During the course of anyone’s life, he or she will encounter and be influenced by a host of mentors and role models, be they family members, teachers,bosses or coworkers. For chartered accountants, their career paths are often filled with opportunities to learn from mentors and eventually become mentors and role models themselves.

A recent study conducted by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., “Moving from CA to CFO: A Competency Framework,” identifies 38 competencies that CAs were expected to acquire over a career, culminating in becoming a CFO. Not surprisingly, the study found that the most important competencies tend to be soft skills such as personal integrity and ethics, critical thinking, communication, presentation skills, strategic thinking, decision-making and leadership. The study also examined how these skills are acquired and, in addition to the more obvious formal education and practical experience factors, mentoring was considered a significant influence.

The CA profession is built on the tradition of mentoring — it’s an implicit agreement that new hires will be mentored by experienced practitioners. We are part of an apprenticeship system that has always been integral to the ways accounting firms develop and groom staff.

Historically, the hierarchical organization within firms created the mentoring framework — partner to manager, manager to senior, senior to staff. In the past 10 years, most firms have formalized mentoring programs and new hires are paired with experienced staff in order to obtain guidance and advice as their careers progress.

However, it’s also worth observing that mentoring is not exclusive to students and new CAs — partners at firms often have their own mentors and role models. CAs embrace lifelong learning, and not just the formal kind, as they establish associations with those whose judgment and knowledge they respect and value. These associations continue, with many CAs who venture off into industry, the public sector or academia remaining close to their public accounting mentors.

Most firms view mentoring as an important and critical component of their people development. At RSM Richter, for example, new hires are matched with a second-year employee, often from the same university, under the firm’s buddy program. The primary purpose of such a relationship is to help the new hire adjust to the culture, working environment and administration processes within the firm. It also provides a UFE buddy to counsel the new hires through to the uniform evaluation. Talent managers are assigned to all levels of staff to counsel on work performance and advise on career-related aspirations.

Periodically, senior partners will hold informal meetings with audit managers to share their knowledge and expertise on client service, networking and business development.

Ernst & Young has similar formalized mentoring relationships for new hires at the firm. Staff is encouraged to have a group of mentors — a board of mentors as it were —who each would have his or her unique contribution to an individual’s development.

In order to reward good mentors, E&Y has created a “people point” tool where staff can comment on mentoring and coaching behaviours of partners and colleagues. They have also embraced reverse mentoring, where employees with diverse ethnic backgrounds counsel partners on cultural and behavioural norms.

E&Y also ensures that all staff receive appropriate mentoring via its Career Watch system, which matches managers from under-represented groups in the partner population with mentors in the senior ranks, including the executive committee partners. The firm has also used its mentoring expertise to help in various community projects that would benefit from this process.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm distinguishes between coaching and mentoring, recognizing that all staff require coaching but that a formal mentoring relationship is a unique one. Staff is encouraged to seek out and establish informal mentoring relationships that match the employee’s needs and comfort levels.

PwC ensures that each new hire has a coach and, at the appropriate time in his or her career, a UFE mentor. Part of a coach’s responsibility is to ensure that staff understands what success looks like. The firm has coaching programs to train on the processes and nuances of coaching others, including a partner coaching forum.

For women who aspire to the top levels of the firm, PwC has a women-in-leadership mentoring program that gives female staff the opportunity to be matched with a partner mentor.

While mentoring is encouraged, firms acknowledge that mentoring can’t be forced. The firms institute formalized matches early in an employee’s career but recognize that both mentor and protégé will seek and find his or her own desired and comfortable relationship within the firm.

While mentors are important to CAs, role models are perhaps even more so. The term “mentor” refers to a trusted counsellor, guide, tutor or coach — a relationship agreed upon by both the mentor and the protégé. In contrast, a role model is a person whose behaviour in a particular role is imitated by others. Role modelling isn’t optional — we are all role models.

The distinction between role model and mentor is easily blurred as we sometimes interact with our role models. This is by far the most pervasive relationship. Firms go to great efforts to ensure that staff is exposed to many role models in assignments. Leaders within firms see themselves primarily as role models, setting the tone, moral compass and exemplified integrity by which the rest of the organization is governed.

It’s arguable that some role models can have a greater transformative impact than mentors. Witness the effect of President Obama on his supporters in the US and around the world.

Consider Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who has stated that Freddie Laker, the pioneering British airline entrepreneur, was his role model. Branson had the opportunity to meet Laker and received advice that dramatically influenced his business philosophy and ultimately his success. Laker advised Branson to be a little more P.T. Barnum — innovative and fun — when launching his own airline, something Branson had difficulty doing due to his self-admitted introversion. However, the power and influence Laker had as Branson’s role model motivated personal change, and today we are all aware of the many accomplishments of the extravagant Branson.

Jim Murray, CEO of Optimal Solutions International and an experienced executive coach and mentor, describes mentoring not as an arranged marriage but rather like a courtship — there must be a mutual attraction with shared benefits leading the participants to want the relationship to succeed. Good mentors see the potential in others that they cannot see in themselves.

Murray offers five pointers for aspiring mentors:

  • challenge protégés to exceed their abilities — let them sink or swim, then focus on an instructive debrief;
  • role model with integrity the standards and principles you want them to emulate;
  • invest the time necessary — most mentors grossly underestimate the time required to do the job;
  • make all topics discussable— nothing is out-of-bounds, including your own behaviour; and
  • recognize that most organizational cultures often prevent people from getting better. So mentorship is sometimes showing people how to intelligently take risks and break the rules.

Murray speaks fondly of his first boss who, unknowingly, was his mentor. “Whenever I had a meeting with him — whether in his office or by chance in the hall — after that meeting, I knew what to do, I wanted to do it, and I felt I could do it,” he says. Good mentors also energize their protégés.

For a CA, contributions made as a role model and mentor may be the most important and meaningful part of his or her eventual legacy. What do we want to be remembered for when we shuffle off into retirement? We start building our reputation the first day of work and it culminates as our legacy the day we leave. Is it safe to say that we all want to leave the world a little bit better off than when we came? Do we want to be fondly remembered as someone who made a difference in someone’s career and life?

The CA world provides abundant opportunities to leave a lasting legacy as a role model and mentor. And you are never too old to acquire new role models — even as you retire.

Robert Gagnon, CA, oversees executive programs for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario

Technical editor: Carolyn Cohen, CA, MSW, Training and Human Resources Consulting

Article appeared in The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants CA Magazine Fall 2008.