Technological advancements are one force creating an undercurrent of change. As lawyers, accountants, and consultants realise the benefits of evolving digital tools, such as generative AI, new roles and skills are emerging.

Mastery of these digital tools and knowing how to effectively use them is one side of the skills equation. As leaders help their teams build competency in tools designed to reduce or replace manual work, softer skills are coming into sharper focus.

After all, if the promise of automation and AI is to take care of routine tasks, it leaves more time to focus on client engagement and relationship building, communication and emotional intelligence. While these are not new capabilities for many firms, their rising prominence may mean they play a bigger part in firms' performance and ability to attract and retain staff.

Developing well-rounded skillsets

Michael Jones, Principal of Jones Partners Insolvency & Restructuring, summed up the trend, saying, "The mechanical side of accountancy work is being eliminated by technology and AI, but it doesn't remove the human aspect."

For Jones, this brings traditional training pathways into question, where early career accountants tend to focus on statistics and spreadsheets rather than people. He says that to equip people with leadership skills, they must develop "the ability to communicate, the ability to have an opinion, the ability to be able to express that opinion based on evidence."

Jones, who regularly recruits university graduates into the firm, says that having a system to develop these skills from day one is crucial. He says his firm constantly conducts internal programs, pointing to one new initiative he refers to as the chairmanship skills model.

Explaining the chairmanship skills model, Jones says it is a mock business meeting, a bit like mock trials used in legal training. A number of staff members are selected to play different roles. These roles include chairing the meeting, addressing issues, and moving motions. Some involve preparation, but others are designed to teach people to think on their feet.

For example, one section of the meeting involves selecting a participant to answer a "pertinent question", which is grounded in current affairs. The selected person has the duration of the meeting to prepare a response to the group.

"No one knows beforehand whether they will be selected to answer the pertinent question, so everyone needs to be prepared," Jones says. "It means that each team member must be ready and connected to what is happening in the business landscape".

"The roles are rotated each meeting, and importantly each participant is objectively assessed on their performance at the conclusion of the exercise."

Jones points out that the firm also runs regular technical sessions to enhance practitioners' expertise. However, he recognises that the chairmanship exercise can impart skills that set people apart in the profession, like communication and presentation and the ability to control meeting procedures.

Focusing on people, not place

According to Jones, this focus on communications, training and what he calls "togetherness" becomes even more vital in remote work and hybrid settings. It raises another technology-influenced change that's reshaping leadership strategies.

Joanne Alilovic, Director and Founder of employment law firm 3D HR Legal says that while a hybrid workplace can be the hardest to run, organisations must be willing to challenge assumptions about what work looks like today.

Alilovic says, "Leaders need to put in a conscious effort on how they run their teams and think about how they create a cohesive environment, where people are working at different times and in different places."

Having led fully remote and hybrid teams well before the pandemic made it commonplace, Alilovic says that "people in the workplace are always changing, and being in tune with their individual needs means leaders must listen and show they're responsive."

"We run regular check-ins with all our people, and these are meetings that cannot be cancelled or moved even amid competing priorities. Taking the time to deeply listen and connect properly with someone, not just on a surface level, is a simple but powerful step towards better engagement."

Alongside those efforts, Alilovic says that to develop new capabilities, leaders must understand the composition of their teams and what motivates them as individuals. She says organisations can have five or six generations in the same environment, so first understanding that is key to upskilling across a firm.

"I think it's worth leaders remembering that type of intel and information about your people isn't just beneficial for running your own team; it's also really important for your relationships with your clients," Alilovic says.

Both Alilovic and Jones agree that the leadership's mandate is to develop supportive cultural settings and values that transcend the nature of the workplace. "It's not where we operate from. It's the staff and the quality of the people that we have that's critically important," Jones says.

So, while technology is influencing the skills both professional services leaders and their teams need to thrive, it is bringing the interpersonal to the forefront in many ways. While the requisite softer skills like good communication, empathy, and listening have long been in the leadership tool belt, it appears that digital transformation is making them even more critical to success.