The seeds of a mentoring program at Matthews, Cutrer & Lindsay were planted with Kimberly Hardy, CPA/CFF, a promising young professional who described herself as a "wallflower," someone who perhaps wouldn't have naturally felt comfortable in a leadership role.
Hardy, a Mississippi native who earned her Master of Accountancy degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., joined MC&L in 2007 as an intern. The firm has 10 shareholders on a staff of 30 (including 17 CPAs) and offers an array of services including audit, tax, consulting, and valuation. Soon after Hardy became an intern, the partners realized she was a potential future leader. Charles Lindsay, CPA, partner and secretary and Hardy's unofficial mentor at the firm based in Ridgeland, Miss., said Hardy possesses qualities that set her apart. She generates and crafts in-house proposals and then thinks through the details about how these projects can better serve the firm and its clients. "We have known ever since Kim's internship that she had a tremendous amount of potential, and we have worked hard to find ways to tap her energy and her ideas, and help her advance," he noted.
Lindsay's mentoring of Hardy played a significant role in her development. Lindsay took her to networking events to help her emerge from her shell.
"That wallflower she described turned into a vibrant voice" in front of the firm's clients, Lindsay said.
The experience gained through mentoring and networking quickly set Hardy in motion on her fast track to the top. At 31, Hardy made partner at MC&L and took on the role of firm human resources director while continuing to work with clients. Over the past few years, she also helped launch several culture-changing programs, including a flexible mentoring plan that is changing the professional lives of not only the protégés but also the mentors.
In 2014, Hardy designed the "Anytime, Anywhere Work Environment" program, which enables professionals to set their own hours, have Saturdays off during busy season, and create their own work/life balance as long as they achieve the firm's desired outcome. One year later, she created a plan, still going strong, that allows employees to take every other Friday off May through September. These proposals required partner approval, and Hardy was instrumental in gaining the shareholders' blessing.
"She's pioneered programs to bring us into the 21st century," MC&L partner and President Matthew Freeland, CPA, said.
PUTTING PASSION INTO A PROGRAM
Perhaps Hardy's greatest passion surfaced when she initiated and helped frame the firm's mentoring program. About six years ago, she and several colleagues created "Performance by Objectives," a structured and mandatory mentoring endeavor that matched protégés and mentors and asked protégés to present their goals in three categories: revenue/profit, performance, and personal. For instance, protégés could focus on bringing in new business, enhancing their skills in a particular area, and passing the CPA Exam.
That formula came with challenges, though, as some professionals did not feel the need to participate, not all pairs were a good match, not everyone followed through to enhance the experience, and, in some cases, too much documentation was involved. "Overall, everyone felt that the program needed a change," Hardy said.
In 2015, she and her team revamped the program to be less structured and, in most cases, optional. Professional staff with more than one year on board can opt out, and protégés can choose their mentors and vice versa. Meetings between the two are not required, though they are encouraged. Under the revamped program, goals are more personal in nature instead of being based on job requirements, which several employees thought they already were working on outside the mentor program. The new mentoring program goals are more in line with protégés' personal interests, such as networking and practice development, for example.
"The overall goal was to facilitate partnerships that will help the individuals grow in their careers," Hardy said. "People who have been in practice for a long time have a wealth of knowledge they can share, but mentees have to be open and willing to listen." So far, the program has been a big hit, and no major changes will be made this year beyond some possible training courses to benefit the group.
"We all need to be fed from experience of others," said Lindsay, who also has a mentor outside the firm. "And I believe that is a goal that our program does achieve."
HOW TO MAKE MENTORING A SUCCESS
To monitor the progress of the program, firm leaders review the goal-setting sheets to make sure the protégés are making progress toward their goals. Leaders of the program check in three times a year with the protégés to make sure the mentoring is productive, and leadership has an open-door policy to make sure protégés feel comfortable discussing their mentorship at any time.
Hardy offered the following tips to creating and operating a successful mentoring program:
- Make sure employees want a mentoring program. Conduct a survey, or sit down with each employee to discuss whether a mentor could help in his or her career. "The mentoring program will only be successful if there is buy-in from the participants," she said.
- Do your research. Read articles in the JofA or other publications, and reach out to colleagues at other firms to see what they are doing in terms of mentoring. Ask about pitfalls to avoid.
- Prepare a plan. Determine the structure of the program, how mentor/protégé groups will be chosen, and what type of training mentors will receive, if any. For instance, Hardy's firm pairs mentors and protégés based on protégé preference and an application form that lists the protégés' goals. "Our current program has been successful because we allowed mentors to opt in," she said. "This ensures that mentors want to help guide another's career." Her firm also encourages the protégés to pursue regular meetings with their mentors. If mentors receive training, topics such as "how to handle difficult conversations" and "how to set measurable goals" should be addressed.
- Focus on feedback. Follow up with participants at least once every six months to gauge the mentoring program's effectiveness. Also, keep an open-door policy, which allows protégés to provide feedback at any time, either via email or in person. "We try to encourage everyone to let us know if something isn't working or can be improved," Hardy said.
About the author
Cheryl Meyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in California.
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- "To My Mentors and Mentees: Thank You," JofA, June 2017
- "Exploring Mentorship: A Story of Passion and Purpose," JofA, April 2017
- "Mentoring for Executives and Managers," JofA, March 2017
- "Find a Mentor, Land a New Job," JofA, Feb. 2017
- "Exploring Mentorship: A Graceful Exit," JofA, Nov. 2016
- "How to Find the Right Mentor," CPA Insider, June 13, 2016
- Improve the Organisation's Performance Through Coaching (#159893, online access; #GT-CGMA.LCB.EL, group training)
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