Home Articles SPECIAL FEATURE: Soft skills



On entering the workplace, we are often placed in managerial positions through the prestige of our profession. This privilege gives us unique opportunities to realise our people’s potential, but first, we need to be humble and to listen. By Bruce Du Bourg

The CA(SA) designation has a magical quality. It elevates its holders to managerial positions the moment that they step out of their training contracts. Before long, they are approving leave and leading team meetings. The only problem is that we can often fall horribly short of the mark when trying to manage people. This weakness isn’t usually our fault.

It is rather the result of a corporate society that promotes people up the ladder based on their perceived technical strengths and business acumen. Whether they are equipped to lead and manage is often overlooked.

When we enter the working world, we are incredibly proficient at dealing with issues of accounting, auditing, taxation and finance. Unfortunately, none of these skillsets equip us in any way to develop effective relationships with employees. Our knowledge base merely guarantees that we are able to talk to staff in a language that both of us will understand.

With this technical prowess, however, managers often can’t resist pointing out employee errors and then end up chastising employees when they miss the mark. A lot of us may not even be aware that there are any alternative approaches to drive performance within our businesses. Does this sound like an environment that motivates staff, drives productivity and inspires innovation?

As a profession, we have the unique opportunity to take up managerial and leadership positions within organisations. With the degree of influence that accompanies such posts, we can be fulcrums for organisational success. However, we may only be tapping into a fraction of our resources – it’s like having one hand tied behind our backs while taking on Muhammad Ali in a world championship fight.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on how we can unleash that knockout punch by leveraging the strengths of the people that form the backbone of organisational performance.

There have been significant advances in management and leadership best practices theory. It would be careless for us to ignore the latest research and to simply continue as we always have. Working environments created by traditional management styles may be more likely to smell of stale coffee than to inspire productivity. As an example, find a small organisation with an ageing leadership team that has refused to move with the times.

This will give you a taste of the mouldiness of unreformed leadership approaches. In such a scenario, managers often govern with the inflexibility of an undersized corset, with no room for manoeuvring. Staff that arrive late in the morning are seen to be destructive to the company and are reprimanded.

The same is thought of people that don’t dress according to the code or prefer to work from home. These deviations from the norm are simply not tolerated in the old-fashioned organisation.

On the contrary, modern leadership and management theory suggests that managers need to be socially aware, empathetic and team oriented. They need to listen to employees and appreciate that staff that are happy in their roles are likely to provide a valuable contribution to their organisations. Unhappy staff can be energy-sapping and ultimately destructive in a team situation.

By now, it should have become clear that the impact that managers and leaders have on the performance of a team and organisation is significant.

A strong manager can create organisational value through inspiring and motivating the people around them. In contrast, a poor manager can cause staff to become bitter and despondent, which will reflect in their output. No amount of IAS 39 knowledge would turn the workforce around.

Perhaps the greatest extension of modern leadership theory is the concept of servant leadership. This is the idea that Nelson Mandela personified – the notion that the role of a leader is to support and serve the people under him or her. When leaders adopt such an approach, staff are inspired to give their best to the organisation.

In contrast, in traditional companies, employees have been led to believe that it is instead their responsibility to serve their managers. These employees are motivated to do no more than the bare minimum.

It is the role of the managers of a company to set the tone in the way that they treat their employees. The attitude and ability of managers are therefore pivotal in determining the way that an organisation’s people are influenced to achieve high performance.

Of course, we can sometimes be our own worst enemies in this regard. There is an unfortunate tendency for people to increase their notion of self-importance as they climb the organisational ladder. We cannot afford for this sense of entitlement to create distance between us and our staff. As the cloud of ego looms over us, we need to make the courageous decision to learn that the only path for organisational success is through managing the powerful impact that our actions could have on those around us. If we were to rely merely on our technical skills and fancy footwork in the boardroom, we would be as potent as an electric guitar being strummed through a bout of load-shedding. More importantly, we would be muting the potential that our workforce could realise, given the right guidance and leadership.

So, how do we modify our approach? It’s easy to put principles down on paper, but it’s not always intuitive as to how these ideas can be translated into action. Based on a number of expensive management courses, I have concluded that there are two main steps to follow.

First, make sure that you understand yourself and what you are really looking for, from life and, more specifically from your time at work. Do whatever reflection is necessary to get to this point. Without a firm grip on your own ideals, your chance of understanding what makes your staff tick is greatly diminished.

