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Mentoring: more than a numbers game

9 March 2020: in a profession moving towards a “learning for life” approach, how can mentoring help accountants continue to develop throughout their career? Alison Coleman investigates.

In an era of changing business models and rapid technological change, accountants are facing an increasing battle to remain relevant and continually update and improve their skills. 
One method to tackle this which has proved increasingly popular amongst businesses and accountancy practices has been to adopt official mentors. While the concept has been around for almost as long as business itself, in recent years the process has become more formalised and skill-specific in nature.

What is a mentor in accountancy?

A mentor is an adviser who can help professional accountants achieve their career or business goals. The mentor-mentee relationship is often one where accountants can discuss important decisions, ask for advice and learn from someone who has walked the same path they are now treading. 
As well as being a coach and an advisor, a good mentor is also a critical friend who can add value – at any stage of an accountant’s career.
FCA Paul Miller is Managing Director of Cornish Accounting, a firm he started in 1994 with two people. Five years ago, when the practice had reached revenues of £350,000 and eight team members, he called on the mentoring skills of Heather Townsend, founder of The Accountants Millionaires’ Club, to help him take it to the next level. Since then the practice has grown to £500,000 and 12 team members.
Miller says: “I’ve been mentored by a lot of people throughout my career, and I’m good at identifying mentors with a particular skillset that I don’t have, who I can learn from. At first it was about how I could improve profitability without growing my top line. Now, as a mature practitioner, it’s about succession planning, leaving a strong legacy, and transferring skills and knowledge to the next generation to ensure the team is in the right place. Children look to their parents to help them grow and make the right decisions and I see a mentor as being in a very similar role.”
In 2004, Townsend had joined BDO as a learning and development manager, mentoring accountants at various stages of their career in practice. In 2009, she left to set up her own coaching business working with accountants, including those on their way to making partner, those who recently made partner, and owners of small accountancy firms.
She says: “Yesterday I had a newly promoted partner who wanted help putting together a business plan for next year. I was then working with an owner of a small accountancy firm dealing with difficulties in her private life that were affecting her mindset and her ability to move forwards. Vastly different, but with a common factor of how to be at your best in order to grow your practice or advance your career.”

Changes to mentoring in the profession

In the accounting profession generally, Townsend is seeing changes in the way people want to be mentored. “As a profession we grew by mentoring, quite informally, where a partner would take you under their wing, and show you the ropes,” she says. 
“Mentoring is now more structured and formal. People are not looking for a generic coach, they want someone who can mentor and advise them on a specialist area of need. And they want the answers quickly because they want to achieve their career goals that much faster. The great thing about being a mentor is that you call on your own experience to help them find the shortcuts and avoid mistakes that you previously made.”

Being a critical friend

One area where she has helped Miller is in overcoming his aversion to dealing with difficult challenges. He says: “When we are busy, we revert to type. If I don’t want to face a challenge, I will simply focus on winning clients and becoming busier. I am guilty of burying my head in the sand and thinking the challenges will go away, but they don’t; they just come back as bigger problems. Having a mentor really helps me to understand why I’ve not done certain things, why I’ve avoided them, and makes me focus on my core action plan. What I love about having a mentor is they have nagging rights!”
Townsend has been that critical friend to Miller on several occasions. “Paul is brilliant at winning clients, but that isn’t going to get him to a million-pound practice,” she says. “We’ve helped him get his business from £350,000 to £500,000 by getting him to address the things that he didn’t want to do.”
The key to a successful mentoring relationship is finding the right mentor. Miller says: “As the mentee you have to be open to it, but most importantly you have to trust and respect your mentor. I believe that life is all about relationships and building trust with people. At the same time, they must be detached enough to be able to give you the best, at times quite critical, advice.”
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