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Take Your Career to New Heights With a Mentor

By Chip Knighton

Finding a mentor is one of the best ways to gain expertise in the more career-oriented aspects of the accounting profession. A mentor can provide a sounding board, a different perspective on office politics and firsthand expertise in a role a young CPA might be looking to fill (not to mention the professional networks they bring with them). 

In a Gartner study of 1,000 employees across five years, 25 percent of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to just 5 percent of employees who didn’t participate, and were promoted five times more often. A Harvard Business Review study of CEOs in formal mentoring programs found that 84 percent said that mentors had helped them avoid costly mistakes.

And where’s the best place for young VSCPA members to find an experienced professional to mentor them? The VSCPA itself. Just about every interaction you have with the VSCPA can connect young professionals with experienced CPAs and provide the opportunity for a longer-lasting relationship. Conferences, networking opportunities, volunteer committees — all of these benefits can put young professionals in touch with potential mentors. Here are some young professionals who found mentors through the VSCPA.

Mentor Methods

The VSCPA officially ended its MentorMatch program in February, but VSCPA programs still represent a great opportunity to connect with potential mentors (or mentees). Here are some programs that offer potential connections:

  • Conferences: The VSCPA provides biographies for all speakers at its conferences. If a speaker’s background speaks to you, or if he or she is in a position you’d like to attain, talk to him or her after the session or reach out over email.
  • Networking: Seasoned professionals who attend networking events have self-selected as wanting to expand their professional network. You’re already exchanging contact information — just reach out!
  • Volunteering: Joining a VSCPA committee puts you in contact with professionals that have a specific set of interests.
  • Staff Contacts: Most VSCPA staff are in contact with a variety of members across the industry and can help connect you with someone in a specific field, role or specialty. Find staff contact information at vscpa.com/OurTeam.
  • Connect: MentorMatch may be done, but Connect is still a good resource for, well, connecting with other members. You can reach out to active posters or post a question in the Open Forum and see who replies. 

Conference Connection

Lauren Soles, CPA, has never been shy about learning from her more experienced colleagues. The 31-year-old, who has been in her role as business development director at BDO USA in Richmond for about a year, says she keeps in touch with six or eight former colleagues whom she refers to as mentors — many from her first job at Keiter in Glen Allen.

Soles doesn’t limit her mentors to previous coworkers, though. She connected with another mentor — Anne Hagen, CPA, CFO of the Masonic Home of Virginia in Henrico — after attending one of her sessions at the VSCPA’s Professional Development Conference (now KnowledgeNOW) in Chantilly in 2015. She was intrigued by Hagen’s experience because she saw herself as approaching a crossroads in her career.

“I was really interested in her perspective since she had some public accounting experience and some industry experience, she had nonprofit — various types of industries in her background,” Soles said. “It seemed like a natural fit for me because I was trying to decide which direction to go.”

She made a good impression on Hagen, with the two outgoing women sparking a friendship right away over roles and shared connections. 

“The first thing was her energy and her enthusiasm and her interest,” Hagen said. “She immediately connected with me on some of the commonalities in our backgrounds and the relationships we’ve had with different folks we’ve worked with. We immediately connected.”

They wound up working on several projects together, notably on the VSCPA’s Business & Industry Conference Committee. That the two came together through a VSCPA event was notable, but not surprising — VSCPA volunteers are, by definition, giving of their time and expertise and devoted to improving the profession.

“In general, with anything that a young professional or any professional is involved with, whether it’s committees at the VSCPA, other professional organizations or nonprofits, it’s taking an interest in people,” Soles said. “The more that you get to know someone, you do connect and you do start to realize ‘I really think that we have a lot in common,” or ‘She may be able to help me as I’m working through XYZ decision,’ or ‘I think it might be good that we stay in touch.’ It’s just taking it back to the goal of getting to know people and wanting to form that relationship and putting the time in.”

Hagen suggested, too, that events and committees aren’t the only ways the VSCPA helps connect people.

