Leadership & Soft Skills Development

President Eisenhower, when he was Supreme Allied Commander of US forces in Europe during World War II once said, “You don’t lead people by hitting them over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” The same can apply to today’s leaders in whatever arena they work: public or private sector; government; or academia.

While Eisenhower may have talked about assault in the literal sense, there are environments in which the philosophy “My way or the highway” or other command and control approaches is assault in the figurative sense. These environments not only have a negative impact on growth and profitability, but they also have a negative effect on human performance. People feel demoralized when they are not given opportunities to grow personally and professionally, to express opinions without hesitation or offer ideas without feeling they may be ridiculed. If your practice or company has not ingrained the right values early on through investing in your human capital, you will have created a revolving employment door. There is no magic bullet.

Colleges and universities focus on the teaching the technical aspects of a curriculum. These hard skills provide the minimum expertise that recruiters are looking for to fulfill the minimum requirements of a position. What about entering the real world armed with soft skill capabilities? These skills reflect a person’s interpersonal aptitude: the possession of people skills and characteristics of emotional intelligence.

Employers are being forced to look holistically at individuals, particularly in professional service firms. No longer is it good enough to have a 4.0 GPA but be incapable of putting two articulate sentences together in a business setting. Intuitive leaders will go for the 3.0 GPA student who participated in leadership or team-based campus activities, who knows how to converse, sees both sides of a situation, is comfortable with compromise, and knows how to gain someone’s confidence through consensus building.

Why should young professionals have these skills? Because the real world demands it. Globalization has created multicultural workplaces, as well as multicultural client bases. Words, manners, tone and body language matter much more.

The CPA profession, of course, requires technical expertise, but it does not stop there. Because company decisions are based on the work and observations of the CPA, who must follow the tenets of professional standards, the most important soft skill to have is integrity. This may not be apparent early on, though as a leader of your firm, you want your direct reports to also have the attributes of courtesy, professionalism, strong work ethic, positive and consistent demeanor, respect and the ability to accept constructive advice, for starters.

Some people are born with these, others have to be taught – or at least given a refresher in some of them. You want your people to represent your firm in a high-minded manner, then invest in the necessary leadership and soft skills training. It does not matter whether it is the first-year accountant or the on-the-partner-track manager. Everyone in the firm needs to mirror the values and positive reputation you want your firm or business to have. Make the right investment in your people. Your firm’s or company’s future depends on it.