Can critical thinking be taught in university?

August 22, 2017By Jeffrey McGowan, CPA, CGMABlog, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills, Learning and Career Development

As a college educator who spent over 30 years in the business workplace, I commonly hear discussions about how to improve recent college graduates or new staff’s critical thinking skills. A quick Google search of “Employer Critical Thinking” yields well over a millions hits on this topic. A quick survey of the results yields two certainties: 1) Many employers do not think new graduates have proper critical thinking skills, and 2) “Critical Thinking” is tough to define. Revealing articles include the following:

The third and fourth articles discuss a study in students at over 200 colleges and universities who participated in a Collegiate Learning Assessment, which evaluated critical thinking and other analytic “higher level” skills. Disturbingly, the results found that over four years of collegiate study, more than 33% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.” According to the Wall Street article, “at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.”

Within the accounting world, the quest for critical thinking has filtered into the newly revised CPA exam. In its Exposure Draft: Maintaining the Relevance of the Uniform CPA Examination, the AICPA states that “newly licensed CPAs must also possess high-order cognitive skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and analytical ability.” The Exposure Draft later states that new CPAs will require “higher order skills such as critical thinking” due to technology changing the nature of the work and that newly licensed CPAs will be “responsible for more complex tasks earlier in their careers.”

According to Michael Decker, AICPA vice-president, “Remembering and understanding fact patterns isn’t enough.” Decker adds that these new CPAs “have to be able to assess situations and apply professional judgement.” Gone are the days from my CPA youth, where as a staff auditor, we would “foot” ledgers for accuracy and seemingly spend endless hours on the copy machine. Now, CPA firms and other employer thrust new staff into a technological maze where many times the proficiency on the technology outweighs the basic accounting/tax concepts, which many times are assumed knowledge.

Thus, based on the many comments from employers desiring higher levels of critical thinking in new hires that currently college professors and employers are in a transitory period where the teaching done at the collegiate level does not clearly align with future employer expectations of how recruits should be trained, especially in critical thinking. To try to drive home the importance of critical thinking and “soft skill” development, at Trine University, last academic year, we started a program for business and engineering majors called P2 (P-squared) which stands for Professional Paradigms, where on a weekly basis, business and engineering faculty engage students in workshops that develop dealt with “soft skills” – how to network, working as a team, telephone etiquette, managing stress, etc. However, in addition to these terrific programs (in my humble opinion), as educators we need to ask more of our students in the classroom regarding critical thinking.

Before my full-time plunge into academia almost exactly one year ago, I surveyed many different professors at different colleges/universities mostly from business, but also from a few other disciplines into teaching tips and guidance. From these different meeting, I believe the number one guidance given to me was to incorporate the “Think, Pair, Share” format where students are first given a question/problem to review, we put them into a group and have them discuss, then we can call on the different groups for their answers. I enjoy trying to teach in this style, since it normally keeps discussions lively and students are willing to offer their group answers, which avoids the Ferris Bueller “Anyone?… Anyone?…” syndrome; but it rarely offers students a chance to make a mistake on their own.

In pondering on this current perceived disconnect between collegiate teachings and employer expectation on critical thinking and my own experience, I am reminded that many of the best lessons I learned were from the many mistakes that I made (and still make) throughout my career, both technical and “soft.” So then, how can we incorporate a “safe to fail” atmosphere in the classroom that is engaging and useful? I also wonder what the 50-somethings of my youth said about our generation (tail end of baby boomers) and what areas of knowledge they earnestly wished we had when entering the workplace. Honestly I cannot remember what they said about us 20-somethings back then, but now as a 50-something, I imagine the 20-somethings of today have read/heard of their supposed lack of critical thinking.

Based on the number of Google hits pertaining to critical thinking, I believe we have a long way to go in understanding what it is and training how to do it. But I would surely welcome any insight into my quandary of how to effectively teach critical thinking to our future accountants. Anyone?… Anyone?…

Technical vs Soft Skills: What Employers Are Looking For

June 20, 2017By Jason Bainter, CPACritical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills

When you think of soft skills, do you cringe?

