Help Rising Stars Build Soft Skills

Leap to Leadership Associations Now July/August 2018 Issue By: Tim Ebner

Young members with leadership potential need to build soft skills for the boardroom. Here’s how one association cultivates emotional intelligence in its up-and-coming leaders.

Tracy Allen has been working for several years to cultivate important “soft skills” to help her get ahead as a young leader serving on the board of the Oregon Society of Certified Public Accountants (OCSPA). One priority: learning to be “self-aware and in the moment.”

“It’s hard, because when you’re on a board there are a lot of strong personalities and opinions,” she says. But when faced with pushback or dissension, Allen says she’s not afraid to be heard. She’s learned how to adapt her case as needed to make the most compelling argument.

“Being self-aware and in the moment means that you can see a conversation going in another

direction,” she says. “You identify not only where you’re coming from, but also the mindset of the other person, who may be a bit overbearing.”

Allen credits the American Institute of CPAs Leadership Academy for helping her develop this kind of emotional intelligence and other qualities that she needs to succeed in her position on OSCPA’s board. Now, she’s paying that opportunity forward.

Last year, Allen started a similar program at OSCPA called LEAP: Leadership Excellence Advancing Professionals. It specifically focuses on growing the volunteer pipeline and helping members of underrepresented groups to get ahead by developing their soft skills.

Young leaders need a well-balanced ability to speak to people on their level, but also to understand where others are coming from.
— Phyllis Barker, CAE

“Women aren’t rising as quickly to the tops of [accounting] firms, and the same can be said for board leadership,” Allen says. “I feel strongly that we have to teach soft skills, whether it’s for women or minorities, so that they have the opportunity to be heard in a room.”

The two-day program trained its first 17-member cohort last fall, using a curriculum based on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. On day two, LEAP focuses on “whole-brain thinking,” a concept developed by General Electric’s Ned Hermann that outlines four styles of thinking.

Phyllis Barker, CAE, vice president and chief operating officer at OSCPA, says accountants often struggle with communication and cognitive soft skills.

“CPAs are very good at what they do on the technical side, but many of them need help learning just how to communicate what they know,” she says. “Young leaders need a well-balanced ability to speak to people on their level, but also to understand where others are coming from.”

The program has a long-term goal of deepening OSCPA’s leadership bench strength, Barker says.

“Our goal ultimately is to get these participants to serve on a committee and consider volunteer leadership,” Barker says. “Their skills are polished, and they have high potential to become our future leaders.”

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled “Leap to Leadership.”]


Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.