The Expertise Paradox: The Best Technicians Don’t Win

By Posted in - Public Blog on August 18th, 2014 11 Comments

The Expertise Paradox

I’ve delivered keynote presentations at a lot of accounting conferences over the years. And the conference organisers all seem to share a common
frustration.

They bring in speakers specifically to address accountants’ non-technical skills and help them round out their business skills, but the accountants keep flocking to the technical sessions on tax, compliance and legislative issues.

It’s as if the accountants think all they need to succeed in public practice is up-to-date technical knowledge.

Unfortunately for them, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Expertise Paradox:


Accountants focus their professional development training on their technical skills. But it’s their non-technical ‘soft skills’ that differentiate
them, and enable them to add the most value to their clients.

As I stated in The Numbers Paradox, “tax and accounting skills are obviously at the basic core of the profession, [yet] they are not differentiating skills. They are not what makes a great accountant”.

I can still remember what Mandy Holloway said on stage during a conference we were each speaking at: “It’s strange that non-technical skills are often called ‘soft skills’, because mastering them is really, really hard!”

I do love a good paradox.

To clarify, ‘soft skills’ are skills such as leadership and communication, as well as interpersonal skills such as listening, building empathy, establishing rapport, building trust, delegating, effectively providing feedback, selling, advising, running meetings, and so on.

Due to the implied aspersion in the phrase ‘soft skills’, some professional bodies avoid it and call them ‘non-technical skills’ instead.

But that doesn’t work either.

Stating what these skills are not doesn’t clarify what they really are: differentiating skills for success. These skills are catalysts for creating positive change in relationships, business, and life.

Emphasising what they’re not with the ‘non-’ prefix is like calling it, “all the other stuff”. That’s imprecise. And not very useful.

The accounting profession needs to create a more useful term than ‘non-technical skills’. Something that reflects their true importance.

We could call them ‘people skills’, but that doesn’t encompass the full spectrum. Many of these essential skills aren’t so much interpersonal skills as intrapersonal. They relate to personal effectiveness. The stuff that goes on inside your own head. How focused you are. How
optimistic. How motivated. How organised. How effective you are at decision making, strategy and execution. We could call them ‘self-development skills’, but for many that term is tinged with a little ‘rah rah’ flakiness.

Even if we all decided to call them interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (a clunky mouthful), it fails to include the important one-to-many communication skills of writing, speaking, presenting and marketing. These skills let you educate and influence others in a leveraged way, and are massive catalysts for change and business success. They’re macropersonal skills. (Yes, I just coined that word.)

Clearly interpersonal, intrapersonal and macropersonal skills will never fly as a descriptor. So I suggest we call them effectiveness skills:

  • Effectiveness in relationships one-on-one
  • Effective communication one-to-many
  • Effectiveness with yourself.

As the conference session numbers confirm again and again, most accountants still view technical skills as the most important skillset, and see non-technical skills as ‘optional extras’.

This attitude is endemic in the accounting profession. But for the accounting profession to reach its potential for delivering value to clients and to society, this attitude has got to change.

Am I saying non-technical skills are more important than technical skills?

No, I’m not.

Apart from being naïve, we’d suffer from what Collins and Porras termed ‘ the Tyranny of the OR’, which is a dichotomous ‘either/or’ way of thinking. That’s a restrictive way to think. (And pretty stupid if you ask me.)

Technical and non-technical skills both play an important part in evolving to True Advisor status.

The innovative minority of accounting firms don’t just understand this concept, they embrace it. They hire candidates as much on their effectiveness skills as they do their technical skills.

But this is rare—around 3% of firms according to our estimates.

Part of our mission at PARADOX is to change this. To help attract young people to the accounting profession who are great at communication, not just calculation. (We’ll talk about this more in future posts.)

Developing both your own and your team’s effectiveness skills makes commercial sense because of the hard-to-swallow reality that:

The best technicians don’t win.

The best communicators win.

Can your clients judge how technically correct your work is? Do they know how technically proficient and up-to-date you are? No, they can’t. And yet accountants still spend 95% of their professional development time on technical proficiency.

That’s The Expertise Paradox in action.

When you visit your dentist, you can’t judge how technically proficient your dentist is, and whether they’re working to the required standards and levels they were taught at university. But you can judge how well they communicated with you. How he or she made you feel. How well
they set your expectations about what they were about to do and what the cost will be. Their ‘bedside manner’, so to speak. You can also judge how well you were treated by their receptionist and dental nurse.

Notice how none of these experiences relate to the technical skills of the dentist or their staff?

The same applies to you as an accountant. Your clients can’t judge your technical proficiency. Sure, if they get a large and unexpected tax bill or penalty you never anticipated or told them about, they can readily assess incompetence. But disasters aside, they simply have no idea how technically proficient you are.

The professional bodies are doing their best to help accountants develop their effectiveness. They’re now often delivering ‘non-technical’ topics as plenary (compulsory) sessions in conferences. As an example, I’m currently delivering opening and closing keynote presentations in a national Practice
Forum tour for The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and New Zealand.

By scheduling these topics as plenary sessions, they remove the temptation for the typical compliance-focused accountant to skip out to the technical session next door.

So, what will you do about this, both personally and as part of recruiting and developing your team? Does your firm place just as much emphasis on professional development in these effectiveness areas as you do on technical expertise? How do you communicate that to your team? What does that commitment actually look like?

If the commitment is just in your head, then it’s nothing more than an idea. There’s no execution.