You know you need them, but how do you find time to develop them? Well, it’s time to start looking at your soft skill set and how they relate to your employer’s needs. Multiple surveys have been conducted with executive level officers and they are all finding that the C-Office executives as well as staff level are in need of and wanting employees with soft skills in addition to the historical technical skills that have always been in demand.

From my work with clients in the construction industry, I hear CFOs and controllers say all the time that wish their staff had better communication, decision-making, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They’re at a loss as to why applicants look so good on paper but once the applicant actually gets into the work, all these soft skills are lacking. At that point, there are only a few options open: do the job yourself, get the staff training, or fire the staff. CFOs and controllers want applicants to be able to be prepared to jump right into the job, and so these soft skills are rising in priority when hiring applicants.

An article from Robert Half Finance & Accounting entitled “CFOs Seek Finance Professionals with Mix of Hard and Soft Skills” provided results of their survey and found that 54% of the CFOs interviewed (2,200 CFOs from a stratified random sample of companies in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas) gave equal weight to both specialized and non-technical (soft) skills when interviewing finance and accounting staff. When it comes to filling management level positions, 50% of those CFOs said both technical and nontechnical skills were of equal importance.

The following five nontechnical skills were identified in the Robert Half survey as being essential to accounting and finance professionals: business acumen, leadership, communication, relationship building and intellectual curiosity.

The recent LinkedIn survey of nearly 300 hiring managers resulted in similar findings, as it rated the need for various soft skills by position levels, and ranked the most in-demand skills as well as the least in-demand skills. Perhaps most importantly, the survey determined that a lack of soft skills is clearly linked to a company’s productivity. Almost 60 percent of survey respondents indicated that the lack of soft skills in candidates limits their company’s productivity.

The great thing is that now there is a platform on which staff and employees can obtain training on soft skills. The CPA Center of Excellence® has interactive online, competency-based courses on six of the most important soft skills, as well as another on Ethics.

I tested the Ethics course and have taken the Leadership course, and found these competency-based courses to be the best professional education I’ve ever experienced. They are engaging, entertaining, informative and very well presented. The high level of interactivity caused me to learn more effectively and retain more materials than other classroom or online courses I’ve taken. It was also great to see other participants’ ideas and thoughts as you progressed through these courses. The competency-based courses were developed to obtain knowledge from both the course content and the other participants’ ideas and thoughts. These courses are a great way to learn the soft skills that employers are looking for. Once the course is completed, the participant will receive a digital badge which validates successful completion.

If you don’t want to be left behind in this ever-changing business environment, or just want to strengthen your skill set, think about the soft skills you have, which ones need improved, consider some assessment and new training options to get you where you need to be and, more importantly, to where your employer wants you to be.

#5: Stand Out

January 10, 2017By John Kane, CPA, CGMABlog, Changing Role of the CPA, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills

Improve your soft skills to for real career success

Whether you are considering a job change this year or are just trying to get to the next level in your career, it’s time to consider your soft skills. Even if you are a long time CPA professional in public accounting or industry, soft skills are a key differentiator.

Employment experts agree that tech skills may get you an interview, but these soft skills will get you the job — and help you keep it. Soft skills are important, and are popping up in many job descriptions, according to Larry Buhl’s article on monster.com.

The soft skills that are so important are:

  • Communication skills — being able to express yourself well
  • Team work and collaboration — being able to work effectively as a team
  • Adaptability — willingness to continue to learn and stretch your skills to adapt
  • Problem solving — being able to approach a problem, solve the problem, and share with others
  • Critical observation — being able to collect the information, manipulate the information, and determine the next steps for solutions
  • Conflict resolution — the ability to persuade, negotiate, and resolve conflicts.

Do these topics look familiar to you? They should, as the new CPA Exam, debuting in 2017, is moving in this direction. Employers will be expecting a certain level of proficiency in soft skills at the onset of your career, so the new exam is being designed to test the readiness of both your technical and nontechnical expertise.

As seasoned professionals we are tested on this daily. Our firm found the CPA Center for Excellence® Insight Toolkit to be a good method to evaluate these skills. Insight considers multiple different attributes including Adaptability, Communication, Leadership, as well as Integration and Collaboration. This 360-degree view is revealing in many ways as it paints a picture of your various competency levels.

