Hard demand for soft skills
Accountants facing digital disruption should be brushing up on “soft skills” to raise their job market appeal.
- Technical skills are not enough to compete in the digital era. The ability to build and develop softer skills such as empathy and creativity offer candidates an edge.
- As routine tasks become automated, skills and tasks that can’t be done by machines increase in value.
- Just learning behaviour isn’t going to help. CFOs and heads of finance must create cultures where soft skills are empowered, encouraged and rewarded.
By Ben Power
Search giant Google is an icon of the “hard” sciences. Founded by computer scientists Sergey Brin and Larry Page, it is driven by technology, by the mathematical rigour of code.
But in 2013, Google decided to analyse its hiring practices. As reported by The Washington Post, it did so the Google way: the company’s “Project Oxygen” crunched data on all its hiring, firing and promotional practices.
The findings, partially released to the public at the end of 2017, shocked the tech giant’s leadership. The seven top characteristics of Google’s successful employees were all “soft skills”. They included empathy, critical thinking, connecting complex ideas, coaching and communicating. That familiar set of skills collectively known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – came dead last.
Google’s research is a timely reminder that for professions such as accounting, technical skills are not enough to compete in the digital era. A key edge will be the ability to build and develop softer skills such as empathy and creativity.
The soft surge
“The accountant of 2030 is likely to be highly creative, very digitally savvy, but bring high degrees of empathy and creativity to what they do,” says Aaron McEwan, Gartner’s HR practice leader for Australia and New Zealand.
That creates new challenges: how best to develop soft skills, which skills to focus on, and, importantly, how to measure success in skills that involve nuance and human interaction and emotions.
The accountant of 2030 is likely to be highly creative, very digitally savvy, but bring high degrees of empathy and creativity to what they do.
Google’s findings are not entirely new. There has been a growing recognition that “soft” non-technical skills such as communication, emotional intelligence and creativity help talent and organisations outperform.
Academics, including David J. Deming, a Harvard professor and co-editor of the Journal of Human Resources, are highlighting the importance of soft skills. Deming says in a 2017 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), The Value of Soft Skills in the Labor Market, that the evidence is overwhelming that soft skills “are important drivers of success in school and in adult life”. A 2017 report by Deloitte Access Economics, Soft skills for business success, notes that having staff with more soft skills boosts productivity and could increase revenue for the average Australian business by more than A$90,000.
One of the Deloitte report’s co-authors, Jessica Mizrahi, says demand for soft skills is surging. She notes that 10 of the 16 “crucial proficiencies for education in the 21st century” identified by the World Economic Forum are non-technical. The Deloitte report forecasts that soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared with half of all jobs in 2000. The number of jobs in soft skill-intensive occupations is also expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other occupations. The trend towards soft skills is already happening. Though successive US administrations have urged youngsters into science and tech-focussed careers, Deming notes that STEM’s share of US occupations fell between 2000 and 2012, while social skill-intensive jobs grew some 12 percentage points as a share of all US jobs between 1980 and 2012. The labour market has rewarded soft skills far more in the 2000s.
Don’t be a machine
The main impetus for the rise of soft skills, as Deming highlights, is that as routine tasks become automated, skills and tasks that can’t be done by machines increase in value. The likes of empathy and insight, particularly, become vital to maintaining a competitive edge.
“Businesses increasingly rely on critical thinking, emotional judgement, and problem-solving skills in their staff to not just understand what technology is saying, but analyse why it is saying it, and what ought to be done,” the Deloitte report says.
Gartner’s McEwan says data is becoming the lifeblood of organisations, “but that data on its own isn’t particularly helpful. People don’t need more data, they need more insight. “What the organisation is really looking for from accountants or finance staff is to give insights into the business that can help improve decision.”
People don’t need more data, they need more insight.
McEwan says that more organisations in a low-growth economy are also turning to innovation and creativity to drive growth. He notes that research shows that changes in customer expectations are driving volatility and disruption, not technology. “As we try to better understand customers and what they care about, that requires empathy,” he says.
Matt Graham, PwC’s managing partner for assurance, agrees that data isn’t enough, and a true edge is the ability “to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and understand issues on their mind”.
Training for soft skills
Based on hiring practices, accountants seem to be recognising the importance of soft skills. US-based Recruiter Robert Half Finance & Accounting surveyed more than 2200 CFOs in 2017 and found that 54% of them valued hard and soft skills equally when filling positions and 10% actually gave more weight to soft skills.
While communication, critical thinking and problem solving are essential soft skills, Mizrahi says there are others, including ethics, that also need to be developed. “Accountants are trusted advisers to so many businesses – both big and small – and they have access to mission critical information,” she says. “Having the courage to talk about the problems and solutions and even sometimes having the courage to say ‘I think you’re doing the wrong thing’ is really critical for the profession.”
McEwan defines digital skills as “soft” and argues that accountants should also focus on developing them. He says they also need to become increasingly comfortable with using technology – machine learning and AI – to provide insights. But how can organisations, people and accountants get better at soft skills? Can you train for soft skills? “You can,” McEwan says. “You can learn those capabilities.” PwC’s Graham says the key, at the individual level, is practice (see below). But most agree that improving soft skills begins with organisational culture.
Just learning behaviour isn’t going to help, McEwan says; rather, CFOs and heads of finance must create cultures where soft skills are empowered, encouraged and rewarded.
Matt Graham on soft skills
Early in his career, Matt Graham, PwC’s managing partner for assurance, faced a difficult situation. A client whose career was under threat became volatile and angry. But Graham remained calm, settling the client down and walking them through various scenarios. It was then that Graham realised he was developing his soft skills – in this case emotional intelligence. Graham says soft skills have played a key role in his career success, both in dealing with clients but also leading more than 2000 people in his division at PwC.
He believes the core of soft skills is “the ability to be with other people and focus on their needs and interests and prioritise them over yours”.
Graham advises accountants to focus on three main soft skills:
1. Emotional intelligence: Understand the impact of your behaviour on other people. That requires you to sit on the “balcony of the dance” – to step outside yourself and watch how you behave and talk with people.
2. Communication skills: Become articulate and insightful, and don’t overdo the technical competence or get locked into minutiae. Rise above, and connect the dots and themes.
3. Selflessness: Graham says he believes he is doing his role well when he consistently focuses on the needs of others – his clients, their stakeholders, his partners, and the team he leads. “But soft skills are really hard skills to master,” he says.
How do accountants improve their soft skills? Graham suggests three steps:
1. Understand what your values are. “Be confident and articulate in what those values are for you and use them as a compass to guide your behaviour in all situations, the tough ones and the easy ones,” Graham says.
2. Be vulnerable. Being excellent at soft skills means being willing to learn and adapt and understand how you’re impacting other people. “You can only do that if you’re willing to listen to how you’re impacting other people, then act on that feedback and alter your behaviour. You can’t do that if you have got a mask up.”
3. Practice. “Every important communication, every difficult discussion you’re about to walk into, you practice that just like you would practice for any other harder skills you’ve got in your toolkit,” Graham says. “The preparation, the training of the muscle is just as critical in these areas. Practise listening; practise asking extra questions; practise public speaking, which are all critical.”
Ben Power is a business and finance writer.