Leadership, critical thinking, communication, and the “digital” mindset are among the top four critical skills for a CPA, according to Samantha Mansfield, an expert coach working with CPAs on how to use leadership, success, and digital skills to gain an edge in serving clients.
Mansfield started her career helping tax and accounting firms find the best technology solutions for their business. Over the 13 years as technology played a greater role in the workflows of accountants and CPAs, her role grew to be more and more strategic. Since then, she has been able combine her digital expertise with leadership and business strategy to build holistic curricula that can help CPAs build successful practices.
4 Critical Digital Skills
There are four critical leadership and digital skills that CPAs and accountants need to succeed and thrive in the 21st century, Mansfield explains. These skills include:
Leadership is one key area that accountants need to incorporate into their training programs, according to Mansfield. The guiding principle of “leading from wherever you are,” means that any individual — from an early career professional to one seasoned with 35-plus years of experience — has the opportunity to practice leadership. Like any skill, leadership requires that you learn, practice, and hone it. Accountants are the second most trusted profession, behind doctors, and that trust automatically puts them in a leadership role with responsibilities.
As Daniel Goleman points out in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence (EI): “Exceptional leaders distinguish themselves because of superior self-leadership.” Indeed, EI has two distinct parts: i) self-awareness; and ii) social or relational awareness — and progress on the first must be made before embarking on the second. Becoming aware of one’s own emotions, formulating accurate self-assessment, controlling one’s outward emotional responses, taking initiative, and being optimistic are the primary areas of self-awareness that need to be practiced and honed.
2. Critical thinking
Mansfield has heard from many members of the accounting profession over the past few years that critical thinking skills are lacking in their team members. Yet, many surveys have shown that critical thinking is one of the most coveted skills in new hires. Technology is a powerful tool, but it should not replace our need to think critically. Indeed, there appears to be greater trust in the output of the technology over their own assessment at times or a hesitation to go against what the software output is saying. And this is not just an issue for the accounting profession. Multiple new standards are not as black and white in their guidance, and therefore more judgement and discernment is needed.
Employing good critical thinking skills, according to Mansfield, includes the ability to ask: i) Does this look right for this type of business or the situation the client is in? ii) What do I need to do to be able to look into the situation further? iii) Can I get more diversified input so any biases don’t impair the conclusions or recommendations?
Another major skill area Mansfield sees as essential for CPAs and accountants is communication. More specifically, understanding the client’s perspective and presenting ideas from the client’s perspective are critical sub-skills within this broader category:
- Taking perspective — By stepping into the client’s shoes to analyze the decision or recommendation you are making can increase communication effectiveness almost immediately. It’s the responsibility of the accountant to help the client reach their goals, Mansfield says, adding that one critique she’s heard many times is that some professionals can be too direct or lack positioning that is relevant to the client.
- Thinking of the situation businesses are in now — During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, your clients may need a great deal of empathy and truth. To connect with clients, you have to relate — or you will not elicit all the information you need from a client to advise them accurately. By walking in the shoes of the client; by thinking about the problem they’re encountering; by understanding the potential implications of the decision for their business (especially when the stakes are this high); by empathizing with them about how the stress and anxiety of the decision might be impacting them — these are best practices to be successful in perspective-taking.
- Presenting ideas by starting with the end-goal in mind — Whether you are presenting a recommendation to a board, management team, or individual, it’s a good idea to start with the end in mind, and connecting it to the client’s stated goals. Start with the recommendation first; focus on your rationale for it; and then walk the client through your thought process, so they are learning, and you are building trust. The more trust, the more the client shares, and the better your service. All of this is accomplished through effective communication with clients and with colleagues as well.
4. Digital mindset
The digital mindset, as Mansfield describes it, is the ability to adapt to change and apply that change to evolving their business model, practice area, or service. During this process, it’s also important to understand that technology is a tool to stand on. Indeed, another aspect of the digital mindset is learning how to evaluate technology, understanding how it impacts the workflow for the services you provide, and ultimately, determining whether or not the technology actually fits your needs.
For example, understanding how innovative technology like artificial intelligence currently figures into your workflow and how your interaction with AI could create bias in the output is an absolute must to be able to leverage the output successfully, Mansfield says.
Soft skills are critical now
These soft skills are of growing importance to the accounting profession because technology is continuing to automate the transactional side of accounting work, Mansfield explains. An accountants’ ability to connect, relate, and communicate will become ever more important in their role as advisor to clients, she adds.
Accounting professionals need to lean into their leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills and develop a digital mindset to capitalize on the unique value that they have to offer, she notes, adding that the opportunities are abundant, it just requires honing additional skills to deliver that knowledge and value to clients.