Exploring mentorship: A graceful exit

How one firm helps departing staffers find opportunities
By Ken Tysiac

Exploring mentorship: A graceful exit
Image by Dmitrii Guzhanin/iStock

When "Jason" told the leaders of Lauterbach & Amen LLP that he wanted to leave the firm, their reaction was comforting. Rather than taking offense, the firm's leaders began working to help him find the position he is looking for.

"We know that you have to do what's best for you and your family," said Nathan Gaskill, CPA, one of five partners at the firm. "And we have to do what's best for us in our professional environment. And that turns into, in the case of [Jason], having multiple people involved with his career outlook."

Mentoring is a major focus at Lauterbach & Amen, which is located about 30 miles west of Chicago and employs about 100 people. Aside from the founding partners, the partners at the firm rose through the ranks with the help of coaching from others there. These partners' experiences helped spark the commitment to a formal mentoring program that exists today. The firm more often uses the term "coaching," which is embedded at several levels throughout the firm. This includes young people. Staff members with under three years at the firm are responsible for interviewing, recruiting, and coaching interns. It also includes exiting staff, who can expect help from management and leadership in their search for a place that meets their needs inside or outside the firm.

The commitment to helping someone leave the firm may seem unusual or awkward to some, but Lauterbach & Amen's leaders have found that a holistic approach to mentoring suits the firm's culture. Since the firm's inception, its leaders have committed to creating relationships that are mutually beneficial to the firm and staff members. This form of mentoring also can be helpful in building relationships outside the firm if the staff member leaves to work for a client, but Lauterbach & Amen views this as merely a residual benefit. From the firm's perspective, the objective is to support its people so that, in turn, the people will support the firm.

"Jason" (a pseudonym to protect his privacy during his job search) is an audit manager who has spent seven years with the firm. Gaskill, who is helping Jason pursue other opportunities, said Jason is "crazy smart" with a strong understanding of technology plus technical auditing expertise that makes him an asset in the firm's relationships with the municipal clients he serves. Gaskill said Jason is qualified for an upper-level finance director or CFO type of position. Jason said he appreciates the family atmosphere of Lauterbach & Amen, which has grown its revenue by about 20% per year since it was formed in 1997 by Sherry Lauterbach, CPA, and Ronald Amen, CPA.

But a lengthy commute to work is wearing on Jason. It's a 45-minute drive one way from his house to the firm's offices in Warrenville, Ill., and some of the firm's clients are even farther from his home. He said it was difficult to decide that he wants to leave, but he felt comfortable approaching Amen to discuss that decision and how to move on from there. As head of the firm's audit services line, Amen has worked closely with Jason over the years and has always been open and available to help him with questions. Jason said the reactions of Amen, Gaskill, and others have helped him remain comfortable as he figures out his next career move.

"It's taken what could be a very stressful situation and made it very positive," he said. "I can tell they are looking out for my best interests."

Some opportunities within the firm were discussed, but Jason and his mentors agreed that they weren't the right fit. Then the firm learned that a client had an employment opportunity. That one may be a better fit, and Jason is pursuing it. The three references Jason is listing are two partners at the firm, plus a co-worker who's on the firm's staff. The firm believes Jason's next role is likely to be in a client accounting services position. So as partner-in-charge of the firm's consulting services, Gaskill is helping Jason identify opportunities that would fit his needs, experience, and location.

In an environment where many surveys show finding skilled people is a challenge, it's never easy to lose a valuable staff member. But it's also not ideal to keep a staff member who is unhappy. Gaskill likes to look at situations and find a way for both parties to win. He also learned from one of his own mentors that you can't treat people like entries on a spreadsheet.

A spreadsheet would tell Gaskill that Jason is a valuable asset. He has provided an important level of maturity in a growing organization that employs many young staff members and has three partners who are under 35 years old. It's difficult to let go of somebody with Jason's skills, much less help him find a job outside the organization.

At the same time, a firm that tries to create a family atmosphere can't turn its back when a member of that family is eager for a new opportunity, even if it does come from outside the firm. Gaskill said helping Jason reaffirms that the firm is practicing what it preaches when it talks about a family culture.

"It doesn't really matter where you are in your career," he said. "We all have to have each other's best interests at heart."

About the author

Ken Tysiac is a JofA editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at ktysiac@aicpa.org or 919-402-2112.

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