Making the most of your mentor

The right mentor can be a boon to your career—as long as you keep the relationship going.

For years, David Almonte, CPA, CGMA, had heeded his mentors’ advice, and here it was: the reward. The head of the audit and assurance department was looking to the future, and he wanted Almonte to be a key team member in the firm’s succession plan

“I was scared, nervous, overwhelmed,” remembered Almonte, a senior accountant at LGC+D in Providence, R.I. “I thought, ‘I’m 28, I can’t accept that kind of role.’ But you just say ‘yes’ and then figure out how to do it.”

Almonte credits discussions with various mentors with paving the way for the path he is on today. They taught him to work hard in everything that he does and to never be scared of opportunities that come along the way. 

“Above all be yourself and approach life with an unwavering set of core values—everything else will fall into place,” is one key piece of advice he said he learned from his mentors.

Mentors, as in Almonte’s case, can help young CPAs prepare for a big promotion, and then to succeed in their new role. A mentor is a teacher, adviser, and role model, someone who can give you career-boosting guidance. He or she can help position you to receive a raise, a new job, or even a corporate board position. The right mentor can even advise in areas of life outside of work. As Almonte put it, having a mentor is “not just about finding someone to help with your career. You find someone to help you in life.”

“Mentors can save you lots of money, time, and headache,” said Genevia Gee Fulbright, CPA, CGMA, the president and COO of Fulbright & Fulbright CPA PA, in Durham, N.C. “The pathway to success is less murky when you have a mentor’s support and input.” In fact, Fulbright said that in her two-plus decades in the accounting profession, she has “yet to meet a successful professional who did not have at least one mentor during his or her career.”

A mentor can challenge you to stretch your limits. Initiating a mentoring relationship can be scary, but it’s worth it, Almonte said. “The biggest thing you have got to do is just stick your toe in the water,” he said. “It's going to be cold, but you’ve just got to do it.”

But making the most of this type of relationship isn’t so easy. The key, according to mentors and mentees, is to seek out mentors everywhere, then, when you find someone who’s a good fit, to consistently work on that relationship.

Here are some other tips for making your relationship with your mentor a successful one:

1. Raise your hand and keep it up. Make yourself visible to potential mentors by volunteering for trade groups, charitable efforts at work, or community efforts that interest you. However, don’t expect to meet your ideal mentor right away. It’s unlikely you will join a committee or group and immediately wow potential mentors. It may take a year or two of learning and growing with a committee for people to learn enough about you to want to mentor you, Almonte said. “You’ve got to just stick it out,” he said.

2. Take a “no” graciously. If a potential mentor declines your request, dust yourself off and move on, advised leadership coach, author, and speaker E.L. “Betsy” Smith, Ph.D. “They may say, ‘No, I’m too busy,’ ‘I’m already mentoring seven people,’ or ‘I don’t think that’s a good fit,’” warned Smith, who helps coach executives on how to be better mentors. If that happens, she said, “Be bold and ask them to recommend another mentor.”

3. Consider cultivating a mentor of the opposite sex. A mentor of a different gender may be able to introduce you to different circles of people than you’d typically associate with. 

4. Determine whether your mentor is right for you. A few clues will tell you whether a potential mentor is the right one, Fulbright said. It’s a good match if the mentor:

  • Seems genuinely happy to hear from you.
  • Asks about your career goals.
  • Introduces you to colleagues and other influencers without your asking.
  • Has a career path that intrigues you.
  • Is consistent in keeping scheduled meetings and phone conferences.

If your mentor’s not right for you, “don’t be afraid to change mentors or have more than one,” Almonte said. If a relationship isn’t working out, it isn’t a failure. It just means it’s time to move on.

5. Keep the conversation going. Sometimes, Smith said, a mentor and mentee “get together once or twice and then just get too busy” to do it again. “There’s got to be some structure, some expectations, and some investment” for the relationship to have value, she said. Stay in touch with your mentor by email, text, phone, in-person visits, or even postal mail. You may find it helpful to plan in advance when, where, and how often you’re going to meet with him or her.

6. Reciprocate. Networking goes both ways, Fulbright said. “If your mentor looks like the perfect person for a senior role at your company or has a friend or associate that might be a perfect fit, let him or her know,” she said. “Be aware of your mentor’s wants and needs as well as making him or her aware of yours.”  

Sheon Ladson Wilson is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.

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