Why Soft Skills Matter

by James Hardenberg, CPA, CGMA, CAE, chief learning officer, NJCPA | Jan 24, 2018

For those just starting out in the accounting profession or those smack in the middle of their careers, what skills will set you apart? What capabilities must you exhibit to separate yourself from your competition? There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on STEM-related skills recently (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), including technical accounting, auditing and taxation in the accounting profession. Most of a CPA’s education and training requirement is focused here. Yet, we find that workforce preparedness isn’t merely just about these hard skills anymore. Soft skills often are a key differentiator.

In a recent Washington Post article, a study conducted by Google noted that the important qualities of their top employees were being a good coach, communicating and listening well, valuing different points of view and values, being empathetic and supportive of colleagues, and making connections across complex ideas. As you can see, nothing here falls under a STEM category, and there was no mention of technical accounting knowledge. Google also found that their highest-functioning teams were not necessarily the teams with the smartest team members. Instead they were the teams with members who exhibited equality, generosity, curiosity, empathy, emotional intelligence and emotional safety. 

Even when targeting the accounting profession, very similar trends were identified. At a recent AICPA Interchange Conference, it was reported that the top 10 new skill sets required for success in 2020 will be: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility. You can see that nothing on this list has anything to do with technical accounting knowledge.

Please don’t underestimate the hard skills required to effectively do a job, especially when it’s technical in nature like accounting. Those are mandated in today’s demanding environment. But just having the technical expertise is not enough. Employers of all kinds, whether it’s a large corporation or an accounting firm performing staple services for the public, require these skills. This is particularly true as the accounting profession becomes more strategic and less methodical. A well-rounded professional will be highly valued as our workplace and workforce continue to evolve.     


James L. Hardenberg

James L. Hardenberg

Jim Hardenberg, CPA, CAE, CGMA, is chief learning officer for NJCPA. He oversees all aspects of learning and education opportunities that NJCPA provides for members. He also oversees the AICPA Peer Review program, is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE) and served as president of the New Jersey Society of Association Executives (NJSAE) in 2008. In addition, he's a member of the NYSSCPA and the AICPA, participating in AICPA's committees and task forces.

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