I have a confession to make. I once lacked some of the soft skills that I look for in the people we hire today.
Yes, like many accountants in the field, I started life as a dyed-in-the-wool, classic introvert. Early in my career, if people asked me questions, I would be forthcoming with information, but talking about myself unprompted just didn't occur to me. I was quiet. Overt candor was not a skill I could have put on my resume.
But over time, with the help of mentors and lots of practice, I have become a more open and accessible person. So much so that I relish leading the successful Silicon Valley consulting firm that I co-founded in 1993, a job that requires a high amount of openness -- not only with our fast-moving clients but with the smart consultants who work at our firm.
I do not buy into the notion that soft skills are traits we are born into, that we either have them or we don't. I believe they can and should be developed. I'm living proof that they can be learned behaviors.
In fact, you may be passing over some potentially strong performers simply because they lack one of these skills. Any firm that's grappling with the current war for talent should consider this point. How many times have you thought a job candidate's credentials seemed promising, but you couldn't get past the fact that he seemed introverted? Or that she didn't make eye contact or fidgeted nervously? You may not have realized why that person rubbed you the wrong way.
There's a good chance -- assuming the technical skills were there -- that you let a great potential employee walk out the door. The fact is that interpersonal skills can, by and large, be learned.
Throughout my career, I have leaned on the wisdom of others -- mentors, executive coaches, and thought leaders -- to improve my own soft skills. I challenge anyone who feels they are being held back in their careers but is not sure why to get a reality check on their soft-skill set and do some fine-tuning. I also encourage those in leadership positions to consider ways they can cultivate the "softer" side of their teams' abilities (and their own).
Here are some examples of soft skills that deserve particular attention:
- Keeping your ego in check. While accountants are called upon because of their specialized knowledge, no one wants to work with a know-it-all. When they're not tempered, big egos reflect poorly on an individual and the firm. Over-confident individuals need to tone it down to get along with others.
- Listening well. Active listening goes way beyond just nodding your head while someone is talking. It means really spending the time and attention necessary to understand what people are trying to say through their words, their tone of their voice, and their body language. And it means engaging in follow-up questions and being responsive. Accountants need to also be listening for what someone is not saying; it's our job to know more than the client (although we don't need to act like it).
- Being courageous. It's our job to identify situations that aren't working. We need to speak up when we see something that isn't right, even if it's going to be an unwelcome revelation. Some people avoid conflict and difficult conversations, but that habit will ultimately hold everyone (you and your client) back. We're all better off being upfront and plunging ahead to fix problems.
- Having resiliency. We all need to be prepared to fail. When we're too afraid of making mistakes, we don't take risks and don't stretch ourselves. We miss out on new experiences that could lead to fresh ideas. This can be particularly challenging for accountants, who are trained to be precise and always on the hunt for the right answer. Truth is, wrong choices do occasionally get made. Those who can focus on "what's next" -- rather than wallowing in "what happened" -- are more successful.
- Communicating in a crystal-clear way. Having outstanding verbal and written skills is crucial in our field. Professional services revolve around solving clients' problems -- helping them see the forest from the trees strategically, and meeting their obvious and often not-so-obvious needs. For example, by planning out what you want to say and thinking about how others will perceive it, you communicate much more effectively. And that can save all of us buckets of time in the long run (misunderstandings breed non-productive hours).
All of these skills can be developed, but not all of these skills are noticeable on the surface. Clients may not work with your firm partly because a few members of your firm lack these kinds of skills, even though they otherwise did a great job at an assignment. Your employees are what differentiate your firm from others and prevent your services from being considered a commodity.
Filling the gaps
The next time you interview someone who didn't score well during the interview process but otherwise has all the right credentials, consider taking another look to explore what's missing and whether the person is open to change. Be sure to ask job candidates how they would handle certain situations and not just quiz them on their technical skills, to provide you with a fuller view of their thought process and give them another way to express their experiences.
As for current employees, I suggest investing in regular soft-skill training, which is something we do at RoseRyan. We provide our consultants with many training options each year to improve their various skills, either in a live classroom or online.
Another, less formal way you can improve employees' soft skills is through "teachable moments" on the job. Encourage your colleagues to take on a new project, or have less-experienced people run a meeting to help them stretch and grow. Provide immediate, constructive feedback after meetings with clients and look for ways your employees can take on a similar opportunity again. My mentors did this for me, and their incisive comments were invaluable stepping stones that boosted my confidence about my professional potential, and motivated me to enhance my soft skills and, ultimately, to become the leader I am today.
Kathy Ryan is CEO, CFO and co-founder of RoseRyan, a San Francisco area firm that helps companies with major transactions, corporate governance, business acceleration, and more.
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