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Friday, 23 July 2010

By Sheryl Nance-Nash

CFOs seem to be looking increasingly to hire accounting professionals less on the basis of their technical abilities and more for so-called "soft" skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, negotiation and communication, according to two recent studies.

Thirty-one percent of 1,400 CFOs who responded to a survey last year by Accountemps, a staffing service for temporary finance professionals, said that personality or people skills are more important than technological capabilities when deciding between two job candidates.

That compares with only 1 percent of the respondents to a survey in 2004 by Accountemps. The question asked whether personality or people skills was most valuable if two candidates interviewing for an accounting or finance position had similar skills.

Another recent survey by Grant Thornton found that CFOs face a big challenge in finding such professionals. Over half of the 32 CFOs who responded said there were not enough individuals in the market with such skills.

"Technical accounting skills are critical, but it wasn't the primary issue of concern," said Gina Kim, director in the public policy and external affairs group at Grant Thornton, in a prepared statement. "Now that accountants are expected to put more professional judgment into their determinations, they have to be able to think critically about an issue."

What's changed in the past six years that might have reordered CFOs' hiring priorities? With CFOs focused increasingly on compliance, governance and investor relations, tasks like negotiating contracts get pushed down to the team, says Patrick Gorman, co-founder of iFind Group, an executive search firm. But members often lack the people skills necessary to develop relationships.

"Individuals talk to the issue rather than to each other," adds C.S. Bud Kulesza, chair emeritus of the Institute of Management Accountants' Leadership Academy and former CFO of ITT Automotive.

Getting finance staff involved in operations is one way to encourage the latter, but it also requires interaction through modes other than technology, which is increasingly the means most finance and other professionals use. "Through understanding and interaction, we develop business acumen and that, combined with the accounting professional's technological knowledge, will lead to the ability to think more critically and solve problems," Kulesza explains.

At companies ahead of the curve, the accounting department adopts more of a customer service mentality, says John Schapiro, CEO of consulting firm Windsor Resources. "They are treating internal staff like customers," says Schapiro. "They are acting more like a partner in the business," he adds. And that, Schapiro notes, requires them to move away from being "numbers based and nose to the grind."

The ultimate challenge here may reside in the fact that CFOs themselves lack soft skills. "Like attracts like," says Gorman.

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