Build soft skills to future-proof your career
What broader skills help chartered accountants’ careers? Five CAs reveal what soft skills are useful and where to get them.
- Chartered accountants should look to develop soft skills such as leadership, communication, creative thinking and ethics to lift their career prospects.
- Those soft skills will become more important as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence take over mundane accounting tasks.
- Post-graduate degrees or diplomas are popular, but short courses, which can run for as little as a day, are also useful.
By Christopher Niesche
Chartered accountants have a solid base of deep technical training, but increasingly CAs need soft skills such as leadership, communication, creative thinking and ethics to further their careers.
“It’s important in the context of chartered accountants being regarded very much as trusted advisers,” says Simon Hann, CA ANZ’s group executive education & learning.
“A big part of being a trusted adviser is being able to build an empathetic relationship with a client or with colleagues, to be able to communicate effectively, to understand problem solving, critical thinking – these sort of non-technical skills.”
Those soft skills will become more important as technology such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence takes over accounting’s more mundane tasks.
“A significant number of new jobs will have a technical skill component, but will also have an increasing requirement for those soft skills,” Hann says.
More CAs are pursuing further study in subjects outside the traditional field for accounting and finance leaders. Some choose to do a post-graduate degree or a diploma course, but other popular options are short courses, which can run for as little as a day.
Acuity spoke to five CAs about how their recent studies and new broader skillsets are helping them with their day-to-day work.
“A significant number of new jobs will have a technical skill component, but will also have an increasing requirement for those soft skills.”
The advantages of Harvard’s ‘condensed MBA’
When Aaron Snodgrass FCA was a young accountant working for PwC in Auckland and later with Deutsche Bank in New York, he was so immersed in his job he had no time to study for an MBA. So when he was offered the chance to do the Harvard Advanced Management Program by his employer Eastland Group, he jumped at it.
“When I considered career progression, a condensed MBA for experienced executives is what I needed, and the Harvard Advanced Management Program offered that.”
As CFO of Eastland Group, which owns and operates the port, electricity network, and airport in Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Snodgrass was very much the course’s target market. The program is designed for senior leaders, particularly those knocking on the door of the CEO.
The pace is intense, with students examining five or six case studies a day. Before he started the course, Snodgrass had thought he might fit in some of his day job into the three-month full-time residential program. But two days in, he realised he’d only have time for study.
Snodgrass says the way he thinks about issues has changed in the two years since he did the course. “I think far more strategically and am more holistic when considering issues. I involve people and consider underlying causes,” he says.
“I consider how to support and empower people to make decisions, so I can focus more externally on customers and stakeholders.”
He nominates the program’s marketing module as the most challenging part of the course. He admits he always thought of marketing as focusing on brand and image and hadn’t realised how much quantitative analysis was involved to support decisions.
“When I considered career progression, a condensed MBA for experienced executives is what I needed.”
MBA’s soft skills boost a move into corporate finance
Chris Glasson CA’s first degree was a Bachelor of Business, majoring in accounting and finance, at the Australian Catholic University. His second was an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW, which he completed in 2018.
For Glasson, the main benefit of further study was broadening his outlook and range of contacts.
“Working in an accounting firm, or whatever industry you’re in, you’ve only really got the single view and you only really think like other accountants or like other people that are in your industry,” he says.
“When you do the MBA and you have people from all different industries and backgrounds, you get different perspectives on the way different people think about businesses, the way businesses need to be structured, and the different drivers.”
Although his undergraduate degree had covered the technical skills an accountant needs, Glasson felt it focused more on people aiming to work in a Big Four firm, while he was intending to pursue a corporate finance and strategy role.
Now working in mergers and acquisitions at Brookfield Asset Management, Glasson says the corporate finance and economics subjects in his MBA were particularly useful.
Much of the final year of his 3½-year part-time MBA was spent on developing soft skills such as leadership. “There’s a lot of teamwork. You’re working with 30 MBA students who are all quite competitive and have very strong opinions, so learning how to navigate that environment is pretty interesting,” he says.
Talking to a range of people in different industries also gave him new perspectives. “I’ve always worked in real estate and thinking about how financial services operate or how marketing firms operate, and how you can think about your strategy differently or potentially transform your business, was very useful,” he says.
