The following article, written by Bruce Claassen, will be published by the ICAEW within their “London Accountant" publication and on their LinkedIn pages in June 2018.
"Newly qualified Chartered Accountants need to ensure that they develop more than just their technical skills if they hope to be successful and build enduring relationships with their stakeholders", says LSCA Business Board member Bruce Claassen.
During a recent reunion dinner with ex-colleagues, one end of the table got into a discussion regarding how best to address the training needs of future accountants. Our impromptu ‘panel’ included a committee member from one of the largest chartered accountancy professional membership organisations, a big 4 tax partner, a FTSE100 CFO, a FTSE250 CFO and me. We ended up in a somewhat heated debate. In summary:
- Large accounting firms are looking to reduce the cost of training new accountants;
- Intake levels into the profession have dropped over recent years and the training organisations are trying to address the cost of training in addition to ensuring that the qualification is commercially relevant (insert references to the threat of computerisation of accountants);
- Accountants in business are frustrated by the perceived increase in the number of part- and newly qualified audit staff who spend their time glued to their ipads and laptops, unable to have a meaningful face to face conversation with the client;
- A culture of “the computer says no” persists with junior auditors sometimes insisting a specific schedule is required, whereas a different summary would tell the same or a better story. Have they got the commercial awareness or confidence on asking senior business partners these questions?
It was suggested that this particular professional training organisation is considering a restructuring of their qualification into a wider range of specialised, selectable modules, enabling future accountants (or their training firms) to target the areas in which they wish to specialise during their training period. The trainee would therefore not complete all modules to qualify as a Chartered Accountant, but would be able undertake further modules in later years to broaden their skills as their careers develop and needs (or seniority) demand as part of ongoing CPD.
The hope is that these newly qualified accountants would become more commercially relevant from the get-go, in addition to future-proofing the profession. Queue heated debate. It was then suggested that a way to reduce the training costs could be to replace class-based tutoring with a computer-based approach, reducing the delivery cost and enabling accountants to train remotely. Queue expletives from the FD group....
Our main challenge to these suggestions centered upon the need to increase, not decrease, face-to-face training, in addition to expanding training materials to include softer skills development. Disappearing into even more computer-based technical modules may help with technical skills development, but it’s typically the lack of people skills or the ability to influence decision making through structured, effective and commercially-relevant conversations that’s seen accountants in the broader marketplace being criticised.
Go online and a quick internet search will unearth numerous articles expounding the “top 5/10/xx must-have skills” that accountants must have to be commercially successful. Not one of them call for a better understanding of the latest technical releases, but common to each is the need to be a better communicator and more commercially relevant.
As yourself, how good are your (or your team’s) communication skills?
- Can you explain your ideas succinctly and present confidently?
- Can you challenge difficult people in an assertive way, while keeping your cool?
- Can you listen actively and with empathy?
- Can you write in a way that people (especially non-accountants) find engaging and easy to understand?
Perhaps it’s the fear of getting something wrong or the sheer volume of technical resources available for online reference that’s causing many people to hide behind screens and remain tied to communication by email. By extension, it’s therefore become even easier for those who can make an impact face to face and by phone stand out. With online tools making it ever easier to share large quantities of information, the need to be more sophisticated in determining what to say, when to say it and to whom to say it becomes even more critical.
I emphasize ‘saying it’, as over-reliance on emails or PowerPoint decks is the quickest way to lose connection with senior stakeholders. Don’t be so immersed in your screen that you’re unprepared to verbally interact with an accidental passerby (ranging from a junior member of the clients’ accounting team, to an IT colleague or the Group CFO). Being able to quickly and effectively engage with a diverse cross-section of people at any moment can become career defining. Be ready with your “elevator pitch” at every moment of your day: be able to succinctly summarise what you’re currently working on, the top issues under review and key next steps required to achieve their* next deliverable. *=tailored to the person you’re speaking to at that moment.
Listening skills are just as important, as effective face-to-face communication is a three way exchange: them to you, you to them, plus your ability to understand their unspoken motivating factors. You need to listen carefully to reach the 3rd step: not just to what’s being said, but how and why. Get to know the person, what drives them, what motivates them, what pressures they’re facing. Everyone works within a spectrum of frustration and challenge - what are you doing to lighten the burden and give them the right message? A quick verbal exchange should consider Action + Information + Relevance.
