Three Reasons “Soft” Skills are Hard to Master

We are a profession of technicians.

Soft Material

We shy away from soft skills. Historically, we have been drawn to mentors who are more like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock and Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory than touch-feely types like Dr. Phil and Oprah.  We invest the majority of our resources (and CPE credits) in building our technical skills. These skills have served us well in the past, but today’s clients demand more. No longer content with just data, our clients want insights and answers, direction, perspective and empathy. We need new skills if we want to make a difference.  Why then are these “soft” skills so hard to come by?

  1. Professional requirements.Training that relates to introspection, personal development, communication, or behavioral styles tends to get lumped into the “soft” category. Ask any CPE conference provider about training and they will tell you that no one attends training in the “soft skills” category.  CPAs attend CPE that qualifies as “Accounting and Auditing” (A&A) so they can check the box for their licensing professional requirements.  As a result, it is the very people who most need help with communication, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness who avoid these courses like the plague.  We need to seek out skills beyond those needed for our licensing requirements. (Maybe as a profession, we should reconsider our requirements for ongoing CPE.)
  2. Nature or nurture? Most people assume that good communicators are born not trained. We might admire people who have the skills we lack, but make no attempt to find out how these people acquired them. The truth is that the best communicators are people who have invested time and money in perfecting their craft. Like a successful audit, good communication is made better when there is a process that can be followed and replicated. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you can improve your communication skills with training and practice.
  3. Feedback. You need to be aware of a problem in order to fix it. If no one has ever given you feedback on your “soft” skills, you probably assume they are fine. Performance reviews in our profession tend to focus on technical skills and broad categories like client acquisition or marketing but rarely do we dig deeper – into areas like written and oral communication, storytelling, relationship building, team-building, and innovation. What we measure gets managed, so maybe we need to reconsider both our hiring and review processes to make sure these critical skills are no longer overlooked and undervalued.

We’re being illogical. Without changes in our training and CPE requirements, our thought processes, and our feedback mechanisms, we are not likely to see our profession change our focus and improve our ability to serve our clients.

About the author

GW headshot outsideGeni Whitehouse is a CPA and CITP who divides her time between consulting with wineries in the Napa Valley for  and writing and speaking through She is the author of How to Make a Boring Subject Interesting and speaks at conferences around the country on technical and A&A topics and sometimes on soft skills (when allowed).

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