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PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

How to start and run a mentoring program

The right people, processes, and reporting structure are key to meeting goals.

By Jeff Drew
March 2014

How to start and run a mentoring programPaul Martin had a lot more questions than answers when he started as a staff accountant at Apple Growth Partners. At the top of the list: Where did he want to go with his career in public accounting?

“I didn’t know what path to take,” he said.

Martin found direction in the mentoring program at Apple Growth, a 90-employee firm based in Akron, Ohio. Following the firm’s guidelines, he worked with his mentor to create an individual development plan that would help him chart and progress down a career path.

“My mentor really helped me stick to a plan of action goals,” Martin said. “It really helped me start on the path I want to go, which is ultimately to partner level.”

Four years after starting at Apple Growth, Martin is making progress on his career aspirations. He just finished taking the last part of the CPA exam and hopes to have his license soon. He has been promoted to senior staff accountant and even has begun mentoring three staff accountants at the firm.

Mentoring programs have long been desired by young, and sometimes not-so-young, CPAs. Firms are increasingly finding real value in these programs because they help prepare the future leaders of accounting firms and, therefore, play a pivotal role in succession plans. The AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS)/Texas Society of CPAs 2012 Management of an Accounting Practice (MAP) survey found a significant jump in the percentage of firms that include mentoring and training as part of their partner compensation formula, from 3% in 2010 to 15% in 2012.

There is room for improvement, however. The AICPA’s PCPS 2011 Top Talent Survey found that while 80% of the brightest young CPA talent participated in some form of mentoring, fewer than half had access to a formal program. Of those who did, 84% reported that they benefited from the mentoring program (see “The Lowdown on High Potentials,” JofA, Dec. 2011, page 36).

For the better part of 20 years, Gatto, Pope & Walwick LLP (GPW) was one of those firms that provided mentoring but did not have a formal program. The San Diego-based practice enjoyed success with its mentoring efforts, but it decided about a year ago to formalize and document the program. The goal was to solidify the parts of the mentoring system that worked well and to shore up its reporting and accountability mechanisms.

GPW’s system is similar to the mentoring program used at Apple Growth and follows many of the guidelines laid out by consultant Rita Keller, an expert in mentoring programs. This article draws from all of those mentoring plans to outline a framework for designing and deploying a formal mentoring program.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESS

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue, Keller said. The committee should include stakeholders from different levels within the firm, which should select one of the committee members to spearhead, or own, the project. The committee should research mentoring programs through CPA firm associations, state societies, and the AICPA, among other sources. The firm should then draft a mentoring document that fits the firm’s goals and culture.

At many firms, not all partners will be on board with a mentoring program. Some will question the advisability of devoting nonbillable hours to the project. Supporters can counter such resistance by listing the benefits of a mentoring program (see Exhibit 1). In addition, an analysis of time worked likely will show that there are hours available to devote to a mentoring program without affecting the number of billable hours (see Exhibit 2).


Keller cautions firms not to confuse training programs with mentoring. “Firms need good, strong training programs to set the stage for the mentoring,” she said. “Mentoring should not be how to fill out a tax form.”

Instead, a mentoring program is established to develop future firm leaders and to foster healthy work relationships, said Katie Lee, Apple Growth’s human resources manager. Apple Growth set up its mentoring program almost a decade ago because it needed to have a better understanding of its staff’s succession potential. “We had no answers where our employees were going in the future,” she said. “It was a shot in the dark who wanted to be a manager or a partner.”

The mentoring program helped Apple Growth learn about its personnel’s career desires. Mentoring arrangements also establish connections that can help guide CPAs down their career path.

“It’s finding someone who really cares about you and your career,” Keller said. It’s the type of relationship that has facilitated young CPA learning for decades, she added. But while informal arrangements work, having a written mentoring program helps to establish accountability and reporting standards while making sure everyone gets a chance to participate, said Thomas J. McFadden, CPA, a GPW partner who heads the firm’s mentoring program. A formal program also helps to make sure the mentoring process and expectations are the same across the firm, Lee said.

That’s a lot to work into one program, but Keller warns firms not to overcomplicate it. “You want to come up with something that’s not too difficult,” she said. “You want something that’s natural, that’s easy. Having a little bit of a framework is important.”

Once that framework is written and the firm is ready to unveil it to the staff, leadership should hold an event or do something else that lets everyone in the firm know that the program is a big deal, Keller said.


