Two years ago, IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) Louisville (Ky.) Chapter board member Kristina Merrill and Chapter President Dennis Harding met for lunch to ponder over ideas to better drive membership and member engagement in the chapter. Like others, the Louisville Chapter was beginning to experience an “aging” of its membership, with more retirees than new members. So Harding and Merrill considered how they could attract more student members to help fill the need for new members.
Merrill had an idea: What about a mentor program for local university students? She liked the concept of “paying it forward” by mentoring young people and figured other professionals in the chapter likely felt the same way. Although she didn’t know exactly how to go about doing it, a formal chapter mentoring program could create a pathway for students to become chapter members. As Harding noted, “We already had a good leg in the door from our Student Night events that we were doing. So when the topic was discussed to do a mentoring program, it just made sense in the direction that we were going. It was a win-win for everyone.”
PILOT PROGRAM LAUNCHED
In spring 2016, Merrill piloted a mentoring program in the Louisville Chapter. The program had several goals, the foremost of which was to advance the development of new management accountants who would hopefully become contributing members of IMA. Other goals included: increasing the chapter’s presence on local campuses and among students, getting students excited about the many different career paths related to their degrees, reengaging less-active professional chapter members as program mentors, and providing students an opportunity to learn and practice professional networking and other important soft skills.
Merrill envisioned working with local universities to incorporate the mentoring program within each school’s framework. She had specific requirements for the program:
- It must fit within the confines of a typical university semester.
- It must have clearly defined learning objectives.
- It must have defined actionable steps that create a framework for the mentor and the student to follow.
These stipulations were important not only to ensure that the required time commitment was reasonable and understood, but also to ensure that the learning outcomes would be relatively similar for all the students involved while retaining enough flexibility for individual goals. In addition, the mentoring program tied in well with IMA’s vision “to be the leading resource for developing, certifying, connecting, and supporting the world’s best accountants and financial professionals in business” and endeavoring to “support members’ career development through access to an active professional community, continuing education, valuable information, and resources.”
Through the Louisville Chapter Mentoring Program, mentees learn about careers in management accounting, soft skills necessary to excel in business, interview skills, and networking skills. Said Merrill, “As a young person, I struggled unnecessarily by not having a strong support network. Now that I have found personal success, paying it forward by helping students and young people is a cause I am passionate about.”
THE RIGHT FIT
Making the appropriate mentor-mentee match is key. In the Louisville program, accounting professors nominate students to be mentees. The program director (originally Merrill and now Ted Bordador) then interviews the students to judge their fitness for the program and matches mentors and mentees.
One mentee, who was considering making a mid-career change into the accounting field, said, “I’m always looking for ways to gather as much information as possible to ensure that I’m making the right move. This program presented the perfect opportunity to receive solid advice from a seasoned professional, and I was lucky enough to be matched with a mentor who had recently made a career change himself. That’s what made this program special to me, in that it matched me with a mentor who could coach me in ways beyond the main objectives of the program.”
Program mentees are college students who are performing well in accounting or finance and who are active both on and off campus. According to Harding, a key to the mentoring program’s success is “that you can’t just select any willing student to be part of the program.” The chapter avoids selecting students simply looking to pad their résumé. Harding explained, “You need to find students who are the future leaders who are willing to not only thrive in their school life but also in other activities. It’s those students who are going to get the most out of it. We are looking to change lives with this program, not just fill résumés.”
One mentee noted, “I decided to participate in this program to help build my knowledge about different accounting professions and to experience firsthand what a typical day might look like for an accountant. In addition, I also wanted to seek advice from my mentor about what employers look for in candidates when hiring in order to make myself more marketable.” Another mentee reflected on his reason for participating in the program after being approached by one of his accounting professors. “Right off the bat,” he said, “it sounded like a great opportunity to network with successful business professionals, develop [my] personal brand, and learn more about the realities of working in the accounting industry. I’d never participated in a program like this, and I was intrigued to find out how it would work.”
Program mentors are local area professionals whose titles range from staff accountant and senior financial analyst to controller, CFO, and director. Bordador noted that the supply of potential mentees exceeds the supply of available mentors, even though mentors in the program readily admit to the benefits they, too, receive. One mentor explained, “I have always enjoyed working with aspiring accountants. In the past I have helped place accounting students [who] were friends with [colleagues] so they could get their foot in the door. When Ted asked if I would consider being a mentor, I saw this as a way to formalize what I had already been doing.”
STEPPING THROUGH THE PROGRAM
To help mentors guide mentees to achieve the program’s learning objectives (see Figure 1), the mentoring program includes seven actionable steps that give mentors and mentees the opportunity to get to know each other during a semester and work together to introduce the mentee to professional management accounting (see Figure 2). Mentors and mentees are each provided a separate guide to help direct their meetings. One mentee remarked, “I especially liked that there was an outline for each meeting. This allowed my mentor and [me] to focus on a specific goal each time we met and also to plan ahead for future meetings.”
