The definition of
mentoring is expanding to include
the concept of coaching, which is focused on
helping others learn job-related skills for
In today’s rapidly
changing work environment, young
accountants appear to learn more quickly and
thoroughly through on-the-job training.
Firms with strong
cultures that facilitate continual
learning through well-communicated mentoring
and training programs have the best chance of
surviving. One solution may be to establish
mentoring programs in phases.
Mentoring and coaching
activities, both formal and
informal, have great value for building a firm
with a strong culture that keeps it
competitive in the battle for talent and lays
the foundation for addressing the succession
issues that many firms face.
Firms that consider
moving to a true learning culture
may have a competitive advantage in that they
will meet the demands of their younger CPAs
who expect to learn the systems faster in
order to succeed more quickly.
Rita Keller is the COO of
Brady Ware, an Ohio/Indiana regional CPA
firm with more than 125 team members. Her
e-mail address is
T hrough benchmarking with other
firms and experimentation with case studies,
firm-sponsored educational sessions and outsourced
professional training classes, my firm has
determined that young accountants learn quickly
and thoroughly through on-thejob training. In
public accounting, that means being taught and
guided, or mentored and coached, by an experienced
CPA while actually performing the work. Studies
tell us that mentoring and coaching activities
help develop strong relationships, which in turn,
bind people to an organization. In light of the
growing shortage of qualified people, this can
mean survival for your firm.
people who are in a position to mentor and coach
others still struggle with what this process
entails. This article explores what it means to be
a mentor and coach, and how combining these skills
with a hands-on learning approach can lead to a
greater competitive advantage for your firm by
helping to meet the learning needs of new hires.
MENTORING AND COACHING
Traditionally, mentoring in a professional
service firm meant helping others learn
business-related lessons quickly with less risk
(fewer mistakes). Mentoring relationships were
also often based on the chemistry between two
people who had a lot in common. The mentor, a
power figure, would arrange for career-building
assignments and introductions.
recent years, the definition of mentoring has
expanded to include coaching, a concept that is
focused on helping others learn job-related skills
for growth (according to the International
Mentoring Association, www.mentoring-association.org/DefM&Coach.html#How
). While mentoring involves everything that is
done to support career advancement and
professional development, coaching is a skill that
mentors must learn and effectively use on a daily
basis. In other words, both mentoring and coaching
are needed to maximize learning and development.
Guidelines for the Mentor/Coach
Here are a few simple suggestions for a
Establish a positive and
nonthreatening setting. Plan the
discussion in advance and select a
comfortable, private environment. Take steps
to prevent interruptions and ensure
confidentiality. One of the best ways to
determine the proper setting is to simply ask
the mentee. Involving him or her at the
beginning sets the tone for future progress.
Clarify what needs to be
discussed. Involve the mentee in
drafting a brief, simple agenda for the
meeting, clarifying the mentee’s expectations
and desires. Confirm what the meeting is about
so there are no surprises.
Create an ongoing
communication flow. Use your
listening skills. Ask questions while
confirming that you care about his or her
ideas. Provide insight and clearly indicate
where you agree, disagree and indicate which
comments might need further exploration.
the end of the meeting ask the mentee to
summarize the session. This exercise will help
both of you understand if progress is being
made and identify the next steps. Encourage
the participant to use an action plan to
determine who will do what by when. When the
session has ended, you will have a guide for
further discussions and to assist in
accomplishing specific tasks.
There is much talk in the CPA profession
about moving firms to a true training and learning
culture. Millennials, those born after 1980,
entering the work force expect this type of
environment and are being viewed as a more
collaborative group of employees who are
challenging old traditions. They want to succeed,
and they want to do it fast.
Guttenplan PC, a 65-person firm in East Brunswick,
N.J., decided to modify its mentoring program when
it discovered that new hires wanted hands-on
learning experiences to become committed to the
firm. While career development was always a firm
focus, this was more easily accomplished when the
firm was small enough to allow a mentoring
interaction to naturally occur between management
and staff without specific programs or systems.
Ten years ago, the growing firm saw a need for a
formal process so it established a mentoring
program. The program, like most traditional
mentoring programs, was mentee-driven and focused
on long-term career growth.
soon realized that its younger CPAs needed more of
a short-term, hands-on focus—they wanted to learn
“the systems” to advance more rapidly. In most CPA
firms, those systems are often dependent upon
which partner or manager an employee works for,
and an employee might work on multiple projects
for multiple managers at the same time. As a
result, they are forced to deal with different
management styles, varying expectations from
members of management, and skill requirements that
change based on assignments. This is not a typical
arrangement where a beginning employee reports to
one specific supervisor.
the firm administrator at W&G, says the firm
abandoned its mentoring program three years ago in
favor of a formal coaching program. This meant
incorporating more of the day-to-day challenges
into the coaching/mentoring process. “Many of the
goals that are typically addressed by a mentoring
program are addressed through our coaching
program. The program focuses not only on the
individual’s long-term development, but also on
day-to-day skill development. The coach’s role is
to make sure the firm focuses on each employee’s
career and skill development,” she says. At
W&G, the coaching program applies to all team
members, including the administrative and support
W&G believes that by
incorporating a program focused on coaching, it is
better addressing challenges through a hands-on
process where there is involvement in teaching and
evaluating employee performance. This is a more
realistic approach for the firm that successfully
leads to enhanced career development. The team
members at W&G agree.
