Essential soft skills advice for finance professionals in 2022

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

Organisations are increasingly relying on finance professionals to be strategic drivers and business partners to maximise efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

Soft skills like creative thinking, storytelling, empathy, collaboration, and trust building will be an essential part of the management accountant's toolbox as they step into a more prominent business partnering role in 2022.

We've gathered some of our best advice for building soft skills to help boost your career below.

Diverge your thinking

When confronting a challenge, it's important to diverge your thinking before you converge into a solution, said Gabriella Goddard, coaching director at Brainsparker Leadership Academy in the UK. Divergent thinking involves generating various ideas or approaches to a challenge in a short space of time. The characteristics of divergent thinking include allowing ideas to take shape in the absence of criticism and overanalysis.

"Expanding the range of possibilities can lead to new connections, and one of these could trigger that 'aha' idea," Goddard explained.

To do this, begin by posing a question about your problem, starting with "How might we …?" For example, "How might we use AI to speed up the expense approval process?" "This type of question inherently implies that there is a solution and gives you the perfect frame for brainstorming multiple possibilities," Goddard said.

Another way to expand the range of possible options is to use mind mapping, she noted. This is a radial diagram in which you write the central problem in the middle of a blank page, then you create branches off it with different possible answers.

Each branch can then be further expanded with additional details.

"Mapping your ideas out in this visual format not only increases the quantity of ideas you generate, but it can also reveal new connections that you hadn't thought of before," she said.

From "Daily Techniques to Supercharge Creative Thinking", by Jessica Hubbard, 7 October 2021

Identify the 'compete reflex'

According to London-based Catherine de la Poer, chief growth officer at Sheridan Worldwide, a global coaching and leadership development consultancy, most professionals have been educated and conditioned to compete with their peers, which can work against them in an environment where employees are increasingly required to collaborate and create value together.

"Many of us have spent a lifetime building our competitor muscles, but in the new world of work, success is about co-creation, building equity, and a mindset of being in service to others," she explained. "It's important to begin to recognise when your compete reflex kicks in, and to start to see yourself — and your role — in a more service-oriented light."

For instance, when there is a situation of conflict or disagreement, do you respond by trying to "win" or force others into a compromise, or do you take an approach that is based on empathy and the desire to co-create a solution? By learning to recondition your thoughts and emotions in these scenarios, you can begin to shift from competing to collaboration at work. To accelerate this shift, approach every interaction with the intention to listen to understand, be present, and ask good questions. Most of us have poor listening skills, and when another person is speaking, we're often preparing our next point or a counterattack, de la Poer said.

From "Building Emotional Intelligence: Social Awareness", by Jessica Hubbard, 13 September 2021

Assess current levels of trust

The first step in creating an effective collaborative environment is diagnosing your current relationships so you can understand what is and isn't working. In some cases, a direct conversation can be the best way to assess current levels of trust, but not always.

"Direct conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward, but they are often a shortcut to get to the heart of what's not working," said New York City-based Carlos Valdes-Dapena, founder of Corporate Collaboration Resources LLC. "You sometimes have to have courageous conversations, and I think it's important we recognise they take a bit of bravery to step into, but they're priceless."

If you feel you can have a frank conversation with a collaborator, Valdes-Dapena recommended asking them what is and isn't working for them, getting some suggestions on what could change, implementing those suggestions, and then checking in a few weeks to see whether there has been an improvement.

If you think you might not get an honest response from a collaborator, you can try speaking with management or HR for tips on having courageous conversations. You can also write an email that addresses some of the issues but take care to not blame or inflame; the point is to constructively build trust. And if you want to gauge general levels of trust across your organisation or team, Kerry Wekelo, COO of Actualize Consulting, recommended sending out a short survey and then sharing the results with everyone to increase transparency. Whatever method you choose, Wekelo emphasised that you should work through problems as soon as they arise.

"If things are breaking down, figure out why and try to handle those conflicts and challenges in the moment rather than letting them simmer," she said.

From "4 Ways Finance Professionals Can Build Trust in Collaborations", by Hannah Pitstick, 13 July 2021

Avoid burnout and stay healthy

Author, executive coach, and clinical psychologist Mike Drayton suggested five ways to avoid burnout, especially when working remotely:

  • Develop a disciplined way of managing your day. This is especially important when working remotely. Put in place clear boundaries and have a proper start and finish time for your schedule. It is critical to switch off at the end of the day.
  • Block out time in your calendar for certain tasks. This is preferable to the to-do list, which can be overwhelming and never achieved, Drayton said.
  • Take regular breaks and minimise work interruptions. Consider looking at emails at certain times of the day if practical. The most effective way of working is in short intense bursts of communication, followed by longer periods of deep work, Drayton advised.
  • Take on volunteer work. As well as developing new skills and broadening your network, working as a volunteer outside the workplace can help anti-burnout efforts. "Encouraging employees to do voluntary work … reduces the occurrence of burnout. … You are attacking the cynicism [part of burnout]," Drayton said.
  • Increase your resilience. There are many ways to do this, including finding the meaning, purpose, and value in your work, which increases resilience and minimises the probability of burnout.

From "Burnout: Are You Vulnerable and How Can You Prevent It?", by Oliver Rowe, 8 October 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