Under your wing Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Entry-level accounting and finance professionals are rarely taken under a mentor’s wing, a new survey suggests. According to a poll developed by Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary financial professionals, the majority (58 percent) of the 1,400 CFOs polled said that it is uncommon for newly hired employees to be matched with mentors, either formally or informally, within their organizations.

“Mentoring is one of the best ways for a business to get a new employee up to speed, but it is a practice that is rarely implemented in business,” says Melinda Alison, St. Louis regional vice president of Robert Half International, the parent company of Accountemps.

Smart Business spoke with Alison about the reasons businesses should put a mentoring program in place and the benefits it can offer a company.

What are the benefits of a mentoring program, from both from the mentor and protégé point of view?

For the newly hired, having a mentor within the company is a wonderful way for the person to feel secure, supported, and guided on what it takes to be successful in the organization. It also helps employees enhance their own skill sets, which makes them more valuable to the company. For mentors, it allows them to hone their own leadership and communication skills. It is also a huge form of flattery for top workers to be identified as strong employees who are good role models. What this means to the business, ultimately, are happy employees who are, in turn, loyal employees.

Why aren’t more companies providing mentors to entry-level staff?

The best explanation is that the benefits of mentoring programs are not yet on many businesses’ radar screens. It is not expensive to implement a mentoring program, but it does take time and planning.

What steps need to be taken to create a mentoring program?

Identify the employees’ needs. What do your newly hired employees need? Some might need a mentor on technical aspects of the job. Others might need help on communication or leadership skills. Identify the categories of employees that need mentoring. Often, it’s not only new employees who need mentoring. See if mentoring can reach other areas of your staff, such as administrative or newly promoted managers.

Identify the mentors. Don’t pair an employee with his or her supervisor — this does not make for a comfortable mentoring situation. Instead, find employees in another area of the company who have proven track records in managing or coaching employees. The mentor does not necessarily have to be in a leadership role, but, instead, should be a person who has characteristics that you want other employees to learn and emulate.

Get a mentor agreement in writing. You might want to contact your HR department for help on writing up a formal agreement. Identify a timeline for the mentor program with specific goals and objectives.

Track success. Discuss the mentoring program at monthly management meetings and share success stories with the rest of the company.

What can professionals do to find a mentor when their employers don't provide them, either formally or informally?

Some employees who are very career-focused and want to move up within the organization will sometimes seek out informal mentor opportunities on their own. Professionals may need to be proactive in their search and give potential mentors good reasons for wanting to spend time with them. Networking with industry-specific organizations can also pinpoint mentors outside a company.

No one person knows it all, and it's perfectly acceptable to work with more than one mentor at a time. Perhaps one individual might help you hone technical skills, while another provides management expertise or industry knowledge. An experienced mentor can also provide insight into areas that aren't taught in school but are essential to career success, such as office protocol and how to handle sensitive situations. Your number one priority should be to maximize what you can learn from a mentor.

Employees — both those in need of mentoring, and those that feel that they have the capacity to become mentors — should discuss the benefits of formal and informal mentoring opportunities with their supervisor or HR department.

MELINDA ALISON is the St. Louis regional vice president of Robert Half International (www.rhi.com). Reach her at (314) 456-6574 or melinda.alison@rhi.com.