What is the Return on Investment (ROI) for Soft Skills Training?

Partners in accounting firms, controllers, and CFOs that I have spoken with over the years about soft skills training have responded by asking, “What’s the ROI?” I know that they are looking for a quantitative percentage but I tend to respond by saying, “What is your ROI without providing your staff those essential business skills?”

Now that I think about it, the term “soft skills” may actually be part of the challenge. What we’re really talking about is what I just referred to … essential business skills. Essential business skills are the ability to negotiate, to collaborate, to speak up and speak articulately at meetings, to manage staff, to engage in meaningful discussions with clients, to network at events and bring in new clients. You get the idea. There’s nothing really “soft” about any of those skills. I think we can all agree that those skills are essential to any firm or business!

Over the years, accounting firms and corporate accounting departments hire accounting graduates and spend a vast majority of their training dollars on technical training and little, if any, on essential business skills.  However, when they are promoted into a management position (at about five years of “technical experience”), their role changes.  They are now required to manage people, grow business, and take leadership roles with little or no training.  This is a recipe for disaster because the learning curve is so steep, and in today’s business environment you want your people ready to hit the ground running, in order to keep your competitive edge.

This was recently outlined in the Maryland Association of CPAs blog entitled “What Got You Here , Won’t Get You There”.  Tom Hood, CEO of the MACPA provides eight key takeaways on how business fundamentals are changing.  Four of these key takeaways resonate highly with me and they are:

  1. The number 1 issue (and opportunity) is talent development. People are the number 1 competitive advantage. Period.
  2. Generational issues are real and need to be addressed.
  3. Learning has changed in both what people need in new skills (yes, those “soft skills”) and how learning is happening.
  4. Collaboration and communication are the most essential skills.

Why are accounting firms, controllers, CFOs, etc. willing to talk about the need for this type of training but are reluctant to provide the training? Is it the desire for a quantifiable ROI? Maybe this will help in your decision-making.

The AICPA’s white paper entitled The Evolution of CPA Firm Learning provides us with some very interesting information. For example, the article states that, “public accountants are in the “people business” requiring practitioners to develop leadership and communication skills and perfect their ability to connect with people, build trust, uncover issues and solve problems. The skills required to practice effectively are no small order. To make a difference for their clients and contribute to their firm, CPAs must make a life-long commitment to learning.” (the passage was bolded in the white paper).  The article goes on to say, “that those organizations that invest in leadership development programs…are seven times more effective at delivering improved business and talent results than organizations with less sophisticated leadership development functions.”

Did you catch that? Organizations that invest in leadership development programs are “seven times” more effective at delivering improved business and talent results. If that’s not ROI, I don’t know what is.

To sum up my thoughts, I turn to the AICPA 2025 Horizons Report that states, “extend traditional technical education to include interpersonal skills. Strong technical accounting knowledge will continue to be a foundational requirement but it alone will not be sufficient. CPAs must also develop problem-solving, communications, leadership, and other interpersonal skills.”

The time is now to provide your staff with essential business skills. What are you waiting for?