Dr Rob examines the top-rated employment skills

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In order to stay employable, it is important to be aware of the skills that employers value most in the workplace. Recently, researchers Lin Mei Tan and Fawzi Laswad at Massey University conducted an analysis of over 39,600 job advertisements to identify the most frequently requested skills and attributes mentioned by employers specifically looking to hire accountants.

The study looked at job advertisements in Australia and New Zealand, but given the increasing internationalisation of the accounting profession, it is likely that similar results would be found in most other countries.

Here are the top 10 skills most frequently identified by the researchers. By understanding the skills, you can both enhance your employability and increase your chances of being hired the next time you go for an interview.

1. Collaborating with colleagues

The top skill mentioned in over 77% of job advertisements is to do with cooperation and being able to work in teams. What use are your technical accounting skills and knowledge if you are not able to get on with colleagues and work together in a friendly fashion?

To improve your employability, seek out opportunities to work on projects with other people in which you together have shared responsibility for achieving a goal. Collaborating with colleagues means offering others support – both in terms of helping others with their workload as well as emotional support – in the interests of helping the team to achieve its communal goals.

2. Presenting, discussing, and defending views

The second most important skill mentioned is to do with communication. Clearly, communication can take various forms. Most accountants can communicate well enough in writing – this is a skill tested by universities and in accounting exams. However, employers more highly prize employees who can communicate in person – either one-on-one or when speaking to groups of colleagues.

To develop this skill, focus equally on the three verbs mentioned. Presenting is about conveying information to others. Discussing is about being able to listen and ask sensible questions – but also to do it in a curious, supportive tone rather than a way that others may perceive as interrogative or aggressive. Defending is about calmly being able to provide further data or examples to back up your claims or arguments.

3. Positive attitude values

Employers often complain about employees who may be intelligent and knowledgeable but have a poor attitude. Traits such as laziness, stubbornness and negativity are not uncommon among employees. As a result, employers want to hire employees who are enthusiastic, willing to learn and friendly.

To demonstrate positive attitude values, aim to control your emotions. Try to avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as sulky, unhappy or bad-tempered. Think not only about the words you choose but also your tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to make sure that you do not inadvertently betray your feelings.

4. Using information technology

Nine of the top ten skills are to do with behaviour and interpersonal skills – how accountants manage both themselves as well as their relationships with other people. However, the fourth-ranked skill concerns the use of information technology.

The fact that it is the only technical skill to rank in the top ten is a reminder that it continues to be important in today’s technology-intensive economy. Even though much of accounting training is to do with ways of thinking, it is clearly important that the modern accountant is able to apply those ways of thinking using the latest technology.

5. Applying leadership skills

Demonstrating leadership actually requires many sub-skills. Traditionally, leadership used to be thought of as being able to delegate work to others. However, modern leadership is also about being able to ask questions of others to understand their points of view before deciding what tasks to delegate.

Even if you are applying for entry-level roles, employers may be interested in your track record of leadership – they may be looking to understand whether you have the future potential for supervisory or management roles. So, when you attend job interviews, think back to past occasions when you led others – even if you were not formally the leader of a team. For example, you may have guided and organised people during a group assignment at school or university; or you may have overseen and had a coordinating role in your voluntary activities, for instance.

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6. Meeting deadlines

Being an effective employee requires that you can not only deliver good quality work but also deliver it on time. The fact that the sixth most requested skill concerns meeting deadlines suggests that many employees are unfortunately not able to meet deadlines.

If an employer’s job advertisement specifically mentions deadlines, then be sure to prepare for an interview question about them. Imagine interviewers asking you questions such as: ‘Can you give me an example of a tough deadline you faced and the steps you took to meet it?’ and ‘Tell me about a time you had too much to do. How did you prioritise your work to ensure that you met the most important deadlines?’

7. Understanding group dynamics

Understanding group dynamics is about observing and being aware of other stakeholders and their relationships with each other. The number one, most requested skill asked for by employers is to do with collaborating with colleagues. However, this seventh most requested skill is about understanding not just colleagues but also customers, clients and suppliers, for example.

This skill is about being able to observe others with the aim of understanding their emotions and unspoken agendas. For instance, if your colleagues seem sad or angry about a decision, it may be worth understanding the source of their unhappiness to see if you can find a better solution.

Another aspect of understanding group dynamics is being able to identify how the various stakeholders around you relate to each other. For example, individual colleagues may not get on with each other; or perhaps entire departments generally clash with each other.

To work on this skill, spend more time observing key people around you. During meetings, what do you think they may be thinking but not saying? Who gets on with each other? What rivalries exist – and why might those people not get on? The more you think about such questions, the more you will deepen your understanding of group dynamics.

8. Being observant and aware

While understanding group dynamics is about observing and being aware of other people, the eighth most requested skill relates to observing and being aware in general. In particular, this skill concerns paying attention to details and being accurate, which are both vital when it comes to dealing with data and making interpretations based upon them.

This skill does not come naturally to many people. If you need to work on this skill, ask friends and colleagues for advice and tips, for example, on how to ensure that your spreadsheets are accurate. Also get into the habit of checking that results seem to make sense before sharing them with others.

9. Thinking and acting independently

Employers do not want to hire people who will do only what they are told and nothing else. To improve your employability, be sure to make suggestions or even take the initiative. What else within the team needs doing – even if no one has specifically asked you to do it?

By taking the initiative during your work, you equip yourself to talk about such situations during your next job interview. For example, it is not uncommon for interviewers to ask: ‘Can you tell us about a time you identified and dealt with a work-related problem or opportunity?’

10. Acting strategically

Employers sometimes comment that they dislike employees who act only within their silos – for example, doing things within the finance function without regard for its effects elsewhere within the organisation. To avoid this mistake, think strategically in your work: whenever you take on a significant project, ask yourself to what extent your work impacts on other teams or departments across the organisation.

Think about how you will communicate about your project to other departments; or perhaps you may need to get input from other departments to ensure that your project will meet their needs as well as yours. By taking such action, you equip yourself with tangible examples that you will be able to talk about during future job interviews.

Final thoughts

In the study by Tan and Laswad, nine of the top 10 skills relate to behaviour and interpersonal skills rather than technical skills and knowledge. This is likely further evidence that effective modern-day accountants are no longer just ‘backroom number crunchers’ but business professionals who must take the initiative, work harmoniously with colleagues and act in the best interests of the overall organisation.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace

Visit Talentspace
Follow @robyeung

This article was first published in Student Accountant in September 2020

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