Developing soft skills

Why soft skills are the keys to success

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By: Jeremy Sanders
User Icon Ideator, Inc.
Skill Development

Let’s play a game: We’ll ask you a question, and you think of the first thing that pops in your head. Then, we’ll try to guess what it is. Ready? Let’s go …

What makes a CPA successful?

You might have thought something like “knowing every little detail of GAAP” or “the ability to think critically and solve problems” or maybe “strong organizational skills and an attention to detail.”

While these are all great things to have in your CPA bag of tricks, you might be surprised to hear the answers of your professors or mentors. That’s because in countless research surveys and studies, educators and accounting professionals will often say things like “working well in a team environment” and “the ability to write effectively and communicate work performed and conclusions reached” and also “interacting with coworkers and clients in a professional but personal manner.”

If you went into accounting thinking you wouldn’t need to be good at writing and interpersonal communications to make it to the top, allow us to demonstrate just how critical it is to develop and master soft skills in order to shine in your future professional life.

Land the job

Before you can excel in your career, you need to have a career. That means convincing a recruiter or hiring manager that you’re the right person for the job, beginning with your cover letter and resume. As a graduate from an accounting program, you’re simply expected to have a sufficient understanding of accounting principles and concepts.

So while a strong GPA is certainly desirable for your resume, what will truly set you apart is your ability to demonstrate strong communication skills and understand your audience. Can you articulate your strengths, particularly in the context of specific job qualifications?  How well do you organize information into a format that is conducive to decision making? Is your communication style persuasive? Getting your resume noticed is just as much about the answers to these questions as it is about your technical strengths and qualifications. Don’t overlook the soft side of a resume.

If you’ve crafted yours well, you’ll soon find yourself in an interview. What you most likely won’t find at this interview is a competency examination on accounting rules or basic math skills. What you will find is a series of personal interactions, designed to provide evidence about how well you would fit in the culture of the company. How well do you communicate with your peers? How do you interact with managers and others in positions of authority? How does the interviewer think you would interact with clients? Remember: At its core, accounting is a service industry, and knowing how to interact with a client is huge.

Prosper in your career

Now that you’ve communicated your potential and landed a great job, you’ll want to set yourself apart from your colleagues so you can get to that ever-elusive dream job (since it probably won’t be the first one you land after graduation). How can you make that happen? If you guessed continued demonstration of strong communications skills, you’re catching on.

Most students grossly underestimate the amount of writing and communication that comes with accounting. Don’t be one of them. In private accounting positions, CPAs communicate with personnel in other departments, members of management, external vendors, customers, regulators, and investors. It’s not enough to be good at the technical stuff if you want to guarantee success in these interactions. Identify areas of weakness in your communication style and work to improve them now to help avoid workplace awkwardness later.

In accounting, it’s never enough to simply perform a procedure; a supervisor, manager, or auditor must be able to quickly ascertain what work was performed and what results or conclusions were reached as a result. A strong ability to write concise but compelling descriptions of work performed will be invaluable to you as a CPA. Take advantage of opportunities to develop your writing abilities while you’re in school so you won’t have to play catch up once you’re in the real world.

Serve your clients

A “client” may be someone outside your organization, or it might be someone within it. Providing quality service goes well beyond technical accuracy and is often measured most heavily by perceived experience. A customer may not return to a service provider — even if the end work product was acceptable — if he experiences negative interactions. On the other hand, an ability to cultivate strong relationships and make the interactions between client and CPA painless (or better yet enjoyable) will lead to long-term retention, growth and — you guessed it — success.

Prepare now

You probably noticed we’ve been giving you little nuggets of advice this entire time. But in case you missed it, here’s what you should be doing now. Be sure not to focus solely on your technical accounting skills. Take courses and join clubs that force — er, allow — you to work on your communication skills. Attend networking events and hone your ability to interact with professionals. Mastering accounting rules can be difficult enough, but they won’t get you very far if you neglect your soft skills along the way.

Got skills softer than the belly of a newborn puppy? Put them to use by rocking out your resume and practicing your interview skills.

Jeremy Sanders is co-founder and vice president of finance and operations at Ideator, Inc., a startup company developing an online business incubation platform. The company, through its proprietary platform now in development, allows members to cultivate business ideas through its best practices guidance, community of experts, and directory of resources that ranges from service providers to sources of capital.
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