CPA firms believe that staff recruitment and retention are among the greatest challenges to success in the profession. As young and eager accountants enter the profession, their most important personal project is to explore and ultimately map out their career paths and roads to success. This column focuses on an integral program that all firms should consider embracing — specifically, a mentoring program. A well-designed, well-executed, and well-managed mentoring program can prove to be an advantageous investment for your tax firm.
This column addresses the different ways a mentoring program can be structured. It also discusses some of the key strategies and tools that a firm should consider in evaluating the merits of establishing a tax-specific mentoring program. And, lastly, this column discusses and shares some of the available resources that can assist firms in establishing their own programs.
The basics: Mentoring, career development, and CPA firms
Far too often, amid the day-to-day work of CPA firms, succession planning is put on the back burner. Mentoring is one of the keys to succession planning. It is a powerful way to develop the next generation of firm leaders. Consider that such a program can be established either "intra" (within a firm) or "inter" (between an internal staff person and someone on the outside). Both options have advantages. The overall goal is twofold: (1) to develop future leaders and (2) to establish an environment where the employees feel that their employer is fully vested in their future success. In today's environment, it is an understatement to say — especially with the extraordinary cost of postsecondary education — that the latter goal is of utmost importance to the next generation of the current workforce — a workforce that is eager to excel.
Mentors can offer insight, advise about challenges and opportunities, and serve as a sounding board for one's ideas and career-related decisions. An outside mentor will bring an objective perspective to complement the mentoring and coaching that a professional receives inside an organization. For example, often a young staff person is hesitant to express his or her lack of a clear understanding of a technical issue or subject; in this situation, a confidential line of communication with a mentor would be of great value.
More broadly, consider the challenges facing the tax profession itself. Specifically, consider the way in which tax compliance services — particularly tax return preparation services — will be rendered in the future. Simply, between artificial intelligence, tax reform, and other outside factors, the profession is evolving for the next generation. These evolutionary times pose a ripe opportunity for seasoned professionals to impart their learned wisdom on the successors to the profession. The profession needs to provide a more formal gateway to future success for tax staff professionals. The authors believe that a mentoring program can serve as that formal gateway.
To quote one AICPA resource:
As workplace demographics shift and technology continues to automate certain traditional workforce functions, having a stable mentoring program in place can help build a connective and communicative workplace (Firm inMotion: A PCPS e-Toolkit: Mentoring Guide, p. 2 (2015)).
An external option: Incorporating the AICPA Online Mentoring Program into a practice
The AICPA Online Mentoring Program allows participants to seek a mentor and/or mentee outside of their respective organization. With access to an online platform, the mentoring relationship becomes easier to fit into busy schedules and renders it more likely to lead to a beneficial and successful outcome. The AICPA Online Mentoring Program's website (available at aicpa.org/career/mentoring.html) highlights the reasons in favor of choosing to participate in the program.
Program participants must be AICPA members and complete a profile via a separate enrollment. The separate enrollment requires information about the characteristics of the individuals being sought in terms of their background, credentials, and areas of interest. Further, both the mentor and mentee are required to explain their goals for joining the program. Based on preferences indicated, a mentor is matched to the mentee.
Some highlights of the AICPA Online Mentoring Program are that it:
- Identifies reasons to get involved, such as sharing one's knowledge and experience, and simply making a difference in another CPA's professional life;
- Links to blogs, videos, and podcasts focused on the topic of mentoring;
- Provides access to a mentoring guide for both the mentor and the mentee; and
- Provides terms and conditions of participating in the program, of which respect and confidentiality are duly considered.
One aspect, which the authors find particularly beneficial, is the creation of a "learning plan," which includes the mentee's goals and an action plan for the mentor/mentee partnership. This is critical to ensuring that both parties are "on the same page" in their intentions for the program.
The AICPA Online Mentoring Program provides an option for firms that are not large enough to implement an in-house mentoring program (as discussed below).
Establishing an in-house mentoring program
The future of a CPA firm's success relies on many factors — one of the most important of which, even in this age of artificial intelligence, is human capital. As with any investment, a firm will want to monitor and track the growth of its talent pool. And, likewise, from the staff's perspective, they will be seeking affirmation of the fact that the firm is keeping a keen eye on their growth and development.
In establishing an in-house mentoring program, the firm's leaders should first seek to appoint a firm coordinator of the program. This individual should be someone who can speak to both the human resource implications of the mentor/mentee relationship, and someone who can speak to the professional status of the respective individuals. To that end, if a firm does not have one person who can fulfill those requirements as the firm coordinator, identifying two or three individuals — to serve as an advisory board for the program — may make the most sense for the firm.
The firm coordinator (and/or advisory board) should be charged with assessing the individuals in the program (both mentors and mentees) and then making the appropriate pairings. After the initial pairing, and the start of each relationship, it is important to monitor the relationship to ensure that each party is fulfilling his or her responsibilities throughout the process. Further, the firm coordinator (and/or advisory board) must ensure that confidentiality remains at the forefront. It may be necessary to consult with outside counsel in the development of the firm's program.
