Exploring mentorship: A story of passion and purpose

How a merger and a mentor changed the career path of a young CPA
By Eddie Huffman

 Stephanie Yan, CPA, (left) has become a key leader in Green Hasson Janks’s notfor-profit practice under the guidance of her mentor, Donella Wilson, CPA.
Stephanie Yan, CPA, (left) has become a key leader in Green Hasson Janks’s notfor-profit practice under the guidance of her mentor, Donella Wilson, CPA. (Photo by Matt Harbicht/AP Images)

Stephanie Yan, CPA, discovered a passion for working with not-for-profit organizations after a merger broadened the scope of her firm. Her mentor, Donella Wilson, CPA, helped her nurture that passion into a leadership role.

Yan and Wilson work for Green Hasson Janks (GHJ), a 150-employee accounting firm in Los Angeles founded in 1953. In 2005, GHJ merged in Whittemore & Associates, a firm that specialized in work for not-for-profit organizations. That merger ultimately sparked the growth of the not-for-profits practice to more than 40% of GHJ's audit practice—and changed the course of Yan's career.

"Before that, we had very little, if any, exposure to the nonprofit world," she said. "That wasn't really even an option that I was aware of."

Yan, who joined GHJ at the beginning of 2004, worked primarily with real estate, distribution, and manufacturing companies. After the merger, she gradually made the transition to not-for-profit work over the course of several years.

"Working with those organizations, I realized what a difference we can make," Yan said.

And not-for-profit work has made a huge difference in Yan's career. Though she still spends about a quarter of her time working with corporate clients, Yan was promoted to principal with GHJ a year ago to head the firm's private foundation engagements. Wilson, the partner who leads the firm's not-for-profit practice, has helped Yan advance her career—a feat achieved while Yan has worked a reduced schedule since 2011 raising her two young daughters.

Yan is "very smart, very technical, and she developed an interest in more complex investment portfolios," Wilson said. "Including Stephanie on private foundation engagements was therefore a natural fit."

After Gayle Whittemore and her firm came on board, Whittemore mentored Wilson, who mentored Yan in turn.

"I benefited from having a wonderful mentor," Wilson said. "She's the reason I'm leading the not-for-profit practice."

Yan and Wilson are both immigrants. Yan grew up in Shanghai. After college, she worked briefly as an audit associate in China before moving to California. She worked for almost three years as a staff accountant for a company that makes biomedical laboratory instruments before joining GHJ. Wilson grew up in South Africa, doing accounting work there and in England before moving to the United States. The women have worked closely together since Yan started at GHJ in 2004, four years after Wilson came on board.

Mentoring has become a focus at GHJ in recent years, according to Mari-Anne Kehler, chief marketing and strategy officer.

"A key for us as a firm has been a very pervasive commitment to identifying, supporting, and nurturing future leaders," she said.

Yan had other mentors before Wilson, including Tom Barry, another GHJ partner. After it became clear about three years ago that Yan's focus had shifted from the for-profit world, Barry asked her about teaming up with a new mentor. Yan asked to work with Wilson, with whom she already had a comfortable relationship as an informal mentor.

"I've known her since I joined the firm," Yan said. "We used to work together on out-of-town real estate clients. I knew her well and always liked her management style."

Their mentoring relationship became official in 2014. Since then, Wilson has coached Yan in a number of areas, including speaking up more in meetings to share her opinions.

"Working so closely with Stephanie, I can see where her strengths and areas of opportunity and development lie," Wilson said.

Wilson is one of several partners Yan reports to regularly for different audit engagements. The women work together "almost every day," Yan said, and sit down for formal mentoring discussions about once per quarter.

"I think she has found her voice," Wilson said. "In the beginning, I think she was a bit surprised at how closely people listened when she contributed an idea or a viewpoint. But actually now I think she has really started to enjoy it."

Yan already had strong skills in a number of areas, including efficiency, time management, and organization, Wilson said. Yan has become more involved in teams, developing her leadership capacity, Wilson said.

"Donella has helped me find confidence in myself as far as being a leader," Yan said. "I go to a lot of board meetings where she is doing client presentations. Learning directly from how she conducts those meetings helps me become a more confident, better presenter in general. She's a very personable, approachable person—I just admire the way she interacts with the clients. She's at ease with whoever she talks to."

Yan's improved confidence has helped give her a broader perspective on her work with the firm, Wilson said.

"I think she can see that she's making a difference beyond just completing an audit effectively and maintaining a good relationship with clients," Wilson said. "I think giving her this voice and allowing her to lead has allowed her to move from an operational focus to more of a strategic focus. She's a role model for our younger staff."

Goals for further development include increasing Yan's confidence in engaging audiences in conversations beyond compliance and technical issues, said Wilson, who admires Yan's ability to listen and offer thoughtful responses to questions and concerns.

"I think what's great about working with Stephanie is that we're different in the way that we approach things," Wilson said. "I also learn from her. I think that that's a nice balance. I don't want her to be a clone of me, and I'm sure she doesn't want to be."

What's the most important lesson Yan has learned from Wilson?

"Follow your passion, I would say," Yan said. "If you do something you truly believe in, it doesn't feel like hard work, even though it is hard work."

About the author

Eddie Huffman (huffman.eddie@gmail.com) is a Greensboro, N.C.-based freelance writer.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4056.

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