“There are a lot of activities that the VSCPA sponsors, but there are also a lot of resources at the VSCPA,” she said. “The more I volunteer there and the more I learn about the staff, the more I realize how much they know and how many people they know. 

“Sometimes I’m not so sure we take advantage of the staff there. It’s simple to reach out to them and say, ‘I’m looking for someone in this field that has this skill set,’ and I’ll bet you they could come up with six or eight people like that just because of all the involvement they have with membership.”

Starting Early

For Soles, that connection with Hagen came when she was already established in her career. Other VSCPA mentees found their mentors earlier in the process.

Aaron Rawlings is a senior auditor at Kearney & Co. in Alexandria. But when he first connected with mentor Colette Wilson, CPA, he was fresh off graduating from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and looking to lock down an internship. (He would land two, first interning at RyanSharkey in Reston, then at Kearney before being offered a full-time position.)

Rawlings, 29, first met Wilson, then a partner at the Alexandria firm of Cotton & Company, at the VSCPA’s Leaders’ Institute for college students in 2011. Set to enter George Mason University in the fall, he knew he wanted to major in accounting, but wasn’t really sure what steps he needed to take outside of declaring his major. He connected with Wilson at the Recruiter in Residence session, where she took a look at his résumé, which…let’s just say it needed some work.

“One of the first events that I did, I got there early to have someone review my résumé, and the person who reviewed my résumé was Colette,” he said. “She looked at my résumé, and it was about four pages long, and she looked at me like ‘What are you doing?’”

Later in the event, a speaker said that all of the students should be looking to find a mentor. Rawlings thought of Wilson immediately. He didn’t know a lot about her, but he had come away from their first meeting knowing she was someone who knew a lot about the profession.

“I was appreciative of the time that she took. It was something she volunteered to do, but she didn’t have to give me that information,” he said. “She could have just looked at me and that could be it. Immediately, that was something that stuck with me, along with her presence. She was very confident and together. I could tell she knew the ins and outs of the profession. You could see by the way she carried herself.”

“It was mentee-driven and he had something to base it on,” Wilson said. “He had talked to me personally, he had gotten advice from me, and then he got advice from somebody completely different who said ‘You should seek somebody out.’”

Elizabeth Owusuwaa, 25, had a similar experience at the Leaders’ Institute in 2016. That was where the Old Dominion University (ODU) student met her mentor, Niki White, CPA, finance director at Strategic Risk Associates in Glen Allen. While they later formalized their arrangement using MentorMatch, that event — where White had spoken on a panel — was where they first encountered each other.

“What impressed me was more that she came up to me after the fact,” White said at the time. “What we talked about in that short time by the water cooler was that the people who put themselves out there are the people who get the opportunities.”

“I’ve done a lot of interviewing in my career,” Hagen said. “When you have to work really hard in the interview and you’re the person who’s interviewing, it sends a message. You want the interviewee to really take the lead. In this case, I found Lauren to be really enthused and engaged in the process, and that made me feel that it was worthwhile.”

Taking Initiative

What Wilson and White both said is indicative of how a young professional can start a successful mentor-mentee relationship. The fact that the mentee is taking charge often impresses a potential mentor — and it’s how the relationship is supposed to work. The mentee sets the tone and schedule for the relationship, drives the conversation (after all, it’s his or her career that’s being helped) and then chooses how to take the advice he or she is given.

“Niki's guidance was like the bystander during a marathon who gives you an amazing bottle of water to quench your thirst and refuel you for the rest of the journey,” said Owusuwaa, who earned her master’s degree in accounting from ODU in December, started as an advisory associate at Grant Thornton in Alexandria in February and is studying for the CPA Exam. “We met at a pivotal time in my life and career, and the minimal but extremely valuable conversations shed light to the paths available to me. 

“Niki understood how to inform me without trying to persuade me. She simply shared her experience and expertise and left it up for me to make the best decisions.”

While mentors can come from one’s own organization, it’s better to look elsewhere to get advice untainted by a mentor’s responsibility to his or her employer. That’s what makes these relationships work so well.

