Take a Hard Look at the Importance of Soft Skills

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What's as important as technical skills for accounting and finance professionals? More than half of the CFOs interviewed for a Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey said they give equal billing to soft skills and to technical expertise when filling staff-level positions.

And if you aspire to the management ranks? Functional expertise may take top billing, but your soft skills — interpersonal skills involving communication, leadership and customer service — can be your ticket to the top. 

Technically Speaking infographic"As financial professionals move up the career ladder, technical skills become a given, and it's the nontechnical attributes that can prove the key to their advancement," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. 

"At the senior-level, these team members are expected to be able to build influence across the organization, communicate with diverse internal and external stakeholders, and serve as a business partner. While honing their functional expertise, individuals aspiring to the management ranks cannot neglect also enhancing their soft skills."

Take a closer look at the survey findings to see how CFOs evaluate the importance of soft skills, and view the infographic.

Here are five soft skills and tips for how to develop them to advance your career:

1. Public speaking

You have to deliver financial reports to your team and maybe even to the advisory board — if not now, then surely at some point in your career. Preparation, developing outlines, practice, and knowing your material can go a long way to helping you overcome your fear of public speaking.

Another way to build your soft skills and presentations is to join a Toastmasters club or another public-speaking training forum. You can also volunteer to speak at area business groups or at the local chapter of a finance and accounting association

2. Communication   

Soft skillsYou won’t get far in finance if you can’t use your soft skills to connect with a diverse audience. As you rise in the organization, it will become increasingly important to express ideas clearly and succinctly, practice active listening with both supervisors and direct reports, and use writing skills to produce flawless reports.

In order to boost your communication skills, try to be self-aware during every interaction. If you can’t get your point across when speaking, try saying it another way rather than repeating yourself. A good tip for speaking more clearly is to skip jargon and buzzwords, and always maintain a professional tone. Do the same with your writing, and be sure to proofread everything twice.

3. Leadership aptitude 

Climbing the ranks will be next to impossible if you can’t prove your ability to manage a team, and that, too, takes soft skills. There are myriad leadership training programs available.

If your employer isn't willing to pay for training or it's not an option for you right now, ask to take on extra jobs or lead new projects at work, both within your department and in other areas of the organization. Spearheading new initiatives proves to employers that you’re proactive and a natural team leader.

4. Adaptability

Technology is transforming the modern workplace at breakneck speed, and to demonstrate your relevance, you need to stay on top of current trends. For example, if your organization is heavily invested in its online presence, learn ways you can ramp up your social media skills to contribute to the organization in more meaningful ways.

Another good way to demonstrate adaptability is to become more proficient in the latest finance software, so you can suggest new computer programs that will boost efficiency. There are plenty of seminars, webinars and courses you can take to build tech skills, and you can ask your employer to host a training session to bring the entire staff up to speed on key software.

Be sure to read: How to Upgrade Your Financial Software — and Skills.

5. Critical thinking 

Being able to better analyze and deliver data in a way that everyone can understand is key to advancing in any finance career. But the further you advance, the more important it will become for you to use the data to develop strategy and recommend cost-effective solutions. One of the best ways to build these critical thinking skills is to find a mentor or shadow a senior-level executive.

While your background and experience are important when being considered for a promotion at work, soft skills are what set you apart from the competition. Follow these tips to get the soft skills training you need to advance in your career.

Editor's note: This post was was published early in 2015 and was updated recently to reflect new research.

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Careers in Finance and Accounting