We began the process by creating a 360-degree assessment of ourselves and asked team members and others with whom we interact to also evaluate us, including peers from community volunteer experiences.

Some who rated us felt the assessment was time consuming, but found value in the process. Overall, the results are interesting. Although we do not know our individual scores from separate raters, we are able to see how we rated ourselves compared to the averages of our raters’ perceptions based on our behaviors. It provides an opportunity to drill down by competency, allowing us to see a more in-depth explanation of the competency and, by rater type, how we’re viewed.

The purpose of the 360º evaluation is to identify the gaps where we can improve. We are then able to start adding actions related to the competencies we need to develop. A good benefit is the availability of additional support if it is needed, such as an opportunity to connect with others, or even connecting with a peer coach or professional coach.

It’s also a good idea to continue the evaluation process and track your development over the years.

This year, resolve to improve your soft skills and truly differentiate yourself.

John Kane, CPA, CGMA, has been the managing member of a local CPA firm in Anderson, Ind., since 1997. Prior to this, he was a CPA with another local firm for 10 years after spending three years in banking. He has been active in the profession since 1989 serving on various INCPAS committees, the initial Leadership Cabinet, the Society’s Board of Directors, and the AICPA Council. In 2010, Kane was appointed by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels to the Indiana Board of Accountancy. He is a member of the Fusion Network, a group of Indiana CPA Society member CPAs who blog on trends, new ideas and innovation in the CPA profession. 

#4: Stop Speaking Like an Accountant

January 9, 2017By John Minnich, CPA, CGMABlog, Changing Role of the CPA, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills

Five communication skills that transcend professions

Every profession and organization has its jargon, whether it’s words, phrases or even the dreaded acronyms. For example, my accounting colleagues speak in tongues of accrual, current ratio, debt-to-equity, EBITDA, GAAP, internal controls, net assets, reconciliations, return on assets and subledgers.

“Pardon?”

Software consultants say, “Crystal Reports, integrations, modules, ODBC, ports and offsets, relational databases, Remote Desktop, SQL, and thin clients.”

“What did you say?”

And educators refer to block scheduling, cooperative learning, Didactic and Socratic teaching models, flipped classrooms, learning outcomes, lesson plans, pedagogy, retention, rubric, and syllabi.

“Huh?”

As an accountant, consultant and educator, I’ve discovered that at least one thing transcends every profession: Strong communication skills, including the ability to speak with and listen to those outside your field. Below are some tips on how to stop speaking like an accountant (or consultant or educator).

1. Simplify.

From clients to students, a best practice involves speaking in simplified terms. Instead of describing the entire process in depth, describe the outcome in simple terms. Focus on using common terminology when possible as opposed to technical jargon.

2. Paint a picture and use creative communication tools.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Rather than solely blanketing your audience with data, use visuals. Sharing financial results at a finance committee meeting? Paint a picture, use props, and share the story in understandable terms.

3. Be equipped with relevant models/frameworks to improve your communication skills.

Be clear and concise with a focus on coherency. From calls and emails to presentations, we spend a significant amount of time communicating with colleagues. Have you ever considered whether your messages are clear and meaningful? Various resources exist to help strengthen your communication from composing and delivering a message to receiving and making revisions. I encourage you to learn and implement what works best for you.

4. Understand and empathize with your audience to craft good messages and deliver effective presentations

I’ve trained clients, developed and led finance/communication and operations management sessions for a Fortune 500 company, taught graduate and undergraduate university courses, and served as a discussion leader for continuing professional education courses. Every audience is different, even when the topic or course remains the same. Find ways to engage your audience whether in a large group or small workplace setting. Put yourself in your listener’s seat. Anticipate how they might react. Realize that several generations are currently in the workforce and each vary in communication preference (i.e., face-to-face, email, text). Show humility as your listener(s) might not be familiar with the topic and could feel clueless.

5. Realize the importance of nonverbal communication.

All studies indicate that nonverbal communication represents the majority of all communication. Always pay attention to things like your appearance, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, movement, posture, and tone of voice.

