Tips for a great mentoring relationship

Preparation and follow-up may be as important as your mentoring conversations.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Organizations large and small recognize the value of mentoring newer professionals to enhance their confidence and help them fulfill their professional potential. As the AICPA Online Mentoring Program celebrates its first anniversary, participants offer advice that can help firms and professionals get the most value out of any mentoring effort. All of the participants here conducted their mentorship meetings entirely by phone.

Make the right choice: If they know what they want to achieve, mentees can better identify a mentor who can help. Christine Lafferty, CPA, a tax analyst at Eastman Chemical Co., wanted advice from a female professional who worked in taxation and had her own firm. For her, Jackie Tracy, CPA, partner of Mandel & Tracy LLC, in Providence, R.I., "was a great role model," Lafferty said. "It was inspiring to see someone who'd done so well." Lafferty was also relocating from Pennsylvania to work at Eastman in northeastern Tennessee. At the new organization, "I wanted to hit the ground running," Lafferty explained. Tracy counseled her on ways to develop a professional network—through volunteer opportunities at the state CPA society or the AICPA, for example—and establish some visibility within the new company. The mentoring relationship "gave her someone to talk to who wasn't a new or old boss," Tracy said. Especially when someone is changing jobs or locations, "I think it can be a lifeline to help them navigate the new environment."

Shelly Schilling, CPA, a manager at KPMG in San Antonio, Texas, said, "I was looking for a mentor who had already walked the path I was looking to follow and who was successful at what I want to do." Specifically, she sought someone "who had dealt with work/life balance issues and who had moved into the upper ranks of their organization." She connected well with her mentor, Katy Hollister, CPA, chief strategy officer, Deloitte Tax LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had experience with similar issues. "It was very helpful to get advice from someone who's faced the decisions I'm facing or will be."

Rei Kobayashi, CPA, who also chose Hollister as a mentor, began her career in research but switched to accounting and was a senior tax associate at Marcum LLP in New York City when she joined the mentoring program. She and Hollister discussed the importance of asking for opportunities rather than waiting for them to happen. As they were wrapping up their mentoring relationship this summer, Kobayashi learned she had received a promotion she sought.

Develop a clear set of expectations: Hollister and those she mentored established upfront what they wanted from their partnership. "We set practical and realistic expectations," she said. For example, Hollister was able to offer advice to one mentee who wanted to gain visibility in her company and position herself for a specific opportunity, and to another who sought feedback on a variety of career options she was considering. However, she noted, for example, that an external mentor isn't qualified to help with specific issues and people within mentees' organizations.

Be prepared: All of the participants recommend that mentees come to the conversation with questions or an agenda. Lafferty "knew what she wanted and was prepared and respectful of my time," Tracy said. The two talked monthly at the outset, then moved to every other month giving Lafferty more time to make use of the mentoring advice and develop further conversation topics. Staying on track is also important. "Have an agenda and stick to it during the conversation," Hollister advised. She encouraged mentees to consider exactly what they wanted to get out of each conversation beforehand in order to keep the discussion much more focused.

Schedule and record: Putting future meetings on the calendar establishes the kind of commitment necessary to make the relationship work, participants said. In addition, since it can be easy to forget exactly what was accomplished during the last conversation that happened six weeks ago, Hollister recommended taking notes and reviewing them before the next meeting to keep both mentors and mentees on point and enable them to move forward more quickly. 

Tools to get started: "We were really able to connect," Lafferty said about her relationship with Tracy. How can you or your firm members make their own valuable mentoring connections? The AICPA Online Mentoring Program matches volunteer mentors and mentees with similar backgrounds and enables them to work together online or over the phone. AICPA resources include a mentoring guide that offers advice on how to start a mentoring program or get the most value from a mentoring relationship.

The AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, Nov. 8-10 in Chicago, will give you a chance to put these tips into action at a special speed mentoring session during the conference.

Yasmine El-Ramly is senior technical manager–Firm Services and Global Alliances for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants in Durham, N.C.

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