Accountants need more than just technical know-how to steer their businesses in the right direction. Soft skills, leadership and a more personal approach are likely to set apart the profession’s trailblazers in the 21st century.
Why soft skills matter for accountants
This introductory overview sets out key skills accountants will need to act as business advisers to their colleagues and clients. It covers the following three areas, each of which will be explored in further articles:
The modern finance function has to be able to cope with change as there will always be efficiency improvements, technical and regulatory changes to deal with along the way. Technical competence and a grasp of what’s feasible are prerequisites, but ultimately in a world where the accountant is expected to be a pro-active business adviser or partner, people skills will be as important, if not more, to success.
The necessary aptitudes - including influencing, emotional intelligence and listening - come easily for some people, but they can be learned and worked on over time for those who find it challenging. Further articles in this 21st century finance skills series will show you how to do this in each of these key areas.
If you are one of those accountants who gets a little queasy when people start talking about soft skills, you may need to do is rethink the way you see yourself and your role. The secret of success in finance these days is accepting that it’s not just about you – it’s about understanding your staff, clients and contacts, and their needs.
Professional services consultant David Maister explained this some years ago in his landmark book ‘The Trusted Advisor’, which urged finance professionals who saw themselves as technical experts to become more relationship-based advisers.
At the AVN Conference in 2011, Maister explained that throughout his education, no one had ever told him how to deal with people.
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“Everything you want, someone has to give you,” he said. “But how do you get another person to give you what you want?”
He said that this exchange starts with being interested in them and that most of us have to learn and develop our social skills to do that.
“Over 30 years, rather than the last five, I wish someone had taught me more about what works in winning trust and engaging with people, essentially how to be a better friend,” Maister said.
To help get on the right road to being a trusted and relationship-based adviser, here is an overview of three key areas.
To influence and persuade your colleagues, customers or clients effectively, you need to be clear about the result you want. Get absolute clarity about the outcome and devote time up front clarifying your requirements.
You should also plan ahead whenever you can. Consider the boundaries, how you’re going to open discussions and the impact that you want to make.
Another effective technique is to step into the shoes of the other party. Try to understand their perspective to work out how they might react, the objections they might raise, and the concerns or worries they have.
Listening to the other party [see more below] is essential for influencing. Stephen Covey stresses the importance of listening rather than just focusing on getting your point across. Our desire to be heard can get in the way of listening.
The ideal situation is when both parties win, so aim for a win-win, which could mean finding middle ground. Overall remain focused but flexible.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor your own and other people's emotions, and to use that emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.
Back in 2000 Maister said in an AccountingWEB.com workshop that the most important factor in winning trust was making the client or colleague believe that you’re putting their interests first.
He said we all make the mistake of thinking that our business exists in the rational realm, when in fact, it's all about emotions.
“Most of us leave clients thinking we're mostly interested in them for the money.
“New staff must learn from your role modelling. When they hear you talk about clients, do they hear you being supportive, sensitive, caring, or do they hear you talk about jobs, money, receivables and resented demands?” Maister said.
To be a trusted adviser you have to be a good listener.
Life coach Emma Ranson Bellamy said in our sister publication HRZone.co.uk that talking was only one aspect of the communication game and that listening was often the “forgotten partner”.
She explained how listening had transformed her relationships: “I now notice when others are not listening to me and I actually find that I talk much less and gain much more information. This in turn gives me the insight or maybe it is the intuition to ask the questions which are required to move one step closer to the answers they look for.
David Maister also said that you have to listen and focus on your client or customer as an individual.
Becoming a good listener was hard, he admitted: “We tend to listen for what's familiar (it makes us comfortable) rather than what's unique about this person.
“I think there's a powerful analogy in romantic relationships. The principle is the same in business relationships. When your romantic partner asks for your advice, you do a lot of listening before you say ‘I know what you’re doing wrong, beloved!’,” Maister said.
What soft skill advice would you give fellow finance managers? Have you been able to improve these skills over your career so far?
About Robert Lovell
Business and finance journalist