GETTING STARTED

Firms should emphasize the importance of the mentoring program to new hires from day one and should actively engage them in mentoring relationships soon after their start date. GPW requires new hires to be paired with a mentor after their first 30 days. Apple Growth connects mentors and mentees around the 90-day mark.

Opinion is divided on whether new employees should select their own mentor or whether the firm should do the matchmaking. Apple Growth’s human resources department assigns mentors to new hires. “It’s hard to choose when you don’t know people really well,” Lee said.

GPW lets new hires choose their own mentors. Most new hires at the 30-day mark have reached a comfort level with a potential mentor, who is a partner or manager but not their direct supervisor, McFadden said. If a new hire is not comfortable selecting a mentor, McFadden or another partner goes through the choices with the employee and assists with the selection.

Keller prefers seeing new hires pick their own mentors, but she places greater emphasis on firms making sure they pick the right people to serve as mentors—a view McFadden and Lee share. Not everybody is suited to be a mentor. Accounting firms usually make promotions based on a CPA’s technical prowess, but many CPAs at the manager level or above lack the soft skills—the ability to motivate, coach, listen, etc.—required in an effective mentor.

“What we’ve found is that not everybody is a mentor,” Lee said. “It’s just not built into them. Some are strictly practitioners, and that’s OK.”

At Apple Growth, 25 of the firm’s 90 employees are mentors, from the senior associate staff level up to partner. All of the firm’s employees are mentees, including the chairman, who is mentored by a member of the board of directors.

“We have found that everyone in the firm needs a mentor,” Lee said. “Mentoring is not necessarily to advance one in their career, but to have an advocate or someone who believes in you. We encourage our team members to always set goals and continue developing new skills. … A mentor is an important figure in your career and is important at every level.”

At GPW, partners and managers serve as mentors. The firm implemented a training program for mentors and guarantees them at least two hours of training per year. Apple Growth introduced a rating system that allows mentees to rate their mentors.

THE MEETINGS

Mentoring programs usually consist of two types of meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set goals and make progress in achieving those goals.

“We set up goals once a year,” said John Valle, CPA, a tax manager and mentor at Apple Growth. “Once we establish goals, we document them at the initial meeting and check in on the progress toward achieving these goals in follow-up meetings.”

Lee said that Apple Growth emphasizes setting S.M.A.R.T. goals—i.e., goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and apply for a defined period of time. GPW’s individual development plans track the following for each goal or objective:

  • Action steps required.
  • Resources needed.
  • Milestones/target dates.
  • Rewards.


Formal meetings generally last an hour to an hour and a half and often are held over lunch. Formal meetings usually involve the mentor checking the mentee’s progress on goals and determining what steps the mentee needs to take and what assistance the firm can provide. Goals and action steps often are written down during the meeting, and business items can be documented in a report filed with program or firm leadership (see Exhibit 3).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversations between mentors and mentees sometimes broach sensitive topics. To protect privacy, GPW requires mentors and mentees to sign a confidentiality agreement. The firm wants mentees to feel safe discussing sensitive in-office and even personal issues with their mentors. No personal information is shared outside of those meetings without the mentee’s permission.

“You feel a little more comfortable sharing confidential information because you know it was going to be kept quiet,” said Brent Gastineau, CPA, a tax manager at GPW who has been both a mentee and a mentor with the firm. “You could talk about someone you were not getting along with.” While open, honest dialogue is desired, mentors must be careful not to allow the meetings to devolve into complaint sessions.

Formal meetings can operate outside of, or as part of, the firm’s official employee evaluation and performance review. At Apple Growth, the official performance review takes place during the meeting held just after the close of busy season, Valle said. Other firms believe that performance reviews should always be kept separate from the mentoring process.

INFORMAL BUT IMPORTANT

Informal meetings between mentors and mentees can be just as valuable as formal meetings, said Martin, the Apple Growth senior staff accountant.

“I would ask my mentor, ‘Hey, can we go out to lunch?’ ” said Martin, who would ask for further explanation of technical issues or general advice. “We would go over it for a half-hour or an hour, and then I’d really understand the issue.”

Informal meetings can take place at any time. Sometimes, mentees walk into their mentor’s office to ask questions or discuss concerns. Other times, mentors will take mentees to networking events or to client meetings. Those expeditions provide opportunities for mentees to learn to connect with potential clients and work with current clients.

“We try to get them involved with networking,” Valle said. “I’ll let them shadow me in a client meeting, but we won’t charge the client for their time.”

