Managing and Motivating Accounting Professionals

Human resources managers at CPA firms with around 50 employees share what works and what doesn’t.

If you are reading this article, you probably fit into one of two categories:  the proverbial “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”.  In other words, you either have a mentoring program (and that program might be working well or leaves something to be desired) or you are interested in creating/developing one at your firm.  Read on to avoid common pitfalls that other professional services firms have experienced or to learn how to make your current program more efficient and effective.

Question :     My firm is interested in developing a well-structured formal mentoring program, but we have no idea how to proceed.  Is there a proven methodology that we can follow to make sure we do it right?

There are 5 stages of any formal mentoring program, each with a deeper level of investment, and each getting closer to a true ROI. It’s important to get each one right, and to understand where your firm is in the process. These stages are:

Concept – Valuing formal mentoring.  This is the stage at which leadership seriously considers a creation (or recreation) of a mentoring program as well as the impact it will have on the firm.  It is acknowledged that assistance is needed to develop appropriate and attainable goals, as well as discover the best mechanism/s to bring success to the initiative.

Creation – Getting the structure right.  At this stage, best practices are used to ensure proper alignment with the firm’s goals as set forth in the concept stage.  At this stage, the emphasis is on the structure of the program; this will ensure a sustainable program for your firm.

Pilot – Calibrating with participants.  By the time you arrive at the Pilot stage, you’ve already got buy-in from leadership, decided on the program goals and objectives, and created a road map to get there.  The pilot should then be rolled out to a group of participants that are enthusiastic enough to provide useful feedback after the initial launch (this is so that any mistakes in the communication plan or rollout can be remedied before the larger audience is included.)

In an approach that uses software and tracking capabilities, data can be carefully monitored each month and recommendations can be made about changes before a rollout to the larger group takes place.  This ensures that the program goals are being achieved and full benefits are achieved.

Scaling – Getting the message right.  Once the structure is in place that supports participation, accountability, and transparency, and any initial misunderstandings or stumbling blocks are removed, it’s time to scale the program.  Effective communication around the roll-out of the program has proven to be critical at this stage.

Managing – Making sure it happens.  At this stage, you begin to maximize your investment  into the program as you effectively track activity metrics, hold participants accountable and provide the necessary support for the program.  If you have thoughtfully executed each stage of the process, you should soon be celebrating the success of the program:  participation will be high, the program will be well-regarded throughout the firm, and hard evidence reflecting bottom-line impact can be shared.


Question:     How should Mentees be paired with Mentors and for how long?

There are many disparate opinions among experts about the most effective way to match participants. Ultimately the program goals should, to a great extent, drive the matching priorities. In other words, what are you really trying to achieve with this program? Are you trying to integrate two groups of professionals after a merger? Are you trying to dial-in several international offices to the experience of your US operations? Are you trying to help younger professionals navigate a firm that likes to stay on top and relevant? The answers to these questions will determine whether traditional junior/senior pairings, cross-functional or cross-department pairings, or diversity-rich pairings are used.

It is wise to give strong consideration to the personal communication style and social preferences of the participants that will be matched.

Aligning these characteristics can support that a “common ground” exists from the onset of the mentoring relationship.  As a result, more frequent and meaningful communication is likely to take place, leading to higher levels of engagement and satisfaction program wide. This can be accomplished in several ways depending on the time and resources that can be expended (in some cases, a personal phone interview can be conducted to help determine a good personality fit).   There are also software systems that have been developed to help increase the mentoring connection that have a built-in personality profiling system, which can quickly and accurately explore personality and uncover essential elements of preference in relating socially (i.e. communication style, cultural preferences, etc.) .  Mentoring software has been developed that can streamline the pairing process and generate meaningful reports to assist HR professionals and firm administrators to manage and analyze their mentoring program.

