Having shaken off that dusty, backroom image to become front-of-house business advisers, today’s accountants also require softer skills, underpinning how integral they have become to the wider success of any company.
Global structural economic shifts, data innovation, technology advances and changing working patterns are making the role of accountants more and more visible.
With technical skills and professional qualifications as a given, employers today want their accountants to demonstrate greater ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, empathy, leadership and listening abilities. This illustrates how today’s financial professionals are embedded in all parts of every organisation, with an expectation that they can explain its finances to non-financial colleagues with ease, compassion and empathy.
Research for Robert Half’s 2023 Salary Guide shows 32% of employers chose teamwork as the skill that is most important to them, highlighting the importance of successful collaboration within a team. Communication came a close second, with problem-solving, work ethic and motivation following. For senior or manager-level roles, problem-solving was seen by employers as essential – 28% of them agreed that it was one of the top skills a senior-level candidate should possess.
Beverley Barbarash, Head of Finance Recruitment at Tiger Recruitment, says:
“At a senior level, employers want new hires to add value and become advisors to the business relatively quickly. In the current economic climate, firms are looking for individuals who can think strategically, bring clarity to uncertainty, and support critical decision-making. These skills have always been a requirement. However, they have become even more of a focus since the pandemic. At a more junior level, firms expect accuracy, attention to detail, and a willingness to learn.”
These hiring patterns are underpinned by managers within firms, too. Ellie McQuade is Technical Learning and Development Manager at Monahans Accountancy, an independent firm which serves the South West of England.
“We look for people who are willing to put themselves out there, have the desire to learn new skills and, most importantly, show great communication skills,” she says.
There is a greater focus on soft skills than ever before, says McQuade, as the accountant’s role has transitioned into dealing with more real-time information. This means they are becoming more involved in business developments and acting as an adviser to the client.
“With that in mind, a candidate’s personality has become a key factor to consider when hiring anyone new, especially as we continue to communicate with our clients more frequently.”
With the need to retain and motivate staff being high on hiring managers’ agenda, firms and companies are also investing more in training and development for professionals who display the right character traits.
“There are bigger opportunities for training than ever before, and we believe employees can learn technical skills as long as they have the fundamental soft skills. We organise regular insights training to help our staff understand their personalities and how they interact with our clients and the wider employee team,” she says.
Research by Corndel, a skills training provider, found that 60% of employees surveyed would be more likely to go for a position with a personalised professional development and career progression plan, even if another job offered a slightly higher salary. The news will undoubtedly be reassuring for organisations that have had to grapple with rising salaries due to staff shortages and escalating inflation over the past two years.
The survey of 500 senior HR leaders and 2,000 employees also found that 83% of employees felt professional development in the workplace made them feel more valued.
“We believe offers that go beyond salary are the way forward for those looking to retain and to recruit,” says James Kelly, CEO of Corndel. “Anything from hybrid work to mental health training and awareness can be attractive to employees. Prioritising and structuring workplace training and professional development programmes can incentivise and inspire your people, as well as helping to persuade new staff to choose you over a rival offering a role on a similar pay scale.”
More technical specialisms are increasingly coming into play in recruitment as well. Experience in environmental, sustainability and governance are appearing on managers’ and recruiters’ radars. Anticipating the right skills for the future and delivering modern upskilling programmes, as well as building a learning and development function with an eye on future business demands, is now vital to any organisation.
“Sustainability experience is becoming increasingly important,” says Barbarash. “At this stage, it is a desirable rather than essential skill. However, with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive requiring large companies to report on sustainability policy and performance alongside financial performance from 2024, we expect it to continue to move up the agenda.”
With remote working likely being here to stay, leadership qualities such as strong delegation skills, empathy and listening skills will increasingly be expected for more senior level hires. The ability to manage and motivate a team remotely requires additional abilities to those needed when managing a team in-house.
“Right now, there are a lot of good, qualified accountancy professionals on the job market, so it’s the ‘extras’ that give individuals the edge. Employers value confident communicators who can translate complex information for other departments. With the rise of hybrid working, individuals with proven experience in managing a remote team are also attractive. In many ways, technical skills are a given, so employers are looking at soft skills and value alignment – the best fit for the organisation and the role,” Barbarash says.
In this brave new world, the rise of automation in finance functions means more and more of the repetitive transactional tasks of an accountant’s job will disappear. But while an accountant’s skillset will be expected to keep up with those technological advances, the ability to eloquently interpret data in a way that non-finance people understand and offer up insights to help grow a business will increasingly be required.
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