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As professionals progress in a career in accounting or finance, soft skills become increasingly important. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, computerized and automated, soft skills can be the differentiating factor between two employees competing for the same promotion or position.

In fact, in a recent survey published by the Society for Human Resource Management, 97% of employers said soft skills were either as important or more important than hard skills. Whether a professional is looking for a new job or looking for a promotion, focusing on and developing soft skills can help employees become more complete and employable professionals.

What I see, for my own team and company-wide in working with companies that are recruiting, is the importance given to various soft skills for accounting and finance professionals, which which can help take the company’s work to the next level.

For professionals looking to improve their work and their employability, the four soft skills listed below are the most important.

Management of time

Time management is an essential skill for any accounting professional, not only because of the profession’s focus on deadlines, but also because of the time management discipline required by the large-scale shift to working at distance. It can be hard to avoid procrastination, and it’s easier to get sidetracked when working virtually.

Due to the cyclical nature of accounting, employees have many opportunities to hone their time management skills. Most major projects and deliverables will occur around the same time of year, depending on the organization. Here are some tips I’ve found to help develop time management skills and stay organized.

Start by taking advantage of calendars and tasks. Using the organization’s digital tools can help move projects forward and keep them organized. For example, if you work as part of a team, use a shared spreadsheet with co-workers to track each person’s responsibilities for the month-end close or any other project the team has prioritized. For sole practitioners, diligent use of a calendar can help maintain task and meet deadlines.

Another way to develop time management skills is to talk to managers and colleagues. Ask them how they keep their tasks aligned. They may be planning their days in a way that can work with other projects and tasks. CPAs who demonstrate good time management have a head start on both new job opportunities and promotions within their organization.

Critical mind

Various hiring managers we work with often ask candidates to have “strong critical thinking skills,” but what does this mean for the accounting and finance profession? Critical thinking – analyzing problems and finding the causes and solutions to those problems – is a major facet of the accounting profession.

Organizations are constantly faced with new financial challenges. More recently, COVID-19 has created a series of challenges for accounting and finance teams to solve. Reallocation of funds and cash management, managing payroll changes, reacting to new legal changes to internal reporting practices and other changes have required employees to think critically and creatively to meet the needs organisation.

While COVID-19 was unexpected, there are other challenges accounting teams can plan for. What we see most employers asking for are accounting and finance professionals who not only look at past problems and find solutions, but can also foresee problems before they arise. From the first glance to the final analysis, accounting professionals must review all the information available to them and be able to communicate why something happened and what can be done in the future for the plan or report on it.

When working to develop critical thinking skills, I have found it extremely important to first ask how and why processes are done the way they are and ask how they can be done better. This “professional skepticism” and general curiosity can help ensure that all tasks are accurate. Professional skepticism will make it easier for you to ask the right questions and find the “why” instead of just trusting information at face value.

Leveraging advice from other successful accounting professionals can hone critical thinking skills and make any accounting professional a greater asset to their organization. Webinars, conferences, and networking with other accounting professionals can provide insight into what other organizations are doing and offer vendor recommendations, process improvements, and more.

Communication

Our recruiters consistently rate communication as a top skill for accounting and finance talent. Almost every function in an organization interacts with accounting and finance teams. Therefore, professionals must have exceptional communication skills, both written and spoken. Important projects should be communicated in an easy-to-understand manner to executives and colleagues (especially if they are unfamiliar with accounting or finance terminology) to ensure successful execution.

If accounting and finance professionals have poor communication skills, it can be difficult to clarify points, share their reports, and create action from the results.

When working on developing strong communication skills, reach out to a manager for feedback. Ask them to review emails, reports, and other communications before sending or sharing them.

Ask them if the communication gets the message across and if they think the end user will understand the report or solution being communicated. It is important to recognize who your audience is and how best to present the information.

Avoid using too much jargon and make sure everyone can understand the information, not just accounting professionals. In addition to asking a manager for help, do a self-assessment of any communication. For written assignments, read them aloud to spot errors. Hearing or reading something has a different impact. For oral communication, practice in advance so that the purpose or call of the meeting is properly communicated.

Collaboration

Collaboration with teammates and other employees is paramount for accounting professionals. Since accounting and finance teams touch all areas of the business, they are expected to work cross-functionally and collaborate well with other employees. Projects that involve other employees, such as budgets, cash projections, or strategic planning, can be complicated and require a high degree of collaboration.

While entry-level accountants may not run these projects with other business leaders, they will eventually need to meet with teams from across the organization. Developing this skill is therefore crucial for continued growth. Even for sole practitioners who work relatively independently, collaboration is absolutely essential when working with clients and any other stakeholders in various projects.

One way that I have found useful in practice to become a stronger collaborator is to spend time before a meeting writing down questions and thoughts to bring into the conversation. Make speaking up in meetings and calls a regular habit, and eventually it will become muscle memory. Preparing questions and engaging on the topic will encourage other team members to do the same and create more dialogue and collaboration in discussions.

Ryan Cabus, CPA, MBA, is a Controller at LaSalle Network, a US-based staffing, recruiting and culture firm. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a Jofa editor-in-chief, [email protected].