People Skills for Accountants

Professionals who work in the areas of Finance, IT and Engineering will often admit that they would rather work with numbers, systems and processes than with people! At the same time, the work reality of these type of professions often requires them to interact with people on a regular basis, especially when they are promoted to managerial grades. This reality is frequently a source of frustration for professionals such as accountants, financial controllers, CFO’s etc. They often complain that dealing with people proves to be a distraction from their “real” work. It is this perception or attitude that I believe needs to be challenged. Professionals in these areas need to appreciate that relational and intrapersonal skills are essential to their success.

Relational skills are particularly important for “technically” oriented professionals who also must deal with clients, team members or manage a department. These roles often involve competencies such as delivering presentations, leading team meetings, carrying out interviews and performance appraisals, managing conflicts, engaging in negotiations, influencing and persuading, motivating and coaching, to mention a few. To be truly effective and successful in these core activities, the necessary competencies reach far beyond the technical skills directly related directly to the profession, such as accounting. In fact, the skillset related to dealing effectively with oneself and others has, over the last two decades, been established as a type of intelligence called Emotional and Social Intelligence. This is a measurable and quantifiable construct with a sound body of research that correlates high scores on emotional intelligence with career success across professions, particularly those requiring leadership roles.

What do these competencies consist of and how can we learn, develop and improve them? The following are a few examples of core intrapersonal (within the person) and relational skills that play a key role in the success of any professional who frequently deals with people but whose main background, training and focus is not people oriented.

Self-Awareness: This is considered a foundation skill for all other intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Self-awareness consists of a person having an accurate understanding of his/her personality traits, core values and strengths and weaknesses. It also includes a personal appreciation of one’s typical behavioural and emotional patterns, especially when under pressure and stress. Developing an accurate picture of ourselves enables us to predict and understand our reactions and responses to situations and other people around us. Self-awareness can be developed from three main sources. The first source is through the elicitation of candid feedback from the people we work and live with. By asking them how we come across to them and how they perceive our behaviour, competencies and weaknesses we can achieve a degree of insight and objective understanding about ourselves. The second source is through engaging in personal reflection. This includes thinking about our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and how these impact our own state of mind and that of the people around us. The third source is by taking psychometric personality tests. These offer a structured profile of our personality traits, motivations, stressors, behaviours under pressure, etc. Combined with coaching, this can be a very valuable method for gaining deep insights into ourselves.

Active Listening and Understanding: One of the essential social skills that is often underestimated is the ability to listen effectively. This includes paying attention to what other people are telling us, observing their non-verbal behaviours and noting their emotions. It also involves the ability to make sure we really understand what the other person is saying by paraphrasing, summarising and asking the right questions that clarify, probe and elicit elaboration. Effective listening makes other people feel validated and valued. It also reassures them that we are taking them seriously and are really focusing on what they have to say.

Empathy: This is primarily an attitude of understanding the points of view, feelings, opinions and perception of others. However, it is also a skill in that our empathic attitude needs to be communicated to the other person. This is done by accurately reflecting both the gist of what the other person is saying, as well as the emotions that we pick up from them. Of course, this is only possible if we can give the other person our undivided attention and listen deeply. Empathy has a strong impact on others by making them feel understood and heard, and often diffuses intense feelings of anger and frustration.

Giving Feedback: Another critical skill for career success is the ability to give feedback in a constructive non-threatening way. When people receive candid, honest and sensitively-given feedback, they feel that they know where they stand in relation to their performance. This understanding can then help them change, refine or maintain their behaviour accordingly. Constructive feedback is an essential motivational tool that leaders need to master. It involves reinforcing and acknowledging good performance and behaviour as well as having courageous conversations that point out areas for improvement and development.

Assertiveness: This is a relational skill that strikes that difficult balance between coming across as being too forceful or too accommodating. Assertiveness is important in responding to the multiple challenges that present themselves to us in our work especially when interacting with clients and colleagues. When we communicate assertively people do not feel intimidated or apprehensive as a result of their interactions with us. They are also discouraged from taking advantage and losing respect for us because we are not overly accommodating. Assertiveness is also a key Emotional Intelligence competency as it requires, first, the ability to internally manage strong emotions and then learn how to express those emotions appropriately.

Managing Conflict and Disagreement: Conflict and disagreements are inevitable between people who are working or living together. However, conflict-ridden relationships can be a source of great distress and frustration. The skill of resolving conflicts between two people or within a group requires all the skills mentioned so far. However, it also includes the ability to help conflicting parties listen to each other, find common ground, identify the real point of divergence and come to a compromise, or a synergised solution. People who feel it is safe to disagree and engage in conflict without the fear of it spiralling out of control and becoming personal, are freer to express themselves and speak up. This is critical for the growth and success of a business, service or team as it allows new ideas can be proposed more freely and creative systems or procedures to be tried out and tested.

These are a few of the intrapersonal and relational skills needed in leadership and when working with people in general. They can be learned, practiced and integrated into one’s behavioural repertoire that becomes internalised and second nature to us. This can be achieved through coaching, reading, training and experimentation with new behaviours. In the technical corporate world, the importance of these competencies tends to be underestimated, yet research repeatedly shows that they are critical determinants of success and effectiveness in leading, managing and dealing with people.

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