As the profession tries its hardest to retain young staff, proactive firms are sparing no expense in trying to secure their talent for years to come. Firms are advised to invest in technology, more flexible work schedules, and appropriate compensation to ensure that new professionals don’t go seeking such commodities elsewhere. Now, more than ever, young talent requires an investment.

However, there’s one expense that many firms seem to overlook; something not as tangible as salary or technology, but just as important. That something is mentoring — a personal, hands-on process that sees an experienced professional build a strong relationship with a new hire. For those willing to dedicate the time and effort, mentoring new professionals will build a stronger business, attracting and retaining top talent by offering guidance and career-building as an asset.

 

WHY MENTORING MATTERS

Change can be slow when it comes to accommodating young staff in firms, especially if it involves some monetary investment. Mentoring can seem especially daunting, then, because it calls for an investment of both time and money, but those concerned about the potential costs may not truly see the benefits of what mentoring entails. It’s a process that looks to attract and strengthen future leaders for not just the particular firm, but the profession as a whole.

To Edi Osborne, mentoring is essential to better integrating new hires to a firm and to the on-boarding process.

“I wish it was more of a cultural norm than a program,” said Osborne, CEO of Mentor Plus, based in Carmel Valley, Calif., who consults with and trains hundreds of accounting firms and business owners on how to best reach their potential as businesses. She is also the co-developer of the CPA Performance View program, which is endorsed by the American Institute of CPAs, and co-founder of the Consulting Accountants’ Roundtable. “For firms where it is a cultural norm, [they’re] the ones that have the most success with it. Their young people buy into the vision of what it means to be a CPA [and] stay in the profession longer because they made a solid connection with someone who has already been down that road before them.”

“For me, my bottom line is, let’s make mentoring a lot more about showing [young people] how it’s done, not just telling them how it’s done,” she added. “Oftentimes, career mentoring is [just] on how to work your way up to the path of partner. OK, that’s valuable, but what if we focused our mentoring on how to have a positive, quality relationship with clients? For a young person to sit and watch a talented partner do their thing with a client or prospect, that communicates 100 times more than [telling].”

Rita Keller, a speaker and consultant on CPA firm management, is a big advocate for mentoring in the accounting profession, and says that mentoring can be the invisible, essential glue that holds a firm together. “When you think of mentoring in the traditional sense — an older person teaching and sharing wisdom with a younger, less experienced person — it has been a natural part of the CPA profession since the very beginning,” she said. “The difficulty arises when CPAs teach younger accountants all the technical aspects of the CPA profession, but fail to impart any knowledge of relationship-building and career-building skills. These skills include the emotional intelligence skills needed when dealing with prospects, clients and team members. I see CPAs, in all the generational categories, missing these important skills. Mentoring can help develop these skills.”

Porter Keadle Moore, an audit, tax, systems and advisory services firm based in Atlanta, has come to recognize the value of mentoring as well, and has implemented its own unique system beginning in 2011, dubbed the “PEAK program.” The program entails a year-long mentorship, pairing standout new hires with a firm partner to serve as a mentor for the mentee’s overall career development. The mentees are then included on PKM’s own succession spreadsheet, which forecasts each professional’s projected ownership date, as well as each current partner’s retirement date.

Greg Foster, an audit partner at PKM, said that the current state of the profession and its young personnel make mentoring all but inevitable. “With the increased competition in the work force for top accountants; with the industry beginning to better understand the dynamics that are happening in the work force; as Baby Boomers are rapidly retiring and Millennials will soon become the largest segment of the workforce; my sense is that more and more firms are becoming aware of the value of a quality mentoring program,” he said.

“I believe the greatest benefits of [our] mentoring program are helping our people grow and develop into leaders and good business thinkers faster than they otherwise would, and the retention benefits of reinforcing to people that we value them and want to invest in them to help them grow and maximize their success,” added Foster. “These results are positives for both the employees and the firm as a whole.”

 

THE RIGHT PROFILE

With a mentoring program in mind, it’s still vital to appoint the right people to be mentors and leaders. It may seem like enough to implement a unique, well-structured program, but when dealing with a program so dependent on fostering relationships, the right personnel are key.

“What if one [mentor] isn’t up to it and the relationship doesn’t go well? If they’re not a natural mentor, that poor [mentee] is going to get the worst of it,” warned Osborne. “God forbid we put them in the hands of a young person trying to decide about their career. I think it [should] be a voluntary thing.”

Osborne suggests an alternative of a team approach, initially giving a new hire a group of three or four mentors, letting the relationships evolve naturally over time until the best fit emerges for the mentee.

Foster also agreed on identifying the right mentors, as personalities can prove to be the crux of the program. “To me, the most important things to consider in implementing a quality program are … identifying the mentors who will invest the time and energy needed to have a quality mentoring program — not all owners make good mentors and that’s fine,” he said. “You need to carefully match the personalities of the mentor and mentee. [It’s] choosing the mentor who is best positioned to help the mentee achieve the principal goals and desired outcomes from the mentoring relationship.”

Keller insists that transparency is a necessary trait in a mentor in order to build trust and show the mentee just how invested the firm is in them as professionals. Again, it is showing, and not telling, that is vital to a mentor program.

“Being able to have private, career-focused conversations with a partner or manager is important to them,” Keller said. “If a young accountant feels like someone at the firm is interested in them and has their best interests at heart, it binds them to the firm. The most important thing a mentor can do for a mentee is to take them along — to client meetings, networking events and prospect meetings. It’s easy and it’s natural; it does not have to be just another dreaded task on your to-do list. The mentoring sessions will soon become something you actually look forward to.”

 

A HELPING HAND

Mentoring programs could very well prove to be the most useful retention technique that firms are looking for in today’s hectic talent wars. By taking the time to personally invest in new hires, and give them a more hands-on approach to a firm, a relationship is built that could last a lifetime.

“I think a good mentor comes in with a lot of questions — not a lot of pontificating on how to be successful in a firm,” said Osborne. “It should be, ‘What do you want out of your career? Where do you want to go with it?’ It’d be the difference between, ‘Am I grooming this person to take over my role,’ versus, ‘Am I mentoring this person to achieve their very best, whatever that happens to be for their career?’”

“An engaging mentoring program is a factor in staff retention and a dysfunctional mentoring program will definitely drive [new hires] away,” said Keller. “Effective mentoring has become a strategic focus for many firms [and] it will continue to be a differentiator for successful firms. I advise firms not to do exactly what their peers are doing with mentoring programs. Consider how you can make yours more unique and creative. If you do, word will spread and your firm will become more attractive to new hires.”

“I believe that an effective mentoring program is a critical part of a firm’s success and is essential to the long-term health and viability of any professional services firm,” advised PKM’s Foster. “Given this and given the demands from and drivers for Millennials, I believe mentoring will become more and more commonplace in business. A time will soon come where the differentiator will not be whether or not a firm has a mentoring program, but how valuable and effective a firm’s mentoring program is perceived to be by the employees.”

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