“It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t mandatory, it wasn’t required. I had no authority over him,” Wilson said. “He didn’t work for me. It was a very free environment — I could say whatever I want because I might never see him again. He could take it or leave it, because he chose me out of the blue, and if it didn’t work, he could choose somebody else. Those are the best relationships.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to start. It can be intimidating for a student or young professional to approach a more accomplished member of their profession and ask for advice. But doing so can yield great dividends, and young professionals looking for advice would do well to remember that all their potential mentors started out somewhere.

“Most people are very willing to take a few minutes to meet someone and share a little bit about how they made it in the career they’re in,” Hagen said. “It’s a compliment to them, frankly.”

What’s more, it can be a benefit to the mentor. Helping others can help mentors “pay it forward,” so to speak, helping others the way others once helped them. And taking an active role in guiding younger professionals can help you build and display leadership qualities.

The Qualities of a Good Mentor

Each mentee needs something specific from a mentor, requiring a specific set of personality traits. Some mentees need more, shall we say, tough love than others. Soles said Hagen is a good combination of encouraging and challenging, but says she looks for different things out of her different mentors. 

“Do you pick the mentor who’s going to challenge you — ‘Do you really think that’s a good idea? I’m not sure if you want to do that’ — or do you pick the mentor who’s more agreeable, more encouraging?” Soles asked.

Wilson, meanwhile, prides herself on her honesty and sincerity. That doesn’t mean she’s not empathetic when Rawlings has a career setback, but she makes sure to let him know what he needs to be doing.

“If there was something that didn’t go my way, she would be there to let me have my moment of, ‘Man, it shouldn’t have gone down like that,’ and let me lick my wounds, and right after that, it would be, ‘This is why it didn’t happen, and if you do it this way, you won’t have to go through that again,’” Rawlings said. 

“My goal is to give him good advice for him to succeed, not to be his friend and say, ‘Hey, I’m sure the manager was wrong,’” Wilson said. “I’ve told him, ‘No, you handled that situation incorrectly. Here’s how things usually work and here’s how you should be looking at it.’”

It helps that she’d had similar experiences to him in her own life and career, and that’s another aspect of some, but not all, successful mentorships. Just as Soles and Hagen are both outgoing women with similar upbringings and varieties of professional experiences, Rawlings and Wilson are both African-Americans in a profession that is challenged with inclusion of minorities.

“In Aaron’s coming into the corporate world and working in an industry where we, as minorities, are definitely in the minority, different situations can occur,” Wilson said. “’How do I handle this? How do I show myself correctly? How do I perceive this?’ When certain situations come up for African-Americans in a corporate setting, you often wonder if it’s you or if it’s just the situation in general. 

“Aaron and I had those more in-depth conversations that we could relate to, how it is to be a minority in this corporate environment, and more importantly, whether or not it plays a part.”

Paying it Forward

A side effect of the advice Soles and Rawlings received from their mentors is that they’re now passing it on themselves. Soles has a couple of younger colleagues who pick her brain over coffee. Rawlings is now confident enough in his own résumé-drafting abilities that he’s helped others get jobs by providing the kind of editing and tough love he once needed himself.

All three of the relationships detailed in this article are ongoing to this day. Soles and Hagen both live in the Richmond area and Rawlings and Wilson both live in Northern Virginia, so while schedules are busy, it’s relatively easy to catch up. Owusuwaa and White don’t live in the same area, but still find time to catch up on social media.

“Colette’s not just my mentor. Colette’s my friend,” Rawlings said. “I’ve talked to her about things not related to the profession, certain situations where I didn’t know who to talk to and she was there. She’s always been there.”

While the mentorships may not be as formal as they once were, all three pairs still find it valuable to catch up on a regular basis. After all, if you’ve helped improve someone as a professional with your advice, chances are they’re going to be useful to you, too.

“It’s not as formal, but now we run into each other so many times,” Hagen said. “I’ve recruited Lauren for different volunteer roles for things, so we run into each other there. Some are formal, some are informal. 

“The more time we spend with each other, the more we end up together.”

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