Art of Accounting: Mentoring female staff

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My previous columns on women staff (the original and the redux edition) drew a large number of emails and calls, and a major issue discussed was the lack of mentoring of female staff members. Actually, the mentoring applies to any diverse group, but I will refer to mentoring women in this column.

Many firms that have active mentoring programs do not provide the appropriate mentors, primarily because there are fewer women role models that can serve as mentors. Firms that do not have any mentoring programs need to get started and can use this column as a guide.

The mentoring process should help the person being mentored develop a clear direction where their career is headed and how work/life conflicts can be juggled. I do not believe many men can fully empathize with a woman who works a full schedule and then goes home to get dinner ready, make sure the children do their homework, take care of household chores, plan the family’s weekend activities, prepare lunch for the children to bring to school in the morning, and spend quality time with her husband and children, while also thinking about the client she worked on that day and the client she will be going to tomorrow. A more appropriate mentor would be someone who has gone through that or is still experiencing it, and that would be another woman. Men do participate in many of these home activities, but it seems the primary responsibility falls on the woman. Whether it is right or not, I believe this is the reality.

Mentoring is a personal process that needs a good listener and trusted, unbiased guidance. Public accounting has far fewer women partners than men, but equal numbers of men and women are entering the profession. The reality is there cannot be effective mentoring for all women who want or need it. Time will change this, but I believe these changes are not occurring as rapidly as needed. We cannot wait and we need to deal with it by training male leaders in effective mentoring techniques, especially with the issues specific to women (and other affected groups). This will need a massive commitment by all partners, but more importantly I believe this will need strong buy-in from firm leadership. Mentoring is a serious endeavor and, unless the top leaders commit to the change, it won’t happen. Lip service won’t do it.

I believe most mentoring is done by role models in a firm, but it can be done by others and even by someone who is not an accountant. Those wishing to have a mentor can look for anyone they feel could help them. Gender and age should not be a criteria. I would suggest successful people who appear content with their lives. It could also be a relative, a parent of a close friend, a volunteer leader in a local charity or a retired person. Firm leaders should help their staff identify and select appropriate mentors and possibly the method.

Mentoring meetings and interactions are private endeavors, but the meetings could take place almost anywhere — in an office, a restaurant or cocktail lounge, over the phone or by video conferencing. The initial meetings should be in person, either weekly or on some regular time schedule, until the mentor and mentee decide they would want to proceed and a way to proceed. Defining the goal, mission or desired end result should be done after about four meetings. If not, perhaps there is not enough of a connection between the two of them.

Once they agree to proceed, they can have less frequent meetings and perhaps more phone interactions. Setting a regular timetable is important, but there should be availability for calls at unscheduled intervals should it become necessary to speak with the mentor. I do not suggest setting performance benchmarks. This is not an objective project with a deliverable, but a discovery and direction undertaking.

Another alternative is to have group mentor meetings. Three or four staff members can meet together periodically with a mentor and discuss common areas of concern. The participants do not even need to be from the same firm. Of course, confidentiality will not exist within the group, but with the right mentor, this method can be very productive. A possibility is to have the group meetings without a leader and use them for open discussions.

Mentoring is not job coaching. Job coaching is directed at making people more effective in what they do. It is less concerned with the career direction than with getting through the day, assisting in developing supervision and management skills, relations with staff and clients, practice development, industry and niche specialization, technical enhancement and an individualized training plan. Coaching is essential and necessary, but not a substitute for mentoring. I believe coaching is not gender-specific and that most higher-level staff and partners are fully capable of coaching staff; and for those that lack those skills, firm management should help develop them.

Mentoring is a good deed and a way to help staff early in their careers, or when a stumbling block is reached. There are also substantial benefits for a firm. These include increased employee retention, more directed staff growth, greater firm loyalty, better productivity and an improved culture with a contagious team spirit.

The emails and calls I have received raised additional issues and have certainly showed me the importance of being sensitive to staff in diverse groups that might need special attention. It is the right thing to do and is good business. From what I gather, it can be accomplished in an effective way, but it will need leadership from the top to assure these initiatives are successful.

Send your practice management questions to Ed at emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Gender issues Mentoring Practice management Ed Mendlowitz Gender discrimination Building a Better Firm