I suggest you alternate your firm’s professional development sessions equally between technical sessions and effectiveness sessions. Make it obvious to your team. Show two distinct development streams in your firm’s training calendar. Encourage your team to develop effectiveness skills. Invest in their development.

If you don’t, all the talk about “being proactive” as accountants will remain an aspirational motherhood statement. It feels good, but means nothing.

Calling yourself or badging yourself as ‘proactive’ does not make you proactive.

Only action does.

And surveys show only one in ten accountants is actually being proactive. Why is that? What’s the missing link between intent and execution?

We’ll explore that in our next post, The Proactivity Paradox.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s been your experience in developing your effectiveness skills and those of your team? What do you think are the best options and resources for developing effectiveness skills? Share your comments below.

End Note: This blog post will form the basis of a chapter in the upcoming book, The Practice Paradox – Reinventing The Accounting Profession by Michael ‘MC’ Carter, founder of PARADOX.

We’d love your feedback on this chapter. Enter a Comment below. (Tip: Commenting on blogs is good for your website’s own SEO and Google ranking, in case you needed an extra nudge!) We’ll reply to all Comments.

(11) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Christian Borkowski -

    August 19, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Spot on MC. I often make the comment to my team that your technical skills account for 20% of your success and your people skills account for the other 80%. Technical skills are the baseline, they are a given – every accountant should have them. People skills are the X factor. The most technically proficient accountant in Australia is sitting in some room not making eye contact with anyone. No-one knows who he is …………

    The best communicators win!

    • Michael Carter -

      August 20, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Great point Christian. I’d agree with your 20/80 split on the importance of the skills. Yep, Grinders (Analytical profiles) aren’t too keen on client meetings. They prefer looking at computer screens, task lists and spreadsheets. Nothing wrong with that, except when firm’s expect them to be “advisors”. Thanks for your comment! (P.S. Tip: Set up an account at Gravatar.com so your avatar/photo appears next to your comments. Helps with building “brand you” as an advisor.(

  • James Trethewie -

    August 19, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Great article! A lot of these X factor skills are just inherent and come as second nature to certain people – I think these traits should form the priority when hiring new staff…. Anyone can learn and be taught the technical.., but the other… well from both my experience and what i’ve heard from thought leaders on this topic (3 x my age and experience) sometimes it’s just impossible to ‘teach’ the soft skills if a person simply doesn’t get it!

    It’s 90% communication skills and 10% technical…. but clients expect you to know 100% of that 10% !!!

    • Michael Carter -

      August 20, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Great insights James. You’ve upped Christian’s 20/80 to 10/90 re the skills’ relative importance. I love your point about “clients expect you to know 100% of that 10%”! And hiring people with the natural advisory (people skills) tendencies is so important for the profession. I’d be interested in your comments on our post on this topic, The People Paradox.

  • John Mackrell -

    August 19, 2014 at 9:40 am

    hear hear!

  • Melissa Cheong -

    August 19, 2014 at 10:59 am

    A brilliant and insightful blog MC! I could not agree more (not bias at all!) It’s a constant uphill battle to reframe the preconcieved notions around the importances all this ‘soft skills’ stuff – or my favourtite comment from conference season this year – ‘happy clappy mumbo jumbo’. My only hope is that the industry catches on sooner rather than later!

    • Michael Carter -

      August 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks Melissa! I appreciate your comments. I can picture now the profile of the accountant who made the ‘happy clappy mumbo jumbo’ comment. Classic ‘Grinder’ thinking about soft (I mean, “effectiveness”!) skills. I’d love to see Chartered Accountants ANZ adopt “effectiveness” and drop “non-technical” as a term. Maybe table that with the Public Practice Advisory Committee? In the meantime, we’ll keep collaborating in the uphill battle together! It’s a battle worth fighting, to bring about the change.

  • Peter Marmara-Stewart -

    August 19, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    I love the truth to this post. Looking at what you are saying MC makes me glad that our key priority in our weekly learning is split between ‘effectiveness’ and technical proficiency.
    I believe that every bit of communication that you, your business and everyone in it has a massive impact on the relationship with your clients.

    Look forward to your future posts!!

    • Michael Carter -

      August 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      Thanks Peter. Your training and development approach is spot on — totally balanced. And no doubt you’re reaping the rewards of that. I’m impressed by the fact that you profiled all your team using our “What’s Your Profile?” tool and then plotted everyone’s profiles so you could assess the balance of social styles (personality types) across your firm. More firms need to take your lead with a strategic approach to recruiting and skills development. (You’ve gotta love the ‘happy clappy mumbo jumbo’ comment that Melissa shared!) Otherwise accountants will just stay stuck where they are now, fighting it out on the commodity end of the pricing spectrum, called “compliance”. Let’s create as many True Advisors as we can.

  • Gavin Bottrell -

    September 21, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Spot on, MC.

    Communication skills are critical when it comes to professional development.

    Clients seek our services as they can’t accurately determine if the figures are correct themselves. In my experience most appointments take less than 20% of total time actually discussing the figures in front of them and the rest of the time is spent on issues surrounding the figures such as business growth strategies and current or future obstacles.

    95% of professional development time on technical proficiency seems well and good in theory but it’s the personable skills that count when conveying the figures.

    We are providing a service that includes the delivery of results, It’s the communication skills that is going to keep the client most satisfied and returning at the end of the day.

    Regards,
    Gavin Bottrell

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