It was a scathing assessment. Would-be accountants might be good with numbers, but they lack the soft skills necessary to prosper in today’s business world. That was the parting shot fired by Peter Roebuck upon retiring as head of accounting at the University of NSW.
According to an article in the Australian Financial Review, Roebuck said that “Poor communication [skills are] a significant reason why many new grads don’t get placed.”
And who are we to argue? If anything, our experience suggests that this problem persists well into the professional careers of the individuals he’s referring to.
At CMA, we regularly hear clients complain that their 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 ‘boring 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. In the United States, more than nine in 10 business leaders say there is a serious workforce skills gap, according to a survey of 500 executives (VP-level and above) conducted by global recruitment agency Adecco.
The largest proportion – 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’.
At CMA, we believe the best way to deal with this is by using CPR. (Don’t worry – not the kind of CPR you think. More on that later.) But first…
What are soft skills? And why are they so important?
I must admit that I cringe slightly 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?
As Roebuck’s comments highlighted, one problem is that soft skills aren’t taught in most university courses. We learn those skills seemingly by accident – on the job, through trial and error, and sometimes at the expense of our dignity and relationships.
Another problem is that the soft nature of those skills makes it hard to codify them within any framework. Hard, but not completely impossible. That’s where we’ve found a range of Harvard frameworks to be enormously helpful.
Drawing upon those frameworks, CMA found that the key soft skills necessary for professional success generally fall into three categories: Content, Process and Relationship (conveniently, ‘CPR’ for short).
- Content refers to the subject matter of the transaction
- Process refers to the way in which you manage the transaction
- Relationship refers to the way your stakeholder sees or feels about you
CPR, which is the overarching framework used in CMA’s Client Engagement Skills program, can be used as both a high-level model and a diagnostic tool for understanding and managing internal and external stakeholder relationships. It reminds technical experts to take a more holistic view of their service delivery, balancing all three areas as appropriate.
The notion of ‘balance’ will vary, depending on the circumstances.
In some cases, the priority may be heavily skewed towards one dimension. For example, if you had to have complicated or risky surgery, you would most likely prefer the surgeon with the best technical skills (Content), despite a failure to return calls promptly (Process) or an apparent lack of empathy (Relationship). In that case, ‘Content’ really is everything.
On the other hand, where the quality of service is relatively generic, Process and Relationship may come to the fore. When I’m booking my car in for a routine service, I’m more interested in convenience and flexibility (Process) than technical capability (Content), as I would assume that most mechanics are technically capable (Content). I might also prefer to take my car to a reputable service centre, because I perceive them to be more trustworthy (Relationship).
This prioritisation of one dimension can be a personal preference as much as a situational preference.
In the professional world, however, a delicate and fluid balance of all three dimensions is often required. Professionals need to demonstrate their expertise and manage the transaction effectively and build trust and respect as they do so.
How to manage the three dimensions effectively
If you’re a technical professional (and even if you’re not), here are some practical tips on how to manage CPR in your internal and external stakeholder relationships:
- Content: Even though Content is largely about technical expertise, you still need to determine the technical scope of the transaction and ‘sell’ your solution to your stakeholder. Consider:
- What does your stakeholder want? What do they really want?
- How can you influence your stakeholder to accept your advice or recommendation in the face of push-back?
- When there are competing priorities, how can you negotiate an outcome that achieves the maximum mutual gain for all parties?
- Process: Process is the vehicle that carries the Content and the Relationship. By paying close attention to how you manage the Process, you can influence your stakeholder’s perception of the other two dimensions. Consider:
- How can you communicate more effectively to enhance mutual understanding? How could you improve your ability to listen and speak more effectively?
- Are you easy to work with? Are you reliable? Do you follow through on your commitments?
- Relationship: Your relationship with your stakeholder is the one thing that travels with you from interaction to interaction. It is based on a set of assumptions that have been formed during the entire course of your dealings. Consider:
- How do your stakeholders see or feel about you? How would they need to perceive you to build a more effective relationship?
- Do they trust you? Do they respect you?
- What could you do, or stop doing, to enhance these qualities in your relationship?
As you can see, soft skills underpin all three dimensions – so there’s really no avoiding them if you want to be successful in the professional world. As Peter Roebuck notes: “Accounting is also a people-based activity. If you can’t work in teams or prefer to work alone, pick another career.”
And that doesn’t just apply to ‘boring accountants’.
What is your strength (Content, Process, Relationship) when it comes to the service you provide to your internal or external stakeholders? Which dimension do you think your stakeholders focus on the most?
If you’d like more information about how to develop your team’s soft skills across the areas of Content, Process and Relationship, please contact us about our Client Engagement Skills (Consulting Skills).
*This quote is often attributed to author and poet Maya Angelou but was probably uttered by the less well-known Carl W Buehner.