Effective communication strategies transcend professions. It is critical to know what communication skills are, how they relate to “doing business” today, and how communication happens. As professionals, we should all raise awareness of the pitfalls of poor communication skills and work toward better communication practice.

John J. Minnich, CPA, CGMA, oversees operations in education administration as chief financial officer and member of the administrative leadership team for a private high school in the Fort Wayne area. His career has straddled consulting, higher education, and public accounting. Minnich serves on several nonprofit boards and committees, and is the current president of the Indiana CPA Educational Foundation. He is also a member of the Fusion Network, a group of Indiana CPA Society member CPAs who blog on trends, new ideas and innovation in the CPA profession. 

#3: Decide with Confidence

January 6, 2017By Nancy Morton, CPABlog, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills

 

Four ways to improve your decisions this year

Every day, we make decisions. In both my personal and professional life, there have been many times when I’ve faced a crossroads and had to make an important decision. Anxiety and stress often plague us at these junctures. You’re so afraid of making the wrong decision, you are paralyzed by the fear of failure. You feel that once you’ve made a decision, you’ll never have the opportunity to adjust. What I learned when facing these crossroads is that you must analyze the facts, follow your moral compass, not be afraid of failure, and to look “outside the box.”

When making decisions, you need to take time to analyze all of the facts and information available. You can’t make a good decision without putting the effort in to accumulating the appropriate information. Once you’ve done this, you’ll feel more confident in your decision making.

My father taught me that you must follow your moral compass. It is easier to make decisions based on what the majority believes in. It’s much harder to do so based on your own beliefs. At the end of each day, you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the decisions that you’ve made.

All three of my children have been high school athletes. They have taught me that doing your best meant trying and not always succeeding. We learn more from our “failures” than our successes. My youngest son is a pitcher. As he prepares for his last two years of high school and potentially a pitching career in college, he can’t allow fear to prevent him from making decisions. Not every decision he makes on the mound results in a strike. If he throws an unsuccessful pitch, he takes a moment, learns from his mistakes, and throws the next pitch. In life, like sports, we will not always make the right choices. If you make a wrong decision, take a deep breath, learn from your mistakes, and make the next decision. No one has a perfect success rate on decision making.

I am a partner at a CPA firm. One of the biggest benefits from working at a public accounting firm is having the pleasure of working with young professionals. They have taught me that you should always look at new and innovative ways to solve a problem. They’re not afraid to look “outside the box.” Conventional wisdom may not always be the right answer, and you need to have the strength of your convictions to make decisions that others haven’t. New inventions and creative ways to solve problems only happen when individuals look at problems from a different viewpoint. Just because no one has ever made that same decision before does not mean that it not the right decision.

As you face your next crossroads, gather the information, follow your moral compass, don’t be afraid to fail, and think “outside the box.” Resolve to make this change this year. Following these steps does not guarantee the decision-making process will be any easier, but you will feel more confident about the decision you make.

Nancy Morton, CPA, CGMA has been in public accounting for 30 years starting her career with the national accounting firm of Arthur Andersen. She is currently a partner with the accounting firm of Dauby O’Connor & Zaleski, LLC in Carmel, Ind. Morton was a member of the Indiana CPA Society’s Knowledge Management Task Force from 2011-13, and is a member of the Fusion Network where she blogs for The Smoke Detector.

 

#2: Plan to Lead

January 5, 2017By Lisa Fleck, CPABlog, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills, Learning and Career Development, Talent Management and People

Make professional development a priority, not an afterthought

In looking at the year ahead, do you know where you want to be by the end of the year? If not, this is the perfect time to start thinking about your skillset and professional development options. Resolve to have a plan this year. No time better than the present!

Where do you start? Hmmm? Do you even have time for this? The answer is yes! Investing back into ourselves and improving our leadership skills is one of the most important steps to take as we plan and prepare for this new year.

Self-awareness is one of the first steps you can take … but how do you know which skills are the ones you can use to move your leadership meter in the right direction? Do you take an inventory of your leadership skills like you do in your business?

