Mentoring programmes come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them should involve a two-way conversation for the benefit of both mentor
and mentee, says George Carey.
With the exponential rise of mentoring in the business world, how can it best be used by accountants to improve skills and foster better working relationships?
Anna Goodwin, founder of Anna Goodwin Accountancy, mentors accountants and business chiefs. She believes there are profound benefits at an organisation-wide scale. Goodwin has seen business cultures change for the better as a direct result of mentoring programmes. “It creates an atmosphere of openness and transparency that helps existing employees and is very attractive to potential recruits,” she says. Reflecting on her own career before starting her business, she recalls that employees at that time had few alternatives to contacting HR when they needed advice, with all of the negative associations that can bring.
An internal approach
Many small businesses are reaping the rewards of building these relationships in-house, achieving growth not just for the individuals involved but the organisation as a whole. Face to Face Finance managing director Julie Hunt has taken an active approach over the last eight years, mentoring a junior member of staff over that time from her start in the business and during her ascension to company compliance officer. This close-knit approach wouldn’t suit every company but has created huge wins for Hunt and her mentee. “She is the person I want to leave the business to when I retire,” she explains. “I’ve grown somebody who can do the job and can make decisions without me always having to be there.”
Looking further afield
Despite the obvious advantages that keeping mentoring relationships within four walls has provided Hunt, some feel that a natural separation – of a sort – between mentor and mentee is important for success. Corporate governance expert David Doughty has been an active participant in mentoring throughout his career and cites a potential conflict of interest as one of the reasons he engages with people outside his personal and professional circles. Doughty feels the pressures of discussing professional situations with a superior could reduce the feeling of freedom and honesty enjoyed by the mentee. He also worries that these in-house relationships could cross the line from using experience to advise a junior person, towards telling them what to do. “I avoid that situation and mentor people who aren’t connected with me or my business in any way,” he reflects. Anthea Morris, finance director at health screening and information company Better2Know, is a passionate advocate of mentoring and also favours an outside approach to her relationship-building. She feels that between a junior and senior member of the same company there is “some element of judging” and that the more experienced party may subconsciously be “committed to delivering the best solution for the organisation, not necessarily the mentee”.
Timing is everything
Another important issue to identify is the stage in a person’s career when they could benefit most from a mentoring relationship. While there is no simple answer to this question, two stages in an accountant’s career seem particularly apposite. “I think there are a couple of key points in accountancy careers,” says Hunt. “After you qualify, when the world is your oyster, and what to do when you are 30-35 years old when you have probably achieved most of the goals that you set yourself when you started.” The question of what to do with the next 30 years after that is one that she feels could always benefit from advice. Doughty also identifies the early stages of an accountant’s career as fertile ground for discussion – and one that could benefit senior mentors equally. He views this as an ideal opportunity to break down diversity barriers, with ageing male professionals striking up mentoring relationships with young female and black and minority ethnic (BAME) employees: “Rather than these senior professionals just waiting to retire, they can bring younger people along in their careers and widen the talent pool across the business. It can really invigorate the latter stages of someone’s career.”
Seize the day
The size and shape of your business will likely dictate whether an internal or ‘outsider’ approach is the best way to build these relationships, but the consensus is that your organisation can only flourish as a result. Hunt concludes: “Rather than looking at selling my company, I’m looking at the succession plan, because I’ve put people in roles in which I know they will excel and continue to grow the company long after I retire.”
If you’re excited about the potential benefits of mentoring for you and your employees, follow these steps for success:
Establish a framework
Both parties must enter a mentoring relationship with a clear set of objectives and an understanding of what’s required of them to reach those targets. A tried and tested way is to set out SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
Empower both parties
The key to a successful mentoring relationship is establishing the equal status of both mentor and mentee. While the mentor’s skills and experience are an obvious asset, the fresh perspective of the mentee, combined with a full and frank role in these discussions, is as important.
Build in feedback and accountability
Create unobtrusive opportunities for a third party to check in and ensure that both participants are upholding their roles in the relationship and gaining value from it.