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Young professionals in the accounting and finance industry often begin their careers lacking real-world experience. “There was very little business experience in my family,” says Kari Natale, Director of Planning & Governance for the Illinois CPA Society and Director of the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois. “The first time I went into my office was my first time in a corporate environment.”
A pivotal relationship helped Natale in those early years. “Somebody saw potential in me,” she says, “and helped me navigate my way through the office world, the culture, how projects flow, how to work better with team members.”
For young professionals without guidance, the process is messier, based on trial-and-error. Lack of experience can lead to drastic decisions. “All of my peers were doing it: you hit a roadblock, something’s not working, you look for something better,” says Natale.
The Workplace Institute’s 2017 Retention Report found that up to 75% of the causes of turnover–issues with career development, work-life balance, managerial behavior, and wellbeing–are preventable. Relationships that provide perspective and experience can be the means of prevention. “I didn’t leave when I got frustrated, because I had somebody to talk through each roadblock with me,” says Natale. “He helped me realize there were probably other things going on at similar jobs and I worked through those things rather than jumping ship.”
The benefits of mentorship have been analyzed and discussed for decades. Despite the attention, only about 25% of firms had a mentorship program in place in 2015, according to an Accounting Today survey. Yet in Accounting Today’s 2018 survey, 71% of firms named “recruiting and retaining new employees” as their biggest concern.
There’s a disconnect: it’s known that mentorship can reduce turnover. Employees who intend to stay with their organizations for over five years are twice as likely to have a mentor, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey. Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey reported that 73% of millennial and Gen Z employees with similar loyalty to their organizations see them as strong providers of training and development. Yet many firms neglect mentoring or shrug it off as a failed effort.
Wendy Murphy is an Associate Professor of Management at Babson College, author of Strategic Relationships at Work, and researcher whose work focuses on mentoring and developmental networks. “Empirically, we know that formal mentoring helps,” Murphy says. “We’re seeing results in terms of performance and job satisfaction, which lead to lower rates of turnover, for example. The challenge is when you look at informal mentoring, the effect is even better.”
Mentoring must be implemented thoughtfully and consistently to make a difference. It’s not enough for companies to plop a program in place—or depend on the one they already have—and expect it to catalyze cultural change.
“I was in a formal, matched program, matched with a mentor who wasn’t a good fit. It was really uncomfortable, and it broke off before any progress was made,” says Natale. “But I really owe my current success to my informal mentor. He reached out to me. He helped guide me through real issues I was facing.”
Informal mentorship is based on a natural connection; because it’s voluntary, it’s more effective than formal mentor matches. Formality itself, however, isn’t an issue. Rather, too-little autonomy combined with a “check-the-box” mentality causes lack of commitment.
“It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is naturally formed, or one that is established through a formal mentoring program,” says Mani Goulding, founder of HR consultancy Career Passion Limited and retired CPA. “The benefits that are derived from the program have a lot to do with the commitment of both the mentor and mentee to the success of the relationship, and that both see the value in participating in the program.”
As a young professional, Lauren Crain initiated an informal mentoring relationship which continued over email for several months. “Since I initiated it, I felt like I was always bothering her,” says Crain. “I began emailing less, wondering if she’d try to keep in touch. When she didn’t, I allowed that to confirm my suspicions, and now we no longer talk.” For Crain, the lack of structure created insecurity; when combined with lack of commitment, the relationship disintegrated.
Lack of structure also makes mentoring less effective in dismantling diversity issues, according to a 2016 study from Harvard Business Review. “We tend to want to help people who are exactly like us,” says Murphy, “which is not helpful from a diversity perspective.” Structure is a bridge leading people over bias and insecurity, into committed, diverse professional relationships.
“We didn’t even use the word ‘mentor’ when the mentoring research first started coming out,” says Murphy. “We asked, ‘Who are the people who are going to be helpful in your career?’ and later we came up with the term mentor.” Getting back to that question, and finding multiple ways to answer it, is the path toward modern-day mentoring.
It’s not about finding a perfect mentor, but about seeing the opportunities for developmental relationships everywhere. “Developmental network is the academic term we use,” says Murphy. It works best when it comes from a variety of sources. A 2015 Accounting Today survey found that many of the Top 100 Most Influential People not only had a mentor, but had two, three, or even more people who had acted as mentors and helped further their careers.
“It’s hard for any one person to provide all of the support,” says Murphy. She recommends seeking multiple mentor-like relationships. Goulding advises young professionals to approach senior people who have a career trajectory they would like to emulate. Don’t ask for open-ended, general career help, both say. Instead, says Goulding, young professionals should “ask for help with specific career issues over a defined period of time.”
Mentorship is often seen as one-way, with all the benefits flowing from the more experienced half of the relationship to the younger protégé. That’s an inaccurate picture. “It is a co-learning relationship, no matter how you frame it,” says Murphy. “People who are new to the organization can see things that others don’t. They can ask good questions about issues that others don’t even notice anymore.”
Wise organizations will create a developmental culture so that everyone can benefit. Senior individuals can start by example and action: putting time into their own developmental network, and guiding their direct reports to do the same.
Organizations can start by providing a basic structure. Accountability is key. “Any organization can come up with a scheme to ensure mentorship happens, but if they’re not holding people accountable, it won’t necessarily be taken up by everyone,” says Murphy. Accountability makes a basic requirement of people–put time into development–but leaves them the autonomy over how that happens.
Over time, firms can add more structure, such as training, resources, specific goals, to help developmental relationships more valuable and efficient. “Giving people clear guidance and training on what they’re doing to get them through will help them be more steady with it,” says Murphy.
The one-on-one relationships are like pebbles dropped in the pond: the benefits ripple outward, from individual to firm to industry. Organizations who consciously encourage a developmental culture will benefit the most.
“I see some people leave who I think left too soon,” says Natale. “And if they had somebody to talk it through with, they might not have made that same decision.”
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