The Hard Truth about Soft Skills
“We’re in a relationship business.”
I’ve heard this more times than I can count during the 20+ years I’ve worked with CPAs firms. It’s the one constant in the CPA profession.
But, I wonder…have we devalued relationship building? We have access to limitless technology tools as a means of communicating and finding the information and answers we need. We rely on online tools to connect with clients, prospects and referral sources. We automate communication. Does that become a substitute for real, in-person interaction?
In addition, I think many professionals in public accounting convince themselves that high quality work will speak for itself and that relationships are ancillary. They discount the value of soft skills such as communication and relationship building.
They believe that their excellent technical skill and production will lead to all the opportunities they want—both within the firm as well as opportunities with clients. To some extent, when young professionals are early in their careers with their firms this is true. A 1-3 year professional on the staff of an accounting firm has a primary responsibility to contribute to the firm’s growth by providing excellent client service, being technically proficient, and meeting deadlines.
But the hard truth about the soft skills of relationship building is this: technical expertise will only take a person so far. Professionals who are interested in taking their careers to the next level will soon realize that in addition to strong technical skills the ability to develop real and trusted relationships unlocks greater opportunities.
In addition, most of us experience the greatest satisfaction with our chosen careers when we practice with a sense of purpose—meaning we understand and can articulate how what we’re doing professionally is making a positive difference for clients. How can we discern this without having built a relationship with the client and understanding those issues that are most important to them? Will they share their greatest struggles and challenges if they don’t trust us? Can they trust us if there isn’t a relationship?
Internally, existing leaders are looking for professionals who can influence, motivate, strategize and organize. Building relationships offers the perfect context in which to develop these critical skills.
So, if this is the hard truth, how do we develop these soft skills? Here are a few practical ideas to get started:
- If you tend toward being an introvert, it may not be natural for you to extend regular invitations to meet for lunch or coffee. You may need to create some kind of system to help you. Create a planned set of activities for getting to know people and put those activities in your calendar. Stick to the plan.
- Be strategic about the relationships you build. Think through the purpose of connecting with someone. How can they help you? And equally, if not more important, how can you help them?
- Don’t shy away from a conversation because someone is rude. Sometimes other people are just as nervous as you are. Forge ahead. Every time you try will make the next time easier. If the person you’re trying to engage doesn’t respond after a few attempts you can either ask them outright why you’re having a hard time connecting or move on to the next person.
- Recognize that it’s your responsibility to reach out and build these relationships. Don’t expect others to come to you. When you take the opportunity to reach out, you’ll find that 99.9% of the people you contact are accommodating. Once you reach a more senior-level position remember to be receptive to those younger professionals who are reaching out to you. Be a good steward of your position.
- Take time and make the effort to build relationships with people over personal as well as business topics. You may be able to get by keeping people at arm’s length for a little while, but true relationships eventually must go deeper in order to create trust.
Building relationships is critical. Practice the skills necessary to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships—both internally and externally. Accepting this hard truth and shoring up these soft skills will unlock unlimited possibilities.