The current recessionary climate has thrust CFOs into the spotlight and made one thing abundantly clear: U.S. companies are in dire need of financial leadership. And, although for many financial professionals the idea of achieving financial leadership is a clear and realistic goal, few understand the skills necessary to become a true leader.

So what makes a true leader? And furthermore, how does a true leader become an effective financial leader? For most, financial leadership may sound desirable, but what does this mean? Depending on the current stage of your career, it can mean many different things -- all of which represent the essential ingredients of a proven financial leader.

Let's explore what financial leadership means in practical terms and analyze the key qualities and critical skills needed to be successful as a management accountant or financial professional at every stage of your career, from the perspective of the entry-level candidate, the young professional, the seasoned practitioner, and the senior manager.

The Continuum

Financial leadership is a continuum, not an endpoint. No matter where you are in your career, there will always be opportunity to grow and to enhance your skills. And while every management accountant will not be the leader, as you progress through each phase of your career, you will have an opportunity to be a leader. Expectations will rise and the demand on "hard" and "soft" skills will increase in complexity and scope.

But how do we define hard versus soft skills? Typically, hard skills comprise the technical facets of a job -- talents that need to be mastered before putting them to use, such as financial reporting, budgeting, and strategic planning. In each instance, these skills can be learned on the job or through formal training regimens. Soft skills, on the other hand, consist of more human interaction skills, ranging from communication to collaboration and negotiation -- attributes that are much harder to learn in the traditional sense.

Mastering these top-of-mind skill sets leads along the path to achieving financial leadership, helping to carve out a role as an effective CFO team member, and solidifying your position as a strategic business partner within an organization.

Let's consider what financial leadership looks like to professionals along the career continuum, from new graduates just entering the workforce to seasoned veterans of business.

Entry-Level

As an entry-level employee, honing soft skills is essential to your development. Perfecting these skills will help you to gain experience and will serve as a valuable stepping-stone in preparation for higher-level jobs within any organization. For new employees, the three most important soft skills are likely to be: (1) emotional intelligence, (2) effective communication, and (3) time management.

Defined by Dictionary.com as "intelligence regarding the emotions, especially in the ability to monitor one's own or others' emotions," emotional intelligence is a fundamental quality of great leaders and arguably the most important soft skill you can learn.

Do you communicate clearly and effectively? Can you verbally articulate your thoughts and express your needs in a way that builds bridges with colleagues, clients, and vendors? On the flipside, are you a good listener? Effective communicators let speakers know that they've been heard and understood, which builds respect and confidence.

Time is a precious commodity, and most people feel that they don't have enough of it. In terms of time management, can you juggle a number of different projects at once and wisely prioritize tasks? Are you respectful of other people's time as well? Proper time management skills will help you to make better choices and enable you to use your time in more valuable ways.

While these skills may appear basic, they're often difficult to maintain day-in and day-out. People at this level need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed, for example. With enough practice, these soft skills will become a daily habit and serve as a springboard to more technical skills that they'll learn down the road.