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Achieving Workplace Success: Develop ‘Soft Skills’

CFOs Identify Soft Skills as the Ticket to Ride the Corporate Ladder up to the Top

CFOs say poor interpersonal skills are the top reason for an employee’s failure to advance in the company. But finance chiefs are far more likely to offer training in more technical categories — accounting or finance, and information technology — than in soft skills, according to a new survey.

The top three reasons for an employee failing to advance, according to an Accountemps survey of 2,100 US CFOs, are poor interpersonal skills (30%), poor work ethic (25%) and not developing new skills (23%). While emphasis on soft-skills training has increased since 2008 (the last time the survey question was asked), more than four out of five CFOs are still not likely to offer such training.

“Accounting and finance professionals have gradually assumed increased visibility, expanded roles and greater influence within their firms over the past several years, making soft skills an essential competency today,” Accountemps chairman Max Messmer.

This is no surprise to me. One reason I teach ethics to my students, in addition to meeting the challenge of making them sensitive to ethical issues in business, is that ethical analysis helps to develop two of the soft skills needed for success in business today: (1) analytical reasoning skills (when they reason through ethical dilemmas); and (2) interpersonal skills (when they discuss and debate the resolution of ethical dilemmas).

To be sure, finance chiefs have received the soft-skills memo: In the survey just 8% of CFOs said they would likely offer interpersonal or communication training. And in the current survey, those skills were likely to be offered by 19% of CFOs. But that was still third behind accounting (32%) and IT skills (29%). Training in soft skills ranked just ahead of management training (17%).

One way to cultivate soft skills in business is to incorporate it into the performance evaluation process. Businesses should emphasize the importance of integrating nontechnical attributes into performance management processes. They accomplish this primarily by developing a set of competencies that describe the nontechnical attributes that determine performance success in their organization including the audit function. These competencies are then used as the basis of ongoing performance evaluations and the promotions and incentives that are linked to those evaluations.

For example, MetLife internal audit managers use a document that contains a set of 22 competencies for performance reviews and the annual development plans assigned to individual auditors. Those competencies are pretty much all ‘soft’ — they include critical thinking, influencing, and leadership.

Companies should also provide performance feedback to their direct reports following every engagement. This approach ensures that performance management remains part of the ongoing discussion within the function.

Soft skill development starts with the recruiting process. Recruiters should invest significant time and effort to ensure that considerations of nontechnical attributes occur throughout every step of the recruiting, retention, and talent development life cycle. This investment appears to deliver excellent returns. In a survey of chief accounting executives, the CAEs said that when their internal audit function implements the brand-management, selection, training, development, and performance management steps necessary to achieve a balance between technical and nontechnical attributes, many of their most important key performance indicators improve dramatically — even some untraditional measures.

Larry Harrington, CAE of Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., said that “If you do everything you need to do to develop a strong internal audit brand, your phone is going to ring off the hook. I’m going to get a lot more calls if I’m hiring, training, and developing the right kind of internal auditors, he says. “We need people who are innovative, creative, thoughtful, and analytical — and who can help colleagues quickly get to the root cause of problems and get them fixed.”

I believe one of the reasons for the business failures in the late 1990s and early 2000s is the lack of soft skills. CEOs and CFOs were not in touch with ethical values, they failed to communicate ethical goals, and the internal communication while frauds were occurring was missing.

Soft skills have long been ignored in university curricula for business students. While there has been some change during the past ten or fifteen years and a shift to some soft-skill education for future business leaders, the fact is the technical skills still rule the day. So, the change needed must start with university curricula and that won’t happen until business leaders and recruiters demand it.

Soft skill development is more important today than ever before because new recruits come in with a social media mentality meaning they communicate through text messages and postings on social media sites. This avoids the very interaction needed to develop the soft skills so necessary to success.

Blog posed by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 17, 2013