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Accountants and mentors: Find the right people to help you start and grow your small business

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It’s no secret that running a small business is challenging. And last year, the COVID-19 pandemic made things tougher than usual for SMEs.

To help these businesses, Standard Bank launched a mentorship programme for 20 of its small business clients in August 2020. Run in partnership with the National Mentorship Movement (NMM); the intensive 12-month programme showcased how good mentorship can positively impact the personal and professional lives of entrepreneurs.

A SCORE survey found that mentoring increases the likelihood of small business success. SCORE’s findings supported existing research, revealing that entrepreneurs with access to a mentor are five times more likely to start a business than those who do not have a mentor. And their businesses are also more likely to succeed.

Mentoring typically sees a “mentor” – usually an experienced individual – share their knowledge, expertise, and advice with a less experienced person, called a “mentee”. The goal of this developmental partnership is not necessarily to improve the mentee’s performance but rather to help with their personal and career development.

Working with a mentor is a great way for young accountants to better understand what it’s like to work in a particular role and perform specific tasks. Often, these learnings can’t be taught in a classroom.

Mentoring can be extremely valuable for accountants, yet research from The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) shows low mentoring within the accounting and finance industry.

Why aspiring accountants need a mentor

With the world of work changing every day, young accountants learn faster and gain valuable skills when they learn on the job. Here are four reasons young accountants can benefit from a mentor and why start-up accounting firms can benefit from mentorship programmes.

Honing soft skills

As more and more accounting businesses use software to automate repetitive tasks, accountants no longer need to perform as many time-consuming number-crunching tasks and can focus on more specialised and strategic functions. This makes it crucial for accountants to focus on the development of soft skills. The right mentor can help young accountants navigate everything from communication and critical thinking to customer service and teamwork.

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Succession planning and retention

Those at the top need to pass on their institutional knowledge and expertise to the next generation of leaders. While some institutional knowledge is explicit, much of it is implicit and isn’t easily documented. For example, a mentor may share essential tactical knowledge, such as working with a big client or managing a particularly technical project. In passing on this knowledge to younger professionals, you also demonstrate that they have a future at your firm, which boosts retention. A formal mentoring programme shows current employees and job candidates that your firm is committed to their growth and that you’re invested in having them stick around.

Career development

Mentors help you keep your career on the right track. They also keep you accountable for achieving your career goals. Success in any business or profession results from a combination of factors, and one of them is continuous learning. Mentors expand your viewpoint and provide different perspectives around how to solve problems. Additionally, they help you connect with the right people and the suitable sources of information to move your business or career forward and achieve your goals.

Build relationships, boost diversity and company culture

Mentoring programmes can support your diversity and inclusion efforts by helping you to retain your underrepresented employees and preparing them for leadership roles in the future. This also adds to your company culture because it demonstrates that your business is a place that prioritises the personal and professional development and growth of employees.

How to find the right accounting mentor

Mentoring programmes can positively impact the mentor, the mentee, and the business – but only if mentors and mentees are well matched. Choosing a mentor should not be taken lightly because finding the right fit could be the difference between a fruitful or frustrating experience.

Below, we unpack questions you should ask when choosing a mentor.

What do you want to gain?

What are you looking for from a mentor, and what do you want to gain from the relationship? Once you know your desired outcomes, it’s easier to decide who can help you achieve these goals. This will help you narrow down your search so that it’s easier to find someone who is a good match.

Do they have the skills and experience you want to learn?

If you want to start your own firm, choosing a mentor who has successfully done so makes sense. Suppose you want to move into a niche field or industry; working with someone who understands that niche is a good idea. When choosing a mentor, think about where you want your career to go and try to find someone who has done it before as they are well-positioned to guide you effectively.

Do they share your values and definition of success?

Spend time finding out about your proposed mentor’s outlook on life, understand their views on your field and their attitude about the future. It’s unlikely that you’ll find someone who thinks exactly as you do, but you must find someone whose life philosophies closely match yours.

Do they challenge you?

While you need to have similar professional values and work ethics, differences are good too because they help you grow. Let’s imagine you have a particular skill that you’d like to master, or you’d like to learn more about a new, complicated field. Finding someone who has mastered that skill or field is a great way to challenge yourself to grow and improve.

Do they have time to build a relationship with you?

It’s a good idea to choose someone you already know to be your mentor because they’re more likely to invest time into helping you succeed. However, this person may not have the time to coach you. It’s essential to establish this early on so that you don’t choose someone who can’t give you the support you need. If this is the case, and you’re out of options, consider joining professional accounting organisations to build your network and connect with people who have free time and who are willing to help you take your career forward.

The Practice of Now 2020

Discover how accounting is on the brink of positive disruption and what accountants and bookkeepers should do to be successful

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