REPORTS AND CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

Reporting mechanisms are key to the mentoring process. As head of the mentoring program at GPW, McFadden is responsible for making sure all mentees have a mentor and for keeping a list of those relationships. He also oversees the orientation and training of mentors and handles the termination or alteration of any problematic mentor-mentee relationships.

In addition, McFadden makes sure meeting reporting forms are turned in. Through those, he monitors the progress of each mentee, ensuring that meetings are occurring, advice is being followed, and goals are being set, pursued, and achieved. Finally, he makes twice yearly reports to the partners on the progress of the mentoring program and its participants.

Mentors occasionally step into roles beyond those of meeting with mentees and submitting reports. One of the most difficult situations is resolving a conflict between a mentee and the mentee’s manager. The discord can result from a personality conflict or a disconnect between a mentee’s goals and the supervisor’s goals for the mentee. When goals don’t match, the mentor can be called upon to work with both parties to align the goals. When there is conflict between the mentee and the supervisor, the mentor may choose several courses of action: speaking with the supervisor without the mentee; speaking with the supervisor with the mentee; having the mentee discuss the issue with the supervisor; or convincing the mentee that he or she is in the wrong.

“This is probably the toughest situation a mentor in our firm will face,” McFadden said. “Luckily, it doesn’t come up that often.”

GROUP EFFORT

One-on-one pairings are not the only way to facilitate a mentoring program. Firms can employ a group mentoring approach.

Keller encourages group mentoring because it allows mentors to serve more people. For example, an “engaged” mentor might have three mentees. If the mentor spends 90 minutes in formal meetings with each mentee on a quarterly basis, then the mentor has devoted four and a half hours to mentoring meetings in the quarter. The same mentor could accommodate six mentees, meeting with them in two groups of three each quarter. Even if those meetings are two hours, the mentor has committed less time (four hours vs. four and a half hours) and served twice as many employees.

In a group system, mentees can still request informal one-on-one time with a mentor as needed. And mentors can still take mentees to networking events and client meetings.

THE VALUE PROPOSITION

In the end, mentors and mentees agree that mentoring programs are beneficial. Mentees receive valuable career guidance and develop lasting business and personal relationships. Gastineau, the GPW tax manager, said that the biggest thing he has gained from his mentoring relationships is confidence and support.

“I’ve had somebody on my side who can tell me from their perspective where I’m at in my career and what I need to do to reach my goal,” Gastineau said. “My goal is to be a partner, and I’m going to get there. I’m right on the cusp.”

Mentors often gain from their mentoring activities as well. Martin, who has served as a mentor for a year, credits the process with helping him learn more about the profession.

“When you teach something, it helps you have a better understanding of what you are trying to teach,” he said.

Firms also benefit. McFadden said GPW’s mentoring program is the main reason for the firm’s low turnover—which has contributed to the firm’s top-heavy structure, with 15 managers and partners out of a total of 35 employees. Staff stability also bodes well for Apple Growth, said one of the firm’s tax managers.

“People aren’t leaving,” Valle said. “It says something about our organization that we are developing a strong group of young leaders for the succession of our firm.”


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Mentoring programs help to develop the future leaders of firms and, in the process, solidify succession.

Firms considering a mentoring program should form a committee to study the issue. A member of the committee should step up to “own” the project, and the committee should spearhead the drafting of a document outlining how the mentoring program will work.

Formalized and documented mentoring programs often have reporting and accountability mechanisms that help make sure everyone gets a chance to take part and the expectations are consistent across the organization.

Firms should engage new hires in mentoring relationships in the first few months after the on-boarding process. New hires can select a mentor with whom they feel comfortable, or the firm can pair mentors and mentees. It is important that mentees feel comfortable talking with their mentors and that they are offered confidentiality for personal and sensitive issues.

Mentors must be able to motivate, coach, and listen to mentees. Not all CPAs are cut out to be mentors. Group mentoring is an option when a firm doesn’t have enough mentors for one-on-one pairings.

There are two types of mentoring meetings: formal and informal. Formal meetings take place two to four times a year, for 60 to 90 minutes each, and usually consist of the mentor helping the mentee set and meet career development goals. The meetings usually result in a report with objectives and action items.

Informal meetings can be just as valuable as formal meetings. The types of informal meetings include impromptu discussions between mentor and mentee as well as mentors taking mentees to networking events or on client visits.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.


AICPA RESOURCES

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The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, including the Succession Planning Resource Center, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at aicpa.org/PCPS.
 

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