Study Reveals Top Nonaccounting Skills Sought in Accountants
By Jason Bramwell
Accounting and finance professionals who possess nontraditional accounting traits, such as general business knowledge and good communication skills, are valued not only by CFOs trying to fill open finance department positions at their companies, but also by human resources directors looking to recruit new talent to their accounting firms.
According to a new survey by specialized staffing firm Accountemps, a division of Robert Half International Inc., CFOs were asked, "When hiring finance and accounting professionals, which one of the following attributes or areas of expertise is most valued, in addition to traditional accounting knowledge?" Their responses included (Responses do not total 100 percent due to rounding.):
- General business knowledge – 33 percent
- IT expertise – 25 percent
- Communication skills – 14 percent
- Leadership abilities – 13 percent
- Customer service orientation – 13 percent
- Don't know/no answer – 1 percent
"Accountants are playing a larger role in organizations today," Brett Good, senior district president of Robert Half, told AccountingWEB. "Other departments across the enterprise are increasingly relying on accounting and finance professionals to provide strategic guidance and support on key business decisions. This, in turn, requires these individuals to expand their general business knowledge."
From a recruiting perspective, Hang Bower, executive director of human resources for Chicago-based BDO USA LLP, told AccountingWEB that while the firm looks for individuals who are technically adept in the field of accounting, those skills do not make a complete professional.
"Business knowledge, communication skills, leadership ability, and a customer service orientation are all valuable traits we evaluate during our recruiting process," she says.
Three Must-Have Nontraditional Accounting Skills
What nontraditional accounting skills must accounting and finance professionals possess to provide the best service to clients? Todd Kooiman, tax partner with Seattle-based accounting and business consulting firm Moss Adams LLP, tells AccountingWEB his top three.
1. Specific industry understanding and general business knowledge: "Our clients want their trusted advisor to have an in-depth understanding of their industry and their business. They want to know what implications are going to have a major impact on their business. They want to know what's going on in the market that is going to significantly impact them. If you don't know their industry, you won't be able to see those red flags. So that's a big one for us in order to be proactive in dealing with our clients.
"With general business knowledge, it's knowing what's going on in the market, knowing what's happening in the economy, and how that's going to impact our clients, our customers, and their businesses."
2. Technology/social media understanding: "This is important to help clients understand and take advantage of the new technology that is out there, such as social media. Are clients able to get their product out in front of people via social media? What is being said about their product on social media, how can they offset any negative social media press about their product, and how can they analyze that? If something negative is said, you want to make sure you can offset that with some really positive things and how to best utilize that product.
"By helping clients understand how to use that technology, we can more efficiently serve our clients, as well as help their businesses. This can also include the accounting software they use by advising them on what package is right for their business."
3. Communication: "Communication is such a vital part of what we do. We're either communicating by phone, in-person, or via email; writing an article; or presenting in front of a group. If you can't write well, speak well, or present well, all of that factors into the expectation and the confidence that your clients will have in you as their trusted advisor. If you're not able to convince them and relate to them exactly what they need or what their business needs, you're not going to be effective in this industry, and you're not going to have a good relationship with your clients.
"To me, communication overlays the other two nonaccounting skills because it impacts how you're going to communicate your understanding of the specific industry and general business knowledge that you have, and how you're going to explain to your clients to use social media when they've never heard of it or used it before. For example, if you are advising a small mom-and-pop shop, how are you going to convey to them to use social media if you can't communicate well?
"Another huge piece of communication that we found is understanding your audience's communication style. If you can't adjust your style to match theirs, they're not going to understand what you're saying, and you're going to run into more problems and more difficulties."
Tucson, AZ-based firm BeachFleischman PC also looks for job candidates who have technical accounting ability, as well as the nonaccounting skills mentioned in Accountemps' survey, according to Karen Mattull, director of human resources.
"In order for us to provide a high level of client service, our employees must not only be good accountants and CPAs, but also great business advisors," Mattull told AccountingWEB. "Business knowledge, communication skills, and leadership abilities are extremely important as employees progress in our firm."
Another survey, which was recently released by CFO.com, shows that 29 percent of respondents – which included 422 public and private CFOs, controllers, chief accountants, and other senior finance executives – believe that "communicating with other groups" and "thinking about the company's goals and focus as a whole" are the top two skills lacking in today's accounting and finance professionals.
These were followed by "displaying abilities to take charge of situations" (25 percent), "applying IT skills" (9 percent), and "traditional finance understanding" (8 percent).
Why These Skills are Relevant
Partners and hiring supervisors at BDO USA have mentioned to the firm's recruiting personnel the need to hire individuals who will build effective working relationships with clients, who understand general business practices, and who can effectively communicate various approaches and aspects of the firm's client service delivery, Bower says.
"These skills [mentioned in the Accountemps survey] are very relevant to the industry," she adds.
Why are these five nonaccounting skills relevant? Bower provides the following explanations for each skill as they pertain to BDO USA.
1. General business knowledge: "This is necessary to anticipate and understand the needs of our clients, and to relate to them about the business issues they're facing – not just audit or tax issues."
2. IT expertise: "These are necessary to keep on the cutting edge of technology for our clients. Cloud computing has become increasingly important, as our clients are spread across the world. Cloud computing allows for easy access to documents worldwide."
3. Communication skills: "While many people do not necessarily associate communication skills with accounting, they are extremely important for internal coordination of engagements and external client service. Effective communication skills, including active listening skills, can prevent escalation of issues and can diffuse most situations between employees and with our clients."
4. Leadership abilities: "These are important to us because effective leadership skills can motivate team members, reduce turnover, raise retention rates, and increase engagement of our team members, which will, in turn, enable us to have better continuity of service for our clients."
5. Customer service orientation: "This is extremely important to BDO, as our global vision is to be the leader in exceptional client service. BDO is known as a firm that provides accurate, timely, and quality work with exceptional client service. We would naturally select individuals with exceptional client service skills."
Five Interviewing Tips for Job Seekers
Following are five tips from Accountemps to help job seekers highlight their full range of knowledge and skills in an interview:
1. Be prepared. Before the interview, research the organization and position so you can tie your skills directly to the company's business goals. By practicing your responses to common questions, you'll be able to offer concise, confident answers.
2. Review your resume. Select two or three key achievements listed on your resume that relate most to the job, and look for opportunities to highlight these during the meeting. Cite quantifiable results so the hiring manager understands how your skills may benefit the organization.
3. Demonstrate intellectual curiosity. Show your commitment to keeping your skills current by mentioning any recent professional development courses you've taken.
4. Listen carefully. Avoid thinking about your next point while the interviewer is still speaking or you may miss important information. Let the hiring manager finish, then gather your thoughts before connecting your skills and experience to what was just said.
5. Follow up. Send a thank-you note to the interviewer reiterating why you feel you are right for the role. Reaffirm your expertise in key areas or address any concerns about your background that the hiring manager may have had.
About the survey:
The national study was developed by Accountemps and conducted by an independent research firm. The survey is based on more than 2,100 telephone interviews with CFOs from a random sample of US companies with twenty or more employees in more than twenty of the largest US markets. For the study to be statistically representative and ensure companies from all segments are included, the sample was stratified by number of employees. The results were then weighted to reflect the proper proportion of employees within each market.
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