At a glance
Words such as “influence”, “communications” and “emotion” don’t readily slot into the everyday vernacular, let alone the working tasks, of most management accountants.
Yet, increasingly they’re all broader skill sets that are being built into the standard job specification of those entrusted with managing and implementing the complex financial and accounting tasks undertaken within many corporations.
Management consultant, trainer and presenter Paddy Spruce explains that many CPAs need to add what some describe as soft skills to their technical skills.
How to gain soft skills
This is particularly the case for accountants who work with other parts of the business, to explain financial matters and to make arguments about resource allocation and funding.
He says they also need to be able to emotionally engage others.
“Often, people have the technical skills, they’re well trained, they understand the numbers, but they fall short of pushing so that some action is taken,” Spruce says.
“So they may simply say, ‘Here’s the information’, and pass it on to a decision-maker, but the decision-maker may or may not do anything with it, depending on whether they think it’s important or not.
“I think the convincing part is to say to people, ‘If you want your career to go further, if you want people to take your advice and use it, then it’s essential that you move away from your current platform of just being very good at analysing and presenting data’.”
Spruce says the next stage for accountants is to get people to act on the data being presented, “and that will establish your career for the future and will open doors to senior management.
They’re the people who are making the decisions and taking the action, so you need to make sure you’re a part of that team.”
How to exert influence
Spruce says that management accountants should be thinking strategically about how they communicate information and their ability to assert themselves to get results.
“All of that is very difficult to do, but absolutely essential if they want people to take them and their numbers seriously,” he says.
“It’s important to look at styles of influencing, so not just giving numbers, but looking at how you project them and develop different styles for different situations.”
Spruce adds that one of the keys to influencing others is to decide how to achieve the desired result, focusing on the tasks required and also on stakeholder relationships.
“You want them to do something, but there’s also the relationship. You want them to have a stronger relationship with you when you’re done with them, not a weaker one.
“It’s working on the relationship as well as working on the ability to present your information in a way that’s going to be taken seriously.”
How to explain the consequences
Spruce says that in presenting a case and exerting influence, it’s also vital to explain the consequences of inaction.
“It’s important to impart meaningful value, but also to make sure those being presented to understand the consequences of taking your advice and not taking your advice,” he says.
“It’s the ability to persuade in a logical, analytical way, but there’s also a way to influence by getting people emotionally involved in what you’re saying.”
To do this, Spruce says it’s necessary to be assertive by making a direct recommendation, and then explaining what will happen if it’s followed, as well as the risks of not following the recommendation.
When to step back
Restraint is also important in a management accountant’s repertoire. Spruce says that in addition to being able to exert influence, another skill is knowing when to back off.
“It’s people’s ability to know when to have an argument, when to have a battle, when to fight, and when to back off and not do that,” he says.
“So, is this really critical to the business and morale and welfare of the people? If it is, you know when to stand, and you also know when to say, ‘No, this is not a battle I need to have today.
I’ll go away and come back another time.’ That’s the ability to know when to engage and when to disengage.”
Be a good listener
The most underrated skill, Spruce says, is the ability to listen and understand the needs of the other person.
“Understand why they’re not taking action, and understand why they’re not taking you seriously.
“One needs the ability to really listen well and understand what they’re after, and to then decide how to push that to your benefit.
"The idea being that when we’re done I don’t say, ‘My accountant does a good job’. I say, ‘I trust him or her, and I would take his or her advice because of the relationship that we have’.”