Young CPAs often have many professional development questions that they can't answer by themselves. That's why it can be crucial for their careers to find a mentor who can help.
"A mentor is someone who is there to facilitate your learning," said Rik Nemanick, an organizational psychologist and mentoring specialist with The Leadership Effect, a consulting firm in St. Louis. "They can be a guide, a coach, a sounding board. They can be someone who holds you accountable."
A mentor also can help expand your technical and soft skills and encourage you to push the envelope. "Mentors are not there to make your decisions, but to challenge and help you focus on those issues that are going to be most significant going forward," said Sal Inserra, CPA, local office managing partner at Crowe Horwath LLP in Atlanta.
But finding a mentor can pose its own challenges, and you need to be diligent in choosing one who will help you meet your goals.
For starters, it's wise not to choose your own supervisor as a mentor if possible. "Your boss may want to push agendas or goals on you that help the business versus you personally," said Rachel Polson, CPA, a partner at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP in Minneapolis and the leader of the mentoring program of TeamWomenMN, a nonprofit organization.
Judy Corner, director of consulting services and mentoring for Insala, a global provider of talent development software and consulting, cautioned, "Don't enter into the mentoring partnership assuming you'll get promoted."
Choosing a mentor can seem complicated: Do you find someone who mirrors your personality or someone who complements it by offering different perspectives? Do you select a mentor of the same sex or opposite sex? Should you pick a mentor within your firm or outside your firm? Do you choose one that is a few years older or many years older? The answers, sources say, can be all of the above.
"It depends on what your goals are," Polson said.
For instance, if you are struggling to balance parenthood and work, choose a mentor who has dealt with that scenario. If you crave the fast track to supervisor, find someone who has gone down that road.
In other words, spend time thinking about why you want a mentor before you waste anyone's time. "I see a lot of people who say mentoring is a good idea, but they don't really know what to do with one," Nemanick said.
Once you narrow your search, meet with a potential mentoring candidate—or candidates. As a business relationship evolves, then it's time to ask whether that person has time to continue as a formal mentor.
Here are the top five qualities you should look for when selecting a mentor:
Availability. Accountants are busy people, so make sure the mentor has time for once-a-month meetings at least. "If you have a mentor who is too busy for you or can't communicate, he or she won't give you any value," Inserra said. A mentor needs to possess a level of unselfishness and should never make you feel as if you are a burden, he added.
Experienced. Look for someone who has know-how and expertise in areas where you want to learn. "The mentor needs to have the skills that are similar to the goals you want to achieve," Polson said. Also, Nemanick said, find someone who is well-networked and who may be able to "introduce you to your next mentor" down the road.
Helpful and honest. Find a mentor who has no set agenda but simply wants to help. "Listening and hearing are not the same thing," Inserra said. "They have to think about your words in an unbiased fashion and provide feedback." Also, choose a mentor who is honest about the issues at hand—and be candid yourself. "If you spend time putting on airs and not being genuine, what will you get out of this?" Polson said.
Challenging. Feedback and results are all-important, so choose a tough guru. "You want a mentor who will challenge you sufficiently so you become a strong, independent thinker," Inserra said. Don't be thin-skinned.
A good fit. Finally, make sure there's chemistry with whomever you choose as a mentor, so you can build that necessary trust. And think about all of your potential options before making a choice. If you're male, you may want to consider a female mentor, or vice versa. While it's easier to work with a mentor in your own firm, you can also seek out one outside your company, field, or even geographical area. "If you can't find somebody to meet your criteria within your organization, then look outside," Corner said.
If you want to develop or modify and improve a mentoring program at your firm, consider using the PCPS Mentoring Guide. If you're looking for a mentor/mentee outside of your firm, check out AICPA's new online mentoring program, where you can be matched with volunteer mentors and mentees.
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this story, email Chris Baysden, senior manager–Magazines & Newsletters at AICPA.