Second, you need to make space. If you are to tap into your leadership ability, it needs space to develop. Within this space, you need to listen to your people and gain access to their aspirations.

It goes further than listening about their concerns about particular tasks that you have given them. It is about identifying what makes them get out of bed every morning and making sure that you are able to provide them with the seeds that can make them flourish. If your employee likes solving problems, give him or her a mess to sort out. If your employee thrives on making people happy, make sure that he or she receives the positive feedback that fuels their enthusiasm. If he or she is not suitable in the current role, create space for them to grow elsewhere. You will earn respect for this.

It is no longer sufficient to operate merely within the one-dimensional plane of numbers and spreadsheets. Bubbling beneath the surface of our daily interactions with our people is the untapped potential of turning employees into power stations to drive electric growth within our organisational existences. Just think about it.

AUTHOR | Bruce Du Bourg CA(SA) is a Product Control Manager at Standard Bank


A key foundation pillar of a good, solid business is consistency. Christiaan Engelbrecht believes it’s not only important for the success of a business, but also for our lives. And yes, it is possible to break old habits and create new ones

Why is consistency important?

A few years ago, I heard the story of the man who cut down an oak tree and it instantly changed my understanding of consistency. The story goes that there was a man who had a very, very big oak tree in his back garden. As all good stories go, the man decided to cut down the tree. He did not have money to get a tree-felling team, nor did he feel the need to buy a chainsaw for only this one tree. He decided to cut down the tree himself. With an axe!

Every morning he went into the garden with his axe and swung at the tree. Chop … chop … chop … chop … chop … Five strokes only. Every day. Without fail. You can guess the ending by now! Within no time at all he managed to cut down the tree without effort. He became known as the man who cut down an oak tree with an axe without breaking a sweat.


Humans are creatures of habit. We may say that we are not, but on closer inspection of our daily lives you will discover that most of the actions are habitual, or routine. I know quite a few smokers who have tried on many occasions, but simply can’t quit.  They acknowledge that it is not the nicotine that keeps them hooked (there are patches for that!): the act of having a break to go outside for a smoke has become so habitual that it is almost impossible to quit.

In our professional arena we have also created habits. We disguise them as policies and procedures, even call them best practices. Our intentions are pure, being protection of staff, their leaders, the company, suppliers, customers and shareholders.

When distilled and simplified, these are no more than a series of enforced habits, and for the most part they are mimicked in all organisations of similar size.


‘To know something is very interesting. To understand it will unleash the full power of the mind’, said John Kanary.

Having a closer look at the workings of the mind will enable us to better understand our habits. Understanding our habits will unleash the full power of the mind, interestingly via our habits!

Simply put, our mind can be divided into two parts: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. Our conscious mind is the part that thinks logically. It differentiates between good and bad, wrong and right, positive and negative. We are for the most part aware of the ideas or thoughts we have in our conscious mind. We can look at these ideas and say that one idea is positive and another is not. We can say that one idea will assist us to reach our goal and another may not. Our senses connect the conscious mind to the outside world. What we see, hear, smell, touch and taste is fed into the conscious mind, from where this information used.

Our subconscious mind is that part of the mind that feels rather than thinks. This part of our mind just accepts everything as it is. It does not categorise anything as good or bad, positive or negative. It takes any idea or any thought as just that … an idea.  Imbedded within our subconscious mind are paradigms, which I often refer to as mental programmes.

These programmes were formed over years and years of repetition of consistent information. It was engraved into the mind and these programmes are essentially our habits.

Think back to when you learnt how to drive a car. You did not simply get behind the steering wheel, listened to someone explain how to drive and then drove off. Not at all!You tried and tried, listened to advice, and practised some more and eventually you could drive. When you started driving you had to think continuously of what you are doing. A lot was happening in the conscious mind. Now, you barely give it any thought.It is nestled within in your subconscious mind. It is now a habit.

So, too, are the other habits in our life. We are programmed in our ways. We give very little thought to most actions.


The best way to understand what you are doing habitually, or using subconscious faculties, is to write down what you are doing and feeling during the day. You only need to do this for a few days and then you start to realise how powerful the subconscious mind is and the stronghold that it has over your life. Re-surfacing these habits is a good start to changing the one’s that is not serving you.

