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We've heard about the importance of soft skills for years — to the point of nausea. But, hey, they matter. In the end, no one wants to work with someone who is rude, needy, or can’t think for themselves — even if he or she is incredibly smart on paper.
Companies say it's difficult to find applicants who can “communicate clearly, take initiative, problem-solve and get along with co-workers.” It’s the sort of stuff that doesn’t translate onto a résumé well and it’s hard to decipher who is a dud in a brief interview. After all, job candidates are usually on their best behavior.
To be fair, many accounting firms do a good job sniffing out strong communicators. Credit it to recruiting efforts designed to spot adept interpersonal skills using a variety of social events.
But, it’s just not enough. The problem is that many soft skills besides communication are still overlooked. Skills that can precipitate strong performance and advancement within a firm are undervalued during recruiting.
The competency gap
It’s no secret that soft skills are what advances your career when competing with equally smart people. It’s just too bad there is a growing competency gap across the board and most people’s soft skills are not up to par.
AICPA VP of CGMA External Relations Ash Noah shared research at Xerocon 2016 that found that finance and accounting teams are in trouble. Competency gaps exist for skills like verbal communication, but even larger gaps exist for persuasion, technology expertise, and cross-functional team collaboration abilities. Similarly, a 2015 IMA study asked 173 corporate executives and managers about entry-level skill gaps and “two of the three biggest gaps are for non-technical skills: leadership and strategic thinking/execution.”
Overlooked soft skills
Everyone talks about leadership and communication but what are those things, really? These broad catch-all categories are fairly worthless without understanding what firms really want.
PwC's US Assurance and Audit Human Capital Leader Don Christian believes some key soft skills are often overlooked and undervalued when recruiting candidates. He said, “the ability to listen with intent to understand….not just respond and the ability to demonstrate cultural dexterity and inclusiveness” are at the top of his list.
Why are those skills important for strong performance and advancement within the firm? Mr. Christian elaborated:
We are a people business and our ability to relate and understand our clients not just their business, but them as people is fundamental to understanding how to serve them.
Equally important is our ability to fully engage our people to ensure they bring their best everyday and we have an opportunity to help them achieve their full potential.
While you can lump the ability to persuade others, collaborate with a cross-functional team, listen with the intent to understand, and practice cultural dexterity together with the label of strong communication skills, it’s clear that candidates who can actually demonstrate these unique, individuals skills are rare and too often overlooked.
How to develop communication skills and more
Just like playing the violin or excelling at a sport, even if someone possesses some natural talent, soft skills are primarily a learned behavior. You will not wake up one morning technologically savvy or a miraculously better leader.
The CPA Horizons 2025 report from 2011 stated, “New CPAs must have a broad knowledge of business and soft skills and not simply focus on technical accounting” and points to education to help develop those skills:
Education will remain a cornerstone both as preparation for certification and as an ongoing activity throughout a CPA’s career. However, while the importance of education will not diminish, what CPAs learn and how they learn will evolve. Strong technical accounting knowledge will continue to be a foundational requirement but it alone will not be sufficient. CPAs must also develop problem-solving, communications, leadership and other interpersonal skills.
A master's program is a great way (if not the best way) to build these key soft skills. For example, The University of Scranton MAcc program focuses on curriculum that instills soft skills such as communication:
One of the most important skills accountants need are the soft skills to communicate effectively and to manage clients, accounts, and teams. Functional, purposeful, and strategic internal and external communication is an emphasis throughout the program.
Guy Berger, the chief economist at LinkedIn, who did some research on soft skills that employers actually search for found:
[F]or all the talk about how leadership skills are important, how management is in short supply, it’s really the more fundamental skills like teamwork and communication that seem to matter the most, that employers demand the most… and those are probably the skills most of us really need to know.
University of Scranton Professor Doug Boyle reiterated that strong quantitative skills are prerequisites and differentiating yourself takes more:
I believe that the traditional technical skills will always be of critical importance. However, skills such as technology, leadership, communication, and ethics will require programs to become closely attuned to developments in the profession. Being a Controller, CFO, or Partner in a public accounting firm requires advanced skills in all of these areas.
After a year or two as an associate, most people realize that it’s much better to be the boss — even if it takes time to get to manager, partner or controller. Whatever you do, don’t let your soft skills hold you back from advancing. No one wants to work with, let alone for, a dud.
If you know your soft skills are lacking or want to separate yourself from the pack, check out the Online Master of Accountancy program at University of Scranton. Not only will you strengthen your accounting acumen, but build a network of professionals via your fellow students and faculty and walk away with a degree that can lead to higher pay.