What’s more important: Technical ability or soft skills?

In a business world that’s increasingly turning to technology for strategic insights, the skillsets that accounting and finance leaders need on their teams are changing.

To capitalise on new tools, CFOs are finding that they need people who:

  • Can use Big Data for predictive and prescriptive analytics.
  • Are comfortable with digital, mobile, cloud, and software-as-a-service technologies.
  • Have strong technological skills in the area of cybersecurity.

Finance leaders don’t have the luxury of waiting to add these skills to their teams, Tony Klimas, EY global finance performance improvement advisory leader, said in a new EY report on preparing for the future finance function.

“The change is so significant and the new capabilities so advantageous, that if you take a wait-and-see approach, you run the risk of being put at a severe competitive disadvantage,” Klimas said.

At the same time, finance teams need people who can see the big picture provided by the technical tools and formulate strategy – and communicate those strategic insights so the business can act upon them appropriately.

These “soft skills” may differentiate the leaders in a finance department from those who are more suited for staff-level jobs. According to the 2015 CIMA Professional Qualification Syllabus, senior roles place less emphasis on accounting and finance skills and more emphasis on business acumen, people skills, and leadership skills.

Meanwhile, entry-level roles require more focus on core accounting and finance skills and less focus on soft skills.

Skills for staff-level roles

A new survey shows that technical skills carry slightly more weight with CFOs than soft skills for staff-level positions.

More than half (54%) of 2,200 US CFOs surveyed by staffing services provider Robert Half said technical skills and soft skills are equally important for staff-level accounting and finance positions.

But amongst the remaining CFOs who stated a preference, most placed more value on technical skills. More than one-third (36%) of CFOs said they place greater weight on technical skills for staff-level positions, and just 10% said they place greater weight on soft skills.

As accounting and finance professionals rise in their organisations, soft skills may be the key to their advancement, said Paul McDonald, a senior executive director at Robert Half.

“At the senior level, these team members are expected to be able to build influence across the organisation, communicate with diverse internal and external stakeholders, and serve as a business partner,” McDonald said in a news release. “While honing their functional expertise, individuals aspiring to the management ranks cannot neglect also enhancing their soft skills.”

But as CFOs build their staffs in a competitive talent environment, finding people who can perform increasingly complex new technical tasks is a crucial objective. Technology-enabled process improvement was evaluated as a critical priority for tomorrow’s finance model by 69% of CFOs of large organisations, 53% of medium-size organisations, and 59% of small organisations, according to the EY report, based upon a global survey.

The most commonly listed top priority for the future of the finance function amongst respondents to the EY survey was improving Big Data and analytics capabilities to transform forecasting, risk management, and understanding of value drivers, listed by 23% of respondents.
The second-highest priority, selected by 22% of respondents, was meeting the need for new skills by transforming how finance talent is recruited, retained, and developed. These two CFO priorities complement each other in the important responsibility of attracting, developing, and retaining talent with the technical skills necessary to perform the tasks that are required of the finance function as technology continues to advance.

Training for soft skills

In some cases, employers are hiring employees who possess the requisite technical skills and training them in soft skills such as communication and making presentations. This is true for workers in various professions in Ghana, said Andy Mensah, ACMA, CGMA, a human resource partner with IBM Ghana and Central Africa.

“A lot of people come out of university with master’s degrees and need more skills in developing effective presentations and all those kind of soft skills,” Mensah said in an interview. “What you find at the entry level is people who do not have all these skills, so they are having to learn them. You’re having to teach them to do these kinds of things.”

But it’s often more challenging to build technical skills than soft skills. As CFOs look to the future, they have difficulty acquiring enough technical skills in an organisation to build an effective operation. The EY report suggests some ways to do it:

  • Look beyond traditional financial analysis skills to statisticians, data scientists, and even behavioural scientists to assist the finance function with using data to drive strategy.
  • Emphasise digital. Executives who are proficient in technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence will be key players in finance departments.
  • Create alliances with resources outside the organisation at universities, start-ups, and other third parties that possess the expertise to address business challenges in innovative ways.

These technical skills may be more difficult to acquire than soft skills, but they will be a must for organisations as they attempt to use technology to derive critical insights from data.

Ken Tysiac ( is a CGMA Magazine editorial director.