I started with the story of the man who cut down an oak tree without breaking a sweat.This story teaches us that there is a real strength and value in doing something persistently and consistently over a period of time. According to Stephen Covey, it takes 21 days to change a habit. It takes 21 days of consistent effort to change a habit. This is not easy, but it can be done!

John C Maxwell provides us with an excellent method to fully understand the power of this simple concept used to change your habits. He suggests you look at your goals for the year and write down the five things you can do every day that would shift the needle. Write these five things down, recite to yourself early in the morning and make sure that you do all of them. Every day.  Without fail. Plan your diary around these five things. Treat them as critically important.

Do not expect instant results, but do continue to expect the results they will bring. Do not be discouraged if things do not happen immediately; remember that the oak tree was not cut down in a day! It may take a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and for some goals a few months. Keep faith! The oak tree eventually fell. The needle will shift! And once the habit is created, there will be no need to think about it anymore.

AUTHOR | Christiaan Engelbrecht CA(SA)


With the rapid rise of the ordinary Joe to online super hero, we need to ask how these geeks can use widely available, simple online tools to achieve extraordinary results. They appear to bend the laws of business and they make things up as they go. Not being confined to commercial and industry reality, they just create their own instead. The world’s largest accommodation provider doesn’t own a single property, ditto for the vehicles of the largest worldwide taxi service provider. Can you imagine the tweets from Airbnb and Uber accountants: #offbalancesheetaccountinglikeaboss #IFRSthis.

What is the source of their super powers? As ambitious chartered accountants and business leaders, where can we get it? The answer is quite simple and humbling really: creativity.

If creativity were a commodity, the investment tip would be to ‘buy in’ and do it quickly. So, how do you buy in if you aren’t naturally creative?

You need to put in the hard yards, like passing board exams – you practise being creative and up your creative aptitude by exercise. From architects to artists, creative people all spend endless hours cracking away at their creative repertoire. So read on to explore a half a dozen and one tips to inspire creativity.


As creatures of consolidations and reconciliations we love routine, putting things in their place, and balancing to the cent. Be honest, when last did you:

•             Change your route home from work?

•             Park in a different spot?

•             Take your laptop and sit in a park?

•             Sit and work in somebody else’s office while they were away for the day?

To many of us these things sound ‘cringeworthy’; but challenging yourself to be brave, simply changing your physical environment, scenery or routine, has been proven to wake up those creativity nodes.

If you are braver, you could challenge yourself to take a trip to somewhere you have never been. There is plenty to do in and around our beautiful cities.

Want even more creative juices to flow?

Try turning off your GPS and use a printed map and landmarks, or even better, friendly strangers to help you navigate to your creative utopia.


In the words of my father-in-law-to-be: ‘Always carry a sharp pencil, you never know when great ideas may strike you.’ Your collection of subconscious thoughts, no matter how trivial they seem, carry insights.

Write them down, or even better, draw them. If you insist on going green, you can use the note app on your phone or even record voice notes. Amazing ideas will often materialise when you are doing normal life, hanging undies on the line, foaming up in the shower, or just sitting through a tedious teleconference call. When the mind slips into a meditative state during these activities, the subconscious is able to do some freestyling.

Ready the proverbial pencil behind your ear to record the lyrical waxing of your brain and set aside time to ponder on the day’s collection of brain waves, they may just condense into the next iCloud.


A winning way to up creativity and the output of a meeting is to take it outside and take a walk.

Walking meetings – a Steve Jobs favourite – are all the rage in Silicon Valley and are exactly what the name suggests: walking together as you talk business. Researchers at Stanford University found that people’s creative output increased  by 60% on average when they are walking.

Best for groups of five or fewer are ‘walkie-talkie’ meetings, which besides catalysing creativity, enhance lateral communication by breaking through hierarchies, increase energy and enthusiasm for execution of the task discussed, and, of course, help shed calories. Exercise as you meet sounds tweet-worthy to me: @walkingmeeting #summerbodyready #letsmeet. You may just find Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Jack Dorsey (twitter) along your bushy meander as they both advocate regular walking meetings on leafy paths.


Dreams? I know what you’re thinking – this sounds like hocus-pocus, fortune-teller vibes. After all, you can’t seriously take any real-life inferences from your dreams.

I assure you that professional scepticism pumps at a healthy rate through my veins, too. However, as chartered accountants it would be irresponsible of us to not look at substantive tests of samples where this has been applied before.

Einstein came upon the Theory of Relativity by dreaming of cows when he was a teenager; Paul McCarthy credits the Yesterday song and tune to his dreamland.