Vivenzio has been with the firm for three years.
During her first year, she participated in the
mentoring program and has been in the coaching
program for the last two years. “The mentoring
program simply did not provide enough personal
contact and feedback. With the coaching program, I
have received more and higher quality attention. I
feel like my coach has actually evolved into a
true mentor, which is the objective of the
program. We started with more day-to-day things
that were job and performance specific, now I am
extremely comfortable talking with my coach about
bigger career issues,” she says.
firm’s experience helps validate the need to
integrate coaching and mentoring with a complete
hands-on learning experience to assist new hires
in quickly learning the skills they need. Through
the coaching experience, the firm’s role models
are evolving into better mentors.
A CULTURE OF CHANGE
In our ever-evolving profession, firms with
strong cultures that facilitate continual learning
through well-communicated mentoring and training
programs have the best chance of surviving.
Unfortunately, simply starting a mentoring program
is often challenging to CPA firm leaders. All have
good intentions but either don’t know exactly
where to begin or suffer from a perceived, or
real, lack of time.
Burr, Pilger &
Mayer, a prominent, growing San Francisco-based
firm, decided to approach its mentoring program in
stages by focusing on its most critical needs
first: finding partners. Career Development
Manager Alfie Adona led the partners through an
exercise that helped them determine that 12
partners were needed within the next five years
due to retirements and growth.
exercise created the business need for making sure
partners were heavily involved in the mentoring
and development of our existing managers, senior
managers and directors to ensure they have the
skill set to fill this hole of 12 partners over
the next five years. Hence, a formal Manager
Mentoring Program was executed in January 2007,”
At BPM, all partners were
given mentoring training and took on the mentoring
role for the firm’s managers. Managing Partner
Steve Mayer also plays an important role by
mentoring a few high-level senior managers who are
close to becoming partner. Mayer and BPM human
resources representatives meet quarterly with the
47-person manager group to offer advice and help
them understand firm economics so they have a
big-picture view of how and what it means to
manage the firm. Mayer’s goal is to start them
thinking and looking at things from a partner
“Mentors simply make us all
better. Much of my success in my professional
career was the direct result of my close working
relationship with Michael Heys, the Coopers &
Lybrand partner who mentored me for years. The BPM
mentoring program is off to a great start as we
have already made two partners who have been
closely mentored,” Mayer says.
her experience as BPM career development manager,
Adona believes the mentoring program can help
recruiting because it proves the firm is dedicated
to partner coaching and mentoring, and the young
people can see a clear career path to ownership.
While the remainder of the firm participates in a
more loosely defined mentoring program, BPM will
soon be unveiling the next stage—a formal program,
patterned after the Manager Mentoring Program to
the next level of employees— supervisors and
VALUE OF A MENTORING/COACHING RELATIONSHIP
The role of mentoring has been said to
provide some of the most meaningful experience in
a person’s career and life. Many mentors say that
they gained more from the process than they gave
through the opportunity to pass on, to another
person, their successes and failures. Becoming
known as an excellent role model causes the mentor
to be sought out by others— which can benefit an
While everyone should be
responsible for his or her career, it is immensely
helpful to have someone who will simply listen and
provide support. Sometimes a new person is
overwhelmed and a mentor/coach can provide
direction during difficult times. The traditional
role of the mentor in an accounting firm—opening
doors, introducing them to people, involving them
in projects, training programs and marketing
efforts—is still one of the most important aspects
of mentoring. The simple fact that the mentor
provides a different and possibly unique
perspective is of great value in building a
As for the firm, it is not
difficult to see that combined mentoring and
coaching activities, both formal and informal,
have great value for building a firm with a strong
culture that keeps it competitive in the battle
for talent and lays the foundation for addressing
the succession issues that many firms face.
Tips for a Mentoring/Coaching
Establish boundaries. Consider
using a mentoring agreement.
Don’t make assumptions; strive to
truly understand each other’s perspectives.
Be candid and talk openly and
honestly about differences of opinion.
Talk about and explore what you
have in common.
Talk about and explore your
Document your activities and how
they lead to career growth.
Meet regularly, but be flexible.
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
Millennials are being seen as the driving
force behind changes in how we mentor and manage
people. In fact, relationships are developing
where the participants do not appear to have much
in common at all and discoveries are being made
that sometimes these “mismatches” are the best
matches. We are learning that everyone, regardless
of age, needs a mentor/coach, and younger people
are sharing their knowledge with more experienced
people, especially in the area of technology.
Mentoring/coaching groups, rather than one-on-one
sessions, are also taking shape andseeing success.
In the CPA profession, the need for personal
development is lifelong. A well-defined,
documented mentoring/coaching program that is
alive and healthy, not gathering dust on a shelf,
should be the goal for firms of all sizes,
especially smaller firms, if they want to remain
competitive for talent.