3 surprising qualities and skills of successful accountants

There are certain non-negotiable hard and soft skills that every accountant must have. Proficiency with numbers and Excel, organizational capabilities, accuracy, integrity, and time management are the first few that come to mind.

Beyond these basics, there are some surprising characteristics that differentiate good accountants from great ones. These skills and qualities might not be at the top of your list, but they will certainly help take your accounting career to the next level. 

For those who want to push the industry forward and change the future of the profession, here are the top three surprising skills of successful accountants.

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Top accountant qualities and skills

Keep in mind that these skills are in addition to the hard skills necessary for the job. None of them replace the certifications or experience needed for the role. However, they’re something to take into account for career development that will enhance your services. 

Whether you are working internally or externally for a company, as a consultant, in an advisory role, or for an accounting firm, these qualities will come in handy. And the best part is that they’re learned; you can develop and grow these skills throughout your career.

1. Put financial data into a business context

Align finance to the business, and help them understand what that means for business decisions.

Alastair Barlow, flinder CEO & Co-founder

Broadly put, businesses rely on accountants to know (and prove) where their money goes. This is also a legal requirement, of course. But in time the reconciliation and bookkeeping elements of this will be mostly or completely automated

Top accountants and accounting firms can get ahead of this shrinking scope of work by growing it elsewhere. 

Broaden your horizons. It’s not enough to “stick to the books.” You should be able to point to a company’s key growth levers, or at least ask the right questions to find them. And then offer strategic advice to propel the company forward. This requires a full understanding of the business.

Successful accountants go beyond “classic” accounting to provide a finance function as a service. This is particularly common for accountants serving modern tech and software companies, which often have simple financial structures and straightforward books. They have no need for full time accounting support, but they often do need other financial help.

As cloud accounting becomes more accessible, and the appetite to pay external accountants to process payments decreases, these services will become hugely valuable. 

Advisory services can include:

  • Management accounting:delivering accounting data for wider company direction and growth. 

  • CFO-as-a-service: everything from establishing internal processes, to fundraising, to building the finance team.

  • Tools advice:helping portfolio companies choose the right finance software, including but not limited to accounting tools. 

  • Working capital management: becoming a cash flow expert.

  • Startup planning: everything from business structure to building a growth strategy.

  • Due diligence: helping businesses prepare for mergers, acquisitions, fundraising, and audit.

And of course a long list of other activities. Accountants should work on developing their business acumen or entrepreneurial skills. This allows for the following positive outcomes:

  • To better see the big picture and understand the business

  • Deepen business knowledge and relate to the entrepreneurs who turn to you for help 

  • Diversify skills, making your services more valuable

  • Increase your chances of a long, successful, and interesting career

Tomorrow’s leading firms and accountants will successfully blur the lines between accounting practice and advisory services. You will work hand-in-hand with clients, so you should strengthen your people skills. This leads us to the next accountant quality.

2. Relate to clients with empathy and humanity

In accountancy, the evolution will really be driven by us being more human-focused and listening to our clients more.

Dave Sellick, Sidgrove CEO & Co-founder

Think accountants only need to know numbers? Think again! People skills are just as important.

In whichever capacity they work (internal, external, advisory, etc.), accountants must stay connected to their colleagues and clients. 

Accounting is a surprisingly collaborative process. And if client-facing, it becomes even more so. Because providing a service is at the heart of what they do, accountants should have a people-first attitude.

This new way of working, collaborative accounting, facilitates a close relationship between accountants and stakeholders. Be prepared to work closely with different parties, and understand that your service provides immense value for businesses. 

The key takeaway is that you need to become more flexible and tailor services that suit the client’s needs. 

Some firms aim to exist mainly at the end of the line, taking clients’ financial data and storing it safely for later. Clients may like this dynamic, because you’re a low-touch partner who stays out of the way.

But an invisible partner can easily be replaced by another invisible partner. Another firm offers cheaper services or comes recommended by a board member, and you’re no longer required.

If you’re able to form these deeper bonds with clients, it’s because you actually serve them better. You provide more value and help them build the businesses they’ve dreamed of. 

An accountant's true value isn’t in their ability to manipulate spreadsheets or work Xero. They remove problems, taking technical challenges off their clients’ hands. And this value only increases the more problems you solve. Invest in quality relationships with clients and stakeholders, and it will pay off.

3. Embrace technology and push the profession forward

Technology helps build better accuracy, better control, and better efficiency.

Johan van der Poel, Infina CEO & Co-founder

The top accounting firms across America and Europe expect their employees to be techies, at least, to some degree. To move the industry forward, successful accountants must embrace technology, or at least be open to and aware of what’s ahead.

Consider the evolution of the accounting profession: it used to be entirely done on paper, recorded in ledgers. The industry experienced a seismic shift with the advent of computers: they could store this information and use software that facilitated (and automated) accounting tasks. Excel became the go-to program for accountants. 

Then, accounting moved into the cloud, where it resides today. Xero and Quickbooks are just two examples of cloud accounting software that enable finance teams to work collaboratively on the same documents, saving time and avoiding costly mistakes. There's also accounting project management software to manage tasks as well as finance documentation, records, and reporting.

Along the way, accountants had to adapt to these new technologies. Those who didn’t were left in the dust, putting their companies at a competitive disadvantage. Accountants who weren’t forward thinkers, who refused to adapt, also put themselves at a disadvantage.     

So what’s next? Maybe the future of accounting lies in AI or machine learning, or other technology altogether. What’s certain, however, is that accountants must remain flexible and open to changes in the profession. Successful accountants are forward thinkers who adapt to new technologies. They should be ready for whatever technology enhances, or replaces, the cloud.

Clients will always need you to help set up processes and derive value from their financial data. Your job is to keep up with technology and use it to its full potential.

It’s key to understand that technology is important, but you also need the right resource and the right person to be able use it properly, and to embed it properly, and to serve your clients better with it. There are still quite a few people who think that technology is a solution to a problem, but I think it’s part of a journey.

Nathan Keeley, Head of Cloud Accounting at Carpenter Box

Imagine still recording financial transactions in the company ledger, or even using an abacus. It just simply doesn’t fit with the way accountants work today. Finance functions need tools that speed up the accounting process, and the most successful accountants adapt to new methods and technologies.

A final word on top accountant qualities

Depending on the type of career you want, adopting some or all of these qualities will jumpstart your development. 

Whether you’re ready or not, the accounting profession will evolve. Start diversifying your skills and learn the business side of things to offer more value. Focus on the client and your stakeholders, and learn how to collaborate effectively. Finally, adapt to new ways of working that include updated tools and technologies so you can be prepared for what’s ahead.

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