I often hear complaints that top performers from a technical perspective lack the ‘soft skills’ necessary to engage effectively with internal and external stakeholders. And of course this doesn’t just apply to us accountants. It’s an observation that cuts across a diverse range of professional disciplines, including law, engineering, science, finance, safety, procurement and risk.
Research appears to support the anecdotal feedback – more than 9 in 10 business leaders identified a serious workforce skills gap. 44% identified the ‘soft skills’ gap (including skills like communication and collaboration), compared to only 22% who thought there was a lack of ‘technical skills’.
I must admit that I cringe when I hear the term ‘soft skills’. The word ‘soft’ is often taken as pejorative – ‘soft’ as in ‘wishy washy’ – but it really just means ‘intangible’.
Soft skills often relate to the use of emotional, rather than intellectual intelligence, and are difficult to measure. Unlike many so-called hard skills, soft skills are also flexible and transferable beyond a specific role or industry – probably another reason they’re described as ‘soft’.
Definitions aside, why are they so important? I can think of a couple of reasons.
Firstly, humans are emotional creatures. Even when we try to act rationally, there is an emotional component to our decisions and behaviour.
As the saying goes: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did; they will remember how you made them feel.”
So the ability to engage stakeholders in a way that leaves them feeling like they had a good experience is a valuable skill. And it relies on soft skills.
Secondly, from a more commercial perspective, most technical services are becoming increasingly commoditised. In fields where technical skill is regarded as a ‘given’ – like accounting – providers need to differentiate themselves on some other basis. Again, that’s where soft skills come in.
So why are good soft skills so hard to find in technical professions?
Soft skills aren’t taught in most university courses or professional bodies such as CA and CPA and are not included in in-house training which tends to focus on technical aspects and tax law only . We learn those skills seemingly by accident – on the job, through trial and error, and sometimes at the expense of our dignity and relationships.