The more senior (or externally facing) your audience is, the more important it becomes to deliver a clear message. A big part of our job is providing our stakeholders with a sense of security, of assurance. If we don’t sound confident, we leave our audience doubting us, losing our ability to influence the outcome of key decisions. Project your voice and speak clearly. In order to do this you need to know your material but too often I’ve observed skilled people fluff their lines, become disorientated and lose momentum, leading to the perception that they are unsure about their own work. Don’t rush to cover a knowledge gap - it’s better to pause and collect your thoughts, or ask for a reprieve to delve into the detail after the meeting and come back with the answer in a few hours / the next day. This does not remove the need to have a deep understanding of your materials, remembering that you’ll only get so many free passes, so be prepared.
Within the context of large meetings or steering committees, engage with each decision maker ahead of the meeting. Meetings should be used to ratify decisions, not unveil new material. Pre-meetings give you the opportunity to respond to specific questions and get each individual comfortable on a 1:1 basis. Leaving each person ask you their questions in an open forum is the quickest way to derail a meeting and leave you looking out of control. Do a simple calculation: it typically takes everyone around 3 minutes to ask a question or state a view (and most people will do at least one of each). By multiplying your audience by 3-6 minutes you can quickly ascertain how much time you’ll personally have to work with within your allotted meeting slot. It’s amazing how quickly an hour can vanish with a large audience!
On an almost daily basis I sit in meetings filled with people who barely speak, leaving the discussion to their managers. Perhaps they are brilliant, but remaining on the backbench does not get them noticed. Know how to inject yourself into the conversation (using words, not data!) in order to demonstrate your value. When the meeting finishes don’t rush to leave the room: taking the time to engage with a different person at the exit of each meeting will enable you to quickly increase your network.
Constantin Stanislavski (a seminal Russian theater practitioner) once remarked that "there are no small parts, only small actors" and Dabbs Greer (a bit actor) said "every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead". Do not measure yourself by the size or importance of your piece of work. Completely own whatever work comes your way, no matter how small, and become the go-to person for that topic. Demonstrating your value to even one person will help escalate your profile and with persistence lead to larger projects being given to you. One of my junior team members was recently given the task of setting up a global communication via email to an organisation’s entire finance community, with responsibility for tracking all responses received. Whilst this may sound fairly inconsequential, he did such a good job that he hit the radar of the program director and, 2 months later, took over a primary Finance PMO role due to his ability to deal with pressure, maintain control, and most of all deliver it with a smile!
Back up your work with evidence, not just opinion, but at the same time don’t forget to formulate your own opinion – it’s an important differentiator and will put you on the radar as someone who thinks beyond the obvious. Being able to put situation-based information into a commercial context is invaluable. This gets easier as you move from project to project so long as you consciously increase your arsenal of collective experience and begin to link solutions and mistakes from one situation to the next.
Where possible try to inject some humour into your conversation, but don’t be flippant. It helps to build rapport and demonstrates confidence in your work and the ability to operate outside of what’s immediately in front of you.
In all instances, accountants should aim to be better salespeople and be able to convince the audience that their personal involvement is required, or will enhance the final product. Insert yourself into the solution, become the front line impact player (or even the punching bag if necessary!). As yourself ‘how can I make this person’s life easier?’.
In summary, people-skills can become the defining characteristic between effective leaders and dutiful followers and help to differentiate you from the crowd. Be prepared to fail – don’t actively seek it out, but also be aware that what didn’t work in one situation may suit your next situation.
Seek feedback on a regular basis regarding your interpersonal effectiveness. You need to develop and understand your own level of emotional intelligence.
Accountants continue to be painted as under-performing in their engagement skills. Some of this may be lingering perception only, but the perceptions remain. Your ability to differentiate yourself from the crowd will help to accelerate your career development, increase your pay packet and open up career opportunities outside of pure accounting. It’s not hard to do, but does require active focus and continued practice. It never gets easier, the audiences simply become more senior and more public.
Build your personal Brand: When you walk into or out of a room, how will you be remembered?!