There’s lots of buzz around mentorships today. High achievers across many fields, from technology to professional sports, enlist the help of trusted guides as part of their journey. It’s the same if you want to find a professional mentor in your finance and accounting career.
Eighty-six percent of CFOs interviewed for a Robert Half survey said having a mentor was important for career development. However, only 26 percent of the workers we polled actually have a professional mentor. Among female respondents, the number was even lower: a mere 18 percent.
A veteran in the field — someone who understands its unwritten rules and who knows you — can help with your professional goal setting, regardless of the stage of your career you’re in. If you’re ready to find a professional mentor in accounting and finance, read these seven essential tips:
1. Know thyself
Before you approach possible mentors, you should be able to articulate specifically what you’re looking for. It’s not enough to just think having a mentor is cool; you need to ask yourself why you want a mentor in the first place. What do you hope to gain from the relationship? Perhaps you have questions with regard to career development programs, or maybe you’d like extra support from someone you can relate to in your field. Figure this out before preparing your pitch.
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2. Decide whom you want to emulate
Of the CFOs we surveyed, 48 percent said the main benefit of having a mentor is the ability to learn directly from a person who’s in a role to which they aspire. This is good advice, but don’t let that be your only criterion.
Let’s say you have your eye on the C-suite. Does that mean the only options you have for mentors are chief-something-officers? Not at all. A common mistake in finding a mentor is to look only at those who do exactly what you want to do someday. A smarter strategy is to consider the overall person and not just the position. Do you admire his skills in leadership and consensus building? Are you comfortable with the way she treats direct reports? Do his values align with yours? You’ll need these tools on the way up your career ladder.
3. Choose someone you already know
To find an accounting mentor, you may be tempted to contact the energetic keynote speaker from the last conference you attended or the hotshot tax manager you read about in a trade magazine. But that may not be your best bet. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and an activist for women in leadership, warns against asking a stranger to serve as your mentor. Why? The most productive mentoring relationships spring from a mutual connection. Potential mentors are unlikely to invest their limited time on someone they don’t know.
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4. Demonstrate your worth (without stalking)
Sandberg advises would-be mentees to “work hard to get noticed.” As with networking, the best connections grow organically. By cultivating rapport with individuals within the accounting industry, you’ll develop strong bonds with people who could potentially serve as a mentor.
So, if you have someone in mind, don’t pop the question right away. If they are in your company or professional group, volunteer for the projects they lead and give thoughtful input. Join the discussions they participate in, both online and off. You don’t have to be stalky about it. Just try to demonstrate your work ethic and drive. And when you approach them to help guide your CPA career path, that will seem like the next natural step to take in a relationship that has already been developing over time.
5. Find a mentor through a formal program
An easy way to get matched with an adviser is to look in-house, if you work for an organization with an established mentorship program. The obvious advantage of a formal program is that potential mentors have already expressed an interest in helping fellow employees and don’t have to be convinced of the value of mentorships. To be approved for the program, they likely also have the institutional knowledge and internal connections to propel your career trajectory within the firm.
The disadvantage is you may not have much say in choosing your mentor. Another possible drawback is you’re limited to people within the company, which could be problematic and awkward if you’re thinking about switching employers.
6. Make the most of professional memberships
Many accounting organizations, including the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and state-level CPA groups, offer online and/or in-person mentorship programs. These initiatives match up-and-coming professionals with established accounting and finance specialists through a structured framework. If you’re already a member of professional groups to take advantage of their CPE courses for continuing professional education, as well as conferences and other resources, the opportunity to find a professional mentor is icing on the cake.
Whether formal or informal, mentorships are one of the best ways to take your accounting career to the next level. After you find a partner, make the most of this valuable relationship by being prepared for meetings, accepting honest feedback and respecting your mentor's time. Then one day, pay it forward by serving as a mentor yourself.
7. Choose companies that value mentoring relationships
If you’re a job seeker, make sure you look for companies that will invest in your career growth. Location, job title, industry, salary and benefits are top concerns, of course, but corporate culture and professional training is important, too. That’s the fuel that keeps your career in finance and accounting moving forward.