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5 Reasons for Formalizing Your Mentoring Program

Apr 27th 2016
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Prior to the recession, accounting firms viewed formal mentoring programs as “nice,” but nonessential add-ons designed to recruit and retain employees.

But in today’s ultracompetitive job market, top accounting candidates now expect employers to provide a formal development plan that includes access to partners and a clear understanding of how they can advance at the firm.

For that reason alone, formal mentoring programs should be an integral part of any forward-thinking firm’s strategic plan, said Maureen Schwartz, executive director of global accounting association BKR International.

“Firm leaders understand that they are in a high-stakes battle for talent. The next generation of managing partners is talking about what the mentoring program should look like to current and potential employees,” Schwartz said. “A formal mentoring program is now an important part of their long-range planning. They are assigning mentors in-house or outsourcing the coaching and development to consultants.”

“Formal” is defined as a program that is officially budgeted for and implemented by firm leadership, as well as tracked for accountability.

BKR International cites five key benefits of formal mentoring programs and why it’s important to do it consistently for your firm and the profession.

1. Risk mitigation. Because CPA firms are at risk for legal claims due to the nature of their work, a formal mentoring plan can be a risk mitigator, as well as a benefit to employees for career development.

Mentors can provide guidance on proper communication and document retention relevant to client engagements. You don’t want, for example, a staff member texting another staff member about client work or discussing clients outside the office at lunch. Mentors can share firm policies, but also provide professional etiquette tips.

In the process, mentors can discover any issues mentees may be having on engagements. Handling these discussions in a comfortable, confidential manner can lead to proactive training and management of service issues before there is a client or legal problem.

2. Retention. One of the primary reasons that employees give for leaving a firm is “lack of clear advancement opportunities.” Most successful accountants want to keep learning and advancing in their careers. A perception that their position is a “dead end” is a recipe for turnover. A formal mentoring program signals to current employees and candidates that your firm is committed to their growth.

“It all starts with communication,” Schwartz said. “First, identify a few, willing, high-potential employees who are interested in moving their careers forward. Add in partner involvement or a consulting arrangement that aligns with firm strategic-growth goals. If you focus on perfecting the process with a few people, the initial success will breed interest and engagement with new mentee candidates, as well as success stories to share with candidates.”

To ensure your mentorship truly produces “success stories” from both mentors and mentees, there must be a personality fit and a willingness by both parties to commit to the mentoring process, she added.

“Mentorship is a confidential and personal experience that must be based on trust and a sense that the mentor and mentee mutually respect one another and want to help each other succeed,” Schwartz said. “Because, ultimately, the goal is for the mentee to stay and become a leader.”

3. Client service. Mentorship is another avenue for passing on client service standards and introducing more staff to a client relationship. For example, the mentor can discuss common client situations and ask the mentee how he or she would respond to the client’s request or concern. They can discuss the mentee’s positive approaches, as well as areas to improve client service.

As a follow-up, mentors could assign their mentees to an actual client service request or question and guide them through a communications process that they can build on for future client interactions. If this is starting to sound like a lot of time and energy, it is. Quality mentoring requires full commitment. The most successful mentors possess management, leadership, coaching, and counseling skills to develop a skilled and confident team.

4. Context. Here is another reason mentorship is so critical. A partner who leaves the firm without passing on vital historic context of client relationships, processes, or deliverables creates a brain drain on the firm. It is difficult to recover from brain drain in a results-focused and fast-paced service environment.

A formal mentorship program should be designed to capture the collective wisdom of the firm from its true leaders. There are many soft skills that must be learned and practiced to earn trust and be a great advisor.

5. Culture. In the end, mentorship is about providing a sense of belonging and cultural engagement throughout the team. Everyone wants to contribute to the primary goals of the firm. Mentors can help mentees understand how to make a difference and create a great career at your firm.

Today, many firms are creating that sense of culture and communion, and paving the way to leadership by linking their mentoring programs with their leadership development plans, Schwartz said.

Many firms now design a partner track that is specifically tied to mentoring, she added. It may include time with partners or coaching from outside consultants, as well as specific leadership training sessions that the employee attends. It can also include requirements for achieving certain certifications or designations.

In those firms, the mentee and mentor will set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals for a certain period of time – monthly, quarterly, annually – and discuss their roles and responsibilities.

“The program should include a mix of both technical and soft skills because management and leadership are so much more than accomplishing technical work,” Schwartz said. “Managers and partners need to learn how to successfully communicate, given their different styles, and listen for cues as to client satisfaction or red flags on employee engagement.”

Schwartz said this type of planning and forethought is essential to any firm that wants its mentorship program to flourish – especially if leaders buy into the idea that everyone in the firm needs to market and bring in business.

“Accountants aren’t native to marketing or business development, but post-recession firms need everyone to participate in promoting the firm and expanding business,” she added. “Without a formal program that is measured on outcomes or as part of the accountant’s compensation and/or professional development, there is no accountability or way of knowing if the program is working.”

As for those firm leaders who are waiting for mentorship to spontaneously bud within their firms through informal goodwill or leadership kismet on the part of employees themselves? They need to prepare for a very long wait.

“Mentorship simply won’t happen on its own,” Schwartz said. “CPA firms are the busiest organizations on the planet. I talk to partners every day. If they don’t make something a priority, it won’t happen. Clients come first. The firm’s future is next on their minds, and mentoring must now coincide with that strategy.”

Related article:

How to Find a Mentor Who Matches Your Career Goals

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