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Getting the most benefit from your mentor

24th Aug 2012
Founder and Author The Accountants Millionaires' Club
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Having listened to countless interviews with our successful Olympic athletes, they have all thanked their support team helping get them to the podium; but, it’s not just athletes who need support teams, ambitious accountants do too, explains Heather Townsend.

Whether you are in practice, industry or running your own firm, your mentor is the equivalent of these athlete’s ‘coach’. So, what exactly is a mentor? A mentor is a trusted adviser, usually someone more experienced or in a more senior role, who acts as a sounding board and helps you find your own direction and achieve your career goals. When Jo (my co-author) and I interviewed partners for our book, ‘How to make partner and still have a life’, we found that every partner pointed to someone who has acted either in an official or unofficial capacity, as a mentor, to help them achieve their career ambitions.

In this article we give you tips on how to find the right mentor for you, and how to get the most out your relationship with your mentor.

How to find the right mentor for you

Before you start to look for a mentor, take some time to decide on what you want from the mentoring relationship. Mentors can play a wide range of roles, and not everyone is suited to every role.

Some of the most common roles are:

  • Role model: providing an example from which the mentee can learn and emulate
  • Coach: helping a mentee to acquire new skills and abilities
  • Career counsellor: listening and helping a mentee work out solutions to their career problems
  • Networker: helping a mentee develop the connections they need to gain experience, get a job, or promotion
  • Facilitator: helping set and achieve goals
  • Critical friend: telling the mentee the uncomfortable truth that only a true friend can
  • Sounding board: giving the mentee the chance to try out ideas and approaches in a safe environment

Take a moment to look at this list of roles, now prioritise which are the most important role that you want your mentor to play for you and your career.

Who do you know who would be excellent at fulfilling these roles for you? If you can, draw up a shortlist of people you would like to ask to be your mentor.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. However, there are some common skills, behaviours and attributes which you should look for when choosing your mentor.

These are:

  • An inspiring role model for you
  • Someone you like and respect
  • Someone you look up too
  • More experienced than you
  • Open-minded and a good listener
  • (If you are in practice) – an influential partner

Many firms operate internal formal mentoring schemes, or actively encourage mentoring relationships. If you work within a practice, you would expect to be able to find a mentor within your firm. There are many, let’s call them, professional mentors for accountants. Very often they will badge themselves as a coach – however, more often than not they are advising you based on their personal experiences rather than any formal coaching qualification. These ‘professional’ mentors will charge for their time. Many partners, very senior managers and practice owners will choose to work with a ‘professional’ mentor – often because they can not get the same experience or knowledge within their current organisation or setup. If you would prefer not to have a mentor from your organisation, it is perfectly possible to find a mentor who will provide their services for free. Typically these are senior level finance professionals who for personal reasons want to help you succeed in your career.

There are no hard and fast rules about whether your mentor should come from within your organisation or from outside of it. It’s worth asking yourself these questions, to help you decide on whether you need an internal or external mentor:

  • Do the skills, knowledge and expertise which I want to gain exist within senior people in my organisation?
  • Do I have inspiring role models within the senior population of my firm or organisation?
  • Am I looking for help to progress my career within my current field, or outside of my current field?
  • Do the senior people in my firm or organisation have the time or inclination to mentor me?

How to make the most of the relationship with your mentor

Entering into a relationship with a mentor is a significant commitment, both from you and from them – particularly if they are doing it for love rather than money! Mentors, of the unpaid variety, themselves face many challenges. Although mentoring is usually an optional role in most professional services firms, it can impose considerable time demands on the mentor, for exmaple, one-to-two hours per month. This is unchargeable time, for which they may not always receive credit. Consequently, the easier and more rewarding you are to work with, the greater the likelihood that your mentor will want to spend quality time with you.

To get the most out of your relationship with your mentor, we suggest you agree a ‘contract’ for your mentor/mentee relationship.

For example:

  • What are the long and short goals from your relationship?
  • How often and for how long do you want to meet?
  • How confidential are your discussions?
  • What do you want help with?
  • How long do you want to work together as a mentor and mentee?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?
  • How do you want to communicate between meetings?

Actions before, during and after you meet

Once you have agreed the parameters of your working relationship, then we suggest you do the following actions before, during and after you meet:

Before

  • Prepare thoroughly for any sessions with your mentor and go ready to put forward your own views and ideas

During

  • Be realistic about what you can achieve when agreeing action items with your mentor
  • Be prepared to listen to and evaluate new ideas, consider uncomfortable questions, and accept critical feedback; but be prepared to challenge (with facts) your mentor if you do not agree
  • Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses
  • Be honest with your mentor – say if things are not working
  • Get to know your mentor as a person; after all, this is a two-way relationship. Be interested in your mentor as a person
  • Write down your action points as the meeting progresses
  • Finally, give your mentor feedback – we all like to know whether our advice and guidance is hitting the mark

After:

  • Make every effort to progress and complete the actions you have agreed to do. Your mentor will want to help you if you are motivated, enthusiastic and do what you say you will do
  • Make clear notes of what was covered, how the session went, what you got from it and any follow-up action points for you. Think carefully how you can apply what you learnt from the session
  • Diarise any actions
  • Agree the date of the next session and make sure that it is in both your diaries
  • Review and refine your objectives between meetings noting any progress made problems or opportunities that you would like to raise for the next session

You deserve to go for gold and achieve your career ambition. A mentor will be a valuable member of your support team who helps you do just that.

Make sure you are prepared to put in the research, training and effort to get the most benefit from the relationship with your mentor.

Heather Townsend is the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life, published in November 2012 by Kogan Page. Extracts from this book have been used to write this article. To find out more about ‘How to make partner and still have a life’, please visit the ‘How to make partner and still have a life website

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