Ep. 128: Laura Boyd - The "Softer" Side of Accounting

Laura Boyd, CPA, Vice President and Corporate Controller - North America at Hunter Douglas, joins Count Me In to talk about the softer skills required of finance and accounting professionals. Laura is a results-driven finance professional who, in her role, is responsible for Corporate Accounting, Internal Audit, Treasury, Payroll, and Accounts Payable for the North American Region. Prior to taking this role, she served in various progressive accounting and finance positions at Tapestry, Kate Spade, Inc and VF Corporate, in addition to several years in assurance at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She has a demonstrated history of financial and operational management. One of her many skills is relationship building and utilizing soft skills to create innovative solutions to problems. In this episode, Laura talks about how finance professionals are not (and CAN NOT) be just about "the numbers" - they must also possess a varied toolbox of other skills to be effective business partners. Download and listen now!

Adam: (00:00)
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Adam Larson and this episode, “Business Partners Developing Their Soft Skills”, is number 128 of our series. Laura Boyd, Vice President, Corporate Controller at Hunter Douglas joins us to talk about a topic not addressed enough among accounting professionals, the softer skills required in the profession. Everyone assumes accountants are all about the numbers and they are, but without the ability to collaborate across departments, they cannot be true business partners to the organization. Keep listening to hear about the specific soft skills required and how to develop them throughout your career.

Mitch: (00:51)
So our conversation today is going to focus on the soft skills and everyone typically assumes accounting and finance professionals, they're all about the numbers and we know they are but, I think everyone's starting to realize accounting and finance professionals really must possess and further develop these soft skills. So can you kick us off by sharing your perspective on this and let us know why you think that is?

Laura: (01:14)
Sure. Well, I think technical skills are obviously very important in our role as accountants and finance professionals. Our ability to analyze numbers and apply technical financial guidance, whether it's cost accounting or manufacturing accounting, or U.S. GAAP, IFRS otherwise goes a long way to supporting success in our careers. However, too much emphasis or rather not enough emphasis on developing and possessing these softer skills will really limit an individual's ability to properly support their business and develop their career in accounting. When we say softer skills, what we're really talking about is our communication style, leadership skills, team building skills, ability to make decisions, et cetera. Many of these skills are people type skills or interpersonal skills and since nearly every accounting role requires engagement with others in some way, shape or form, these become critical qualities to possess as your career progresses. In addition, people don't always think of accountants as customer service professionals, but in some way we are. Our business partners are our customers. They're on the receiving end of our hopefully quality work and we have an obligation to not only support them, but work well with them. And it takes several soft skills to be able to listen to a business partner and really collaborate with them. All of these things make finance professionals more well-rounded partners for the business, which is what our ultimate goal should be as accounting professionals. Well-rounded partner is an ally for the organization. If I could make an accounting pun, a well-rounded business partner is an asset for the organization. So while the technical side of our life is incredibly important and critical, it's becoming more and more clear that the softer skills are just as important for us and for our business’ success.

Mitch: (03:29)
So you already named a few of them. We talked a little bit about communication and teamwork and things like that. There are many soft skills and they're all important. But when it comes to being a business partner and really taking that step forward as a leader, which of these soft skills do you believe are most important for accounting and finance professionals, and why might that be?

Laura: (03:51)
Well, if you research around there's many resources out there from many folks that are much smarter than I am that'll tell you what's most important and why and what the right order is, et cetera. For me, in my experience, I think the three most important soft skills are interpersonal skills, communication and adaptability. So for interpersonal skills that's kind of a broad category, but it's a very important one. When I say interpersonal skills, I really mean the ability to build and maintain relationships and develop rapport with business partners and colleagues. Having good interpersonal skills is incredibly important when you're building a team, you need to have a strong foundation of trust and accountability for accountants and finance professionals this is invaluable. We should strive to be seen as an authentic partner for the organization and a person on whom people can rely upon and trust. Without that, we're just a bunch of number crunchers. Another important skill I think is communication. I think many people know there's many types of communication. There's verbal, written, and nonverbal like body language, facial expression, et cetera. But I think the one piece of communication that people really miss is listening. When people are listening to others, this is a fairly obvious statement, but you actually hear what people are saying and what they mean. Without strong listening skills, communication is really just a one-way street and probably not very effective. The better finance professionals are at listening, the better we are business partners because we're that much closer to the pulse of the business. And then finally I think adaptability is critical. If we've learned anything from the COVID pandemic, it's that we need to be flexible and adaptable. Now, traditionally accountants are not usually the most flexible people and I can say that because I am one. But, the ability to pivot and react to an ever-changing environment is critical. Our businesses are making fast and drastic and dramatic decisions practically every day. So we have to be able to switch gears and change direction as needed. In addition, I think it's important to be able to handle tasks and responsibilities that are a little outside the norm. By demonstrating a willingness to get involved even if you don't have all the expertise that's required. It's a changing world and I think accountants are a smart group of people who can contribute beyond the numbers if they're willing.

