Features | From Pivot Magazine

Can accountants learn “emotional intelligence”?

Soft skills are key to keeping clients happy. So why aren’t CPAs learning them?

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illustration of different 'emojis' balanced across two sidesEmotional intelligence was once downplayed in business fields, but now big firms actually have courses on it (Illustration by Dan Parsons)

Tax season always makes me edgy. My returns aren’t particularly complex, but my husband and I always procrastinate until two weeks before the deadline to book an appointment with our accountant. I was extra tense this year, thanks to an error I’d made in 2018: on deadline day, I hit the wrong button and sent my payment to instalments instead of taxes owing. At that point, the only solution was to pay twice. I knew that I’d have to confess my ignorance to our CPA, hoping he could sort it out.

He did, in the kindest way. Without a hint of condescension, he reassured me he could apply last year’s overpayment to this year’s bill. He then gracefully shifted the conversation away from my error and asked us about our lives outside of work. He also offered my husband some financial planning advice: think about incorporating for substantial tax savings next year. He looked relaxed, not at all like an accountant staring into an abyss of last-minute tax filings

My accountant’s attentive customer service, empathy and grace under pressure were all indicators of high-level emotional intelligence (EI), a term coined in 1990 by American psychology professors Peter Salovey and John Mayer. They defined EI as the ability to express and regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and to use our feelings to motivate us and achieve goals.

Initially, the importance of emotional intelligence was downplayed in number-heavy business fields such as accounting, where technical skills reign supreme. Peggy Coady, an FCPA and associate professor of accounting at Memorial University, remembers all manner of professional development in the 1990s when she articled and worked at Deloitte. “I don’t ever remember this topic being discussed,” she says. “But now the big firms actually have courses for their managers on emotional intelligence.” 

Even at a time when artificial intelligence, data analytics and other innovations are seen as the keys to the future, businesses aren’t losing sight of EI. It’s regarded as especially indispensable for corporate leaders who manage teams and set the strategic course for large organizations.

Yet too often, employers find these soft skills lacking among business school graduates. A 2018 Business Council of Canada survey of 95 private-sector employers found that, while new hires typically have strong technical skills, they lack the “human skills” necessary to build relationships and work with others. 

So much of today’s work is done in teams, says Tashia Batstone, CPA Canada’s senior vice-president of external relations and business development. To perform well in a group entails understanding different perspectives, she adds. “You need awareness of what you are saying and how what you are saying impacts others.”

A survey of private-sector employers found that new hires lack necessary “human skills”

According to a 2017 study of the accounting profession in Atlantic Canada, new graduates recognize their skill set is incomplete, and they complain about the lack of instruction in some key soft skills. The study, co-authored by Coady, found that both accounting grads and employers agree university business programs should put greater emphasis on service—in other words, anticipating, recognizing and meeting client needs—as well as on oral and written communication skills, which are key to any successful client interaction. In fact, the respondents identified service as the biggest EI instructional gap in universities.

That finding mirrors Coady’s own experience as a young accountant. “One of the reasons I left Deloitte, which I loved very much, was that I reached a point where I had to start bringing in clients,” she says. “And that thought terrified me.” Some instruction in that area in university would have helped, she says.

But is it even possible to teach EI, which seems so innate? “The verdict is definitely out on whether these skills can be taught,” says Coady. Business schools find teaching human skills challenging, in part because the outcomes are difficult to measure, according to a 2018 Conference Board of Canada report. Instruction and role play can help students learn to read body language and better serve clients. Learning how to be empathetic is more difficult, but even introducing the concept into university courses helps raise awareness, says Coady. 

“The CPA competency map has always included enabling soft skills, including professionalism, communication, leadership and teamwork,” says Batstone. “We continue to review and revise the competency map to ensure new CPAs have both the technical skills and the enabling competencies needed to be outstanding business professionals.” The 2019 map, out later this year, will include new competencies that employers have identified as essential for the professional accountant, including innovation, resiliency and agility—qualities necessary for people to adapt to rapid rates of change. “All of these are underpinned by emotional intelligence,” Batstone says. 

The Conference Board report concludes business schools need to do more than churn out students with solid technical chops. Schools must now also prepare them for the “urgent social and emotional demands of the future of work.” Says Batstone, “I would say the pace of change now has accelerated the need for EI even more.”

EI is essential for success, both for corporate leaders managing complex workforces and CPAs dealing with small tax problems like mine. My accountant’s EI—his empathy, calm demeanour and ability to set aside his own stress at his busiest time of year—relieved my tension. And it earned him a loyal client for life.