For the Twilight fans that think the movie is a dream, Stephenie Meyer can concur, explaining that it was conceived while slumbering. After inventing the periodic table, Dmitry Mendeleyev said: ‘I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper’ – luckily he had his pencil handy.

With his list of dream breakthroughs encompassing highlights such as the invention of the sewing machine, the adjustment of a six-time Masters winner’s golf grip, to the conceptualisation of the double helix and DNA, we need to question why the sandman really hangs around when we get shut-eye.


Do not discard it, tolerate it, or just accept it. Embrace and encourage failure. This seemingly counter-intuitive approach to failure results in a sense of achievement rather than discontent when you discover that your creative idea has not worked. Failure provides material for new, fertile creative ground as you plough your failed efforts back into your next idea.

Thomas Edison was encouraged by failure over 10 000 times before he shed any light on the matter and said: ‘Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.’ Challenge yourself to reward your own failure, and I bet that you will shorten your path to success and brighten it with loads of creative light en route.


Do nothing. Sound simple doesn’t it? But when last did you do nothing?

We tend to fill our days with work, to-do lists, kids, sport, dinner dates, TV, iPads, news, until we yawn and let the sandman come and steal our creative thoughts.

I challenge you to do nothing. Try initially to do nothing for just 20 minutes. Meditate, but consciously empty your mind … nothing-itate. Continue until you get bored and feel stupid for wasting time; this is when your mind releases and slips into its creative, chilled zone. Be sure to have that pencil handy to jot down your creative thoughts.


When last did you speak to a pizza chef, a tourist, or a deep sea diver?

In reality we are all quite staid in our comfort zone where we are surrounded by similar counterparts. If you challenge yourself to ‘change your lens’, you may discover new perspectives on your own life by reflecting your lens off others.

After a recent failed Gumtree purchase exercise in ‘the wrong side of town’, my fiancée and I stopped at a quaint wood-fired pizzeria for a margarita. Here we met the owner, a bright-eyed, silver-locked Sicilian and self-proclaimed ‘Italian stallion’. We got chatting and it turned out that he zips around in his Bentley to check on his 150 employees at his various businesses.

Simply listening to his personally delivered, Oscar-worthy, audio autobiography, albeit taken with a pinch of salt and oregano from his stainless steel countertop, was inspirational and flared my entrepreneurial creativity.

You don’t need to be Picasso or Carlos Santana to be creative; you only need to awaken the side of yourself that you have been neglecting since you started playing with Excel and its numerous friends.

Don’t think that creativity is not for you because you are a chartered accountant. Amazing things are achieved where creativity meets solid understanding of business processes – game-changing innovation can result.

Besides, half of the word ‘innovative’ is found in your creative.

AUTHOR | Paul John Plummer CA(SA) is an Executive Lead in the Human Capital service line at Deloitte


Can we be successful in achieving project management excellence without over-theorising it? Jennifer McDonald discusses the key elements for success.

Have you ever walked out of a cinema or theatre production feeling elated and impressed, wishing that there was more to watch? Have you ever been so impressed that you have bought additional tickets and taken all your friends along for the experience? Recently after watching the best movie I think I have ever seen, it made me reflect on whether our clients experience the same feelings of delight and excitement at the service we deliver or are they are left disappointed, feeling as though we have wasted their time and money?

In today’s professional services industry, there is a high level of competition. Professional services in the financial space are quickly becoming a commodity that can be procured from a variety of sources, making it critical for providers to be able to deliver a unique and differentiated experience to their clients. Differentiated client service will ensure that your client is left with a memorable experience they will share with their colleagues and keep coming back for.

Impressing a client and creating that differentiated experience is not always easy, but right at the heart of achieving this is the need for excellence in project management. Excellence in project management is the platform off which that memorable client experience can be leveraged.

In an Economist Intelligence survey1 90% of global senior executives ranked project management methods as either critical or somewhat important to their ability to deliver successful projects and remain competitive, and a survey by consulting giant McKinsey & Co2 found that nearly 60% of senior executives said building a strong project management discipline is a top-three priority for their companies as they look to the future.

A well-managed project is the key to impressing any clients, and its importance is often underestimated when diving into an assignment. The right emphasis on ‘proactive’ project management will ensure that a continual cycle of ‘reactive’ project management or ‘crisis management’ is not experienced. A continual cycle of crisis management will stifle the project team’s ability to add that ‘extra value’ on a project that the client will remember.

