Training and education special: soft skills

accountant training

Did you hear the joke about the extrovert accountant – he’s the one who looks
at your shoes rather than his own. The days of the chartered accountant keeping
a low profile are long gone and good communication skills have never been more
important, so why are we so bad at it?

Today’s finance director is at the heart of strategy development and needs to
build relationships with colleagues and clients in order to deliver bottom-line
results. The technical skills of accountancy are, of course, vital and our ACA
delivers rigorous training. But the need for ‘soft skills’ development has never
been more relevant to the job.

There is nothing fluffy about soft skills in a competitive business
environment. People today are expected to work across sectors, and to understand
how business is conducted in emerging markets such as China, Russia and India.

Classic soft skills include effective communication, presentation skills,
analytical thinking, diplomacy, change management, problem solving, team
building, and listening. The latter are in short supply in many organisations.
How often do you interrupt your colleagues and finish off their sentences? Ask
anyone who has been involved in negotiation, and they know the value of engaging
the other side to bring about a deal.

We experience a heightened awareness of communication styles when we want to
buy something. Having just bought a house, I have become adept at interpreting
estate agents’ patter. How do we sell ideas to our colleagues and clients, and
is it talking at them or is it two-way communication? After all, the best bosses
are the ones that listen – we all recognise that. Developing good communication,
trust and respect among colleagues and clients will mean they are more likely to
share knowledge. Communication is natural; we just like to do it on our own

So there is a clear need for accountants to hone their soft skills, and not
surprisingly a whole industry has emerged to offer a range of training courses
to enhance communication skills. These can provide a very effective toolkit. But
before you sign up, if you want to know whether you are a good communicator,
watch yourself on video. The tape never lies.

Organisations increasingly want to hire people who can demonstrate they have
strong communication skills in addition to their technical knowledge and
qualifications. Hiring people who fit is a priority. Competency-based questions
are commonly used in the selection process to find out whether a person has
leadership skills or the ability to influence people, through positive
behaviour. It’s also a standard part of most performance appraisals these days.

The validity of developing these skills alongside enhancing technical ability
has been recognised by the ICAEW since we
became the first institute to make continuous professional development (CPD)
mandatory in January 2005. We understand that members are on diverse career
paths requiring a range of skills. Training at various points throughout a
career can provide tangible benefits. After all, there is nothing worse then
being sent on a course to ‘fix’ a problem.

We moved away from a structured framework that emphasised formal inputs and
instead have placed the focus on the quality of outputs. Accountants are now
expected to reflect, act and demonstrate real business impact. Interestingly, we
are seeing a real trend in people taking more courses and thinking through their
personal development.

There are no boundaries in terms of the types of experience that accountants
can use to explain how they have developed in their annual CPD declarations.

The emphasis is on how they can justify why an experience was worthwhile. So
what one person gets out of a social event, for example, may have the same
value, if not more, than attending a structured training course. What is really
important is how individuals benefit professionally.

To help develop crucial soft skills, we launched a leadership essentials
programme, designed to develop leadership potential and the skills required to
enhance team effectiveness. Since the programme was first offered in 2005, more
than 670 professionals have completed it.

The course culminates in a week-long development project working on the
ground in Africa and is being used by many organisations as part of their
corporate responsibility agenda. The programme is open to all accountants and a
broad range of organisations have seen the benefit of taking part.

Going forward, increased emphasis on soft skills will form part of the new
ACA syllabus, which will be introduced in September this year. The result is a
substantially different qualification, in terms of its content and the fact that
the structure has been changed to a modular, flexible system, making it more
convenient for employers and trainees.

In the new qualification, trainees’ personal attributes and abilities,
communication and interpersonal skills will be developed and assessed throughout
their training contract, with regular feedback from their employer and tutors.
There will be around 24 weeks of tutor contact time, during which time trainees
can work through any skill issues which may arise.

The focus will be on improving commercial awareness, professional business
skills, with specific focus on the soft skill set, alongside the core technical
knowledge. Ethics will be given even greater prominence, and integrated into 11
of the exams, including the case study.

Wherever you are in your career, you should take a hard look at your soft
skills to see if there’s anything you can do to improve the way you interact
with people on a daily basis.

It’s definitely time to stop looking at your own shoes.

Dr Raymond Madden is head of learning and professional
development at the ICAEW

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