4 steps for creating a ‘soft skills’ improvement plan

Make a point to flex your soft skills in order to thrive in an automated future.

It can be easy to focus on more concrete skills development and overlook softer skills like communication, empathy, and critical thinking. But it's worth developing a soft skills improvement plan in order to be successful in your career.

"Take a look at those who have been successful in their careers and try to determine why," said Robert Minkler Jr., CPA, CGMA, managing partner at Anders CPAs + Advisors, based in St. Louis, Missouri, in the US. "I think you'll find it won't necessarily be that they're just really good at accounting or tax, but it's more how they look at their centres of influence, deal with the public and community, and interact with clients on a personal level, rather than just reading the numbers."

Here are some tips on how to strengthen your soft skills:

Adopt a growth mindset. Perhaps the first step to improving your soft skills is recognising that it's possible to grow in those areas.

"I advocate for a growth mindset, which is the belief that your abilities, skills, and knowledge can be improved if you put in enough effort," said Iyaz Waheed, ACMA, CGMA, president at Universal Foundation, a charity organisation based in Maldives, and executive board member of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry.

It might be easier to measure improvement when it comes to technical skills like learning new software or discovering the latest Excel hacks, but it's also possible to noticeably develop soft skills. For example, Waheed has been actively working to improve his public-speaking skills through a combination of watching professional speakers, practising on his own, and joining the local Toastmasters International group. With the help of feedback, he realised he was using too many filler words and has since markedly improved his communication skills.

Waheed recommends finance professionals avoid a fixed mindset and allocate a certain amount of their time and money towards personal upgrades.

"Finance professionals have to know the world is changing faster than ever, and we cannot complete our CPE and then relax, we have to always be on the lookout," Waheed said. "Just as we allocate part of the budget to upgrade software and hardware in the office, we have to budget to improve ourselves, because if we don't do it, nobody else is going to do it for us."

Pinpoint your goals. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, try pinpointing one or two skills that you want to work on, and make sure they're specific and measurable.

Waheed recommends taking stock of your current strengths and weaknesses and then identifying where you want to go in your career to figure out your largest skill gaps. For example, if you want to start your own business, you will likely need to improve your sales and marketing skills.

With the rapid increase in automation and artificial intelligence, Minkler pointed out that finance professionals might want to focus on mastering the tasks less likely to be taken over by technology in the coming years, such as translating large amounts of data into digestible, actionable insights.

"If finance professionals can start to think about how they can transform that data into a format that can help people run their businesses better, that's one way of creating higher-level value," Minkler said.

Break down goals into specific actions and block out practice time. Once you have selected a skill you want to improve, the next step is converting that from a vague, amorphous goal into specific actions that you can schedule into your week.

For example, the goal of improving your communication skills could be broken down into actions including reading books on the subject, watching and analysing speeches by professionals, recording and assessing your own presentations, completing an online course on communication, joining a local Toastmasters group, and volunteering to present at the next meeting at work. Then block out time in your schedule for those tasks and set a deadline for when you will evaluate your progress.

Minkler recommends figuring out whatever method works best for you, whether that's writing down a detailed to-do list or blocking out time on your diary, but either way, making sure to vocalise your goals in some way.

"As soon as you voice it, you have to do it, but if you keep it to yourself, it's easy to push it off until next year," he said.

Find someone to hold you accountable. Along with holding yourself accountable, involving an outside party can help increase your odds of achieving your goals, according to Minkler.

You could turn to your manager, mentor, colleagues, friends and family, or even a consultant or career coach to help you follow through on your skills improvement plan. Just make sure they're going to be honest with you and are willing to give you the nudge you need. When asking for feedback, be sure to avoid vague questions like "How did I do during that presentation?" Instead, ask a specific question like "What was one thing I could have done to better communicate my ideas?" Minkler added that finance professionals really shouldn't be shy about asking someone for feedback.

"There might be some hesitancy for someone who is looking for feedback, but in reality most people in the position to administer that type of advice are happy to do it," Minkler said.

Hannah Pitstick 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