Accounting reinvented: softly does it

Whilst compliance and assurance remains high on the agenda, in today’s business landscape clients need accounting and advice; they need a business adviser. Accountancy is now more than just number crunching, and soft skills are the key differentiators in the modern workplace, making their mark in the recruitment process.

Andrew Harding, Chief Executive – Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, the unified voice of CIMA and the AICPA, reveals what’s expected: “Demand for scorekeepers in the profession is declining. To stay relevant, finance professionals need to become business influencers and leaders, and position themselves as storytellers who provide foresight to business partners. They need to enhance their social and commercial skills to better tell the story of the business, generate new insights and business solutions, and collaborate effectively with colleagues and external stakeholders to improve both overall company and staff performance.”

Accounting best practices, legislative mandates and digital trends like big data and cloud services remain important, but traditional accounting services like bookkeeping, preparing accounts and reporting can all be managed automatically, and are getting replaced by advisory services.

Accounting is changing

Paul Eagland, BDO’s Managing Partner, recognises the transformation happening within the profession and the skills required to keep up: “The role of an accountant is changing as quickly as the world we live in. A high IQ is needed to solve clients’ difficult technical challenges. Tax, audit and advisory are intellectually rigorous disciplines and logic is essential. Equally, business is based on relationships which flourish with honest and transparent communication, and that’s why EQ is so important. There is now a third skill needed, this is what I would refer to as digital quotient (DQ).”

Automation and artificial intelligence increase the dependency on soft skills, and faced with continued digital disruption, professionals need to hone in on these talents. If soft skills are as important as technical proficiency and aptitude, what ones are topping the list?

  1. Leadership: This quality is not just about being a good boss or a trusted advocate, it’s about someone who can step into a more senior role when the time is right, demonstrating strategic thinking and long-term planning. Since most responsibilities – completing an audit or overseeing the work of an entire department – requires some level of autonomy, professionals who can step up and take the initiative add untold value to an organisation.
  2. Communication skills: There is an increasing need for employees who can collaborate and communicate effectively in the accounting field. Good communication skills are essential when presenting and translating financial information to other departments, and being able to communicate, interpret data and share results in a clear and comprehensive way, is a critical skill. Accountants need to be more concise and effective in using emails, letters, visual communication tools and presentations to ensure the financial information gets to the right people to make the right decisions to benefit the organisation.
  3. Time management: Good time-management skills go hand-in-hand in with strong organisational capabilities. With increasing workloads and deadlines it’s important that all accountants are able to prioritise their workload effectively, to demonstrate an ability to work within time limits and to continually re-prioritise to-do lists.
  4. Emotional intelligence: Are you able to handle disagreements, conflicts, disappointments, and differences in opinion professionally? Can you inspire and encourage yourself? Can you get along with people and fit in with the social culture of the organisation? Accountants with a high EQ are easy to work with, especially in high-stress times, and that is a vital quality in today’s corporate climate.
  5. Critical thinking/problem solving: As accounting practices move away from compliance towards a more advisory service and clients experience increasingly complex problems, accountants must be prepared to circumnavigate unforeseen challenges. Accountants must develop critical thinking and problem-solving as part of their soft skills portfolio, to deliver reliable and precise results, avoiding costly financial errors and minimising risks associated with their work.

Learn, unlearn and relearn

This list is by no means exhaustive and is continuously changing, but all professions require at least some soft skills to stay competitive. Degrees and diplomas are no longer enough and soft skills are the fundamental features that make someone with finance expertise competent enough to face the challenges of modern day accounting. Harding identifies the need to constantly upskill saying:

“Knowledge is a perishable good so it is crucial that finance professionals become proactive learners, who continuously learn, unlearn and relearn new skills and competencies to deal with complexity and operate in an increasingly agile environment.”

Soft skills can be the difference between an adequate accountant and an ideal accountant, but they can be challenging to develop since they have little to do with knowledge or expertise, and are largely focused on personal traits. Pinpoint the skills that can help you grow both personally and professionally, and work on developing them within yourself. Harding continues:

“Technical accounting knowledge is no longer sufficient for finance professionals to succeed in the modern business world. They now need to broaden their digital skills (e.g. data analytics, cybersecurity and business models) and be recognised for questioning constructively, guiding strategic decision-making, partnering with their peers, managing risks and implementing projects, as well as providing reliable management information”.

The financial and accounting services industry is more competitive than ever, and a confident leader a better communicator and a trusted advisor and are all essential capabilities for the modern accountant. Eagland says that instead of being afraid of change, look at the opportunities that are being created to move your occupation forward.

“The impact of new technology will have a positive impact on the profession. A combination of IQ, EQ and DQ will move accountants on from just being ‘numbers people’. By embracing all that digital offers, we will be taking a leap away from the clichéd stereotype and become fully-rounded business advisers.”

A balanced and successful accountant will have a range of soft skills – add them to your portfolio.

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