Tough love: When mentoring marks a turning point

In the right situation, a demanding mentor can put a career back on track.
By Cheryl Meyer

Justin Turner (right) with his mentor Gary Boyd, CPA
Justin Turner (right) said the direct and honest feedback he received from his mentor, partner Gary Boyd, CPA, helped inspire the confidence necessary to rise to a senior management role at Montgomery Coscia Greilich LLP. (Photo by Brandon Wade/AP Images)

More than eight years ago, Justin Turner, fresh out of college, worked as an audit associate at Montgomery Coscia Greilich LLP in Plano, Texas. Turner had little direction, but he needed a job.

Over the next two years, though, Turner was unhappy, struggling with what to do next. "I was a low performer and didn't enjoy auditing at all," he said recently. "I was even considering leaving the firm and trying something different. I did not enjoy getting up and going to work."

Fast-forward to 2017. Thanks in part to a dedicated and tough mentor and his own initiative, Turner, 31, is now a senior manager in the firm's Transaction Advisory Services division and on track to become a firm partner over the next few years. His turnaround offers evidence that mentoring plays an important role in development of young accountants.

So how did he go from frustrated to fulfilled? Turner's climb within the firm began when he requested a move in 2010 to the consulting arm, then 2 years old. Once there, he met and fell under the wing and tutelage of Gary Boyd, CPA, a firm partner who helped start the advisory practice. There, Turner began doing projects and transaction work.

Boyd, who admits he was tough on Turner, helped him bolster his soft skills in areas such as setting goals, building his network, handling difficult situations, and understanding client perceptions. Turner lacked a formal accounting degree and worked hard to overcome that hurdle, Boyd said. "Now he understands certain accounting areas such as standard costing and percentage-of-completion accounting better than anyone. He's very open to coaching and mentoring, and that's helped him grow a lot," he added.

Since Turner began his journey at MCG, the public accounting firm has grown organically from about 60 people to 320, said Zak Everson, CPA, Turner's former manager and an audit partner in the practice's Assurance Group. With this growth came the addition of the consulting arm (which includes the Transaction Advisory Services division) and a more formal mentoring program that allows employees to gain knowledge from more experienced co-workers. The firm's rapid growth created the opportunity for Turner to make an almost lateral move, with the hopes of getting rejuvenated. "We kind of rebooted his career," Everson said. "He just needed the right fit within our firm and an outlet where he could see true growth. ... Fortunately for him, he knocked it out of the park quickly."

Turner said he learned plenty from Boyd, who holds high expectations but also inspires confidence. "A mentor can help keep you on track for the things you are doing right and doing wrong," he said. "The more I progress, the more I see the benefit of someone helping bring you along to a leadership position in the firm."

Mentors are important, Boyd echoed, because young accountants often work with a wide range of managers and partners who have varying work styles, and savvy mentors can help navigate those waters. He advises young professionals to find a coach who is well-respected within the firm and is comfortable giving tough advice. When selecting a mentor, one should also take note of which managers or partners are "truly engaging" clients both professionally and personally, Everson added.

Turner's directional change can also be attributed to MCG's culture, which promotes growth and movement within the firm to keep employees satisfied. "Our view is, if they don't move, we'll lose them," Boyd said. To promote internal growth, he noted, communication between affected groups is paramount. If partners agree to move an employee from one area to another, his firm also ensures logistically that clients are still serviced. "We try to set a transfer date well in advance so that client relationships can be transitioned over a long period of time," he said.

To prevent disruptions, the firm also encourages employees to create specific career paths where they spend a certain number of months per year in one group, such as audit and tax, and the rest of the time in another group, such as consulting. "This way you can plan accordingly with client relationships and projects," Boyd added. A firm can also solicit volunteers from other departments to help on projects or with clients.

Boyd's goal before retiring is to ensure Turner makes partner, which he envisions could happen within a few years, predicated on Turner's continued development under his guidance. Turner is still averse to tackling tough situations, something that he needs to work on in order to step into a partner role. He also must continue to build on his network and bring in business, he said, and foster solid relationships with all of the firm's partners.

"Those early skills that we loved about him—building relationships, getting along with people, working hard, and having a great attitude—have turned out to be core leadership skills, and he definitely has a bright leadership future in this group and in our firm, too," Boyd said.

Turner and Boyd offer the following tips on how best to apply "tough love" mentoring without discouraging the mentee:

  • Use "tough love" when it fits: A diligent and harsh approach to mentoring doesn't work for all employees. Finding the right approach for each person is a key for successful mentoring. Some team members might respond well to a "tough love" style, but others may prefer a more collaborative approach.
  • Keep things confidential and consistent: A mentor-mentee relationship should be treated much like an attorney-client association—in confidence. Instructions should not be given in front of other employees, "because it's a tool for learning, not embarrassment," Turner said. "Additionally, the mentor in these situations needs to be fair and consistent. If it feels like it is coming out of left field, then it loses its intent."
  • Clarify your purpose: Mentors should express that they use direct and honest feedback because they care and want the mentee to succeed. Boyd said Turner understands this approach. "He appreciates why I'm doing that, and he's a sponge—and he learns from it," Boyd said.
  • Explain why improvements are important: A mentor needs to outline why it is vital that an employee learn a certain skill. "If they understand why and how it will benefit them later, it is much easier to accept," Boyd said. "Justin is harder on himself than I am, but he wants to advance and be a leader, so he knows that is part of the learning experience."

About the author

Cheryl Meyer (meyerwrites@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in California.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-2112.


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