Once the program is established, and the pairings made, a staff development action plan should be created. The action plan would serve as the backbone to the mentor/mentee relationship and ensure that both parties are committed to the relationship's success and growth. It should be a fluid document, and it should accompany the mentee throughout the evolution of his or her career. The staff development action plan should outline the anticipated career path and goals that the mentee has established. It should define the subject-matter areas where the mentee has focused his or her career, both in the present and as anticipated. The action plan is meant to be more than the typical personnel review (either annual or otherwise).
The authors believe that the staff development action plan is a key component of a successful mentoring program.
Key elements of an effective mentoring program
Whether external or internal, a mentoring program must be effective — the firm's success depends on it. The authors believe the following components are vital to a successful mentoring program:
The weight of the mentoring relationship rests on everyone involved, whether that be the mentor, the mentee, or the firm. The mentor and mentee both have responsibilities in their own right, and it is critical that they are both presented with their roles, that they understand those roles, and that they are held accountable to fulfilling the obligations of those roles.
The highlights of mentors' responsibilities are providing the mentee with career guidance, serving as a resource about the firm and/or the profession, and providing insight into leadership opportunities both within the firm and/or externally.
On the receiving side, mentees should be assertive in taking the initiative with their self-development and should be receptive to the mentor's suggestions.
Further, too, beyond the mentor and the mentee, the firm must be held accountable to its responsibilities in the overall mentoring program. For example, a firm could be supportive in the manner in which it allows employees to study for the CPA Exam, or it can support employees in outside networking opportunities, such as within the AICPA or state CPA societies.
Within the operation of a mentoring program, appropriate documentation should be part of the firm's protocol and retained as part of the participant's personnel file. Most importantly, it should be incumbent upon the mentee to retain records of conversations and meetings with his or her mentor, so as to have a permanent record that can be retained throughout his or her career. The mentoring program should have a clear and concise outline of the policies and procedures to be followed. As mentioned earlier, a staff development action plan is a relevant tool that should be incorporated into a mentoring program.
Evaluation and review
On a regular basis, the firm should review the mentoring program to assess its impact and effectiveness. Candid questions, suggestions, and concerns should be openly presented and addressed to allow the program to work as it is intended — and, as the firm desires the program to be maintained.
Making mentoring work for the tax world
With any area of the accounting profession, there are advantages and challenges — and the area of taxation is certainly no different. It is important to remember that a mentoring relationship is just that — a relationship — and, beyond the professional aspect of it all, at the center of it is the human element. The mentoring relationship is separate and apart from a firm's performance management program, which many firms have incorporated into their practices. What does this mean for the area of taxation?
Consider the following points:
Often, a firm's performance management program holds only semiannual (or, worse yet, only annual) conversations to indicate how an employee is faring at the firm. These conversations review topics including the employee's charged hour goals, completion of CPE hours, and internal advancement within the firm.
A mentoring relationship is unique and should go beyond any type of performance management program's review discussion. A mentoring program can bridge the gap between the performance evaluation meetings, and mentoring can happen on any schedule that the mentor and mentee set for themselves. It gives the mentee relatively easy access to someone who is "looking out for them" at all times.
Honesty and frankness
Since the mentor/mentee relationship is not performance-based, ideally the mentor and the mentee can be forthright with one another in a confidential environment.
For example, perhaps the mentor sees the mentee going down a path where the mentee's skills are not being used to the fullest, or the mentee is not being challenged appropriately. The mentor can have a frank conversation with the mentee regarding other possible avenues to pursue. By the same token, the mentee should then be receptive and open to the mentor's assessment and should feel comfortable having that frank discussion with the mentor.
A mentoring relationship should be unique to the individuals involved. It should embrace their goals and ambitions and what they are seeking within their careers.
As an example, consider the different tracks of one tax professional who is on the path to partner versus another tax professional who simply wants to work diligently and is not on that same partner path. The mentoring relationship needs to uniquely accommodate the needs of professionals who have different goals and aspirations.
Path to the future
With tax professionals gathered in any given room, one person's path can — and will be — very different from the next person's path. Tax professionals should be open to establishing, maintaining, and supporting a mentoring program to help ensure the growth of their firms and the success of those following in their footsteps.
Amy V. Hollander, CPA, is the owner of Amy V. Hollander, CPA in Clarks Summit, Pa. Stephen Valenti, CPA, is a recently retired clinical professor of accounting at New York University in New York City and owner of Stephen P. Valenti CPA in Plainview, N.Y. Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA, is a tax manager with Walsh, Kelliher & Sharp in Fairbanks, Alaska. Ms. Oppe is the chair and Mrs. Hollander and Mr. Valenti are members of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many resources are available on the AICPA website, where members can find valuable tools regarding a mentoring program.