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Molly Sargent
CPA Mentoring: You Can Munch, But Itís More Than Lunch

Eight structured steps that CPA firms can use to develop and nurture talent.

April 6, 2009
by Molly Sargent

Many of today’s leading accounting and other professional-service organizations informally sponsor the pairing of executive talent with promising junior staffers. The goals of these efforts, which fall under the broad heading of mentoring programs, can be to attract, develop and retain talent; to build diversity; to create a client-centered sales culture; and to keep people development costs low, among others.

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned mentoring initiatives can easily fizzle in the early stages, before delivering value to the participants and the organization at large. And that costs money, time and lost opportunity. With so much to gain, how can your firm initiate mentoring in a way that is successful and sustainable?

Eight Steps for Successful Mentoring

The key to mentoring is to implement a well-structured and well-supported program from Day One. This ensures early wins, such as the blossoming of important relationships, improved employee satisfaction and a greater pool of promotable talent.

If you’re serious about making mentoring work at your firm, here are eight critical steps you need to implement in the first 14 weeks that will help you create a robust, sustainable, cost-effective mentoring initiative that gets early wins and builds a sustainable structure.

  1. Reshape the perception of what mentoring means
  2. . Help your mentors understand that mentoring is more than just an obligation to meet occasionally and discuss goals and aspirations followed by a bit of fatherly (or motherly) advice. Most professionals understand that there’s more to mentoring than a regular shared repast, but not everyone is aware that it needs to follow a process that ensures its short-term impact and, therefore, its long-term viability.

  3. Pair your people well.
  4. Consider yourself the accounting version of Match.com. Yes, there is a role for personal chemistry in the mentoring process. Interview the mentor and mentee candidates to learn about their career goals and impediments, mentoring objectives, motivations for participating in the mentoring process, logistical availability, commitment to the program and even hobbies. Use readily available performance information and assessment results to better understand the individual. Incorporate low-cost, yet effective assessment tools to determine thinking styles and work habits. Then analyze the information to find the best match.

  5. Develop the skills of your mentors and their protégés
  6. . In many ways, you’re asking leaders to be effective trainers, coaches, career counselors, confidantes and cheerleaders for their mentees. And you’re asking your mentees to be receptive, responsive and responsible. But even those mentors and mentees with the best of intentions may find it difficult to understand their specific roles in the process and may struggle with the skills needed to make a difference.

    For that reason, start with an orientation session that gives mentors and mentees an overview of the mentoring process. Give your participants a timeline that they can follow with specific benchmarks and milestones along the way. Give them training on listening, asking questions and delivering feedback. And provide them with tools to support this initial training.

  7. Encourage a structured approach to conducting mentoring conversations.
  8. To jump-start the mentoring relationships successfully, begin by providing discussion guidelines for the initial phase of get-togethers. Later conversations will also benefit from loosely scripted discussion guidelines to ensure that goals are being set and met, even as the relationships are developing. Ideally the first meeting is face-to-face, but with geographical constraints being what they are, it may be helpful to make videoconferencing available. Conversations can later be conducted over the phone.

  9. Support the learning process.
  10. One complaint among even the most dedicated mentors is the on-going commitment of time needed to bring their protégés along. Provide mentors with support services that help train and develop their mentees, independent of the mentor’s need to administer them. This will reduce the mentor’s time requirement and enhance the mentee’s learning. These services might include classroom training, webinars and podcasts. Make them available to all mentees between their regularly scheduled discussions with their mentors. Other “interim” activities might include a conference call among the mentees to share ideas and concerns and reading assignments for mentees with “book groups” for discussing the readings. This kind of support is particularly helpful in the first few weeks when the attention of the participants is high.

  11. Listen.
  12. Sustaining the mentoring over time will require updating the program’s tools and processes, especially during the pilot phase of the program. Plan on conducting individual and group discussions that seek feedback about the program, perhaps gathering all the mentors on one call and all the mentees on another call. This should be done a few weeks after the kick off of the program and at regular intervals over the first 6 months. Pledge confidentiality for all of your discussions in order to get the real story.

  13. Make enhancements.
  14. The more your tools, processes and communications reflect the real story inside the firm, the more likely your people will “own” the initiative and work for its success. Incorporate the ideas you gather from your “listening calls” into the program and support materials and involve the participants in making the changes to the materials.

  15. Communicate your success.
  16. Look for measures such as: the low-cost of training; improved employee satisfaction ratings; improved employee retention ratings; better and more frequent internal communications; greater diversity in leadership-ready positions. By tracking your impact and sharing the story, more people will want to participate in the program, your budget will be easier to justify and everyone in your organization will reap the benefits.

Conclusion

By making a regular commitment to mentoring and following the eight best practices above, you will see improvements in morale, productivity, retention and diversity at the firm and build lifelong friendships that otherwise wouldn’t have developed. That’s a lot better than sitting alone at your desk or the company cafeteria at lunch time.

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Molly Sargent is the Principal of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Professional Impressions Consulting. She has trained and coached thousands of financial professionals and client-facing executives in professional image, presentation skills, business etiquette and sales effectiveness. Since 1985, Molly has helped major accounting firms and Fortune 500 companies, including Aetna, American Express, AT&T, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Key Bank, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prudential achieve breakthrough results. Contact the author.