Make the Most of Mentoring

Hands-on coaching can maximize the potential of your firm’s young talent.


The definition of mentoring is expanding to include the concept of coaching, which is focused on helping others learn job-related skills for growth.

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.

Yet many 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.

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.

In more 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, ). 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 mentoring session:

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.

Summarize. Near 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.

Wilkin & 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.

But W&G 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.

Janine Zirrith, 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 team.

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.

Katherine 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.

This 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.

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.

“The 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,” says Adona.

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 perspective.

“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.

Based on 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 seniors.

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 entire firm.

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 career.

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 Partnership

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 differences.

Document your activities and how they lead to career growth.

Meet regularly, but be flexible.

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.


Coaching: Improving Employee Performance , a CPE self-study course (#732972)

Promoting Your Talent: A Guidebook for Women and Their Firms (#872566)

Share. Learn. Grow. Mentor. , a brochure that provides tools for firms to start a mentoring program, information on finding a mentor and becoming a mentor, and the roles and responsibility of both the mentors and mentees,

For more information or to place an order go to or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Web site
The Young CPA Network,


Robert Half International Financial Leadership Council, Charting the Future of the Accounting, Finance and Audit Professions ,


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