Changing Work Roles Demand New Knowledge and Skills
Siegel, Gary, Strategic Finance
In earlier columns, I described the rapid changes occurring in the profession and contrasted the traditional management accounting role--as keeper of financial records--to today's role as a key member of the decision-making team. This month I'll focus on the skill set that modern financial professionals need to meet the demands of their work.
In addition to their traditional financial and fiduciary responsibilities, financial managers and management accountants in many organizations have taken on decision support roles. They are internal consultants, leaders on cross-functional teams, and trusted business advisors. Many have become organizational educators, teaching nonfinancial managers about economic and financial analysis and helping them understand what various financial measures mean.
As part of our Practice Analysis research, we asked management accountants this question: Given the changes that have taken place in your work over the past five years, what are the most important areas of knowledge or skills that you've had to acquire in order to do your work more effectively?
Half the respondents mentioned computer skills. Other frequently named areas were interpersonal and communication skills and all aspects of running a business. Respondents seemed to be saying that management accountants have to know just about everything. Here are some observations on the most important skills:
"You have to be very, very competent on a PC, or you are not going to survive," advised an Abbott Labs executive.
"We need people that have a big picture perspective. They must understand that the business of the business is their business--not accounting, not finance, not the rules, but whatever it is that we're supporting," said a US West management accountant. "We need people who understand how to model data, make forecasts and projections, know how to develop assumptions and criteria, and turn that into information that has some meaning. And the people we need can't be afraid to do those forecasts."
Another US West accountant emphasized, "You have to be good at accounting, you have to be good at modeling, you have to be good on computers, you have to have good business sense. In some jobs, like an M&A support-type role, you have to be good at legal. If you're in an operations business unit, you have to be good at analyzing processes."
"For me, it's communication skills and presentation skills," said an accountant at a Caterpillar production facility. "It is real important that accountants or finance people be able to take a spreadsheet that has a zillion numbers on it and then turn around and present that to somebody at a high-enough level in a meaningful manner that they can understand. And that is not always easy to do."
The emphasis on communications is the same at Caterpillar headquarters. "I think the one skill that is more in demand now is the ability to present material. At one time it was okay for accountants to be introverted and sit in a corner with their spreadsheets and calculators and do their thing. Now people really have to be able to communicate and to come up with innovative ways to do their work and then sell that or present that, in many instances, to large groups of people. It is really the people that can communicate better and lead better that are going to rise to the top."
Echoing this, a Hewlett-Packard accountant noted, "You have to have good people skills. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to articulate your ideas. You have to have confidence." He then stressed the importance of working well with people, saying that career prospects are dim for financial professionals without this ability. "Somebody who doesn't work well with people is shot. …