A resource to help accounting students develop their “soft skills”

Jerry Maginnis, CPA, former managing partner at KPMG’s Philadelphia office, explains the importance of developing “soft skills” among early career and student accountants.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

The “soft skills” gap

Many accounting educators do an excellent job helping their students master the fundamentals of the profession. As a result, students who major in accounting and apply themselves during their university experience often graduate with a good knowledge of the “debits and credits”. Yet, a common concern of employers of recent college graduates is that they lack “soft skills”.  In fact, according to a 2019 report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), this was a concern for over half of its members who responded to a survey.

Following my career as an audit partner at KPMG, I served as an “Executive in Residence” supporting the accounting program at Rowan University in New Jersey, United States, where I volunteered 10-12 hours weekly for approximately five years. In that capacity, I often gave guest lectures to the students on topics like ethics, current developments in accounting and auditing, and professional careers. I also met with many students to discuss their questions, concerns, and aspirations regarding their futures.

I became familiar with the challenges faced by the university’s accounting faculty. Our Accounting Advisory Board, which I chaired, often raised the issue of “soft skills” and asked why the faculty weren’t doing more to support students. Given the limited time available for the faculty to teach accounting basics while also informing students about the impact of emerging technologies, I concluded this was an unrealistic and unfair expectation.

Addressing the “soft skills” issue

I ultimately authored a book to help address this issue: “Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession”. It was designed for students preparing for an accounting career and professionals in the first three or four years of their careers. This is a great time to develop formative habits and skills. The book is not about accounting theory but focuses on practical skills and attributes necessary for success, and, yes, it covers the “soft skills” in great depth!

By way of example, some of the practical topics discussed include:

  • work-life balance,
  • the importance of adapting to change and new technologies,
  • how to avoid burnout,
  • communications skills,
  • the importance of working effectively with others,
  • how to have a value-creation mindset, and
  • the power of relationships.

But one of the book’s most important chapters is Character Traits that Can Help You Succeed. Having observed many successful professionals during my 35 plus year career in public accounting, I summarize what I consider are their most important “success traits”. There may be a few that surprise you!

For example, courage is an important and consistent trait among successful accountants, particularly those in auditing. There will often be instances where the outside auditor needs to challenge client management on an accounting or disclosure issue, which can require “speaking truth to power”.

Similarly, empathy is increasingly an important trait to possess when dealing with colleagues and third parties. I feel particularly strongly about the myth that “nice people finish last.” Don’t buy into this notion — I’ve met many “nice” people who’ve been very successful. The book shows how it is quite possible for someone to be themselves and still have a successful career!

Other personal characteristics that can be pivotal to success include attitude (which can be either an asset or a liability), resilience, mental toughness, grit, initiative, and perseverance.

Applying “soft skills” in practice

Many accounting faculties in the US have been using the book formally and informally. ways. For example, all participants in Auburn University’s “Rising Accountant & Analyst Program” are provided a copy. Notre Dame University offers it as a gift to its new accounting majors and prospects.

Canisius University in New York State uses the book more formally in its auditing classes. Participants are required to read selected chapters and, working in small teams, provide reflective responses to a series of questions.

Other universities disseminate it through their student club organizations, and Rowan University’s Career Services Center uses it to advise its accounting students.

Firms of all sizes, from the Big Four to small local firms, have deployed it in their recruiting and onboarding activities to provide their interns or new hires with a helpful resource.

The accounting profession in many parts of the world is facing a talent crisis as the demand for accountants has exceeded supply — the so-called “Pipeline Challenge”. Additionally, colleges and universities have experienced declining accounting enrollments recently and are seeking to reinvigorate their recruiting efforts. Similarly, professional accounting associations are concerned about the attractiveness of the profession. These organizations are using this book to support recruitment and make young people aware of the benefits of an accounting career.

In closing it’s worth noting that, while the book includes specific information on pursuing the CPA designation in the United States, most its contents are relevant for accounting students and young professionals around the world.

About the author

Jerry Maginnis is a retired KPMG Partner and serves as an independent director and chairs the Audit Committee of the Cohen & Steers Mutual Fund Complex. He is also a board member and chairs the Audit Committee of inTEST Corporation.

Jerry is a Senior Advisor, Strategy and Growth to the CEO and leadership team of Centri Consulting LLC, a professional services firm.

He is also an Executive in Residence at Rowan University, supporting the accounting program and coaching and mentoring students as they transition from academia to the business world.

Useful resources

Maginnis, J (2021) Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession: How to Make Your Assets Greatly Exceed Your Liabilities. Wiley

Accounting Cafe receives no commission or other pecuniary benefits from this article or purchases of the book.

© AccountingCafe.org

Leave a Reply