Mitch: (06:57)
You know, we at IMA, we have a leadership academy and we put out all these leadership development courses and we focus a lot on these softer skills. We just did one that focused on listening and listening skills, because it truly is so invaluable to just take a step back and make sure you're paying attention, you're listening and really absorbing the message that's being shared. So I can truly appreciate that and we've seen that become more and more important with our listeners here, obviously, but, with the organization as a whole in our members. With these skills, these skills that you identified as being most important, I guess my next question for you is when are they really most necessary or required? You referenced a lot about being a business partner, demonstrating these skills, at what career stage do you typically recognize somebody or maybe whether they do or they don't possess these softer skills?

Laura: (07:51)
Well in reality, these skills are really necessary from day one of your career. Most people in entry-level accounting roles have the necessary technical skills to do their job as required, or at least they have the requisite education beneath them on which they can build. And in addition, accountants will do continuing education classes or sit for an exam that gives them some credentials that are important down the line. And that is all fine and good and definitely necessary, but the fact of the matter is most accountants don't possess these softer skills right out of the gate and that's unfortunate. As I said earlier, good interpersonal skills are important for accountants and although it's all relative, they’re important at all stages of your career. So what I mean is an entry-level accountant may not be leading a team of 30 professionals right away, but it's still important for that person to build relationships across the organization and likely that's what their peers. At that early stage, peer relationships are incredibly important in building up that trust and accountability that we talked about earlier. The same is true for communication skills and an entry-level accountant may not be presenting a set of financials or a budget to the board in a three hour long presentation with multiple parties involved, but the person is still emailing with others on a regular basis and that's a form of communication, or they're on zoom calls, like we all are these days, on a regular basis and that's a form of communication. So the stakes may be slightly lower on a zoom call than in the board room, but being an effective and quality communicator is equally important in both scenarios. The fact of the matter is, is that as your career progresses, these soft skills become more and more important. At a certain point everyone is good at the technical side, everyone is a smart accountant, but what differentiates you from your colleagues is really your ability to navigate the softer side. If you're both cost accounting experts, but one person has great leadership skills and problem-solving skills, and they're a little more honed than the others, well that person's going to shine a little brighter. So I think that accountants really should strive to develop and possess these skills as soon as possible. I think, a good manager can recognize pretty early on when someone is adept at certain skills or on the flip side, maybe when someone is lacking in a particular area. As a manager, if you have the right critical eye, you can pick up on some of these subtleties fairly easily, because situations present themselves all the time. You also know which of your team members is coachable or not. So even though someone may be lacking a soft skill that you, the manager, think is critical, you should be able to tell if they're coachable in that particular area or not.

Mitch: (11:11)
Now from a manager perspective, I suppose, or, you know, you were mentioning, maybe you're overseeing a number of professionals, but equally so maybe you are somebody who's just looking to work their way up and develop these skills. To get this message, the importance of these softer skills across your team, across the organization. How do you recommend going about developing them? What are some resources or best practices, that you're aware of? What do you typically suggest to people who are interested or you believe need to develop these softer skills?

Laura: (11:45)
Well first and foremost, I think you have to take an active interest in your own development. You should ask for feedback from your manager, from your peers, from your team, from your business partners, anyone who knows you well and is willing to give you feedback. You need to listen to that feedback with an open mind as you'll likely learn how you're perceived in some areas that you can use development. The next step in my mind would be to seek out appropriate training for those needs that you've learned about or identified. There's numerous resources out there that provide support and education in all aspects of soft skill development, whether it's leadership training or presentation skills, you know, going back to our communication comments from earlier. The world is ripe with possibilities and in advancing your skills, so some external training I think would be incredibly helpful. In addition, I personally have found that having a mentor or a role model has been incredibly helpful in my career. If you seek out someone or several someones that you admire and aspire to be like, if you pay careful attention to how they conduct themselves in various situations, that can be incredibly helpful. And then I think the last thing sort of relates to the first one, in taking an active interest, is that you should ask for more opportunities at your place of work. You should ask to participate in a presentation to senior members of the business, or ask to run a presentation. Ask to manage a team so you can develop some of those leadership skills. You should volunteer for an assignment that no one else wants to be part of to demonstrate some of the problem-solving skills. Basically I think, you know, it's on you to take some ownership of your own development, whether it's asking for the feedback or seeking out the training or looking for the mentor or asking for opportunities at work. I think there's a lot of opportunities at your fingertips and you need to go after them.

Closing: (14:00)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.

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