore providing the client with a better service.
‘This only comes from an individual having good listening skills and the confidence to learn more about a client. Listening is an undervalued skill but a very important one for an accountant to have.’
FreeAgent’s Coltman believes it’s all about demystifying what can be a very technical area. ‘It’s crucial that an accountant can explain the numbers in plain English, so that clients can understand what the accountant is saying. As an accountant, you need to know your subject thoroughly so that you can give a client a clear understanding of their figures,’ she says.
Dominic Morton, manager at Hays Accountancy & Finance, agrees that for an accountant to stand out from the crowd, it is imperative that they have the ability to communicate complex financial matters and concepts to non-financial stakeholders.
‘You should have the ability to liaise with stakeholders across a business by changing your communication style to suit different audiences. For example, make sure you avoid using technical jargon or internal acronyms when answering questions posed in client meetings.’
In producing technically proficient accountants, ACCA takes professional skills very seriously indeed, as Owen explains: ‘There are essential behaviours that we’ve identified that are included in many of our exams, our practical experience requirement and in our professionalism and ethics modules, so when people are qualifying with us, not only will they draw upon these skills in the exams and ethics components, but will also have to demonstrate that they’ve performed or used these behaviours at work.’
Owen believes that when you look at successful professionals like senior managers and even CEOs, the best ones demonstrate all of these professional behaviours, and they aren’t necessarily restricted to accounting.
‘The reason we’re encouraging and highlighting them is because we see the professional accountant as having a much broader role now – they’re a more complete professional than they might have been 20 years ago,’ he says.
‘We tell people that if they do the ACCA Qualification, they will certainly be very competent in their field or specialism as junior employees starting out, but because they will have developed these professional skills pre-qualification and because we expect them to keep developing them post-qualification, they are lining themselves up for much bigger and broader careers than simply being accountants,’ Owen adds.
In conclusion, it’s also worth adding that all the professional skills and qualities in the world – integrity, emotional intelligence, adding value, insight, relationship-building, innovation, commercial awareness, enthusiasm, flexibility, good business writing, etc – won’t compensate if the primary building blocks of a career in accountancy aren’t in place.
As Neil Imber, head of UK learning at Deloitte, explains: ‘Professional skills are important, but we shouldn’t forget or become complacent about the technical skills, especially in the current economic and business climate. The ability to develop some of the skills and behaviours listed above certainly makes for a more rounded, commercial individual, but won’t be the only key to success if some of the more fundamental skills are lacking.’
It’s a point well made – despite the growing importance of people and professional skills within the sector, it is still imperative to keep up to date with accounting standards and systems – as well as Excel.
‘One piece of feedback I regularly hear from recruiting finance managers is that if two candidates are neck and neck in the interview process, whoever has the best Excel capabilities will secure the job time and time again,’ says Morgan McKinley’s King. You have been warned.