The journey beyond the exam takes a guide.
The path to become a CPA is clear. It starts with much education and study and culminates with conquering the exam and qualifying experience. Once a CPA, the path is far less obvious. How does one find direction, strengths and purpose? Hopefully, mentors will come along to customize a pathway to one’s potential and aspirations.
It has been said that “When the lotus blossoms, the bees come of their own accord.” Following this natural law of attraction, mentees with the right attributes draw mentors and vice-versa. To open up to a mentoring relationship takes:
- Listening skills
- Follow through
That is why many employers find mixed results with workplace mentoring programs: personal chemistry evolves organically. As such, it can be nurtured, but not systematized. Furthermore, the workplace dynamic, with its posturing and politics can prevent the necessary candor and personal interest in each other.
Nonetheless, wherever it flourishes, the difference between a teacher and a mentor can be as wide as the difference between a GAP employee and a custom-made tailor. Indeed, mentorship done right is customized from a deep knowledge of the mentee’s personality, abilities and shortcomings. For example, under similar circumstances, an insightful mentor may advise the meek to fight and the feisty to back off. Simply put, teachers impart knowledge, while mentors imbue wisdom.
Although accomplishments directed by a mentor’s advice are tremendous, the wrong steps avoided are fundamental. "You only have to do very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong," says Warren Buffett. Mentors save us from doing things we mistakenly think we should do.
On the flip side, mentors lead us to achievements we didn’t think we could reach. The Harvard Mentoring project makes this point with interviews from some of America's most prominent people giving credit to those who helped them become who they are.
Mentors also provide countless little, but pivotal advice. Getting your work to be looked at, noticed and moved on top of the pile. Other ways mentors can help include:
- Navigating the politics.
- Handling relationship with subordinates, co-workers and bosses — difficult relationships in particular.
- Knowing when to press on and when to let go. How to ask for a raise. How to say no and when to say goodbye.
- When to get mad.
- What to truly care about.
- When to maintain loyalty and when to break confidentiality.
- When to bring up a personal matter. What battles to pick. When to let the other party win. When to put yourself on the line. When to shield someone or let them take the blame. When to be brutally honest … and of course, how!
Finding a Mentor
To go from just being a CPA to a better CPA, there is the hard way, the lucky way or the benefit of wise guidance. Dealing with a new challenge is like entering a dark room and feeling your way to a concealed light switch. It makes sense to ask someone who has been already had the experience of turning on the light.
To be helpful, mentors need two essential qualities: wisdom and selflessness. Of the two, the latter is by far their defining characteristic. A mentor is willing to openly share insights accumulated over her lifetime for someone else’s benefit. Many people are willing to lend a hand, but only mentors will lend their brains, heart, guts and soul. Such an impressive gift of altruism should easily be recognized.
Types of Mentors
Mentors serve different purposes at different times and rarely does one serve them all:
- Knowledge and wisdom give direction for a specific situation or a general line of conduct.
- Vision and inspiration are not taught, but awakened. Mentors get sleeping giants to rise and shine.
- Strength and courage, which we need to find and use.
- Comfort and reassurance, which we particularly need after setbacks to pick ourselves up and go on.
Some mentors communicate explicitly and spell out what we need to know. Others teach by example. Those need to be observed, even studied. Many individuals stand out for qualities they cannot communicate, such as charisma, empathy, leadership or charm. Then, keen observation and osmosis are our best hope to assimilate some of it.
In the classical sense, mentors are people we look up to. However, they can also be people we vow to never become. Such “contra-mentors” should also be acknowledged as great teachers. Their antics and misdeeds can inspire acts of true greatness.
The travails of professional life continuously seek to teach us how to handle them. Consequently, regardless of age, CPAs should remain open to growth. With that in mind, we should all be able to name current mentors as easily as past ones.
A vast and dynamic world leaves us no choice but to remain mentees. Changing technology, demographics and generational attitudes alone require it. New approaches, functions and views for the CPA profession also bring about a need for continuous professional development.
Professional groups, such as the AICPA, provide many resources to outfit professional journeys. For example, the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee created a mentoring guide (PDF). Specialized communities, such as the Personal Financial Planning section, offer the resources to adapt to the broadening role CPAs play. AICPA networking groups offer the opportunity to share insights with colleagues. Advanced credentials for CPAs, such a Personal Financial Specialist, open the doors to a community of specialized peers who can guide us to new horizons.
Becoming a CPA is only the starting point to navigating a vast professional landscape. Ultimately, the path we follow is shaped by the paths we cross. And, the benefit of our encounters occurs as we open ourselves up to it.
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Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS is a wealth manager with Walpole Financial Advisors, LLC (WFA) in Goleta, CA. His opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own and may not accurately reflect those of WFA. This information is being provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment or tax advice. Nothing in these materials should be interpreted as implying the performance of any client accounts or securities recommendations. Bourdon volunteers as financial literacy advocate. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. For CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter apply to become a PFS Credential holder.