In formal, company-sponsored mentoring programs, participants should be paired for no less than 6 months and no longer than 12 months (shorter intervals can be used for training or coaching relationships).  There are good reasons for both of these recommendations.  If paired for less than six months, neither party has enough time to build genuine trust and comfort with the other (nor account for seasonal stresses and other distractions, such as budget creation, holidays, firm retreats, or compensation review time, just to name a few).  If paired for more than 12 months, multiple other problems arise. First, the opportunity pressures are not present for either party (use it or lose it). Secondly, a longer term commitment (say 3 years, or no clear end in sight) is potentially daunting for either party to sign-up for, and can potentially limit the ranks of volunteers on either side.

One thing to realize here is that if a great connection is made between Mentor and Mentee, that relationship will outlast the outlines of your formal mentoring program – a very positive and welcome result.


Question:  Can more than one participant be paired with a mentor?

One thing that is universally true – really good mentors are in short supply.  Many programs pair multiple participants with one mentor, but there are, of course, pros and cons to this:

Pros- There are frequently a limited number of “upper classmen” to choose from – therefore, a firm’s resources can be spread around a bit. The better and more enthusiastic mentors remain, the more engaged they will be.

Cons  – Leaning on a smaller group of capable and trusted mentors can reduce the likelihood that the program coordinator will reach out further to recruit or encourage participation from the quieter, underutilized segments, reducing leadership development and business diversity opportunities.
Question:  Who should be responsible for driving the mentoring relationship forward?

Most successful programs point to the mentee as the responsible candidate to drive the dialogue and maintain the relationship. This is based on the notion that the mentee is the person that most benefits from the relationship, has less responsibility within the firm (and, therefore have more time) and , therefore is expected to take the initiative in driving the mentoring relationship.  While this may be a reasonable expectation, many firms have recognized the benefits of reverse-mentoring (a junior colleague helping a senior colleague to understand new trends and techniques) and therefore take measures to encourage active, engaging behavior from both parties.
Question:  What are some indicators that a mentoring program is succeeding? Or failing?

The clearest indication that a program is succeeding is participation;  conversely, the clearest indication of failure is lack of participation.

The very essence of a mentoring relationship is that people communicate.  Those who are charged with overseeing a mentoring program should do all they can to encourage and facilitate active and consistent communication within mentoring pairs.  Every other objective can be better executed if participants have an easy way to communicate and the proper structure and incentives to do so.  Most formal mentoring programs break down due to a lack of structure, accountability, and transparency.  Some recommendations to avoid this are:

  • Allowing participants to use their everyday tools to communicate (email, phone, meeting requests, video-conferencing, etc.).
  • Tracking program activity through a centralized system / function (rather than relying on lunch receipts or trying to sort through billable codes).
  • Using computer-based software to easily parse data, format useful, regular reports that highlight key areas,
  • Sharing progress reporting with the management team to evaluate and tweak the program, as needed (personnel changes, seasonal workload,  etc.).
  • Communicate the value of the mentoring program firm-wide to all of your professionals about your commitment to diversity and inclusion is highly recommended to ensure the success of any internal program at professional services firms. Knowledge is power – and sharing information about your internal processes educates, enlightens – and empowers.

A final thought for those of you are committed to creating or improving a formalized program for mentoring at your firm:  consider the importance of how you manage, educate, inspire and motivate your professional staff as this is critical to the success of your firm.  After all, a professional services firm is only as good as its providers  and the right program in place can help you to also attract and retain the high caliber talent you need to stand out from the rest.




Lisa Tierney, CLSC  is a certifiled life coach and consultant to the accounting and legal professions. TIERNEY Coaching & Consulting, Inc. offers accounting and law firms a unique combination of consulting and coaching that educates, enlightens and empowers professional services providers across the country.

 Andy George, Co-Founder of MentorcliQ , offering accounting and law firms a full software service to aid in creating or reimagining their formal mentoring programs, supporting them from concept to implementation and beyond. Their latest development, ProfessionalEsq  is designed with the particular needs of professional services firms in mind.

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