Eight Ways to Expand Your Mentoring Network

BY RALPH E.VIATOR, PH.D. AND DEREK DALTON, CPA, PH.D.
October 1, 2011

Mentoring relationships are critical for success in the accounting profession, yet many CPAs overlook the benefits of a mentor/protégé connection. A mentor can provide guidance on tackling challenging assignments or insights into managing time commitments. In addition, mentors can recommend protégés for important and highly visible projects, sponsor protégés in obtaining promotions and protect them from organizational politics. At the same time, mentors serve as role models and provide protégés with support, acceptance and personal counseling.

Many organizations facilitate the mentoring process by formally matching potential mentors with potential protégés. In fact, larger firms use highly structured formal programs to ensure that all employees have access to mentoring relationships. However, formally assigned mentoring relationships often provide limited benefits. Sometimes formally assigned mentors perform the duty as one more item on a “to-do list.” True mentoring requires time, effort, interest in the protégé and a willingness to give of oneself.

If your firm does not provide a formal mentoring program, or if your formally assigned mentor does not adequately support your career development or is unable to serve as a true confidant, the following eight suggestions can help accountants at all career stages expand their mentoring network and enjoy the benefits of successful mentoring relationships.

1. MULTIPLE MENTORS
A single mentor might not provide all of the support you need. In fact, many professionals find that having more than one mentor is very productive. For example, a junior-level female accountant might rely on a senior-level male manager to guide her in developing financial reporting expertise. At the same time, she might discuss more personal issues, such as work/family concerns, with a senior-level female manager from a different functional area. In a similar vein, a junior-level accountant might have a mentor who is one level ahead in the organizational hierarchy (that is, a step-ahead mentor) and another mentor who is at a more-senior level. Many professionals find that step-ahead mentors are better at providing social support for challenges, while more-senior personnel are better at providing career support.

2. DON’T WAIT—INITIATE
Potential mentors are generally “people you aspire to be.” If someone at your firm or company strikes you as a role model, take advantage of opportunities to socialize with that person. Be willing to discuss a wide range of topics. Ask potential mentors questions such as: What do you now know that you wish someone had told you when you started in the profession? What obstacles did you have to overcome to get where you are today? How did you obtain important assignments within the firm or company? What new skills did you acquire along the way that helped facilitate your career development?

When building relationships with potential mentors, try to be transparent, yet reasonably cautious. If you are willing to share some of your concerns, potential mentors are more likely to take an interest in your career development. Share your life story; senior members of the accounting profession come from a variety of backgrounds and appreciate the challenges and adversities that people experience to get where they are. On the other hand, some topics are best discussed later (such as your intention to eventually leave the firm) or not discussed at all (such as gossip). Finally, respect your potential mentors’ time.

3. NETWORK—BUT UPWARD
A peer-level social network gives you an opportunity to share your concerns, gain insight into dealing with different superiors, and develop a core group of business contacts who will progress alongside you. However, networking with managers higher up in the organization offers benefits beyond peer-level social networking. For example, academic studies demonstrate that employees who self-initiate mentoring relationships with higher-ups receive more career support, get promoted sooner, and are generally more satisfied with their job and organizational position. Furthermore, having mentoring relationships with higher-ups in the organization will plug you into important lines of communication regarding organizational goals (for example, “We intend to increase market share and billable hours, even if it means cutting billing rates and profit margins”) and organizational changes (for example, “We intend to consolidate operations by closing some underperforming offices”). Therefore, set a goal to become more acquainted with higher-ranking managers and partners; make an effort to get to know them better.

Networking with higher-ranking managers can be intimidating, but you can ease your discomfort by trying the following. First, use open-ended questions and listen closely for similar interests or hobbies that you might have. Second, be prepared for networking opportunities by spending a few minutes each morning skimming the local or national news. Third, try to engage in social activities that you enjoy. For instance, if you enjoy playing tennis, you might be more comfortable socializing after playing a match. Finally, attend as many after-hours social functions as possible and make an effort to become “one of the group.”

4. BE A TEAM LEADER; WORK WELL WITH OTHERS
One way to be noticed by potential mentors is to demonstrate leadership. Leadership starts by supporting other members in your work group. Finishing your personal assignments is important, but assisting other group members in completing their portion of the project, whether it’s an audit engagement or a corporate budget, enables the whole group to succeed. Facilitating group success is an important leadership trait and will earn you recognition from more-senior personnel (or potential mentors). Also, carefully evaluate the instructions you receive and, when appropriate, challenge instructions that don’t make sense or appear to contradict the group’s goals. Providing insightful feedback to superiors demonstrates that you are thinking and ready to assume a leadership role.

