People Skills Trump Number Skills

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We've long written that interpersonal skills are vital to both getting hired and being a strong performer in one's job. But a recent survey suggests that for finance department job-seekers at least, the importance hiring managers attach to people skills has soared in the past five years.

Thirty-one percent of U.S. chief financial officers polled by Accountemps said they'd use "personality or people skills" as a tie-breaker between similarly qualified candidates. When the same question was asked five years ago, a mere 1 percent of respondents called people skills a deciding factor.

The lesson for job-seekers: use the employment interview to establish rapport with hiring managers. "The conversation should be natural, and applicants should try to find common ground with the employer," says Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps and author of Job Hunting For Dummies. "It's also valuable for job seekers to describe business situations where they were recognized for their teamwork or for inspiring others to perform at a high level."

Other Tie-Break Factors

Software/technology knowledge ranked second, cited by 27 percent of respondents in this year's survey, compared with 33 percent in 2004.

Industry-specific experience - the dominant tie-breaker five years ago when 41 percent of respondents cited it - shrank to 20 percent this time around.

Possession of a certification or advanced degree (named by 11 percent of respondents this year versus 15 percent in 2004), multilingual skills and international experience (a combined 8 percent this year versus 10 percent in 2004) round out the list of assets CFOs consider most valuable when choosing between similarly qualified candidates.

Why the Big Shift?

It's interesting to ponder what changed in the past five years to make interpersonal skills loom so much larger. While Messmer notes that accountants "must be able to present financial information to nonfinancial audiences, make strategic recommendations and work with colleagues from diverse departments," that was no less true in 2004 than today.

It may be that the 2004 results were colored by Sarbanes-Oxley coming into effect two years earlier. Possibly, the need to bulk up accounting and internal audit functions at that time inclined more CFOs to emphasize industry experience and technical knowledge over teamwork skills for new hires.

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