Accountants need to be soft to be sharp

By Mark Billington, Regional Director, ICAEW South East Asia

Accountants might be focused on numbers but they should not neglect the importance of soft skills in today’s complex business environment. With Singapore embarking on a journey to develop the accountancy sector, the importance of non-hard skills have also recently been highlighted by Education Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Not only are soft skills increasingly sought after by employers and could help you climb the career ladder, it is also a requirement for efficient dealings with clients, customers, regulators, managers and other stakeholders.

Obviously, having a well-respected qualification, such as the ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant), is critical to build a successful career. However, that in itself might not be enough any more. If an employer has to decide between otherwise even candidates, demonstrating your softer skills might be the feather that tips the scales to your advantage.

Accountants are typically stereotyped as rather introverted types whose only interest is numbers. Whilst having excellent numerical skills is vital to become a successful accountant, it is only part of the required package. The role of accountants has changed massively over the past few decades. Accountants are much more than book keepers; they are business decision makers at the highest levels and key information providers to the financial markets. Therefore, the ability to interact effectively, efficiently and convincingly with others is critical.

Among the soft skills in high demand are listening and communication skills, presentation skills, analytical thinking, time management, assertiveness and diplomacy, the ability to negotiate and influence decisions, and team building.

The importance of developing this type of skills has been recognised by ICAEW for years. Recently, ICAEW held a soft skills training course for our members in Singapore to help them become more aware of and enhance their softer sides. The ACA qualification now also places much greater emphasis on the development of softer skills than it did previously, with trainees’ personal attributes and abilities, communication and interpersonal skills being developed throughout students’ training contract. This is done through ongoing feedback from the employer as well as tutors.

Another key reason for brushing up on your soft skills is that they are very transferable, allowing you to continue building on the skills regardless of position or employer. Albeit perhaps less tangible than other ‘harder’ professional skills, soft skills – like any other skills – can be learned and developed. They can be refined and become a natural part of a person’s approach to dealing with a situation, get the most out of an opportunity or overcome a challenge.

In the current climate, whether you work in business as a manager or as a business advisor, the ability to deal efficiently with people and problems is a highly sought-after skill. Businesses of all sizes and types have to deliver more for less and having the right staff with the right skills in the right positions has never been more important. Many of the decisions we make, whether it is about choosing an advisor or employing new staff, is influenced by our impression of a person as a person rather than a set of hard and demonstrable skills and qualifications. It is important not to ignore that fact.

For Singapore to have a broad pool of qualified accountants to help not only the profession grow but also to help the market and the economy prosper, the softer skills must not be forgotten about. It shouldn’t be seen as an add-on at the end of a long training and qualification process but something that should be nurtured, honed and refined alongside the acquisition of first-class technical skills.