Recruiters say it's time for CAs to focus on developing soft skills

Two fermales discussing soft skills
By Robert Outram, Editor The CA magazine

11 January 2016

Most accountants believe an earlier focus on soft skills training would have led to greater rewards. But it’s not too late to learn, writes Robert Outram

The job market for accountancy professionals is once again firing on all cylinders. New figures from recruitment industry body the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) show a 16 per cent increase in the number of permanent accounting and finance vacancies over the last year. According to data, growth in employment levels across the sector show no sign of slowing as a strong economy and market confidence contribute to record numbers of people in work.

But despite a buoyant market, recruiters are being forced to work harder than ever, as clients’ expectations of ideal candidates evolve. You may have the CA badge but if you’re an ambitious accountant looking to take your career to the next level in an ever-evolving role, experts warn the focus needs to be more on EQ – emotional intelligence – than IQ to bag the job of your dreams.

“There’s an abundance of jobs and employers are being more selective. Clients are looking for personality, commerciality and the ability to hold a conversation,” said Scott Taylor, associate director of the accountancy and finance division of Change Recruitment. Accountants who can also use their commercial acumen to influence senior stakeholders are in high demand.

Technical skills no longer enough

Once you qualify, your technical competence and professional knowledge are a given for many recruiters. Instead, their sights are increasingly set on non-technical attributes; analysis of accountancy job advertisements by recruiter Randstad Financial & Professional found that more than three-quarters of job descriptions insisted on candidates who could demonstrate soft skills prowess.

It may be 30 years since the phrase emotional intelligence was coined, but for accountants it is more relevant today than ever before. But what does it mean? The Randstad analysis found that almost half of all listings on its website included references to excellent communication and listening skills. Leadership skills, team building and management nous, even sales acumen, are also commonly found on employers’ wish lists for potential recruits.

A robot can analyse data, but only an emotionally proficient person can sensitively manage a client relationship, deploying empathy, and apply creativity to crack tricky problems

Job seekers also recognise the importance of developing and demonstrating these increasingly bankable attributes. A survey just published by recruiter Marks Sattin found that 96 per cent of the accountants it questioned believe decent career progression is dependent on a good grasp of soft skills.

However, less than half (46 per cent) feel soft skills were sufficiently emphasised in their training. Two-thirds of them believe they would be paid eight per cent more in basic salary, the equivalent of around £4,700, if soft skills had been adequately emphasised.

Communication is key

Dave Way, Marks Sattin managing director, said the A-players of the accountancy world need to be outstanding communicators, and proactive in driving relationships. “A robot can analyse data, but only an emotionally proficient person can sensitively manage a client relationship, deploying empathy, and apply creativity to crack tricky problems, " he said "These skills help accountants progress in their careers, but also futureproof their jobs against the emerging white-collar fear - that as technology becomes more advanced employers will increasingly look to machines as a people replacement.”

The importance of soft skills for accountants is reflected in the policies of the Big Four firms, which have all shifted the focus of recruitment towards interpersonal skills – as well as providing enrichment programmes for employees which focus on developing these areas. Deloitte has initiated a 'CV blind' policy for new recruits, hiding details of the school and university candidates attend. KPMG has a CV-blind policy at telephone interview stage, PwC no longer uses A-levels as a recruitment threshold and, earlier this year, EY pledged to scrap minimum A-level and degree requirements for graduates.

Skills have moved on and there’s a greater requirement for social competency for accountants, to differentiate themselves from other professionals.

This represents substantial progress toward placing emotional intelligence at the front and centre of professional development, Dave Way said. “This takes the emphasis off academic preconceptions and turns it squarely on the interviewee and the skills and personality they demonstrate.”

Career development

ICAS also recognises the importance of developing the non-technical skills of accountants. Andrew Penker is head of HR and Professional Development at ICAS and leads the Institute’s global Career Mentoring Programme for members.

He said: “Skills have moved on and there’s a greater requirement for social competency for accountants, to differentiate themselves from other professionals.” Despite the gravitas it offers, Andrew said the CA qualification is often a stepping stone to more complex management roles.

A partnership with training company BPP, in place since September, is looking to plug that gap, offering ICAS members access to more than 200 professional development courses - from time management and effective writing skills to dealing with difficult conversations.

ICAS member Judy Wagner, a director of executive search firm FWB Park Brown, said individuals should continually evaluate which skills areas - both technical and non-technical - need work on to devise a development plan.

She said: “Be honest, face your fear and do something practical about it. If, for example, you are a financial controller or in audit and feel that in order to be more of an all-rounder you could do with more knowledge in tax or corporate finance, then look at courses available through ICAS, which can direct you to relevant training areas.”

Using mentoring programmes to learn from other people’s experiences can save time and energy in the process. At ICAS, the global virtual mentoring programme has been established to inspire connections between CAs around the world. Apply online and you are put in touch with up to six mentors to choose from.

“Mentoring is a very powerful tool,” Andrew said. “The way to try to navigate your way through the career maze is to take responsibility for yourself in identifying where you go and how you get there, using a mentor to challenge your thinking.”

Find out more about the ICAS global Career Mentoring Programme.

This is an abridged version of an article which appears in the January edition of The CA magazine.


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