The 9 Key Skills Needed to Become an Accountant

Businessman sitting at desk and using calculator

Choosing to become an accountant is a wise career move; the work is steady, there are plenty of opportunities for career progression and it’s a job that you can do anywhere in the world. But not everybody is cut out for this complex and seemingly ‘dull’ profession; indeed, it takes a certain set of professional skills in order to be considered suitable.

If you’re interested in this important and multifaceted industry, these are the key skills that are needed for success…

1. Numerical skills

Although the days of recording transactions and calculations via pen and paper are now something of an antiquity, there’s no getting away from it: if you want to work in accounting, then you need to be good with numbers.

This is because even though a lot of things may have changed, mathematics still forms the entire basis of the profession. You need to understand the basic principles of what has been worked out and why, as well as be able to spot where mistakes might have been made due to inputting errors.

You don’t necessarily need to hold a degree in maths or finance, but most companies stipulate that you should be educated to at least GCSE/O Level standard. If you don’t meet these requirements, then consider taking a night class to get yourself up to speed.

2. Time management skills

Accountants need to be organised. Often, they are working for several clients or on multiple internal projects, and as a result they need to be on top of their game every single day. To make matters worse, due to the project-based nature of the job, there are also a lot of deadlines to take into consideration; therefore, their time management skills need to be top drawer as well.

On top of this, the hours you commit to a particular project or client will be closely monitored and scrutinised. This is why it’s vitally important that you complete work in the allotted timeframe.

3. Communication skills

Aside from being the sole caretaker of a desert island, there is no job in the world where communication skills are not essential – and accounting is no different. Whether sitting in meetings or briefs with clients, managers or external partners, you need to be able to work with other professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries and maintain those levels of communication as each individual project progresses.

You need to be able to communicate your analyses and report findings, too. If you’ve discovered a technical flaw in someone’s financial model, for instance, then you need to be able to explain what the issue is, why it’s a problem and offer a solution of how to amend it.

4. Analytical skills

Given the rise of big data and the increased availability of information, the ability to analyse effectively has become more and more practical in recent years. It’s not enough to tell a client how much money they have in their account anymore, but to analyse the various industry trends and seasonal factors that affect their profit margins, too.

This ability to spot patterns, visualise findings and offer actionable advice based on your analysis is a key skill for the modern accountant, with many firms investing heavily in training programmes to get their personnel up to speed.

5. Excel skills

Despite companies experimenting with a wide array of software tools, Excel continues to remain as the bread and butter of accounting, due mainly to its flexible and robust nature and ease of use.

On the flipside, Excel has come a long way since being a simple data entry system. The potential of the software is almost limitless, with the ability to create thousands of unique formulas and perform countless tasks tailored to the user’s needs. Therefore, you should learn as much as you can about its capabilities.

There’s no excuse, either: there are numerous books and websites that can improve and enhance your abilities, so be sure to invest some time in your Excel development.

6. Commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is another skill that is applicable to nearly every industry, but especially in accounting. Every single business in every single sector will require the services of a qualified accountant, after all.

Therefore, it’s important to understand not just how the professional services sector operates but also that of your clients’. Most large firms mitigate this by encouraging their staff to specialise and develop experience in a particular field, so if you express an interest in energy, for example, then most of the projects you will be assigned will be for oil and gas companies.

Ensure that you keep abreast of trends and developments within your assigned field and, of course, build as many connections and contacts as you possibly can. Many accountants go on to work full-time for individual clients, so there could potentially be a lucrative reward for your commitment.

7. Programming skills

As mentioned earlier, data visualisation and pattern spotting are skills that accountants need to possess; knowing how to actually extract and analyse given data is a large part of this.

Therefore, you would need to demonstrate a basic level of programming knowledge, particularly in database-centric languages such as Structured Query Language (SQL) and Python, in order to tackle large amounts of numbers and figures.

Many companies provide internal training to develop and hone these skills, but you can actually learn the basics of programming yourself. In the modern job market, the ability to code is becoming increasingly important, so it will certainly be worth your time.

8. Attention to detail skills

Accountants are often accused of being bookish and dull, but their dedication to their work is essential. When dealing with huge amounts of numbers every day, it can be very easy to slip up and make a small mistake.

The problem is that minor mistakes can sometimes lead to major financial headaches – especially when a misplaced decimal point ends up costing a company millions. This is why attention to detail is so important, with numbers run and rerun and error checks put in place to raise the alarm when something might be wrong.

9. Leadership skills

Finally, modern accountants need to be leaders, too. Whether you’re working externally for a client, as the subject matter expert within a company or in a small project team at a large accounting firm, at some point you’re going to need to step up and make decisions.

Often, these calls can have serious repercussions, too. People might lose their jobs as a result of your findings or you might be confronted with ethical issues when examining someone’s books. This is when you need to be confident in your abilities and your decision making, and satisfy yourself that you’re making the right call.

If you believe you possess the skills on this list, then maybe a career in accounting is for you. Luckily, there are many entry routes into the profession, regardless of what’s on your CV or résumé.

For instance, if you hold the necessary qualifications, such as the ACA or AAT in the UK, then you can apply directly for an entry-level role. Alternatively, many of the larger firms offer graduate schemes and even apprenticeship and/or school leaver programmes, where they will pay for you to sit your exams while you work.

What do you think? Is a career in accounting a wise choice? Let us know in the comments section below…