Soft skills, sometimes referred to as interpersonal communications skills, relate to how well a person interacts with others. Up to now, the majority of your professional educational efforts have probably been razor-focused on hard skill, fact-based learning.
For certain, mad-fast calculator skills and the ability to craft the perfect pivot table are awesome technical feats. However, employers want more than someone who has memorized the entirety of FASB and reads IRS regulations for pleasure (BTW: Who ARE you?).
Employers want a human. More specifically, a pleasant human who is both informed and works well with others. CPA firms need team players who can solve problems, resolve conflicts and be adaptable to changes.
Even though soft skills are different for everyone based on our individual personalities, they can still be improved. To advance your career as a supervisor, a manager and hopefully someday a partner, these skills are essential building blocks of leadership.
Here are a few ideas to help you fine-tune your skills.
Work gets busy. Many of us simply talk too fast. We send cryptic or poorly crafted messages without meaning to, especially via message or email. Particularly in a remote environment, your communications skills serve as your calling card. If you are not a good wordsmith, have dismal spelling habits (this includes the tendency to “fat finger” responses on those tiny phone keyboards), these poor communication skills will be harmful to your advancement.
To improve your communications skills, start by fact-checking and spell-checking your work. Emails, spreadsheets—really any report writing—should be scrutinized. For homework, try building your vocabulary as a life skill. Every month, look up 10 words you really didn’t know—or synonyms of things you speak of often. Try incorporating these new words into your communications. The more you utilize new words, the faster they become smart additions to your everyday vocabulary.
Team work requires helping everyone do their best work. Often, it means sharing the spotlight, helping without thanks and not criticizing others for their missteps. A great way to work on team is to lose your sense of self. As a team leader, make team projects all about success of the team. Do some research on team skills or ask your HR professional, mentor or a partner for suggestions.
Listening is hard. Especially when a problem or conflict is being discussed, it is our nature to be smart and fast. However, short circuiting the listening process can be problematic and lead to misunderstanding and may even alienate those we want to help. Do you start the wheels turning when people start talking to you? Or, do you look them in the eye and focus your entire attention on the words of the person who is speaking? That is active listening.
If you have a habit of cutting people off in mid-sentence in order to “share” your brilliance, wait a beat before speaking. Then repeat back what you heard. Above all, get your eyes away from your mobile device or computer and look at the person speaking with your full attention. Active listening skills will earn you respect, and you may be surprised at how much more you learn by holding your breath for a moment!
One of the top required military skills is punctuality. Make it your goal to always be five minutes early to a meeting rather than on time or ten minutes late. When you commit to a work schedule or a personal promise, build into your day extra time, with a goal to always under-promise and over-deliver. It is the gold standard for building trust with others.
Every day, real-time problems surface at work: clients can be demanding, angry or just plain nasty. Technology breaks. The web goes down. Government agencies put you on hold for days and provide bad information. Co-workers can be slow, unhelpful or annoying. Your manager or partner might be in your face at an inopportune moment. The work we do is fraught with issues, poor paperwork and conflicting or ambiguous information. As you might have guessed, it is not the problem, but how you react and handle problems that matters.
It would be easy to suggest that conflict resolution is a matter of holding your breath, but it is far more than that. Controlling anger is very important in a professional environment, but as an adult and a professional, we need to do more. A true professional develops patience around conflict situations and is able to diffuse conflict without drama.
Conflicts can often be diffused with a combination of active listening, remaining calm and having compassion for others. In addition, refined communications skills—never complaining or accusing as an answer—and the ability to see the bright side and have a sense of humor works like a charm.
Remember that under-promise/over-deliver idea? It also works for diffusing conflicts brilliantly.
Soft skills are truly a life-long process. If you have a mentor, talk about soft skills and how you can incorporate milestones in your annual review. Ask which soft skills factor into the next step in your career advancement.
Look at your skills development as building blocks that lead to expertise in tiny steps. Put a plan together with weekly/monthly/annual goals or milestones. Above all, congratulations. By reading this article, you have already demonstrated your professionalism with natural curiosity for learning and self-improvement!
Interested in joining the LvHJ team? We offer accounting career development in the San Francisco Bay Area and potentially remote, but so much more as we serve affordable housing entities and nonprofits. Learn more about life at LvHJ on our careers pages.