How to Be a Mentor and Boost Your Own Accounting Career, Too

Accounting mentorship can bring value to your practice, even if you’re the one doing the mentoring.

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If you’ve achieved any degree of success in your own accounting career, you likely didn’t do it entirely alone. Especially for those of us who have started our own firms, founded organizations, or led departments. Someone—usually several someones—helped us along the way.

Becoming a mentor is a chance to keep that generosity flowing. And even if you never had a true mentor yourself, you can be the one you always wished you had for someone else.

You might be thinking, “That sounds like a lot of work.” Yup, it can be. But some work is worth the reward.

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    So What Is a Mentor, Really?

    What does it mean to be a mentor? A mentor is an experienced or trusted advisor who—this is key—has nothing to gain from the mentee.

    That’s not to say that as a mentor, you won’t experience benefits (more on that later). But essentially, your intentions should be altruistic.

    Here are a few of the things a mentor might do for their mentee:

    • Offer new ways to think about problems and opportunities
    • Share learnings from past successes and failures
    • Recommend books, training, and professional development

    A mentorship is also a long-term prospect. How long depends on context and, frankly, how the two of you get on. It might mean 6 months as part of a corporate mentoring program. Or the relationship could last a lifetime.

    It’s worth noting that mentors don’t have to be in the same field as mentees. But it’s beneficial, in my opinion, for accounting professionals to work with someone in the accounting, bookkeeping, or finance fields. You’ll be more attuned to opportunities and idiosyncrasies and you can share networking opportunities more organically.

    The mentor-mentee relationship is one that is like no other. So let’s briefly touch on what a mentor is not.

    Bottom line: You should not be both mentor and manager for your team members.

    Mentoring vs Coaching

    Let’s say you’re Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, learning how to wield a lightsaber and use the Force. (Stay with me here….)

    Yoda is your coach. He’s there to provide specific, and often technical, training so you can accomplish a specific goal—like, say, levitating a starfighter from a swamp.

    Once you accomplish your goal, the relationship is essentially over. It has an expiry date. After which, your coach immediately dies at the age of 900. (Admittedly, this is not a perfect analogy.)

    Your mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi. He guides you, over time, at various points along your journey, shares knowledge but allows you to mess up, and opens doors— introducing you to your coach, for example.

    The mentor is there to help you reach your full potential in becoming a Jedi. An accounting Jedi, that is.

    Mentorship vs Management

    Bottom line: You should not be both mentor and manager for your team members.

    While you can be an awesome, supportive manager who helps your employees accomplish great things, you can’t also act as their mentor.

    Some key reasons this just doesn’t work:

    The roles conflict. A mentor is there to listen and ask questions, rather than dole out answers. A manager, on the other hand, needs to provide answers and solutions. A manager’s role, at times, is to instruct an employee in how to do their job and critique their work. These are things a mentor doesn’t do.

    The power balance is off. No matter how empathetic a manager you are, your employee is still…well, your employee. You pay them and have significant influence over their livelihood and career.

    With so much at stake, it would be rare for a mentee to feel 100% comfortable being open and honest about their aspirations, fears, or, let’s say…problems with their boss!

    Motivations and intentions are not aligned. Your employee may look to you for guidance, but they also want your approval. At the very least, they want to avoid doing or saying anything that may damage their ability to keep their job or get ahead.

    And while you may genuinely want the best for your employee, you still need them to accomplish certain tasks and meet goals for your firm. You have something to gain from them beyond just their well-being.

    Trying to mentor your employee also just takes time away from working on being the best manager you can be.

    Provide Mentorship without Mentoring

    You can facilitate mentorship for your team members without doing the mentoring yourself.

    If your organization is big enough, you can set up an employee with a colleague who isn’t a direct superior. Or you can even create a mentoring program, which can become a hiring and retention tool.

    Alternatively, you could connect your employee with a mentor from outside of your organization.

    Why Be a Mentor

    There are plenty of benefits to having a mentor, and many benefits I’ve experienced personally. But why would you want to be one?

    No doubt, you’re already strapped for time. Why would you add this to your plate?

    Here are some reasons mentorship is good for you, too:

    It keeps you fresh. A younger/newer accounting professional might have different perspectives, skill sets, and outlooks. This can help you keep your practice or firm more resilient in an ever-changing industry.

    I’ve also found that the mentee ends up being an accountability partner. I catch myself giving guidance and then thinking, “Wait, am I doing that? Should I be taking my own advice here?”

    You’ll become a better leader. Mentoring is a great way to sharpen skills like empathy, problem-solving, and communication that will help you as you grow your team, become a thought leader in your field, or just get better at what you do now.

    It can help you get ahead. As you contribute to the success of others, it can strengthen your personal brand and boost your professional profile. Plus, one study of 1,000 employees at Sun Microsystems showed mentors were 23% more likely to get a salary increase than non-mentors. The same study showed that mentors were more likely to be promoted.

    You’ll expand your network. Networking goes both ways. Even mentees who are just starting out have a network that will grow over time.

