When you mention "soft skills” training, many accountants roll their eyes and discount the importance. This may appear to be a reasonable reaction, but is it good business? If you think for a moment; the answer is, "No”. Your clients assume, and in most cases they are correct, that you have the technical skills required to perform your job duties; but members of your firm must continually prove they have the soft skills necessary to continue the relationships with those same clients. The major differentiators among your competitors are the soft skills. Soft skills are very important not only from a marketing/sales perspective, but also from a firm profitability perspective. They represent dollars of profit you may be missing out on because of employee turnover or lack of the ability to provide additional and higher valued services.
In today’s economy, leading firms should be focusing on strategies to develop talent. By focusing on the development of talent, firms are insured they can retain and attract the best. In other words, retention and attraction strategies are no longer enough. Your best people are at the highest risk of leaving, as they are the ones with the most opportunities. If you don’t believe this statement, I suggest you go to the PCPS website and checkout their most recent survey of firm employees.
Let’s start by organizing "soft skills” into three primary categories:
- Relationship Management
Accountants seem to learn from answering questions, so I pose the following questions under each category. You may want to answer them first about the firm and then about each partner and member of your staff.
- Does the person have an executive presence? (Dress, speech, and relationships)
- Does the person have a clear and communicable vision?
- Does the person hold themselves and others accountable?
- Does the person have "edge”? (Can they make decisions?)
- Does the person know their own "unique abilities”?
- Does the person have good written and oral communications skills?
- Does the person know how to take and give instructions?
- Does the person know how to listen?
- Does the person know how to professionally utilize presentation tools?
- Does the person know how to motivate others?
- Does the person know how to work in a team environment?
- Does the person know how to manage conflicts?
- Does the person have the desire and ability to make contacts?
- Does the person have good client service skills?
- Does the person have project management skills?
While this list is not meant to be complete, it does emphasize the importance of soft skills in an accounting firm. Today, much of the training focus is placed on meeting Continuing Professional Education (CPE) requirements and technical skills (especially in the early years of a career) rather than on the requirements of the firm and its personnel. What are you doing in the way of training for your non-CPA employees? The above skills are not developed in one class or a daylong seminar. They are developed over a lifetime. Therefore a program involving training, learning and positive experiences is necessary in order to develop talent.
By having an outstanding talent development program, firms can hire for attitude and train for aptitude. This will have a positive impact upon your firm culture. Talking about such a program at partner meetings or a firm summit is not enough. This must become part of the firm’s strategic plan (DNA) and a professional educator should administer the program.
Jim Collins in Good to Great outlines the five levels of leadership as:
- Capable individual
- Contributing team member
- Competent manager
- Effective leader
The following are five examples of soft skills at each level.
||Contributing Team Member
||Holding yourself accountable
||Holding others accountable
|Dress for success
||Communicating the vision|
||Writing effective proposals
||Defining ideal/target clients
Based upon our research and experience most firms are deficient in their development programs at the competent manager level and above. Soft skills are extremely important in developing managers, leaders and executives. At Boomer Consulting, we created the Performance3 TM Academy. This program focuses on:
- Tailored curriculum for managers and leaders in a CPA firm
- Diverse perspectives through peer firm networking
- Coaching and ongoing resources through the Boomer Knowledge Network (BKN)
Often firms take their most technical personnel and place them into management roles without providing the necessary training and coaching. When it comes to soft skills, those at greatest risk are the experienced people. They have the technical skills, but often don’t have the managerial and leadership skills. The equation for success is: People X Planning X Processes = Performance3TM.
Too many firms have chosen reactive approaches. Now is the time to change the culture and differentiate the firm by taking a proactive approach. This can be done with the following steps:
- Hire or designate a professional educator to assist in the development of a training and learning plan
- Perform an annual organizational assessment of training requirements (technical, soft skills and technology)
- Develop a firm learning plan integrated with the firm’s strategic plan
- Develop acceptable performance metrics
- Conduct quarterly evaluation of progress (Accountability)
- Approve a training and learning budget
Your goal should be to develop a program and reputation where clients and competitive firms are saying, "I will always hire someone who has worked for that firm.”