Accountants Need Hard and Soft Skills for Success

By Robert Half April 14, 2017 at 5:45pm

Technical expertise is more valuable than ever for accounting and finance professionals. You need to constantly stay on top of accounting best practices, legislative mandates and digital trends like big data and cloud services. But in the rush to remain current and relevant, don’t overlook other skill sets. You need to develop hard and soft skills.

Why? Almost everyone who graduates with an accounting or business degree is able to learn new finance software and processes, whether through classes, online tutorials or simple hands-on job experience.

But those skills need to be continually sharpened, just as interpersonal skills need to be mastered. After all, managers seek to hire staff who either already possess them or show aptitude. In fact, a Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey of more than 2,200 CFOs revealed that 54 percent of them value hard and soft skills equally when filling open positions, and 10 percent of respondents gave more weight to soft skills.

View an infographic of the survey findings.  

Being a good communicator can give you an upper hand during the interview process, if you're a job seeker, and when it’s time for your employer to pick new leaders, once you're in the workplace. Whether you already possess these abilities or need to acquire them, it’s always a good idea to enhance or develop both your hard and soft skills, as they can make the difference in your career’s trajectory.

How can you do that? Here are six ways:

1. Get the big picture

Organizations need accountants who understand how the entire company operates, not just their own turf. To bolster your business savvy, learn as much as you can about the organization. This means reading memos from the CEO and paying attention to other departments during company meetings. Have lunch with a non-finance colleague to find out more about that person’s job. Also, ask your boss for opportunities to shadow, cross train or partner with other departments. The more you know about a company’s inner workings and use your soft skills in this manner, the more valuable you are to your employer.

2. Speak out, loud and clear

Accounting teams are no longer confined to the back of the house. Today’s finance specialists are often asked to interpret complex data and analyses for stakeholders and upper management. If you’re used to speaking to fellow experts, dial back the jargon and acronyms for general audiences. While you're at it, boost your listening skills. And since there’s nothing like actual experience, join a public speaking group and volunteer to give presentations at work. Ask if you can be included in more meetings and job interview settings. Practice makes perfect when it comes to soft skills like these.

3. Make friends everywhere

You never know when you’ll need advice or a referral from a colleague. Work to cultivate healthy friendships with coworkers — including those from other departments — so when the time comes, you’ve already laid the groundwork for successful collaborations. These soft skills aren’t difficult for extroverts to master, but don't fret if you’re a timid accountant. Start by making small talk with coworkers. Then work up to asking a few cubicle mates out for coffee, lunch or a post-work happy hour. Perhaps even suggest that your boss host team-building events, such as bowling or karaoke. Be generous with your time, knowledge and help, as this investment pays off in the long run.

4. Embrace diversity

In today’s business world, you routinely work with customers, clients and coworkers of different generations, genders, cultural backgrounds, nationalities and political affiliations. Relating to such diversity can prove challenging for some finance professionals, from senior accountants to new graduates. To hone this soft skill, listen more than you speak. If you have a preconceived notion about how, for example, baby boomer bosses or Gen Z analysts act, look at them as individuals instead of stereotypes. The less judgmental and more empathetic you are, the more successful you’ll be in your finance career.

5. Stand up and lead

Succession planning is on the minds of many managers, so draw some positive attention to yourself and your soft skills by strengthening your ability to lead. Begin by having a conversation with your boss about your accounting career path. Explain how you would love to help the company grow — and to grow with the company. Be ambitious and ask if you can spearhead team projects or help out while the manager is on vacation. 

Here are some of the other hard and soft skills in demand for accounting and finance professionals. 

  • Analytical and strategy skills — Accountants are not just expected to crunch numbers anymore — they're expected to know how to analyze and communicate them to colleagues who may not understand accounting language. Being strategically minded and possessing the ability to deliver data-driven conclusions in an easily digestible manner can allow you to share information on how the company can increase profits and lower costs.
  • Written communication skills — Although you probably didn’t pursue a career in accounting because of your love of writing, business writing is an essential competency for success in the field. Whether you’re crafting an email to your supervisor, sharing information about financial products with a client or preparing a report for the bank loan committee, you need to be able to write clearly and concisely. To improve your writing skills, stay on top of accounting articles, news and blog posts. Why? Reading is a key way to develop written communication skills. As a bonus, you can at the same time monitor and stay aware of new trends in your industry.
  • Technology skills — One of the greatest pressure facing accounting and finance teams is the need to stay current on technology, so it can’t hurt for you to take the initiative with regard to learning on the job. Here are some of the aptitudes and expertise employers need:
    • Advanced Excel  
    • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)  
    • Data analytics   
    • Business intelligence software (e.g., IBM Cognos)
    • Microsoft Visual Basic  
    • Cloud-based software  
    • QuickBooks (for positions with small and midsize firms)
    • Revenue recognition
    • Risk and compliance
    • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Ask for professional training 

To add to your knowledge bank, you need to take advantage of any mentorship or professional training programs your company offers. Are there on-site training courses scheduled? Are there opportunities to attend conferences or seminars? Is online learning available?  

If not, make a proposal. Your boss may fear that facilitating your additional training will make you a more eligible employee for a new job — at a different company. If you want your boss to support your goals, show how you plan to use your new skills to contribute to your current company. Also, offering a defined commitment of one or two years, for example, can be a good way to prove to your boss that you are invested in both personal and company improvement.

When asking for additional accounting training, especially continuing professional education that might take away from your time on the job, be prepared to show how you will continue to perform your current tasks. From your manager's point of view, helping to improve your skills won't do any good if you aren't there to fulfill your normal duties.

In addition to keeping your technical abilities sharp, up to date and relevant, you need to make sure you’re that well-rounded finance professional who excels in both hard and soft skills. Employers are interested in hiring staff who can do things machines cannot.

Looking for more career advice? Visit the Accounting and Finance Professionals’ Career Center for professional development tips and more.

Technically Speaking infographic

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