Many public accounting firms and corporations have embraced mentoring as a tool for employee retention.

Mentoring fosters one-to-one direct leadership involvement in employee development. Under a well-organized mentoring program, leadership and managers take direct responsibility for overseeing employee job satisfaction and growth. Such direct involvement encourages employee retention and helps identify potential future leaders of the firm.

Firms that wish to establish a mentoring program need to approach it with care and thought. Failure to carefully think through issues such as the appropriate assignment of mentors to particular employees, initiating action plans, parameters and boundaries of discussions between the mentor and the mentee, and the extent to which mentors are subject to confidentiality, can derail the program and potentially cause other legal issues.

Just like most successful initiatives, forethought, structure, and guidelines are required for a successful mentoring program. Merely suggesting to a senior manager that he or she should mentor the staff is insufficient and can lead to problems. However, the challenge is to structure a program that is not administratively burdensome. It should foster open and honest communication, and be viewed as a positive reflection of firm values by employees. A well-organized mentoring program can fit the needs of any firm, from local to national, without creating additional burdens or stress on leaders and employees.

In general, a mentor is someone who has experience and can offer guidance to others based on that experience. It is slightly different than coaching. A coach does not necessarily need to have similar experience but can help an individual achieve goals and desired results. Mentorship is essentially experiential guidance to someone who is charting a similar course. Mentoring can be very powerful in offering a path that allows for a smoother journey while avoiding similar mistakes and pitfalls. Mentoring can provide the employee with a clearer path to achievement, reduce apprehension and anxiety, and prevent misconceptions about the firm and its objectives.

Here are my suggestions for building a better mentoring program:

Assigning Mentors

When selecting mentors for the firm, it’s imperative to establish selection criteria. A poor mentoring episode can be worse than no mentoring. Mentors must be experienced and have performed at the staff level below them. Typically managers and above, including partners, should qualify. Mentoring should be top-down and not peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer mentoring may create competitive situations and result in conflicts.

The mentor must believe in, and exhibit the vision of the firm. It would be tragic if the mentor harbored any ill feelings toward the firm that could taint the employee’s view. The mentor should enjoy the “people” side of the business and be willing to share his or her experiences to motivate and encourage others.

Action Plans

Without an action plan, mentoring sessions just become gab sessions. I find the best way to establish an action plan for the mentee is to tie specific actionable steps to the mentee’s evaluation, especially those highlighted areas that require improvement or specific goals to be achieved. In this way, the employee will know the firm is assisting in progress and achievement, and the employee is not left alone to figure it out. For example, if the evaluation of a manager indicates he or she should work on business development, the mentor (likely a director or a partner who has had success in business development) and the mentee can structure an action plan to progress toward success.

An action plan will keep the mentee focused. However, the action plan should not be so rigid that the mentoring sessions become stifled and measurement-oriented. The discussions should be casual and relaxed while focusing on progress and further suggestions and ideas for success.

Parameters and Boundaries

Tying the action plan to the mentee’s job evaluation not only helps establish an action plan, but can also set the parameters and boundaries of the one-to-one discussions. Mentoring sessions that devolve into merely a substitute “complaint department” will not advance the mentee toward success and not serve the firm in a positive way.

If the mentee has particular issues or problems with a supervisor or other employee, there should be some other avenue for redress. Again, the purpose of mentoring is to focus on the employee with the goal of self-improvement and development for retention. Difficult personnel issues should be assigned to someone in leadership within the firm separate from the mentor. Otherwise, mentors will find themselves in uncomfortable, awkward situations.

Confidentiality

Firms need to decide whether mentoring discussions should be kept confidential. This is a difficult area that is not always thought through. During a mentoring session, if the mentee does confide in the mentor about personal issues, difficulties with particular partners or other employees, or engages in harmful gossip, mentors will find themselves in a difficult position. There must be pre-established guidelines regarding confidentiality that are communicated in writing to both mentors and mentees. To be safe, the firm should seek legal advice in this area to help establish any confidentiality guidelines.

Professional Mentors

Outside professional mentors can be hired to facilitate mentoring sessions. A professional mentor can work with the firm to help establish the program and participate as a mentor if the professional has the requisite experience. An outside mentor is also useful in smaller firms where resources and time are factors in deciding whether to embark upon this endeavor.