The importance of social skills in accounting and auditing professions

Data from a recent World Bank report shows that more than 800,000 people enter the job market in Kenya each year.  This, coupled with the continually changing generational dynamic of the workforce – which is seeing the entry of more millennials and Generation Z into offices – poses a new challenge for companies and consumers.

Generation Z is the demographic cohort after the Millennials. There is no precise date for when Generation Z begins, but demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to mid-2000s as starting birth years.

As the social landscape of business becomes more digital, the accounting profession’s newest members – many of whom belong to Generation Z are entering the profession with different skills than perhaps those before them. Adapting to this means that companies and training institutions have a their work cut out for them in properly equipping the next generation of Kenyan accounting and auditing professionals with the skills necessary for them to be all rounded employees or employers.

The social landscape is becoming more digital, and younger professionals are increasingly “digital natives”, with different skills to older colleagues. However, many of the demands of the modern workplace have remained the same. In finance and accountancy, technical expertise is still vital. However, alongside technical and digital skills, young employees will need an additional suite of skills if they are to add value at all levels. This is requiring companies and training institutions to adapt the ways in which they equip the next generation to be all-rounded professionals.

The importance of social skills to can never be overstated. It is our social nature and our desire to belong to a social group that enabled our species to survive over a hundred thousand years of evolution in the wilderness of Eastern Africa and beyond, let alone build integrated communities and economies.

For a long time, however, the importance of social skills to doing business, especially in technical areas like accountancy, was comparatively overlooked in favour of “hard” skills. The latter are still central but softer skills are increasingly recognised as critical across various disciplines, especially the accounting and auditing professions.

What is being realised is that the ability to establish long lasting and productive client and colleague relationships should now require equal attention as ensuring accountants develop the hard skills of the job.

These social skills are best learned in the early years of a career. However, at this point, the attention placed on doing so also often competes with the pressures of getting qualified and learning the essential technical skills required to execute the day to day accounting activities.

It is crucial to do so, however, because ensuring that junior accountants and auditors are equipped with the right social skills to become more accomplished in their professional relationships will also equip them for progression into more senior roles in their careers.

Talking to a diverse range of people, actively contributing during financial decisions or being able to determine the right questions and responses to problems, are all central to building relationships. In addition, they make a positive impression with clients and colleagues and enhance the perception of the firm as a whole.

Building business relationships is about real interactions with real people. This may prove a challenge for some of the young professionals now entering the workforce. Having grown up in a digitally-connected environment they are used to a context in which online connection is as valid as face to face communication. However, their older colleagues, clients and stakeholders may well come from an environment that privileges personal interaction.

This has the potential to prevent young professionals from gaining visibility and building networks. So what can be done?

Firstly, it is important to define the strengths or weaknesses of the relationship in question, to help ensure that trust and reliability with clients goes both ways.

Secondly, financial sector professionals must always seek to have a varied client base. There needs to be an explicit reason for an opportunity to come to you. In the world of work, people don’t go out of their way to help people they don’t know and don’t trust. They don’t know whether your actions or behaviour might undermine their own credibility. So there needs to be an explicit reason for a client to approach you, and a relationship built on trust is often much stronger and longer-lasting than one based solely on convenience or capability.

Many newer recruits are going to need help to look up from their screens and engage fully with their clients and colleagues. Giving them the insight and the career motivation to build steadfast business relationships can set the individual and the firm up for long term success. 

The writer, Michael Armstrong (FCA) is the Regional Director for Middle East, Africa and South Asia - ICAEW

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