Mentoring -- and how to successfully start your program

Dom Cingoranelli, Jr., CPA, CGMA, CMC® | February/March 2018 Footnote

The topic of mentoring garners a lot of interest these days. Why wouldn't it? Any process that might help with the attraction, development and retention of people is highly sought after. Given the continuing talent shortage that just about every organization -- particularly CPA firms -- is fighting, initiatives for mentoring and coaching are popping up everywhere.

Both mentoring and coaching are useful processes to enhance the development and retention of people. Mentoring helps integrate people into the firm culture and assist in their growth and development. This happens through a process where the mentor and protégé meet periodically. In these meetings, the mentor may ask questions, listen, or answer their protégé's questions and provide support to them in his or her ongoing quest for improvement.

But, as I'm sure you're wondering, does it work? Most organizations believe that it does, in fact, benefit both the protégés and the firm. It helps the firm get the protégé up to speed more quickly, and the protégé gets the benefits of the personal attention.

Seeking success in your mentoring efforts

Can your organization benefit from a formal mentoring program? The short answer: It depends.

It depends on a variety of factors, including how well you've thought through your objectives for the program. It also depends on the overall commitment, from the top on down to the buy-in from suitable, trained mentors and their protégés in the program. Plus, it takes time -- time to train the mentors, time to match up the mentors and protégés, and time for the mentors and protégés to meet. And, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the need for some sort of senior management monitoring and follow-up during the program.

The following outlines what steps need to take place before and after a mentoring program's implementation. Use this to guide your firm or company's discussions about establishing a formal mentoring program.

Pre-program initiatives

Identify your objectives

Before you begin, you need to answer this question: What are your specific objectives in having a mentoring program? For example, do you want to use mentoring as a recruiting tool to attract new talent? Or, do you plan to use it as a development tool for your rising stars?

Your firm's objectives for mentoring newly onboarded personnel will be quite different from those for high potentials in supervisory positions being groomed for further advancement. Newly onboarded personnel will benefit from an experienced mentor's perspective on the firm culture and what is required for success. High potentials in supervisory positions will benefit more from understanding the skills they need to develop for success in the next level of position you're considering for them.

Management needs to think this through, document it, and get owners and senior management to agree on it.

Get commitment from the top-down

Far too often, we find a trail of failed change initiatives in many organizations. This often is due to the absence of buy-in among the owners or senior management.

You may think there is consensus for change, but the real question is whether there's the collective stomach for the change required to be a success. You need to get everyone on board and hold them accountable. This includes following up to be sure the mentoring meetings occur and that the process is working, and making sure the protégé is benefitting.

Remember that mentoring programs take time, even in the busiest of times. This needs to be addressed before implementation.  

Recruit and prepare mentors

Once you have commitment from the top, you need an adequate number of suitable mentors available. Suitable is the operative term here; not everyone is suited to be a mentor.

Scan your organization chart and perform a quick mental sort of those who seem to have the right aptitudes and attitudes for the role. But, don't assume they know how to be a mentor. Mentoring means a lot of things to a lot of people. What it means at your firm should be consistent throughout the organization. This requires you to identify what the mentoring process involves and to train mentors on how to carry it out.

You should plan on training your mentors in some interpersonal skills as well. These skills would include effective questioning, active listening, monitoring others' nonverbal signals and facilitating the protégés' decision-making processes. With a properly thought-out training plan, mentors can brush up on their skills in these areas pretty quickly.

Post-program implementation

Matching

The actual mentoring process varies widely among organizations. Some firms match up mentors and protégés; at others, the protégés and mentors provide some input, or protégés actually choose their mentors. What you choose depends on what your mentoring objectives are.

Some organizations match up mentors with protégés based on similar styles or other attributes they have in common, while others look for dissimilarities to drive the matchup. For example, if a protégé is somewhat reserved, management may wish to have him or her mentored by a more outgoing person. Make sure your reasons for matching someone with a mentor takes into account your objectives.

Some firms want at least two levels of position difference between protégés and mentors. If you agree that the mentor's wisdom is beneficial in the process, then having some level of experience seems to be a prerequisite. Another consideration is whether the mentor should come from within the protégé's group or department, or outside of it. Most mentoring relationships we've seen use the latter -- mentors from within the company, but outside the group or department -- to provide a more open environment for discussion.

The least common arrangement we've seen, but one that still occurs quite frequently, involves mentors from outside the organization. They may include consultants to the organization or key people in the profession that the protégé intentionally seeks out for assistance.

Meeting and monitoring

In many organizations, the discussions are driven by the protégé, who will meet with the mentor on an ad hoc basis to discuss issues as they arise. In other organizations, the mentor and protégé are expected to meet regularly, as well as taking advantage of ad hoc discussions. The scheduled meetings often occur monthly. At times, though, the protégé may need more frequent meetings, especially at the outset of the relationship. How long should the relationship last? It will vary from six months or less to more than a year. We suggest one year in duration. As well, either party should be able to terminate the relationship and ask for a reassignment if it's not working. For example, the fit may just be wrong between the two parties, or time commitments have changed, making it hard for the mentor to be available.

Mentors or coaches?

Both mentoring and coaching can be useful to your organization. Some firms use both mentors and coaches. Coaches provide guidance, direction, monitoring and feedback. Coaches hold people accountable for change. As such, they usually work in the same group or department with the person being coached and should have authority and responsibility over them in order to hold their people accountable for the performance expected.

In many small to midsize organizations, time and other resources already are at a premium. Thus, if you have to pick between coaching and mentoring, we believe that coaching, which includes the accountability to hold employees to performance and developmental expectations, should be the first priority. This could be followed by mentoring to better integrate and help ensure the future success of the protégés as your resources allow you to do both.

If you choose to use mentoring, it can be helpful to your firm. Recognize that a mentoring program takes a lot of planning and monitoring, and occasional adjustments. If your firm can afford it, the benefits of a well-thought-out program are worth it. 

Dom Cingoranelli, Jr., CPA, CGMA, CMC®, is executive vice president and co-founder of Succession Institute, LLC, a firm specializing in consulting to management on matters relating to succession, performance management and organizational development, both within and outside of the CPA and consulting professions.