This popular article from Forbes lists the top 10 traits of leadership:

  1. Honesty — by living by this standard yourself, you influence this in your environment
  2. Delegate — trust your team with the vision
  3. Communicate — to clearly communicate your vision ensures alignment; miss this and you and your team could be going in different directions
  4. Confidence — your team takes cues from you
  5. Commitment — Lead by example and your team will follow
  6. Positive Attitude —  if your team is happy, chances are they won’t mind putting in the extra effort.
  7. Creativity — not all best decisions are black and white
  8. Intuition — draw upon past experience but don’t forget to reach out to mentors
  9. Inspire — appreciation of the hard work completed and vision of the end in mind will keep your team inspired
  10. Approach — direct and to the point vs. subtle; Millennial vs. Generation X vs. Generation Y; cultural difference? Your approach is critical for the situation and people involved. Know your audience!

What about listening? What about caring? Leaders I’ve admired are good listeners and show how much they care. Listening and caring are two very key leadership traits that carry weight and move the needle when bundled with the Forbes Top 10 list. I’m sure one could argue for other top traits as well.

When planning my personal development for the new year, I like to start with the skill that I feel I need the most help with. Working and improving in my lesser skills, coupled with my stronger skills, is when I start seeing results shine through.

Where will you start your leadership journey in 2017?

Lisa Fleck, CPA, is the financial manager for Kimball Inc., in Jasper, Ind. She enjoys managerial and cost accounting; forecasting, profitability and cost control/management. Fleck’s passion is getting useful information in a timely manner so that quick decisions can be made to move the company profitably in the right direction. She is a member of the Fusion Network, a group of Indiana CPA Society member CPAs who blog on trends, new ideas and innovation in the CPA profession. 

Start building your skills now with these six online courses designed specifically for CPAs and related professionals.

Do you really listen? Really?

December 24, 2015By Jess Halverson BowyerBlog, Critical Thinking and Non-Technical Skills, Innovation

It always seems that the best answers are the simplest ones, even if a simple concept can be hard to achieve in practice.

Case in point: Communication skills. We talk a lot about communication skills when we talk about CPA core competencies, as communication is at the root of what a CPA does. Communicating with clients as public accountant, communicating with internal stakeholders as a CPA within an organization, communicating in writing and in person — it’s at the core of the many actions you take throughout the day.

As we’re all busy this time of year, I wanted to give you the gift of time and tell you I can sum up communication skills with one word: listening.

Simple idea? Yes. Simple to pull off? Eh… You tell me. When was the last time you had a conversation in which you felt you were truly listening or being listened to? When was the last time you talked with someone when she didn’t look at her phone at all during your conversation? When was the last time someone looked you in the eye, instead of just waiting for their next opportunity to speak?

I have a friend who is a wonderful listener. She is so good at it, when I first got to know her it was a little alarming. I’m used to having to teach myself to butt into a group conversation get my ideas heard, being a bit of an introvert. When I enter an important conversation with someone louder, older or with more experience than me, my adrenaline spikes so I’m ready to find a way to jump into those conversations. And when I met my friend Cassie, I almost had to teach myself to become accustomed to her peacefulness and ability to listen without trying to tell me what she thinks I should do in a situation or without immediately rebutting my comments. So just from personal experience talking with Cassie I’d like to point out: When someone truly listens to you, YOU FEEL AMAZING. I’m not speaking in hyperbole here as is so in vogue. Being listened to with someone’s full attention makes a person feel warm, secure, valuable, and probably even smarter and more attractive. Don’t you wish you could make all of your clients or coworkers feel like that? Or at least the ones you like?

While listening is an essential concept, we know that we could all use a little practice. It’s not a fault to you (or me) — it’s hard to really focus on someone else’s words when we have that buzzer of a smartphone hanging around making us worry that we’re missing something important. It can be difficult to make someone feel listened to when in this world of immediacy and information overload we can’t remember the last time we focused for an hour on one thing. We’re out of practice. It’s ok. Me too.

I’d like to challenge you, and myself, to start today with listening. For a wee bit of inspiration check out William Ury’s TED talk on listening. For my part, I’m just going to work on being a little bit more like Cassie this year and see where it takes me.