Most accounting jobs require a degree in accounting or a related field. While a college degree might be table stakes, it’s far from the only job requirement if you want to go far in your accounting career. Having an interest in numbers and a strong work ethic helps, but the skills of a successful accountant are vastly different from what was necessary just a decade ago.
Thanks to technology and automation, much of the “traditional” accounting work like entering transactions and reconciling accounts is now handled by computers. So, what skills do accountants need today? Here’s a look.
1. Project Management
Accountants are often tasked with major projects, from looking for ways to reduce costs to analyzing portfolios, preparing a budget across several departments, performing a financial statement audit, or consolidating a tax return for an affiliated group of corporations. In any of these scenarios, you’ll need a handle on project management.
Project management helps move a project from start to finish, and hopefully on-time and on-budget, by taking the following steps:
- Identify a project objective. What specific results or deliverables are you hoping to achieve?
- Decide how to measure project success. What needs to happen for the project to be considered successful? Are you interested in certain key performance indicators or a specific return on investment?
- Budget time, money, and other resources. Projects may fail if the people involved have an overly optimistic idea of how long the project will take or the costs and effort involved.
- Develop a plan, assign responsibilities and due dates. A project plan outlines in a broad sense how you will complete the project, identifies important milestones, and who is responsible for what. The project manager drives the project and works with others to ensure the project gets done according to plan.
Without project management skills, key people involved in the project tend to lose interest or put the project on a backburner. Even if you’re not the one leading the project, having a grasp on everything that goes into completing it efficiently, accurately, and on time will go a long way toward delivering a successful project.
2. Time Management
Accounting involves many deadlines. You may need to file a tax return or payroll report on time, close a company’s books and issue Form 10-Q with the Securities and Exchange Commission, or issue year-end financial statements to comply with loan covenants. Meeting those deadlines requires managing your time and workload efficiency.
There will always be unplanned delays, interruptions, and competing priorities, and it may seem as though your work is never finished. But if you know how to manage your time well, prioritize your to-do list, and avoid procrastination, you’ll be surprised at how quickly and efficiently you can get things done and make your manager and/or clients happy.
3. Attention to Detail
Mistakes are bad in any job, but they can be especially troublesome in accounting, where a simple mistake can result in misstated financial statements, inaccurate tax filings, and losing a significant amount of money.
Accountants need to input data accurately and keep a lot of information accurate and organized. Anyone can make a mistake. Paying attention to details and checking your work as you go allows you to identify and solve problems before little mistakes have larger consequences.
When you consider accounting jobs, leadership might not be the first skill that comes to mind. Still, it’s an invaluable talent in the profession.
Businesses and individuals face many financial challenges, and they often call upon accountants to help them navigate an increasingly complex world.
Leaders know how to lead by example and overcome obstacles that come their way. They work well with others, are available and approachable, put clients at ease and know how to delegate when necessary and inspire people to do their best work.
To develop your leadership skills, consider taking management courses, working with a mentor, reading personal development books. Even if leadership doesn’t come naturally to you, it can eventually become second nature if you make learning how to lead a priority.
5. Relationship Skills
One of the persistent accountant stereotypes is someone who hides in the back office and prefers numbers to people. Yet few successful modern accountants fit that mold.
Whether you’re a corporate accountant that needs to communicate results to a CFO or a freelance accountant who needs to grow your client list, you need relationship skills to work with a team, gain trust, and convince people their finances are in good hands.
Sharpening your listening skills is one of the easiest ways to work on building relationships with others. People are drawn to individuals that listen to them, and it’s a skill many people lack in our overly connected world.
Whether you’re chatting with a coworker or meeting with a client, try listening intently rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next and ask follow-up questions. This will help you start building meaningful, long-lasting professional relationships with others.
It’s challenging to succeed in any job without sharp communication skills, and accounting is no different. Financial topics are confusing to many people, so you need to be able to communicate information in plain language.
Whether you’re explaining how a new tax law will impact your client, presenting financial results to a board of directors, or sending a simple email or internal memo, good verbal and written communication skills can save time and energy. Without them, it’s easy for your meaning to be misconstrued, resulting in bad decisions, frustration, or even lost business.
7. Tech Savvy
Today, accountants need to be as comfortable with technology as they are with numbers. Piles of paperwork and spreadsheets are becoming a thing of the past in corporate accounting departments and CPA firms alike. They’re being replaced with cloud-based accounting and tax software, video conferencing applications, and other technology solutions. Technology is taking over a lot of data acquisition and analysis work, so accountants will need to feel comfortable using technology and leveraging it to provide insight and guidance in their work.
Knowing the tools you need in your job today isn’t enough for long-term success. Accountants may be using new technologies every year, so get comfortable embracing technological changes proactively.
8. Business Acumen
Knowing your own role and your own company is important, but what’s more important is understanding how your role contributes to the organization and how it earns revenue and becomes successful.
Having a strong business acumen isn’t a single skill but a broader set of competencies that allow accountants to see the big picture and counsel clients, C-suite executives, directors, and other stakeholders. Developing it requires experience: understanding business issues and knowing how to confidently apply that knowledge to solve problems and reach business goals.
While you might not have that skill right out of college, you can develop it by:
- Reading business blogs and books
- Enrolling in business-focused courses and webinars and attending industry conferences
- Cross-training with different departments and roles within your organization
- Connecting with mentors within and outside of your organization and asking a lot of questions
Developing business acumen isn’t easy, but it’s a skill that can be strengthened throughout your career.
The idea of being a “creative” accountant might conjure images of an accounting professional in handcuffs after being arrested for fraud, but creativity in business is about making connections between ideas and finding new ways to solve problems or reach your goals. It’s actually a crucial skill for accountants today.
Businesses need to quickly identify opportunities and mitigate risks, and in these situations, an accountant who can think outside of the box is a strategic asset.
When you combine an understanding of financial complex with creative skills, you will be able to solve complex problems faster and more cost-effectively. So even if you’re not someone who likes to paint, draw, or write poetry, don’t worry: you can still be a creative (and successful) accountant.
10. Problem Solving
With technology elevating the role of an accountant across industries, accountants are spending less time recording historical numbers and more time acting as trusted advisors to their employers or clients. This requires problem-solving skills to navigate complex and unique challenges.
When something goes wrong, businesses and individuals often turn to their accountants. If you can think on your feet and work through roadblocks with dexterity and poise, you’ll become indispensable to your employer and clients.
Problem-solving may seem like a vague concept, but effective problem solvers take a common approach to addressing issues.
- Identify the problem. Many challenges start with incomplete information and unclear goals. Get clear on the problem or problems you need to solve.
- Analyze. Solving the problem may require considering tax laws, financial reporting standards, cost accounting techniques, industry benchmarks or historical data. Identify and gather the information you need, perform an analysis, and reach a conclusion.
- Choose the best solution and implement it. After carefully considering all of your options, it’s time to select the best strategy for solving your problem, draw up an action plan, and implement your solution. Once you decide on a solution, it’s important to see it through. People who struggle to commit don’t make good problem solvers because they don’t follow through.
While this skill may come last on this list, effectively solving problems is one of the most important skills employers look for when hiring a new accountant. That’s why a common interview question asks you to explain a time when you faced a problem at work or in your academic life and explain how you overcame it. Take some time to think through your answer to this question so you can show specific examples of how you’ve utilized problem-solving skills in the past.
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