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Mentoring: Things to consider before starting a scheme

20th Aug 2012
Founder and Author The Accountants Millionaires' Club
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As an experienced mentor herself, ‘Joined Up Networker’ Heather Townsend offers some basic pointers for accountancy firms considering the technique.

While researching ‘How to make partner and still have a life, I discovered that having a formal or informal mentor was a significant boost for moving along successful professional careers. Often these mentors will champion you and your career behind closed doors. Their support could help you get the right assignments, or focus attention on your abilities during partner meetings.

Many firms run mentoring schemes or initiatives. This article sets out 10 things your firm needs to think about before embarking on your own firm’s mentoring scheme.

1. The reason why

Before you start any kind of mentoring initiative you need to understand the purpose and intended impact of the initiative. For example, are you thinking about introducing a mentoring scheme to help with:

  • Retention of talent, or is it more specific than that?
  • Development of staff at key stages in their career?

Without partners buying into the “reason why” it can be difficult to get the scheme up and running, and you may struggle to keep it going in the long term.

2. Senior level sponsor

With the many calls on partner and director time, they may be reluctant to expend more of their non-chargeable time on mentoring junior members of the firm. But if a senior partner, preferably one of the management board, clearly sets out the benefits for the firm and works with his or her own mentees, it will be much easier to recruit other partners as mentors.

A senior sponsor from around the partnership table, who openly champions the scheme, can easily remove real and perceived barriers to the scheme’s success.

3. Research

Before you can roll out a mentoring scheme, establish what is in it for both the mentors and the mentees, which will encourage them to buy into the project. Find out:

  • What do your prospective mentees want from such a scheme?
  • How do they see it running?
  • Do they want to be allocated a mentor, or be able to choose their own one?
  • What sorts of help do they want from their mentor?
  • What barriers can both prospective mentors and mentees see or envisage, which may impede the success of a mentoring within the firm?
  • Should everyone have to have a mentor from the firm?
  • What can you learn from successful mentoring initiatives in other firms?

4. Incentive

Being a good mentor takes time – and when the focus of the firm is on increasing utilisation, mentoring can slip down the priority list. If your firm is serious about using mentoring to nurture and keep top talent, you can’t afford to let mentoring time to be relegated to the “when we’re not so busy” list.

If your sponsor agrees a budget or target number of mentoring hours for partners, mentoring is more likely to stay on the priority list, even when the firm is running at full capacity. Even better is for each partner to set mentoring a number of people and the amount of time spent with them an objective for each month.

5. Do you need an informal or formal scheme?

Your research should indicate whether you need a formal or an informal scheme. A formal scheme will take more time to run and administer, but ideally should produce better results than an informal scheme. However, your firm may not be ready for a firm-wide formal scheme; running an informal scheme with some committed mentors may be better. Be aware that not everyone in your firm will welcome to the chance to have a mentor.

Many firms run formal bound mentoring schemes for staff members at key points in their career, such as when they are made partners, after assessment or development schemes, or after qualification.

6. Write a business case

After completing your research, you should now be able to write a business case setting out:

  • The benefit to the firm – including KPIs that will be positively or negatively affected by the scheme
  • The benefits to staff
  • How you envisage the scheme operating.

This step may seem like unnecessary bureaucracy, but the business case a document will you parameters for the project and a useful framework for everyone involved to refer back to.

7. Have an ‘owner’ for the mentoring scheme

Someone in the firm needs to be responsible for mentoring. Mentees and mentors will have questions and need help from time to time. They will need a central point for queries and the owner for the scheme will need to:

  • Project manage the scheme’s implementation
  • Measure its effectiveness
  • Champion the scheme
  • Integrate mentoring scheme into other development processes and systems.

Who is the right department or person in your firm to own the scheme?

8. Upskill the mentors

The quality of your mentors will make and break the scheme. You can’t change the quality of the partnership pool, but you can train them how to be good mentors. Mentor training needs to include:

  • What’s expected of them and their mentees
  • A refresher on the skills of a mentor, for example listening, questioning, giving feedback and how to coach their mentees
  • When is it appropriate to tell, and when to ask?
  • What should happen in a mentoring meeting, and how often and how long they should take
  • What firm systems or processes they need to use in their role as a mentor.

9. Set expectations for the mentees

The responses of mentors and mentees will drive the success of your mentoring initiative. Your scheme will fail if neither group sees the benefit of the scheme.

To keep the mentees committed to the scheme, they need know what’s expected of them. For example:

  • A mentor will not be able to wave a magic wand and make everything OK
  • They, not their mentor, are responsible for setting the agenda and driving the relationship
  • Their mentor will not be able to single-handedly get them into the plum assignments and help them be promoted. They have to do their part.

10. Link to existing people processes and systems

Over time, the mentoring scheme needs to become part of how the firm operates, particularly if it is a formal, firm-wide scheme. For example, do you tell people about the mentoring scheme in your induction process? Does your recruitment literature talk about the benefits of having a mentor in the firm looking after you and your career? How will the mentoring scheme dovetail in with the firm’s performance and development annual cycle? This integration will take time and effort, so who in the firm will do this? The mentoring scheme owner or individual owners of the firm’s people policies, processes and systems?

11. Review

The last consideration for a firm thinking about starting a mentoring initiative is to consider how you will review the success of the initiative. The review will be driven by what is set out in the business case for the scheme. Things to think about, include:

  • Who will review the scheme?
  • Who and in what forum will the results of the scheme will reviewed?
  • What will you do if the scheme is not having the desired effect?
  • What will you do if the scheme does have the desired effect?

Heather Townsend, MCIPD, is the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’ which is published by Kogan Page in November 2012. More details about the book can be found on the book’s blog: ‘How to make partner and still have a life’

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