With the job market heating up, so is the need for more accountants to provide value-added skills to the marketplace. However, a serious gap has developed between the skills being taught to students and what CFOs are actually looking for in job candidates.
As a CFO and an adjunct professor, I can echo the concerns showing up in recent surveys and polls: Certain skills are simply missing—skills that accounting and financial professionals need in order to provide further value to an organization. The classroom is focusing on basic bookkeeping, as well as tax and rule-based accounting, while the demand in industry is actually quite different.
I’ve had students, interns and accounting professionals ask the question, “What skills do I need to be a successful accountant?” The answer is quite simple: The industry does not need someone who can just read more accounting rules and regulations and interpret them. It certainly does not need more people who can enter transactions into the general ledger or calculate ratios, as many business intelligence systems are managing these automatically. We need professionals that can identify a potential problem, understand why it exists and provide a solution. That is what makes someone a valuable asset to his or her company, and that is exactly what is missing in the average accountant.
So, how does someone acquire these skills? There are several ways:
First, to be able to identify problems in a company, one must understand the company, the product, the marketplace and the overall business. That means you must branch out of your accounting cubicle and really dig deep into the company business. In a recent survey, 422 public and private high-level accounting and finance professionals were asked, “What skill is most lacking in today’s finance and accounting professionals?” One of the top answers was “thinking about the company’s goals and focus as a whole.” Students and young professionals are struggling to see the overall big picture of the company. Without this ability, it will be very hard to ever lead a company properly.
You must be able to identify risks and take advantage of opportunities in all areas of the company, not just the accounting and finance function. You can’t provide solutions to problems that you don’t know exist, and you can’t know they exist unless you understand the entire business, your company’s strategy and other economic factors that turn the wheels of your company.
Second, another top skill accounting and finance professionals lack today is the ability to communicate with other groups in your firm. In a recent study, Accountemps asked more than 2,100 CFOs what attributes or expertise they most valued. One of the top answers was “communication skills.” In order to drive improvements and provide solutions across the entire company, you must be able to understand what everyone does and how it affects the company as a whole. You can’t do that unless you are able to work in cross-functional teams from other areas of the company so you can understand their problems and needs, which requires solid communication skills.
Being able to receive and provide feedback is critical. Lately, students come out of college with sufficient accounting knowledge, but they lack the ability to communicate this knowledge to others. This is one of the major skill gaps.
The ultimate question is, “How do we correct this?” We can begin to close the skills gap by providing more education in these areas to students in college. We tend to focus on rules-based accounting principles, which is needed, but we forget about critical strategic leadership and development skills such as business strategy, cross-functional communication and business analytics.
The truth is, a majority of accounting students will end up working in industry for most of their career, yet most of their accounting education will have a public accounting focus. We need a stronger focus on organizational structures and the entire operation for accountants to see the big picture. Several colleges and universities across the United States are realizing this and are offering management accounting degree tracks that provide more focus on these internal decision-support and problem-solving skills. More colleges and universities should follow their example.
We also need to provide more internal training within our organizations. This can be done through more soft-skills training and a structured mentoring program, in which young mentees can be matched with industry professionals to learn valuable problem-solving skills, both analytical and soft-skill based. This type of mentoring program helped me by providing a sounding board when I encountered areas in which I had no experience. As for training, I require our interns to participate in webinars to build abilities like dealing with conflict and working in cross-functional teams.
You can’t expect people to follow your strategy and vision if you can’t communicate it effectively. These soft skills are what develop accountants into leaders, which our profession desperately needs.