9 Essential Skills of an Accountant

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Successful female accountant working at desk with laptop and calculator.

Anyone wishing to enter the field of accounting must obtain specialized education, certification and knowledge. Understanding the fundamental skills of an accountant allows professionals with an advanced degree to navigate a wider range of career opportunities in the field.

But success requires more than just earning the correct degrees. To enjoy a successful accounting career, candidates should possess a laundry list of general talents and attributes that will help them not only to advance but also to work effectively every day. Accounting remains a fast-paced industry that requires professionals to continuously advance their knowledge of the field.

Prospective accountants can learn some of these skills through programs such as a Master of Accountancy. Other skills are more innate, based on a candidate’s personality and inclinations. Even for these types of skills, however, just knowing in advance what traits will be helpful on the job can prepare candidates for successful careers in accounting.

Accounting Skill Sets

In accounting, as in any profession, the most talented practitioners have a combination of learned and innate abilities that make them right for the job. Those interested in entering this field should strive to develop a range of hard and soft skills that will help them excel and advance in their careers.

1. Business Acumen

Accountants are expected to interact frequently with other departments and participate fully in the day-to-day functioning of the business. They therefore need excellent decision-making, strategic thinking and negotiation skills — just like any other high-level professional. Their job responsibilities require them to ensure major stakeholders remain aligned with the organization’s financial strategy. Accountants have the ability to see the big picture and understand how their role impacts the organization as a whole.

2. Technological Savvy

The field of accounting is more technology-driven than many, and accountants need to stay up to date on their knowledge. The staffing organization Robert Half notes accountants should have advanced Excel ability, enterprise resource planning (ERP) experience, expertise in big-data analysis, knowledge of business intelligence software, aptitude with Hyperion and a working knowledge of QuickBooks. Moreover, many accounting firms invest in employee education programs, which ensure that their employees stay up to date on emerging technologies.

3. Communication

Companies hire accounting professionals who can collaborate with other departments, manage conflict and adapt to changing circumstances. As mentioned above, an accountant must deal with various stakeholders from different parts of the organization. They should have the ability to curate their communication style to that of each stakeholder. This entails understanding their needs and how accounting decisions may impact their department.

Accountants also need to be able to explain complicated financial ideas in a way that non-accountants can understand. The ability to convey complex accounting methods and processes to someone not in accounting remains a major priority for organizations. Professionals with a firm command of their communication skills remain a major asset to their employers.

4. Leadership

Accounting professionals need to be motivated self-starters who can contribute new insights, manage projects and motivate their team members, all while displaying solid leadership skills. Accountants may also be expected to contribute fresh ideas and assist in improving the company’s methods and operation.

Leadership skills remain especially important when accountants need to make difficult financial decisions. Accountants need confidence to convey important information to stakeholders. For example, they may have to explain why a business needs to course-correct and reduce budgets for nonfunctioning departments or initiatives.

5. Customer Service

Successful accountants know how to listen to the needs and concerns of their clients. A client’s needs can make or break the future of an organization. By addressing clients’ concerns, accounting professionals can help the organization pivot toward a financially sound solution.

Accountants should keep a positive attitude and adopt a can-do approach while not overpromising on deliverables or deadlines. Setting realistic expectations for clients is important.

6. Specialized Work Experience

Companies may look to hire accounting professionals with specialized experience in areas outside of traditional accounting. For example, some accountants may specialize in tax accounting, while others may have experience in forensic accounting.

Professionals who wish to earn the title of certified public accountant must first gain work experience in the accounting field under the tutelage of a CPA. The individual then must pass a series of exams administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).
Organizations such as the American Institute of CPAs offer courses in this area to help professionals get up to speed on various concentrations of accounting that cover topics, such as the regulatory authority, Dodd-Frank Act, and Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review. To remain competitive in the field, accountants continue to educate themselves in the various subfields of accounting.

7. Analytical Ability

Accounting professionals must be able to read and interpret figures and data. This skill could apply in a wide range of circumstances, from filling out tax returns to auditing data to finding mistakes or fraud. Accountants have to be accurate, numbers-minded and analytical.

Analytical skills remain one of the most important skills for accounting professionals, especially for those in disciplines such as forensic accounting. Forensic accountants analyze business transactions, review financial documents, recover assets and conduct interviews. They use analytical skills to compile reports outlining a financial crime utilizing data and graphs. In some cases, these professionals may have to present their findings in court.

8. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking refers to the ability to implement knowledge to solve unforeseen problems. Accountants who have honed their ability to think critically can solve problems objectively. Unbiased decision-making can produce more even-minded solutions.

Part of effective critical thinking involves gathering various data points that accountants can use to find solutions to complex financial problems and predict challenges that may impact a business in the future. For example, accounts need to be able to adjust financial strategies in light of changing legislation.

9. Time Management

Time management is crucial to the success of an accounting professional. This skill remains one of the most difficult to hone, as even accountants with years of experience may struggle with time management.

Accounting professionals specializing in tax law understand the importance of keeping deadlines. Each year during tax season, they must remain organized to provide tax advice to their clients and file all of their tax returns on time.

Specialized Skills in Accounting

Focusing on a specific area of accounting allows professionals to explore different aspects of the field and expand their client base. Developing specialized skills in the following areas can make an accountant a valuable asset to their clients.

  • Auditing involves reviewing organizational or governmental financial statements to ensure that no laws or regulations have been broken. Those with auditing knowledge follow the General Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), which are outlined by the Financial Accounting Board.
  • Financial accounting focuses on keeping track of an organization’s financial statements over a long period of time. Accountants need financial accounting skills to prepare statements for use by C-level executives, board members and stockholders.
  • Ethics is the moral pillar that holds all accountants ethically responsible. The International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants provides the groundwork for them to follow. Accounting professionals understand the laws, regulations and ethical consequences of certain financial transactions.
  • Business intelligence involves leveraging data to improve an organization’s workflow, prevent inaccuracies and identify key performance indicators (KPIs). Accountants use business intelligence tools, such as data visualizations, to monitor financial and operational trends and present this information to stakeholders.

Hone Accounting Skills With an Advanced Degree

Pursuing an advanced degree can help students master accounting principles and hone the necessary specialized skills for a successful career in accounting at the highest levels.

The University of North Dakota’s Master of Accountancy provides prospective students with the opportunity to develop the essential skills accountants need to excel in the field. UND’s 100% online program allows busy professionals and career changers to study accountancy, earn their master’s degree and prepare for the CPA exam without disrupting their work or personal lives.

Explore how the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Accountancy can help you pursue your professional goals.


Recommended Readings

Diversity in Accounting: Statistics, Benefits and Challenges

How to Become a Chief Financial Officer: Salary, Job Outlook and Requirements

What Does a Financial Manager Do?



AICPA, “Who Are the CPA Exam Partner Organizations?”

The Balance Careers, “Important Accounting Skills for Workplace Success”

International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants, International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants

International Federation of Accountants

Investopedia, “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”

Jetpack Workflow, “10 Time Management Tips for Accountants and Bookkeepers”

Journal of Accountancy, “Guide Students Toward Better Critical Thinking”

Journal of Accountancy, “Top Soft Skills for Accounting Professionals”

Oracle Netsuite, “How Business Intelligence Is Used in Accounting Today”

Robert Half, “Accounting Skills You Need to Succeed on the Job”