Our best soft skills advice for finance professionals in 2021

Here’s part one of the best soft skills development advice for management accountants published in FM magazine this year.

Soft skills are becoming an increasingly important part of the finance and accounting professional's toolbox. But finding the time and space to build up your interpersonal skills can be challenging in the pandemic era of uncertainty and disruption.

In today's rapidly evolving business, technological, and workplace environments, finance professionals who want to advance their careers will need to become better listeners, show more empathy, exhibit emotional intelligence, think creatively, and collaborate with diverse teams more.

We've gathered some of the best tips of the year to help you boost your soft skills and advance your career in 2022.

Dial into empathy

Finance leaders have to tune in to what their team members are going through to navigate challenging times.

A workplace culture characterised by empathy can provide the much-needed antidote to uncertainty — while simultaneously boosting engagement and efficiency, according to Businessolver's State of Workplace Empathy Study 2020.

"The global crisis has presented leaders with an opportunity to relaunch themselves and learn new skills to motivate teams and drive business performance," said Liza Robbins, chief executive, Kreston Global, a global network of independent accounting firms. "Leading with empathy translates into good business, which includes retaining and motivating top talent."

The first step is to understand what empathy is and what it is not, Robbins said. "Empathy in leadership is about walking in someone else's shoes and really trying to see things from their point of view," Robbins said.

To connect with employees on a more human level, empathetic leadership requires the ability to be authentic and honest about your own struggles, said Peta Chennells, CFO at Munger Investment Partners in South Africa.

"Be open about the personal and professional challenges that you are facing so that your team can do the same," she said. "Finance leaders will also need to learn to drop egos and own up to their own mistakes and faults — which, again, opens the door for team members to follow that example."

From "Empathy as an Antidote to Uncertainty", by Jessica Hubbard, 1 June 2021

Develop self-awareness

According to Sharon King Gabrielides, Ph.D., chief executive of Key Steps Corporate Training, a leadership coaching and development consultancy based in South Africa, the first step towards increasing emotional intelligence is the development of greater self-awareness — which can be defined as a conscious awareness of your internal states and feelings, as well as the ability to perceive your own personality traits, behavioural patterns, and motivations.

"The starting point is to develop self-awareness, which is the foundation of emotional intelligence and the gateway to personal and professional development," King Gabrielides said.

At work, begin to notice if you become defensive in certain scenarios, look to blame others, or frequently feel the need to justify your actions, she advised. Between meetings and interactions with colleagues, give yourself a few minutes of quiet time to reflect and to note any challenging and unexpected emotions or behaviours that were evoked.

Explore and confront limiting beliefs. To deepen self-awareness, professionals not only have to examine their way of relating to others, but they also have to explore their way of relating to themselves, King Gabrielides said. For instance, everyone has deeply ingrained beliefs and inner dialogues that limit and even sabotage potential. A core component of self-awareness is identifying these beliefs or "mistaken certainties" and learning to challenge them.

From "Self-Sabotage to Superpower: Harnessing Emotion With Self-Awareness", by Jessica Hubbard, 10 August 2021

Listen more, talk less

"Only by learning to listen very, very carefully can finance leaders begin to understand what their team members are experiencing and feeling," said Japheth Jev, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO at Triumph Power and Gas Systems Ltd., an energy service company based in Nigeria. "Empathy can primarily be learned and adopted through listening more than you talk to others."

This may require setting up regular one-on-one meetings or check-ins with team members that can include both work and nonwork discussions. During these meetings, allow your team member to guide the conversation, and be mindful about always waiting to speak — remembering that your role is simply to listen and, where appropriate, to respond with empathetic phrases that give both acknowledgement and encouragement. For example, use phrases such as "I understand what you're saying" and "Thank you for sharing this with me".

Once they have gained an understanding of a team member's position or situation, Jev said that skilled leaders will then ask questions that gently prompt an employee to find a thoughtful solution that can both assuage anxieties and improve performance.

"Asking the right questions can both calm the nerves and also help to point to a positive solution — and in this new paradigm of empathetic leadership, one should encourage employee-led solutions that enable teams to chart their own course forward."

From "Empathy as an Antidote to Uncertainty", by Jessica Hubbard, 1 June 2021

Clarify and communicate boundaries

To sustain self-motivation, particularly under pressure, it is critical to understand and commit to what you need to start and end your working day, said Brittany Cummings, CPA, a director with BKD LLP, a US-based CPA and advisory firm. This could include a morning meditation or workout, for instance, or a family breakfast.

"Understand and clarify what you need, and very rarely allow work to interfere with that time or personal routine," she said. "I work out and meditate in the morning, and I can tell the difference in my day when I do and don't kick-start my metabolism or reset my mind."

Naturally, there are times when finance professionals must be flexible and adjust their daily routines to meet unexpected deadlines or demands, but Cummings underscored that staying firm and committed to one's personal needs and boundaries is key to maintaining high levels of self-motivation.

From "4 Ways to Build the Self-Motivation That Can Boost Your Career", by Jessica Hubbard, 16 November 2021

Ask open-ended questions that elicit positive responses

It has been a rough year, and many people are tired of talking about depressing topics. Hong Kong-based Akash Karia, speaker and author of Small Talk Hacks, suggested asking questions that require your conversational partner to think about interesting and positive experiences from their life.

"When we have a conversation, we want to be uplifted and feel happy, especially when we leave the interaction," Karia said. "You might ask them about something interesting they've been working on over the past couple of months, or where they're most looking forward to going on holiday when the world gets back to some level of normalcy."

He also recommended asking questions that will elicit more than a one-word response. For example, instead of asking, "How was your weekend?", try asking, "What was the most interesting part of your weekend?"

From "5 Tips for Making Small Talk in the Office Again", by Hannah Pitstick, 18 August 2021

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at