The economies of Southeast Asia are going from strength to strength, and a large part of this is down to the growing skills base of their workforce. Abundant technical skills, especially in finance and business, are one of the reasons that the region is counted among the best in the world to do business.
However, businesses are increasingly looking for greater evidence of ‘soft skills’ from employees. This is not limited to new graduates, although it will play a large part in ensuring they can find the jobs they want, but is also critical for finance professionals who want to climb the ladder into leadership positions.
Clearly, technical skills and well-respected qualifications are a must for finance professionals. However, in a survey this year by search firm Korn/Ferry, more than half of CFOs said that one of the key concerns was having the right talent in their organisation – with an emphasis on soft skills such as leadership abilities and effective communication skills. This means soft skills may be the key both to getting a job, and to getting on in your career.
Accountants suffer from some unfair stereotypes, and one of the most abiding is that of the grey bean-counter who cares only for figures. Increasingly, this could not be further from the truth. Finance skills are no less important than they have always been, but they are only part of the package for today’s finance professional. Accountants are frequently becoming decision-makers and business leaders, providing key strategic decisions and critical information. They must be capable of interacting with a range of diverse stakeholders – from colleagues to boards, investors to regulators – and they have to communicate effectively and efficiently.
This means they need to be great listeners as well as great presenters, assertive as well as analytical, and diplomatic as well as decisive. They need to be great team players and team leaders, and to be confident in negotiating and influencing. In the modern business environment, an array of soft skills may well be the differentiator between a good finance professional and a truly great one.
Providers of training and qualifications are increasingly recognising this, and making communication and interpersonal skills part of the learning environment. One way to do this at the beginning of your career is to include a period of practical work experience as part of your accounting qualification. This ensures that newly-qualified employees know what it means to be part of a team. Further up the ladder, peer-learning and mentoring programmes are ways in which more senior finance professionals can develop strategic and soft skills such as diplomacy, peer-to-peer networking, team leadership, managing boardroom dynamics, and communication with key stakeholders and constituents.
Soft skills may not be as evident or measurable as technical skills, but they are often more transferable. This means that they can be developed, regardless of employer, position, or even industry or sector. Professionals can continue to build on their soft and strategic abilities throughout their careers, and that will be one part of their skill set that will always be relevant.
Moreover, as they are constantly being refined and developed they will eventually become an integral part of a person’s approach to the business environment, whether that means maximising an opportunity or overcoming challenges. Ideally, this should start as early as possible, but it is never too late to learn and building softer skills can be a key part of continuous professional development, especially for executives making the transition from technical positions to leadership.
As the role of finance professionals evolves from book-keeping in a back room to being a trusted advisor at the centre of business, soft and strategic skills are becoming highly sought after. This is uniformly important for both large and small businesses and the ability to communicate and build relationships is now an invaluable part of the ‘business toolkit’. Quite often it is not someone’s qualifications on paper but how they relate to others that is the key to success – whether that success is personal or corporate. Soft skills may well turn out to be one of the firmest foundations on which a career is built.
Mark Billington is the regional director of ICAEW South East Asia.