Accountants analyze and prepare financial records for organizations and individual clients. However, in-demand skills for accountants vary by specific job title. For example, Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) specialize in tax forms, balance statements, and other forms of financial documentation that their clients must legally disclose. This role requires precision, analytical skills, and strong ethics.
Other types of accountants benefit from these skills, along with additional knowledge related to their professional niche. Management accountants, for example, must have a firm understanding of budgeting and corporate finance, while government accountants should understand the finer points of federal, state, and local regulations for taxation and financial reporting.
Regardless of their specific profession, all accountants must examine and interpret complex financial data and then communicate their findings to clients in a clear and concise manner. The role also requires strong interpersonal skills -- many accountants work on teams and meet with clients on a regular basis.
Wondering what it takes to become an accountant? We sought advice from three accounting experts to identify some of the top skills professionals in this field need to succeed.
Top Accounting Skills for Success
Accounting work requires a meticulous, detail-oriented eye. Accountants must sift through hefty financial records to ensure every detail is accurate and current. Otherwise, their analysis may yield inconsistent results. According to Bob Prather -- the general manager of accounting and finance recruiting for Lucas Group -- the best accountants can look at an analysis report and quickly determine whether or not the facts and figures compute. "Good accountants are able to pull the analysis together," he says. "Great accountants look at the output and judge whether it is reasonable, so as not to waste everyone's time on an analysis that makes no sense when you take a step back and look at it from a common sense standpoint."
Accountants must be highly organized in order to juggle multiple clients, meet deadlines, and follow proper reporting guidelines. Each assignment entails a significant amount of documentation, and disorganized accountants will struggle to keep track of important paperwork. "The best way to stay on top of deadlines is by getting organized," says Logan Allec, who works as a CPA. However, he explains that prospective accountants should hone their organizational skills prior to entering the profession. "Landing an accounting gig won't magically make you more organized," Allec says. "If you want to be an organizational master when embarking on your accounting career, you'll need to start working on organizing your life and responsibilities now."
Accountants constantly encounter errors, discrepancies, and inaccuracies -- if not detected and addressed, these mistakes can have serious ramifications for employers and clients. In order to solve these complex problems, accountants must approach situations critically by considering all variables and potential risks. CPA Kyle Bryant notes that critical thinking is an "invaluable skill" in the accounting profession. "Much of the day-to-day accounting can be fairly cut and dry," he says. "But the accountants that can think through financial strategy and plan for the future are the ones that become viewed as true assets by their business partners."
In addition to analyzing and optimizing financial records, accountants must explain their findings to colleagues and clients, many of whom do not have a strong understanding of complex financial concepts. For this reason, accountants essentially serve as data interpreters. Prather says strong communication skills can strengthen these interactions. "One of the most important skills the best accountants possess is the ability to transform numbers, charts, and tables into a story the average person can understand," he says. "Top accountants use their communication skills to simplify the vast amount of data at their disposal. This helps weed out the unnecessary details that make a presentation less accessible."
Like the frameworks guiding taxes and financial reporting, the accounting profession constantly changes and evolves. Accountants should always be prepared to adapt to changing standards and protocols, as well as technological advances, workplace dynamics, and new platforms for client interaction. According to Bryant, change is particularly common in the public accounting profession. "New clients come on board regularly and new projects spring up left and right," he says. "Rules and laws change at, what can seem like, a dizzying pace. Being able to adapt and be comfortable with change is incredibly important."
Many accountants work on multiple projects at once. The ability to multitask and effectively manage one's time ensures accountants can meet deadlines and provide satisfactory results for their clients. Bryant agrees that time management is essential for successful accounting careers. "Working on different projects and being able to manage deadlines is a trait that separates passable accountants from their top-shelf peers," he says. Bryant adds that this attribute is particularly valuable during tax season, when many accountants are overloaded with clients and bound to inflexible deadlines.
According to Prather, accountants should have extensive knowledge about financial statements and how they work. Technical expertise in specific areas of accounting can shed light on different topics. For example, ledger skills are key for understanding credits and debits, while standard reconciliation skills help accountants differentiate between ledgers and trial balances. Furthermore, Prather urges accountants to sharpen their understanding of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), Securities and Exchanges Commission reporting, and initial public offerings. He adds that most prominent accounting firms offer skills training in different competency areas.
Today's accountants rely on a variety of software programs to complete different tasks. Spreadsheets are particularly common, and Allec urges prospective accountants to become familiar with Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet platforms. "No matter what kind of accounting you're going to pursue," Allec says, "spreadsheets will be an intimate part of your everyday life, and your ability to prepare them efficiently and accurately will set you apart from other new hires." Additionally, he encourages accounting students to take a Microsoft Excel course and create spreadsheets in their spare time to track personal budgeting or investments.
Contrary to the stereotype of accountants working alone at a desk, many accounting professionals work on teams. By participating in team projects and collaborating with colleagues, accountants can generate positive results for their organization and pave the way for valuable advancement opportunities. "Being a team player and learning from others is a must in the accounting world," Bryant says. "Bouncing ideas off one another and thinking through ideas in a collaborative environment help provide the best outcomes possible and ensure every option possible has been considered."
Despite the numbers-driven nature of accounting work, Allec says most accountants devote a substantial amount of time to writing. These include emails and other correspondence for non-accounting professionals, in which accountants must explain complicated ideas and concepts in layman's terms. Additionally, they draft memos that take positions on financial statements or tax returns, and they write instructions and guidelines for improving on-the-job efficiency for team members. "As an accountant, you will likely have many writing tasks to do on a daily basis," Allec says. "Most accountants do more writing than the general public probably thinks, so it may be worth your while to brush up on your writing skills before starting your accounting career."
About the Experts
Bob Prather is the general manager of the accounting and finance recruiting practice for Lucas Group, which Forbes recently named one of the top 10 recruiting firms in the nation. Not only does Prather hold a BBA and master of accountancy, but he also leads a nationwide team of nearly 100 recruiters who place top talent throughout the industry. He combines his knowledge of the A&F job market from a recruiting standpoint with his extensive experience working in financial roles for numerous Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies.
Logan Allec is a CPA who holds a master's degree in taxation from the University of Southern California. Currently self-employed, he has previously worked for Big 4 and local firms. Allec is routinely quoted as a tax expert in publications such as USA Today, HuffPost, U.S. News & World Report, CNBC, and others. He also owns the financial website Money Done Right, where he helps people lead happier lives by giving them actionable ideas on building, growing, and maintaining wealth.
Kyle Bryant is a founding partner at Market Street Partners, PLLC -- a multi-market CPA firm headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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