Pivoting from SMSF auditor to financial counsellor
A few years ago, Susan Orchard FCA started retraining to pivot into a new career as a financial counsellor.
She completed a Diploma in Financial Counselling from RMIT University in Melbourne as well as shorter courses in mental health first aid and suicide prevention run by Mental Health First Aid Australia. Many of these new skills would have helped in her 20-year career as an SMSF auditor.
Orchard has learned to identify when a client is at risk of suicide, listening for red flags such as when clients voice thoughts like ‘It’s not worth it’ or ‘I don’t know why I’m here’.
She can also spot the symptoms of dementia and has a framework for having those difficult conversations with clients.
“I don’t think I was really properly prepared to work with clients suffering dementia, and we tend to not deal with it in a useful way,” she says.
In fact, learning how to confront difficult situations was the hardest part of her financial counselling course, says Orchard.
After finishing up in her accounting practice in 2018, Orchard now works full-time with people experiencing financial hardship, particularly those with gambling addictions.
She appreciates her new career as a chance to do some community-focused work. And her extensive accounting and superannuation experience is invaluable in helping people to understand their options when managing income and debt.
Adding dispute resolution to a lifetime of learning
Mark Twomey CA enjoys the challenge of tertiary study so much, he’s completed three master’s degrees part-time. Following on from a master’s in applied finance and then professional accounting earlier in his career, in March 2018 Twomey completed another master’s degree, this time in dispute resolution, from the University of Technology Sydney.
For the past eight years, Twomey has been director of corporate services at Sydney-based charity Youth Off the Streets, where he is in charge of finance, human resources, property, fundraising, marketing and communications, and government grants and advocacy.
He studied dispute resolution because the charity uses restorative practices with the young people it works with – a strategy that seeks to repair relationships that have been damaged. The organisation is planning to expand that to all the services it provides and even into the corporate services team.
“It’s working on the soft skills of people management,” says Twomey. “The soft skills that are about how to have effective conversations, how to manage people, how to manage processes, and how to resolve conflict before it becomes a major issue.”
Twomey, who is in his late 50s, doesn’t expect the study will earn him a promotion at Youth Off the Streets – he doesn’t have the required frontline social work experience – but says that’s not the point and it is already helping him in his day-to-day work.
“It’s given me a better understanding of how people react in certain situations and the way I react to things. Knowing what happens when I get under pressure or under stress, being aware of that means
I can most often mediate my responses and make sure that situations don’t escalate,” he says.
Finding the time for his part-time degree wasn’t too difficult, says Twomey, because he enjoyed it so much. But he jokes that his wife wouldn’t be too thrilled if he took on another degree.
“I enjoy actually challenging myself and learning new things. If you stop learning, you might as well give it away,” he says.
Early pay-offs for coaching-psychology course
Catherine Kennedy FCA
A Master of Coaching Psychology might sound like an unusual degree course for an accountant, but Catherine Kennedy FCA, who is currently enrolled in the course at the University of Sydney, says it’s already proving useful in her role at CA ANZ.
“It has been fantastic – both in terms of my work environment and also my personal life,” she says.
“As a CA, you tend to focus on the processes, and one of the really important things about this course is how critically important it is to have awareness of what’s going on around you – noticing things like body language and tone and the way that people engage and that kind of thing – picking up on those aspects of individuals’ interactions.”
The postgraduate degree, which Kennedy describes as applied psychology with a focus on executive coaching, includes subjects on leadership and understanding organisations and teams.
As manager of segment support at CA ANZ, Kennedy looks after four member committees representing different segments of the profession. She says the soft skills she has learned in the degree have been invaluable.
“It’s really looking at the psychology of people – how people are motivated, how people manage change. It’s ways to support people in finding a pathway through their issues. Helping them to untangle problems and obstacles that they might be experiencing in achieving their goals,” she says. “And then, moving into helping them to discover what their purpose might be and how to align their roles and their goals to their strengths and their values.”
The part-time degree mixes evening lectures and tutorials for some subjects and full days for others. Kennedy says it’s taken discipline and focus to fit the degree around her other commitments, but she has learned to be realistic in her expectations of what she can achieve.