Soft skills and your future as an accountant

Peter Nixon
Peter Nixon, Course Director of the Management Competency Development Module of the Financial Controllership Programme, on the importance of soft skills 

Perfecting soft skills requires hard work, says Peter Nixon, the Managing Director of Potential Dialogue, and Course Director of the Management Competency Development Module of the Institute’s Financial Controllership Programme

When I first moved to Hong Kong more than 20 years ago to manage audits at one of the Big Four firms (then six), I was struck by the difference in importance attributed to leadership and development as compared with Canada where I started my career, Switzerland where I refined my international experience, and Hong Kong where I had just landed to gain experience in Asia. 

While the North American and European markets invested heavily in leadership and development, Hong Kong focused almost exclusively on technical training, if doing any training at all. My five-days-a-year of management development at a resort in Canada was topped by a 10-day offsite in the Alps of Switzerland learning from consultants based in the United Kingdom on the latest topics related to leadership and management skills. In Hong Kong, we didn’t do any training away days on this topic, and spent a few hours a year doing technical training on supervisory skills. 

Another interesting difference was terminology. In Hong Kong, leadership and management skills were referred to as “soft skills,” implying they were less important, or not really the domain of tough or hard leaders. Hong Kong in that era was best known for followership rather than leadership. The culture suggested people follow, and if followers slip up, leaders need only yell or scream to get people back in line. Soft skills such as motivation, innovation, decision-making, performance management, coaching, team management and conflict resolution, were considered unnecessary. In a culture where followers followed and conflict was avoided, performance management was unnecessary if everyone worked 24/7 and followed the leader. 

“Soft skills, the only skills that matter” 

As we all know the world changed and behaviour changed too. Hong Kong blossomed into the 21st century city it is today; talent quickly fled to the best paid jobs in leading organizations where outstanding leadership and management skills were part of the special sauce that differentiated the winners and losers in each industry. As globalization and regionalization rolled on, the difference between well-run organizations and the rest became more acute. 

In 2016, two important things happened. Firstly, the digitization of accounting, artificial intelligence and Internet-related changes meant that the traditional “hard skills” of accounting such as bookkeeping, preparing accounts and reporting no longer needed humans to do the work. All that was left for accountants to focus on was leading and managing the team, producing the numbers, negotiating adjustments based on judgment, presenting to and influencing users of management and financial reporting, and resolving strategic and operational conflicts arising. 

“Due to global competition and the impact of the Internet on our profession, soft skills have become the only skills that matter.”

Secondly, after years working in soft skills around the world, the Institute approached me and asked if I’d like to become their Management Competency Development Module course director for their newly created Financial Controllership Programme. I accepted, as I’m a firm believer that we must support our profession any way we can. 

In other words, some 20 years after my arrival in Hong Kong, due to global competition and the impact of the Internet on our profession, soft skills have become the only skills that matter. 

The Financial Controllership Programme consists of five modules. The four-day Management Competency Development Module starts the programme with two days in June and completes the programme with two days in November. During these four days, participants gain important self-knowledge, develop friendships with fellow participants, learn and practice essential leadership and management skills, hear from guest speakers on the importance of soft skills in senior leadership positions today, and apply their learning in class through fun and interesting case scenarios derived from participants’ live experience. There are three things I’ve learned from working with current and emerging leaders in leading organizations over the years: 

1) Great organizations emerge from great leaders. 

2) Great leaders emerge from great training, mentoring and experience. 

3) Failed leaders tend to have missed out getting the training, mentoring and experience needed to succeed in their roles. 

If you feel your career is ready for a boost or if you want to further develop yourself as a leader in the profession, I look forward to seeing you in the next cohort of the Financial Controllership Programme. But don’t simply take my word. Listen to the many graduates who have completed the programme since its launch in 2016. 

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