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If You Have People Skills, You’ll Land That Job

Do you have what it takes?

November 19, 2009
by Sukanya Mitra

Previously published in the AICPA CPA Insider™.

News flash for all you accountants hiding behind your Excel spreadsheets. Yes, it’s good you’re an expert at QuickBooks, Peachtree and the like, but it seems that’s just not enough. You need to get out there and beef up your people skills, according to a just-released Accountemps survey. In fact, when CFOs were asked “If two candidates interviewing for an accounting or finance position had similar skills, which one of the following additional qualifications would you find most valuable,” one-third (31%) of them ranked personality or people skills at the top. That’s a major increase from five years ago, when the same skill clocked in at a measly one percent.

Why the sudden surge?

“The huge surge in people skills correlates to how finance departments are being advanced as a strategic asset within companies,” said John Benson, founder & CEO of eFinancialCareers.com. “For instance, finance professionals are using their quantitative skills to help management assess and prioritize strategic objectives or identify opportunities in the business that may be overlooked by the line of business managers. Finance professionals tend to approach issues with a very practical, fact-based analysis which is invaluable in the data soaked world for corporations today.”

Steven Kass, a district manager with Robert Half International, believes that while strong interpersonal skills have always been essential for accountants, its importance has risen lately especially as the CPA role has evolved and they have needed to team up with more internal and external departments. “Practitioners need to be able to collaborate with internal and external clients, including management and colleagues from across the organization and clearly present their perspectives and recommendations on issues ranging from finance to compliance to operations,” he said.

Nice to know, but what can CPAs do to enhance their “people” skills?

“There are a number of steps professionals can take to build their interpersonal skills,” noted Kass. “Practitioners should look for opportunities to build and demonstrate their presentation and writing skills. The need for strong communication abilities is only going to increase in the coming years and individuals can greatly enhance their career marketability and value they bring to their employers by excelling in this area.”

Benson suggested a simpler technique. “Finding a way to be helpful without being intrusive is the first step to building good interdepartmental skills,” suggested Benson. “The easiest way to go about that is really listening for those opportunities and then to deliver. Listening is the most overlooked and valuable interpersonal skill one can develop.”

Interestingly, the survey saw a drop in certification and designation requirements. While in 2004, 15 percent of firms looked for candidates with certification, that number has since dropped to 11 percent. Benson felt today most companies look at certification as part of a checklist and it does not necessarily tip the weighing scale in making financial professionals a better candidate. He exemplified this by pointing out, “For instance, having a CFA doesn’t mean you are going to be a great stock picker. But, it does mean you have the right tools with which to work. I think this survey reflects the value of how you apply the tools, more than the tools themselves.”

Kass didn’t quite agree. He pointed out that the drop was only four percent and attributed the drop to the “rise in the need for accountants with excellent interpersonal skills.” He emphasized that there is still a great need various designations. “In fact, the CPA is commonly one of employers’ primary hiring criteria,” Kass noted. “Having staff with the extensive expertise in their fields gained by maintaining professional certifications allows employers to offer greater value to their clients.”

Other Survey Results

Though software/technology knowledge skills came in second in the survey, it dropped in importance. In 2004, one in three (33%) survey respondents thought it was an important skill, while in 2009 only one in four (27%) thought it was as important. The rest of the breakdown came in as: industry-specific experience (20%), certification or advanced degree (11%) and with multilingual skills and international experience tying in at four percent.

As IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) grows and the need to work globally arises even more, Kass strongly feels there will be a greater demand for CPAs and financial professionals to have both international business and multi-language skills.

“Accountants need to have a global mindset and be sensitive to differences in language, culture and time zones,” said Kass. “Even if they aren’t currently working with multinational clients or firms, professionals should learn about business practices in different parts of the world and understand how IFRS and other international regulations may impact their organizations, roles and careers.”

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Sukanya Mitra is managing editor of the AICPA Insider™ e-newsletter group.