insight magazine

Mentoring With Meaning

Informal or formal, modern-day mentorship can make a world of difference in recruiting and retaining accounting and finance professionals. By ANNIE MUELLER | Fall 2018


"My first day in the office at my first job was my first time in a corporate environment,” says Kari Natale, CAE, director of Planning & Governance for the Illinois CPA Society and director of the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois. Like many young professionals first entering the business world, Natale comes from a family with limited business experience, and she lacked real-world corporate experience at the onset of her professional life. What has kept her engaged and advancing well into her career has been a series of pivotal relationships, relationships that evolved because, as she says, “Somebody saw potential in me.”

“These people helped me navigate my way through the corporate world, the cultures, the projects, and how to work better with team members,” she explains. Today, Natale, who also leads the nationally acclaimed Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program for deserving and high-potential minority accounting students, thinks seeing and nurturing the potential in young professionals is exactly what the accounting and finance profession needs to focus on.

Why? “Recruiting and retaining new employees” was again ranked as one of the biggest concerns for large (71 percent) and mid-size (36 percent) accounting firms when surveyed this year by Accounting Today. And for young professionals entering the competitive and stressful accounting and finance industry, outside of a short internship, they often lack real-world corporate experience. And we all know a lack of experience can lead to drastic decisions — and more retention challenges. “If you hit a roadblock, if something’s not working, you look for something different, something better,” Natale says. Millennials and Gen Z employees are particularly guilty of this, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Workplace Institute’s 2017 Retention Report found that up to 75 percent of the causes of turnover, such as issues with career development, work-life balance, and well-being, are preventable. “I didn’t leave when I got frustrated, because I had somebody to talk me through each roadblock and I worked through those things rather than jumping ship,” Natale says, suggesting that both informal and formal relationships that provide perspective and experience to young professionals can be one of the greatest means of turnover prevention.


“Empirically, we know that formal mentoring helps,” says Wendy Murphy, an associate professor of management at Babson College and author of “Strategic Relationships at Work.” “We’re seeing results in terms of performance and job satisfaction, which lead to lower rates of turnover, for example.”

But despite the decades of research and attention given to formal mentorship, Accounting Today found only about 25 percent of firms had a mentorship program in place in 2015. Meaning, there’s a disconnect: it’s known that mentorship can reduce turnover but it’s not being broadly used. Even research by Big Four accounting firm Deloitte has documented this in the business world: Employees who intend to stay with their organizations for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey. Following up, Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey reported that 73 percent of millennial and Gen Z employees with similar loyalty to their organizations see them as strong providers of training and development.

So, why then do so many organizations neglect mentoring altogether or shrug it off as a failed effort if immediate results aren’t seen?

Perhaps it’s the effort needed. Mentoring must be implemented thoughtfully and consistently to make a difference. It’s not enough for companies to plop a program in place — or depend on the one they already have — and expect it to catalyze cultural change.

“I was in a formal, matched program in the past, matched with a mentor who wasn’t a good fit. It was uncomfortable and broke off before any progress was made,” Natale shares. “I really owe my current success to my informal mentor. He reached out to me and helped guide me through real issues I was facing.”

The informal success isn’t surprising to Murphy. “The challenge is when you look at informal mentoring, the effect is even better,” she confirms.


Informal mentorship is based on a natural connection; because it’s voluntary, it’s often more effective than formal mentor matches. Formality itself, however, isn’t the issue.

“It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is naturally formed or established through a formal mentoring program,” argues Mani Goulding, a retired CPA turned founder of HR consultancy Career Passion Limited. “The benefits derived from the program have a lot to do with the commitment of both the mentor and mentee to the success of the relationship, and that both see the value in participating in the program.”

Consider the experience of Lauren Crain a young digital marketing professional who tried initiating an informal mentoring relationship which continued over email for several months. “Since I initiated it, I felt like I was always bothering her,” Crain says. “I began emailing less, wondering if she’d try to keep in touch. When she didn’t, I allowed that to confirm my suspicions, and now we no longer talk.” For Crain, the lack of structure created insecurity but when combined with lack of commitment, the relationship disintegrated.

Structure is going to be foundational for companies looking to rein in retention and succession challenges through mentoring. As a 2016 Harvard Business Review study found, lack of structure also makes mentoring less effective in dismantling diversity issues, another challenging topic the accounting and finance profession is struggling to navigate. “We tend to want to help people who are exactly like us," Murphy explains, "which is not helpful from a diversity perspective.” Structure is a bridge leading people over bias and insecurity, into diverse and beneficial connections at work and beyond.

In moving the needle forward on modern-day mentoring, Murphy suggests organizations and their leaders focus in from a different perspective: “Who are the people who are going to be helpful in your career?”

“It’s not always about finding a perfect mentor, but about seeing the opportunities for developmental relationships everywhere. ‘Developmental network’ is the academic term we use,” Murphy says. “It works best when it comes from a variety of sources. It’s hard for any one person to provide all of the support.”

In fact, Accounting Today says many of the professionals named to their Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting list not only had one mentor, but had two, three, or more.

On that note, Goulding advises young professionals to approach people on a career trajectory they would like to emulate. Don’t ask for open-ended, general career help, though. Instead, young professionals should “ask for help with specific career issues over a defined period of time,” Goulding suggests.


Mentorship is often seen as one-way, with benefits flowing from the more experienced half of the relationship to the younger protégé. That’s an inaccurate picture. “It is a co-learning relationship, no matter how you frame it,” Murphy stresses. Offering one example, she says, “People who are new to the organization can see things that others don’t. They can ask good questions about issues that others don’t notice anymore.”

What’s more, wise leaders will create and nurture a developmental culture so that everyone can benefit. Senior individuals should lead by example: putting time into their own developmental network and guiding their direct reports to do the same, whether through informal mentoring and coaching or formal organization-wide initiatives. But accountability is key.

“Any organization can come up with a scheme to ensure mentorship happens, but if they’re not holding people accountable, it won’t necessarily be taken up by everyone,” Murphy cautions. Accountability makes a basic requirement of people — put time into development — but leaves them autonomy over how it’s done. Over time, organizations can add more structure if needed, such as specific training or goals, to make developmental relationships more efficient and valuable. “Giving people clear guidance and training on what they’re doing will help them,” Murphy says.

“I see promising people leave the profession too soon,” Natale says. “If they had somebody to talk through their challenges with like me, they might not have made that same decision.”

Those one-on-one relationships are like pebbles dropped in the pond: the benefits ripple outward, from individual to organization to industry.

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