    It’s inspiring. Ambitious people bring energy to your work and your life that can give you a new perspective and motivate you. Plus, they can be downright fun to work with!

    It feels good to give back. Simply put, doing something good makes you feel good. Volunteering your time can improve your mental health and overall well-being. As a mentor, you can make a difference in someone else’s success and the accounting profession as a whole.

    7 things good mentors do:
    1. Set expectations
    2. Open doors
    3. Make time
    4. Ask questions
    5. Listen and validate
    6. Give honest feedback
    7. Inspire confidence

    How to Be a Good Accounting Mentor

    Mentoring an up-and-coming professional can be a big responsibility. So don’t screw it up.

    Just kidding.

    If you’re respectful, encouraging, a good listener, and you have insight and expertise to share you’re already more than halfway there.

    So, if you’re ready to give it a go, here are 7 things good mentors do, to take you the other 50% of the way.

    1. Set Expectations and Goals

    What will the mentee gain? What will you provide? What could threaten the relationship? How often will you meet and how and when should they contact you? Getting on the same page with these logistics is a good place to start.

    Likewise, discussing goals for your mentoring relationship upfront can provide you with reasons to celebrate important benchmarks down the line. Even better: put them in writing.

    That way, you see the value you’re providing and they gain confidence knowing how far they’ve come.

    2. Open Doors

    Opening doors for your mentee could mean introducing them to people in your network, highlighting one of their posts on social media to your followers, or advocating for them.

    Over time, once they’ve proven they are motivated and reliable, it might mean recommending them for professional opportunities or even referring accounting or bookkeeping clients to them.

    3. Make Time

    A mentoring relationship requires dedicated, one-on-one time. At first, this should be on a regular basis. Each meeting doesn’t have to be long, but consistency is key, as is being 100% present when you’re together.

    You need the time and space to focus on truly understanding where your mentee is coming from to give them valuable career guidance.
    Online sessions can work well, too, as long as they are 1:1.

    4. Ask Questions

    Guide, rather than lead. Support, don’t troubleshoot. Think back to situations where you’ve come to understand or learn something important either in your career or life. That moment where a switch flipped and you let go of an old wound or found a new way forward.

    Those “aha” moments were likely prompted by an astute question rather than someone diagnosing your problem for you.

    5. Listen and Validate

    The flip side of asking those probing questions is actually listening to the answer. Yes, mentorships are about imparting knowledge, but you won’t understand what information to share or how best to share it if you’re not in tune with what the mentee wants and needs.

    And sometimes what they want is just a sounding board! Failing to truly listen can pull your entire mentoring relationship off track.

    When you listen, you should also validate. Yes, you may sound a little like a therapist. “That sounds hard.” But if you are sincere, it not only builds trust but it can help them open up even more.

    6. Give Honest Feedback

    Successful mentor-mentee relationships are built on trust. Being empathetic and supportive doesn’t mean sugar-coating the truth. If you aren’t honest, you’re doing a disservice to the person you are mentoring.

    It may sting in the moment, but failing to be honest can erode trust in your relationship. And it will be worse down the road when they learn the truth from someone far less generous than you.

    7. Inspire Confidence

    Nothing may be more beneficial for career development than confidence. Everything I’ve touched on already can help boost your mentee’s confidence. Being fully present, listening, and providing honest feedback all show a level of respect that feeds confidence.

    Here are a few ways you can help your mentee build confidence:

    • Give praise where praise is due
    • Celebrate wins and milestones
    • Challenge them to push themselves, with your support
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    When You Shouldn’t Be a Mentor

    Not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, and there’s no shame in that. You may be a great manager, but mentorship requires a different approach.
    Evidence shows that marginal (mediocre or bad) mentoring can be worse than no mentoring at all for the mentee. So it’s not in anyone’s best interest to force a mentor relationship.

    In short, mentoring might not be your kettle of fish if:

    • You aren’t willing to carve out regular 1:1 time for your mentee
    • It feels like thankless, “add-on” work to you
    • Qualities like warmth, empathy, dependability, and being a good listener don’t apply to you
    • Deep down, you’re just not interested (be honest with yourself, too!)

    How to Start Mentoring

    Typically, the relationship is initiated by the mentee—so, you could just sit around and wait. But you can also be more proactive.

    One option is reaching out to people in your extended network either via a tool like LinkedIn or within a different department of your organization if it’s large enough. You can make your “services” known on your social channels or with your contacts

    Or, you could join a partnership organization like the FreshBooks Accounting Partner Program or programs offered by AICPA and CPA Canada.

    For me, being a mentor has been more than just an altruistic endeavor. It has sharpened my leadership skills, increased my confidence, and reinforced my own knowledge. (You know what they say about learning by teaching?) If you do decide to become a mentor, I hope you find it just as rewarding.

    Twyla Verhelst, CPA

    Written by Twyla Verhelst, CPA, Founder of the Accountant Channel, FreshBooks

    Posted on August 3, 2021