5. AVOID THE NEGATIVES
Word travels quickly in any organization, whether it’s public accounting or industry. If your reputation among your coworkers is less than satisfactory, potential mentors will hear about it. Mentors are looking for people they can trust. Demonstrate that you are trustworthy and dependable by avoiding office gossip and keeping confidential information to yourself. Also, avoid arrogant behavior: Let your performance speak for itself without being condescending to others. Remember that team players are the ones with the most potential.

6. MENTORS AND SUPERVISORS
Often, mentor-protégé relationships begin as supervisor-supervisee relationships. Typically, as the supervisor (mentor) moves up, his or her supervisee (protégé) will move up and assume the supervisor’s (mentor’s) job. However, not all mentoring relationships work this way. Your immediate supervisor might not be able to provide the social support and career development support you need. For example, if you have a poor relationship with a challenging supervisor, you might seek mentoring assistance from someone outside of your work group.

Cultivating mentoring relationships with professionals outside of your immediate work group has several benefits. First, if you encounter problems in dealing with your supervisor, an outside mentor can offer advice on what to do based on his or her experiences. Second, by placing your trust in a mentor outside of your work group, the confidences you share with your mentor are less likely to generate negative consequences (such as, “You’re not supporting our goals and objectives”). Third, a mentor outside of your work group can offer encouragement and support, regardless of your supervisor’s personal appraisal of your potential. Finally, a mentor outside of your work group might be in a position to stick up for you if your supervisor submits an unfair or unbalanced evaluation.

7. E-MENTORING
Although we highly recommend developing mentoring relationships with employees within your office, e-mentoring is an alternative way to build a network of mentors. E-mentoring offers several advantages, including (1) wider access to mentors by eliminating geographical barriers, (2) less intimidating means of communication (easier to converse electronically regardless of position and power), and (3) more neutrality regarding race, gender, age and physical characteristics.

E-mentoring also has potential disadvantages, including (1) increased likelihood of miscommunication when nonverbal cues are absent, (2) slower relationship progression compared to face-to-face relationships (trust and rapport take time to evolve) and (3) increased concern about privacy and confidentiality (e-mentors might be reluctant to discuss certain issues since exchanges are stored electronically). However, perhaps the most significant deficiency in e-mentoring is the absence of role modeling (you would be unable to observe the e-mentor on a day-to-day basis). Aside from these limitations, e-mentoring can be a useful option when opportunities for in-office mentoring relationships are limited.

8. BE WILLING TO LEARN
Technical ability is important in the accounting profession, but your enthusiasm for acquiring new skills is just as important. You can demonstrate your willingness to learn by asking potential mentors for challenging new tasks, especially if you feel stuck completing well-learned tasks. For example, by volunteering to help research an upcoming complex transaction, you exhibit a willingness to confront new challenges. In a similar fashion, you can demonstrate enthusiasm for learning by actively participating in training programs and webinars, joining industry-based professional groups and engaging in social clubs that provide public-speaking opportunities (especially if you are uncomfortable speaking in public). Then, let potential mentors know what specific steps you are taking to mature as a professional.

FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS
Without a doubt, having a network of mentors who champion your career, assist you in dealing with complex and demanding work issues, offer friendship and acceptance and serve as role models is a true treasure (true mentors). Just remember, you don’t have to wait for mentors to come along. Rather, beginning today, you can cultivate a network of mentoring relationships: Identify what you expect to gain from mentoring relationships; carefully consider whether your personality matches with potential mentors’ personalities; evaluate potential mentors’ experience and availability; then begin the process of networking and connecting. Finally, resolve to be receptive to new ideas, candid feedback and no-nonsense conversations with your network of mentors.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  CPA professionals at all stages in their career can benefit professionally and personally by learning to cultivate mentoring relationships.

  A single mentor might not provide all the support you need. By developing multiple mentoring relationships, CPA professionals can find social support through step-ahead mentors and career support through more-senior personnel.

  Seek out opportunities to initiate relationships with potential mentors or role models. For example, set a goal to become more acquainted with higher-ranking managers and partners at company events or meetings.

  Let your mentor, or potential mentor, know the steps you are taking to become an improved professional. For example, demonstrate your leadership skills by being a team player and leader, avoiding the negatives and displaying a willingness to learn.

Ralph E. Viator ( ralph.viator@ttu.edu ) is a professor of accounting at Texas Tech University. Derek Dalton ( dalton5@clemson.edu ) is an assistant professor at Clemson University.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Kim Nilsen, executive editor, at knilsen@aicpa.org or 919-402-4048.

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