In a fiercely competitive environment, accountants are engaged in a war for eyeballs for clients and as a profession, given the encroachment on their turf by related fields such as consulting. So it’s never been more important for firms to invest in skills both hard and soft. This requires ongoing investment in education, according to leading practitioners.
When it comes to professional development, Nick Bull from Pitcher Partners says it’s not so much that the skills required are changing. Rather, the context has shifted.
“The marketplace is well-informed. So the days of being able to trot out boilerplate solutions and retrofit them for a client regardless of their circumstance or uniqueness are well behind us. Instead, what’s important is to deliver value over and above client expectations.”
This is particularly challenging in an environment in which knowledge is ubiquitous thanks to the internet. “The ability to differentiate is the battleground. When everybody knows everything, you need to demonstrate you offer value greater than your competitors,” he says.
An issue is providing a meaningful professional development framework for younger practitioners. “When I started as a graduate in 2001, I looked for files in a file room, sent faxes and did deliveries. That doesn’t happen anymore. What’s required is lifelong learning over and above the CA program,” Bull adds.
Bull is the poster child for this. He has completed an executive MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and has recently finished a leadership course on professional services firms at Harvard. He’s also started a masters of entrepreneurship and innovation, through an institute Pitcher Partners runs with Swinburne University.
“Being a partner in the firm requires a huge investment and commitment to make sure I’m as relevant as I can be with the skills I bring to my clients,” he says.
Justin Doyle from Doyle Partners agrees the focus when it comes to developing skills should be on helping practitioners deliver more than what’s expected.
“As accounting functions evolve towards automation, and compliance services become more streamlined, you need to develop skills to add value to services,” says Doyle, adding problem-solving skills, and the ability to tell stories, are also important.
Echoing this theme, HLB Mann Judd partner Simon James says the profession needs people with curious minds and a robustness about them, so they can be challenged and don’t mind challenging others. This is especially important given staff tend to be client-facing earlier in their career than they may have been in the past.
“The newer skills we’re looking for are often found more in hospitality than finance – we need people who are friendly, personable and who can work remotely and in teams,” says James.
Traditional accounting skills are still required, of course. Tony Schiffmann, chief executive partner of BDO Australia, says being a good accountant means being able to analyse complex data and financial information, alongside a range of complementary soft and also tech skills.
“The increasing use of AI and automation in the profession means there is a greater emphasis on creative problem solving. Algorithms can crunch and churn out the numbers. Where accountants now add value is by interpreting the data, layering it with sector knowledge and experience, and coming up with original solutions to help the client,” he says.
Sixty-nine per cent of the businesses that participated in the CAANZ Top 100 Accounting Firms research said the skillsets accountants need will fundamentally change in the next five years.
More than three-quarters (77 per cent) said critical thinking and emotional intelligence are the most important skills. In contrast, only 36 per cent thought technical and sector-specific expertise would be important.
Schiffmann says there are three main soft skills accountants need. The first is creative problem solving – being able to navigate unexpected challenges and respond in a way that can influence outcomes. They also need to be able to write and speak well to clearly articulate concepts and they need to be able to persuade and negotiate. When it comes to hard skills, accountants need deep, industry-specific knowledge and to stay abreast of new regulations and shifts in public policy.
Jamie O’Rourke, national chairman, RSM Australia, says it’s more important than ever to listen to clients – to their challenges and needs. “They are operating in a complex business world and the support and assistance they require is very specialised.”
Says Schiffmann: “For accountants to continue to be trusted advisers, they must intimately understand how modern businesses operate and the problems they face.”