Firms help accountants learn soft skills

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The accounting industry isn't known for grooming its employees in matters of personal interaction. After all, its professionals toil under the stereotype of nerdy workers who spend their days hunched over calculators with little human contact.

But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report Alpern Rosenthal is among the accounting firms trying to dispel that image. A series of "soft skills" classes are designed to help Alpern's employees with issues such as networking and business attire that will make them more comfortable in professional settings outside of the office and ultimately, generate more business for the firm.

As one Alpern employee, Brian Lang, moved up the ranks, he realized his financial expertise wasn't enough to make him feel at ease at the increasing number of charitable fund-raisers and other business functions he was required to attend as a tax manager.

So he took advantage of a company-sponsored training session, "How to Work a Room," in which he and colleagues played the roles of people introducing themselves to each other at a networking event.

"I was extremely nervous. I had never done public speaking. I had no experience with that kind of thing coming out of school," said Lang, 31, who earned his bachelor's degree in accounting at the University of Pittsburgh and a master's in tax from Robert Morris University.

"They're realizing they want and need these skills," said Jonna Martin, a Rochester, N.Y.-based consultant who specializes in professional image and etiquette.

She has presented workshops at Alpern and several other Pittsburgh accounting firms including PricewaterhouseCoopers and Maher Duessel. She also has consulted for Downtown law firm Babst Calland Clements & Zomnir.

At law firms, her sessions focus on polishing existing interpersonal skills because, "Litigators are always thinking about their image. -- They already get it and just want to go to the next level."

Accountants, however, are not typically trained in how to best present themselves. Martin offers tips from how to make introductions and conduct great small talk, to when business casual attire is appropriate to what kind of ring tone is right for your cell phone.

"Your cell phone ring sends a message about you and etiquette. So does your voice mail."

Elisabeth Leach, a principal at Alpern, said the firm offered about 20 different soft skills classes as part of internal training required for certified public accountants to retain their licenses. Another 30 courses in the training cover technical accounting issues.

The firm developed the topics for soft skills training after companywide surveys showed employees "wanted more well-rounded skills sets," said Ms. Leach.

"Doing them in-house enables people to get training a lot more frequently. We even use them as a recruiting tool."

In a session she conducts on networking, Leach instructs the accountants in skills such as how to formulate a concise introduction, how to exit a conversation and what silverware to use at business events.

In "How to Act at a Business Lunch," Terry Dunbar, a marketing executive with ADP Small Business Services in Robinson, worked with Alpern staffers "to get them to relax and not be all business."

"I tried to make it fun -- told them to lighten up a little, let your guard down and don't be afraid to talk. Ask the people you're having lunch with if they volunteer at any nonprofits or if they coach their kid's baseball team."

Dunbar also has taught seminars in body language for Alpern and other CPA firms and believes the accountants "really embrace it."

"I was talking about handshakes at one CPA firm and I got 30 people up and talking, really loud and really thinking about handshakes. And then the discussion went off into how to shake a woman's hand vs. a man's. You really get to see these people out of their element. They're not great with soft skills and they admit that and they loosen up."

Martin agreed that accountants she works with were responsive to learning personal skills.

"I absolutely know people are taking these tips and going back and using them. Younger accountants definitely have broken the mold of the traditional pocket protector accountant. There's no question. They are very sought after, so for them to have an impact right away in an organization, we're adding in the image piece they may not have thought about or gotten in college.

"For those middle-aged and older, I'm finding they're interested in behavior because they're now compelled to go out and develop business which wasn't an issue in the past."

Heath Winsheimer, 34, a senior accounting and auditing manager at Alpern, has attended in-house training to identify personality traits.

"It's helped me communicate with those who work for me," said Winsheimer, who joined Alpern in 1996 after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"I learned the communication skills here at Alpern. How important that is was not stressed at college. It became apparent communication was as important as the numbers. I think the days of the stereotyped accountant have gone by the wayside. We really stress the fact you need to do the technical side and the number crunching, but [that] by marketing yourself, you are making the firm look good."

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