[IMGCAP(1)]I recently had the interesting task of facilitating a group discussion on the topic of mentoring programs among representatives of CPA firms throughout the U.S. The participants were members of the Human Resources Practice Group of BKR International, an association that has more than 150 independent accounting and business advisory firms worldwide.

I admit to having made some assumptions on how this conversation might go and was surprised by some of the answers to my questions, as well as what surrounded the motivation and the challenges that these programs presented. I was careful to gauge why these human resources professionals were being charged with instituting these programs in the first place. In this article I will share with you the questions I asked, the answers that were given and some of the surprises I found along the way.

1. Do you have a mentoring program in place at your firm? This question reflected a wide range of answers that ran the full gamut: Some had a long-term program in place and some did not; some admitted to having a program in place that had gone stale; others said that they had failed programs that were soon to be resurrected; a small group of the firms represented had no plans to launch a mentoring program.

It might be assumed that, because the topic of this teleconference was shared beforehand, participants were most likely drawn to participating in the teleconference because they shared a particular interest in mentoring programs.

2.What would be some desired results that could be achieved from a successful mentoring program? It was impressive how rapidly I was able to build a list of reasonable expectations as they rolled off the tongues of the HR professionals who had clearly given this topic a lot of thought:

  • Communication skills. Expansion and encouragement of communication skills as people are encouraged to talk to each other about a variety of subjects such as career advancement, issues or concerns, and other more personal issues, like work-life balance challenges.
  • Supervisory skills. Skills toward advising others are honed while helping to hold mentees accountable around specific and defined goals, with measurable results and deadlines.
  • Learn about the different divisions and aspects of the firm. It was noted that a mentoring program can be an effective way to educate participants about the various services and other divisions that exist within the firm.
  • Obtain wisdom with your CPA career. It was agreed that a mentoring program could provide mentees with practical tools and tips for getting ahead in that particular firm, as well as the profession, generally speaking -- including assistance in studying for the CPA Exam.
  • Improve morale and develop a rapport with industry professionals. Having staff empowered with an outlet for asking for advice, sorting out issues and even a safe place to vent should make staff happier in the workplace and feel safer among their peers.

Mentoring programs also foster rapport among employees and make less-experienced staff feel more comfortable by offering them a "confidante."

  • Increase productivity and performance. The group agreed that a natural byproduct should be increased productivity and performance as professionals share their wisdom and tap each other as resources toward streamlined operations, lower realization rates and superior client service from what they learned.

The above-outlined results of a successfully implemented and managed mentoring program were cited as mutually beneficial for both parties (mentors and mentees).
 

Elements of a good program

The following questions identify common challenges and alternative solutions to a mentoring program:

3.Who is participating in the mentoring program at your firm? Everyone. It is believed that mentoring is unofficially happening at all levels at most firms (consider the associate who might be "assigned" to take the new hire out to lunch on the first day) and that, in fact, everyone should participate in a firm-wide mentoring program. It was noted that only accountants are chosen for this type of program.

4.When is it time to get involved as a mentor or a mentee? The moment the candidate is hired. HR professionals agreed that the mentoring program should start either the first week that a new candidate is hired or within a two-month window.

5. Who are the mentors and how are they selected? Generally, it is believed that a mentor should be two levels senior of the individual being mentored. Some firms assign mentors, usually seeking the advice of someone objective (like the HR professional). In some cases, mentors are assigned for the first six months initially and then are encouraged to select someone else of their own choosing. It is advised that mentors should not be the direct supervisors of the mentee.

Most of the HR professionals did not report any major problems at the firms that allow mentees to select their mentors. Many proposed that having a Plan B, or a second choice for a mentor, worked without any problems.

6. What is needed to effectively implement and manage a mentoring program? Regular meetings should generally take place three to four times per year. Additionally, many of the firms are encouraging productive communication at mentoring meetings by providing the participants with checklists, meeting outlines/agendas, or tracking sheets.

All agree that some kind of reporting requirement should be mandatory for all participants.

7.Where does all this mentoring take place? The consensus is that it's more important that meetings take place, regardless of location. So, breakfast, lunch, after work, formal and informal meetings -- all work.

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a certified professional coach and an award-winning consultant to the accounting profession. She currently serves as the chair of the Association for Accounting Marketing's Membership Satisfaction Committee and as vice president of the Philadelphia Chapter, and is a member of the CPA Leadership Institute's Leader-ship Panel. Reach her at Tierney Coaching & Consulting at (267) 470-4250 or lisa@cpamarketingconsultant.com. Follow her on twitter @lisamtierney.

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