The business world is increasingly recognizing the necessity of soft skills in employees. In its 2012 Global CEO Study of 1,700 chief executive officers from 64 countries and 18 industries worldwide, IBM found several interpersonal skills to be key drivers for employee success, while a 2013 survey of more than 2,100 chief financial officers by financial staffing service Accountemps discovered that the most common reason (at 30 percent) that respondents gave for why their employees fail to advance was poor interpersonal skills.

"Soft skills usually are one of the major career inhibitors -- a lack of soft skills," explained Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Accountemps parent company Robert Half. "In my nearly 30 years of doing recruitment ... the table stakes to get the job are your technical skills, and advancement comes from staying current in your area of expertise. Soft skills are really how you differentiate yourself, at the head of your class or as a high potential within your firm. It benefits your firm and clients -- people are attracted to you, attraction equals promotion, and you turn into a leader. Employers have always prized [soft skills]."

But only 19 percent of the surveyed CFOs said that they were likely to invest in soft skills training for their internal accounting and finance staff in the next two years. Though this represents an increase from 8 percent in 2008, the financial industry's gap between recognition and investment in this kind of training remains.

Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, a Maryland-based change-management and networking resource center, has witnessed this underinvestment. "Working with all young professionals, they will tell us they don't feel they're getting the leadership and success skill training they need," he shared. "The other part is that the kind of training needs to be rethought."

 

MAD SKILLS

Of the interpersonal skills valued by the CEOs in the IBM study, collaboration came out on top at 75 percent, with communication (67 percent), creativity (61 percent) and flexibility (61 percent) close behind. That highly desired ability to collaborate, Hood emphasized, is essential to the successful learning of other soft skills today.

"It has been proven that learning collaboratively, especially for the younger generation, is huge," he explained. "Get these young people back out to the profession, going to association meetings, conferences, both locally and nationally, so they can learn from their peers."

Along with collaboration, the Business Learning Institute has identified five other critical skill sets for emerging leaders, which rely heavily on soft skill competencies. They are: leadership, technological savvy, communication ability, corporate/practice specialty, and strategic thinking.

"The key to unlocking value for firms for their clients are, in fact, these skills," Hood explained, noting that Big Four firms have historically recognized this correlation, valuing soft skills training along with technical learning. "What the Big Four has done, systematically, is built it in from the earliest parts of the career. That's what firms should be doing - investing a little more."

Meanwhile, both universities and campus organizations have increased their investment in developing skills.

"I'm finding that, for students that are newly graduated, in the past couple years, there is more of a focus on-campus with the soft skills, or what we would call critical non-technical skills," explained Robert Half's McDonald. "Students are being included in organizations like Beta Alpha Psi on campus that are stressing the critical soft skills, and I'm finding that more in the curriculum taught by universities and professors, getting them ready for firms. The majority of accounting students I interface with that go to firms are well-trained."

This is clearly advantageous for firms, since these skills belie their classically "soft" classification, according to Hood, who quotes a recent social media post from business author Tom Peters: "If I see the term 'soft skills' one more time I'm going to barf," Peters wrote. "Those skills are the true hard skills -- the ones that effectuate results."

Hood agrees: "The whole idea of business development -- if I am a CPA who is good at asking questions, being collaborative, and a strategic thinker, then ... you can have a conversation [with the client] without a word about sales. You can understand the client's world -- and that's a heck of a lot better than going in with the hard sell. It's about facilitating good dialogue with a client, being able to work with clients in a more strategic way - how to add higher-level services."

 

WHERE THE SKILLS ARE

The fact that the younger generation is entering the profession with more strategic proficiency doesn't mean firms shouldn't develop these skills -- for the benefit of all. There are several training options, even for firms without a Big Four budget. Conferences, for one, have a high return on investment, though Hood said, "I still hear people saying they are afraid to send young people to an event because someone will recruit them."

The power of collaborating with peers outside the organization should override these fears. "There is more of a call today to individuals, earlier on in their career, to stretch themselves for the team, and relationship-build with people within a department and clients and people outside of the department," McDonald explained. "It's really a highly sought-after skill, and training people in team-building exercises builds those relationships stronger."

The format of these events, especially those geared to younger professionals, supports these essential team-building skills, said Hood, along with the essential sharing of best practices: "When you make participation a premium, people learn in the best way. What [my participants] say every time, nationally and locally, is the biggest benefit of being with other young professionals is hearing their perspectives on how they are doing things."

As participants return to their firms with this knowledge, Hood has one piece of advice for leadership, learned from a speech he attended by retired General Stanley McChrystal: Trust your junior officers.

"If older partners would trust these guys and gals a little bit and let them lead a little bit, they could easily learn these skills. The biggest skill for an older partner would be collaboration, because that's the biggest shift in leadership," Hood explained, adding, "I spend a lot of time learning."

If that last point wasn't obvious from Hood's penchant for quoting and seeking the advice of other leaders, it would be via his social media channels. That is where the trend of "social learning" comes into play, another valuable and low-cost tool for firms looking to augment their soft-skills training. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and blog posts are all collaborative tools for sharing lessons and experiences, with hashtags (which aggregate content under a specific topic or event) making it easier to self-curate content to fit an individual's needs.

Another lower-cost resource is online, on-demand learning. Additionally, McDonald recommends Toastmasters and university classes to hone speaking skills, and volunteering to improve presentation and teamwork competencies.

Firms that encourage or offer these learning outlets will also benefit in another vital way. "Retention is so critical for many accounting firms, and retention strategies are extremely important," McDonald explained. "Generation Y and Generation X are demanding more online and classroom training, and looking for what the organization can help them with. With the increased availability of online courses, it's easier to provide, financially."

Hood would agree. "Right now, apparently, the No. 1 retention tool for young CPAs is career development," he explained. "And when they say career development, they don't mean technical training."

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