CPA INSIDER

Tips for finding and securing a mentor

Mentors offer guidance on everything from careers to industry changes.
By Dawn Wotapka

You've heard it a lot: Having a mentor is good for your career. But how do you find one? And how do you ask someone to provide this valuable service?

"It can be awkward," said David Galowich, founder and CEO of Terra Firma Leadership LLC, a professional development organization based in Chicago. "We're not wired to say, 'You're better at something than I am and I need help.'"

But if you want to be enriched from the guidance and counsel a mentor can offer, that's exactly what you need to do. Here's how you can secure a mentor:

Open yourself up. It may seem simple, but the first step is to realize that you're ready. That can be difficult because "it all starts with vulnerability," said Galowich. To work with a mentor, you have to open yourself to outside opinions and criticisms, which may not always be easy to hear.

Meanwhile, don't worry that it is too early or too late in your career, said Melissa Shipman, CPA, a vice president of managed business services for staffing firm Robert Half in Houston. People just starting out can be helped, as can someone with decades of experience. "There can be so many benefits all along the stages of your career," said Shipman, who has had at least 10 mentors over the years.

Identify candidates. Many workplaces offer formal mentor programs, so consider beginning your search with a manager or human resources, Shipman said. Someone you respect within your workplace could offer guidance about navigating the nuances of your office's culture and internal politics. Or a peer from a professional organization whom you've heard speak or with whom you've worked on a professional activity could help with questions about shifting jobs, the future of the profession, and more. With whomever you forge a mentor relationship, be sure it's a person you can trust with your private thoughts and confidences, Shipman advised.

Make the ask. Once you identify a candidate, make sure you feel a connection and think about how to best approach him or her. For the formal route, Galowich suggests something like: "I've really enjoyed learning from you. Can we get more of a formal mentorship going?"

Keep in mind that being mentored can be as simple as learning from another person, so if the word "mentor" feels too formal, make the request more casual, Shipman advised. For someone you've met from outside your organization, you might suggest coffee or lunch and say something like: "I'd love to pick your brain on a few things." Another approach she suggested is: "It meant a lot to me what you were sharing. It resonated with me. I'd love to have your insight into my career." If that first encounter goes well, you can then pursue a mentor/mentee relationship.

While most people will consider a mentoring request a compliment, don't be put off or give up on finding a mentor if that person declines your request. "In today's day and age, people may say 'no,'" Galowich said. "They just don't have the bandwidth."

Consider multiple mentors. Meanwhile, don't be afraid to have more than one mentorship going at once, said Shipman. One may be more focused on your corporate life, while another could be the go-to for discussions about how to navigate a changing industry or how to serve on a professional board. Someone else could be an expert on achieving work/life integration or whether to pursue an advanced degree. "If you're clear what your objective is with each mentor and they're not overlapping, I don't think it's confusing," Galowich said.

Keep the connection. Some mentor-mentee relationships have a defined length, say six months or a year, while others may go on indefinitely, said Galowich, who favors more structured formats that specify a time span. You and the mentor can determine that and decide how often you'll connect, depending on timing and what feels natural.

While it's fine to outgrow a relationship and formally or informally end it, don't lose the connection, because you never know when your paths may cross again. "The good news is if it's someone you truly enjoy working with, you're going to stay in touch with them," Galowich said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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