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NextGen Magazine

 
 

Mentors: Valuable Both in and Outside a Firm

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 5, 2019
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Having a mentor can make a significant difference over the course of someone’s career. Numerous academic studies have found links between mentorship and improved rates of promotion, compensation and overall career satisfaction. One 2004 study, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, used meta-analysis of existing research to reach findings that were generally supportive of the benefits associated with mentoring. While many companies have formal mentorship programs, including each of the Big Four accounting firms, what if you’re at one of the firms that don’t have one? Or what if your firm isn’t offering the type of help and support you really need? At a certain point, it might be better to look outside your company for a mentor.
Ellen Ensher, a management consultant and professor who co-authored the book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Get the Most out of Their Relationships, said that mentors need not be exclusively internal or external, and that, ideally, professionals should have multiple mentors, both in and out of their firms.

“All of my research is based on the belief and idea and proof that it’s best to have a network of mentors, so take advantage of what your organization offers, but in addition to that, look outside your organization to have different types of mentor,” she said. “It’s good to have someone literally a year or two ahead of you, careerwise, [someone] at the same level who has complementary skills and perspectives, [and someone who is] further along and can sponsor you.”

NYSSCPA Past President J. Michael Kirkland, who made mentoring young professionals a major part of his own career, raised a similar point, saying that having an internal mentor and sponsor is key to success within a firm, but, at the same time, so is having an outside mentor who can be candid in ways that people within your own organization cannot.

“Particularly for students and young people starting out, you need to understand the different types of mentors out there: There’s the mentor at work that helps you maneuver through the organization, there’s the key mentor that sponsors you to help you get that promotion, and then there’s the person you go to, a confidant, … outside of work, to get some really hard advice,” he said.

Discussions with outside mentors could involve sensitive matters that you don’t necessarily want to share at work, such as frustrations with your supervisor, or whether to take a position at another company. They can also include hard critiques that those you work with may not be comfortable sharing, such as those pertaining to professional dress, work ethic or communication style. Kirkland noted that, in any kind of mentoring relationship, you have to be prepared to hear these sorts of hard truths and make an effort to change, saying that mentors are not signing up to be your cheerleader.

Both he and Ensher noted that outside mentors need not necessarily be CPAs themselves. Professionals in CPA-adjacent fields such as banking, law and finance can also provide good insights, particularly given their outside perspective. Ensher added that, even beyond these realms, depending on the type of guidance you’re looking for, an outside mentor could be just about anyone you look up to and admire, observing that we can use mentors in all areas of our lives.

There are many ways you can look for an outside mentor.

Beth van Bladel, a career CFO and a member of the Private Company Council—the primary advisory body to the Financial Accounting Standards Board on private company matters—said that she was proactive about finding mentors when she first became a CFO. Noting that, “when you’re CFO, you’re a CFO of one in an organization—you don’t have anyone to go to,” she started a CFO Committee within the NYSSCPA’s Northeast Chapter as a way to gather together CFOs in industry to share their insights and challenges with each other as a sort of peer mentoring exercise.

“I started that committee because I needed a mentor specifically, and what’s wonderful about our committee is we have CFOs at all stages of their careers—they’re just starting out or they recently retired or in the middle, and we come out regularly to talk about what we’re going through and problems we’re trying to solve at our companies,” she said.

She added that she also makes it a point to reach out to speakers or writers who, she thinks, made particularly good points, to see if they want to meet for coffee, a practice that, she pointed out, is very similar to the principles of networking.

Denise M. Stefano, chair of the accounting department at Mercy College, pointed out that school alumni networks can also be great resources for finding mentors. Her own school, she said, maintains a strong connection with its alumni and, in fact, has a formal mentoring program through that network. Most likely, other schools have similar programs and so might be good places to look. Yet she recommended against just looking someone up and cold calling—instead, she said, you should find some sort of connection, ideally, a mutual acquaintance who can make an introduction, such as someone from your college.

“I’ve done that a lot, where students had questions [about] what they needed to do to get a job at a particular firm, and I reached out to people at the firm for the students I knew … to connect them and feel more comfortable,” she said.

Kirkland noted that the same principles can apply to LinkedIn, which, he said, is another powerful tool for finding mentors, pointing to his own personal experiences.

“A young lady from Queens University, someone who worked for a firm, found me on LinkedIn, looked at my bio and thought it was interesting, and thought I could offer something, and so she just sent me an email. Just asked, ‘Mr. Kirkland, this is my issue; can you share some advice?’ and I did,” he said. While not everyone will answer back, it can still be worth it to reach out.

Finally, Kirkland pointed to another rich vein of professional guidance: the NYSSCPA. He advised young members to join committees, get involved with their local chapters, and make it a point to go to events and meet as many people as possible. Ask questions about what they do, exchange business cards, and ask about reaching out to them later to talk more.

“The State Society is one of the best places to go to make that connection outside of school, outside of work, that can put you in contact with so many different places,” he said.