Wikipedia defines project management as ‘the discipline of planning, organising, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific projects goals and objectives’.

Project management is a widely discussed, researched and debated topic. There is a wealth of literature available on the topic, all claiming to have the answer to good project management, the recipe for successfully managing a project or the ten steps you must follow to succeed in project management. In fact, the recognition of the importance of the subject saw in the 20th century, the Project Management Institute (PMI), one of the leading global bodies dealing with this discipline, being created. The institute developed the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) to gather information and formalise all standards pertaining to project management, for use by those who manage projects and need best-practice principles to guide their work.

Excellence in project management is imperative. However, while this wealth of theory is useful, most of us don’t have the time to write a thesis on the subject or to continually refer to the 500-page handbook to measure progress against the proposed steps. Neither does the implementation of all these proposed steps or principles guarantee a successful project!

So can we be successful in achieving project management excellence without over-theorising it? I believe that the answer lies in the use of logic and common sense and simply understanding what it was that contributed to that feeling of elation at the end of that movie or production. What made it a memorable experience?


Reflecting on the above, the key elements for success can be deduced as follows:

A good script or storyline

Every great movie has a well-written story or script, and the same principle applies to a successful project. Project success or failure can often be cemented with a good or bad project plan. It is imperative that sufficient time is spent in the planning phase of a project which involves determining the goals and objectives, resources required, timing of delivery, risks or issues that may be encountered and any budget constraints. A good project plan will also identify when, where and how value can be added to your client, while poor and insufficient project planning could leave you with holes in your ‘storyline’ that will not impress your client.

Knowing your audience

A captivating story cannot be written without knowing who your audience is, in the same way that a successfully delivered project cannot be achieved without an in-depth knowledge of your client. Not fully understanding your client’s business, as well as their needs and requirements is like showing a horror movie to five-year-olds – their nightmares will be keeping you up at night!

What is the genre?

Movie genre can be equated to fully understanding the project and client requirements, together with setting realistic goals and objectives to achieve the desired outcomes. Your client certainly won’t be laughing if they get ‘comedy’ instead of the ‘action’ sequence they were expecting.

Director and leadership

Leadership excellence is like a rudder to a ship; without it you will certainly veer off in the wrong direction. James Cameron was the leader who directed Titanic to blockbuster and Oscar stardom, but without a competent project leader, many projects will only be remembered for sinking into unsalvageable oblivion.

The best cast and crew

Correct talent resourcing of a project is critical to a positive client experience. The skill and ability of a competent, talented team will ensure delivery to the required standard. However, poor resourcing could potentially lead to damaging consequences for your brand. Thorough analysis of the project’s resourcing requirements in the planning phase will ensure that you don’t accidentally cast Mr Bean for the role of James Bond, because unless it’s a spoof, it is unlikely to have the desired effect.

Also, a project will often require the use of specialist skills for specific outcomes. Not identifying this need and failing to utilise the right experts at the right juncture could be detrimental to a successful outcome of a project, in the same way that special effects or a stunts man on a movie set cannot be replaced without detracting from the final product.

Meeting the release date

Meeting the project deadline will ensure that you reap the rewards that go with successfully delivering against client requirements, however, proper project management will ensure that realistic deadlines are set in the planning phase of the project. Missing a release date in the movie industry could significantly affect the returns and rewards. If the movie The Santa Claus were released in February instead of December, its full potential in terms of profitability would not have been met and probably would have left those that watched it with a diminished experience, compared with viewing it in the festive season. In the same way, meeting agreed deadlines will be a key factor for a positive client experience.

Winning an Oscar

Evidence of successful project management and success in creating that differentiated experience for your client can be quickly determined when they continue to contract your services and recommend you to others in the market. Creating loyal client advocates in the professional services industry is the Oscar you should be aiming for and will determine whether you are walking down the red carpet or relegated to the video store.

Excellence in project management will give you the necessary platform to deliver ‘box office hits’ every time, ensuring your clients will continue to buy tickets for more.


1 Closing the gap: The link between project management excellence and long-term success,  Economist Intelligence Unit, Oct ober2010.

2 Results based on a survey of 1,440 senior executives, McKinsey & Co, January 2010.

AUTHOR | Jennifer McDonald CA(SA) is a Senior Manager Executive Projects at Deloitte