To offset the loss of traditional bread-and-butter staples to outsourcing and automation, today’s accountants are increasingly reliant on skills that include management, business advisory and new business development.
This should encourage accounting firms to develop skills that can’t be replicated by machines – creativity, adaptability, problem-solving and emotional intelligence (EQ).
It may come as no surprise that 1200 executives in 44 countries believe technology is having the greatest impact in the modern workplace, but according to PwC’s just-released 20th Global CEO Survey there is also an X factor.
“The rise of automation and robotics in the workplace is driving a greater need for people that possess qualities that can’t be replicated by machines,” notes the PwC report.
For accounting firms improving your emotional intelligence could be the key to building more trust and better rapport with clients.
Rachel Green, director of Perth-based The Emotional Intelligence Institute says, “I always tell my accounting clients that according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 The Future of Jobs report, emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020”.
She adds: “Sadly, very few of us were given emotional intelligence education when we went through school, so we’re all in catch-up mode.”
Accounting firms can set themselves apart by learning and applying intangible assets that help them to empathise, collaborate, influence and build trust with clients to create business relationships that are based on more than financial transactions – an important factor in an industry where 84% of new business comes from referrals.
“The one thing that now and into the future will differentiate one accountant from another is not numeracy, but their ability to manage client relationships,” Green says.
“They have to perform a different role – to be more client-facing and to offer advice, which means being able to really understand the client and what they need, to explain it and then motivate them to do what’s required.”
This, Green says, necessitates an ability to influence outcomes, “which in turn involves managing emotions because emotions drive people’s behaviour”.
“If you can inspire someone to comply with or follow your advice, you’re going to achieve a better outcome than if the person is complacent,” she says.
“Watch the person you’re explaining to. Are they getting it or not? Don’t provide data without monitoring their emotional response and know how and when to change tack according to that response.”
All of which is well and good if you already have the appropriate EQ, but as Green notes, it can be challenging to relearn and look at decision-making in a different light.
“Many finance professionals have been brought up to believe that they have to factor out emotions from every decision they make,” she says.
Historically, most professional accounting firms have not placed a lot of emphasis on EQ.but this is changing in both public practice and corporate accounting, according to Gavan McDonald, principal consultant at Melbourne-headquartered recruitment firm Marshall McAdam who has over 20 years’ experience in financial and accounting recruitment,
“The salient issue is increased automation of finance processes, which means everyone has to value-add to the business,” McDonald says. “Even junior candidates are being asked how they business partner and engage with non-finance people.
“Businesses want to hire people that not only bring a high degree of technical skills, but an ability to communicate insights. Another example is at the analyst level, where producing shiny reports is no longer enough. You need to have answers to questions before they’re asked.
McDonald says savvy job seekers are aware of the growing need for “soft” skills in finance.
“Those who are serious about building a career look for opportunities to take themselves out of the comfort zone and become involved in projects where they may be tested on skills they haven’t used before, such as influencing people in a team environment and achieving outcomes where non-finance people are involved,” he says.
Regardless, he still encounters practitioners who, for whatever reason, do not have the mindset or interest to develop relationship management skills.
“It’s always a bit galling to see someone who after five years in a practice environment says they didn’t realise that they’d be expected to generate revenue,” he says.
“Their struggles in the wider world have probably just begun, because to stay in a firm with a tremendous bag of technical tricks but without gaining much expertise around interacting with people is not what the CFOs or CEOs of other businesses or industries will be looking for.”