Based on their schedules, mentors and mentees can determine when to meet (approximately every two or three weeks over the semester) or to consolidate some meetings to eliminate more than one step. To build in additional flexibility for busy professionals and students who might face logistical challenges in the Louisville-metro area, “meetings” could be any combination of in person, by telephone, or via Skype or another online tool. In addition, mentors and mentees are encouraged to continue their relationship after they complete the program.
Steps 1 and 2 in the program involve “get acquainted” sessions. The mentor describes his or her career path and current work. Then the mentee creates a five-year vision statement, and they discuss and plan what the mentee needs to do to achieve the goal. These two sessions help the mentor and mentee establish a rapport and set the framework for the following meetings. In addition, the opening get-acquainted sessions lay the groundwork for a mentoring relationship that lasts beyond the formal program.
Also during Step 2, the mentor and mentee exchange and discuss each other’s résumés and LinkedIn profiles, exploring how key achievements are represented and identifying differences in how they each “sell” themselves. One mentee noted, “Going in, I thought I already had a very strong résumé, but having a mentor with a different perspective review and provide feedback made me realize it actually needed a sizable overhaul.”
Step 3 explores activities the mentee might use to develop his or her personal brand and professional image. These activities would include developing an elevator pitch, producing an updated LinkedIn page and résumé, and getting involved in professional organizations such as IMA. Mentors guide mentees in this process without explicitly telling them what their brand should be or the content of the elevator pitch. One mentee commented, “The mentorship program was extremely instrumental in pushing me to alter my résumé for each job opening while carefully thinking about how I want to brand myself. Each job opening requires different specialties, so being able to show that you are uniquely qualified for the particular position is important. Think about your distinct specialties that differentiate you from all the other applicants and emphasize those.”
The Louisville Chapter Mentoring Program also encourages the mentor to acquaint the mentee with the mentor’s work environment through job shadowing in Step 4 and with the mentor’s professional organizational involvement through networking in Step 5. Job shadowing and networking help build the mentee’s professional skills and give him or her the opportunity to put into action activities and ideas from the prior three steps (such as the elevator pitch and insights gained about LinkedIn and professional organizations). Job shadowing and professional networking also help the mentee identify professional positions and career paths that might be of interest.
The job shadowing in Step 4 has taken many different forms, including touring the mentor’s workplace, sitting in on meetings and company learning sessions, speaking with the mentor’s coworkers or subordinates, tagging along on a business lunch, and so forth. One mentee was able to visit a local manufacturing company, tour the facility, and speak with the controller. “I’ve been interested in cost accounting,” the mentee revealed, “but had never actually visited a manufacturing plant, so this was an extremely informative opportunity for me. It was great to hear about the day-to-day struggles, tasks, accomplishments [and other characteristics] of cost accounting in the manufacturing environment. After that meeting, I had a much more accurate view of what a cost accounting position would practically look like.” Another mentee was able to join a local company for its product launch day, allowing him to see what role accountants play in taking a project from an idea to completion and how the various disciplines interact and rely on each other.
While the networking in Step 5 has included mentors and mentees attending local Louisville Chapter events together, participants are encouraged to branch out and experience other groups and associations. For example, one mentee joined her mentor at a Payroll Professionals of Kentuckiana meeting. “This meeting exposed me to a side of accounting that I had not looked at before,” she admitted. “I got to speak with various people [who] had different government positions in accounting, including one at my table [who] worked for the IRS and another [who] worked for the state.” According to another mentee, “One of my biggest takeaways from this program was having the ability to meet new people. As they say, networking is key in today’s society, and this program has allowed me to connect with many individuals. I think it will be beneficial to me once I start looking for internships.”
In Step 6, the mentor and mentee conduct a mock interview where the mentee interviews with the mentor as if they hadn’t met previously. Afterward, the mentor provides feedback on the mentee’s interview performance. This helps the mentee because the interviewer is a professional in a position to which the mentee aspires, and the interviewer knows the mentee better than other interviewers would. Therefore, the mentor can advise the mentee about emphasizing specific aspects of his or her background in an interview.
During the seventh and final step, the mentor and mentee review the lessons learned and recap activities of the program. The mentor helps the mentee take stock of the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses. This meeting is the mentor’s opportunity to pass along any final “words of wisdom” to the mentee in the formal mentoring program. At the conclusion of the program, the chapter also hosts an informal reception and “graduation” ceremony to recognize the mentees and mentors and allow them to meet and mingle with other program participants.
The Louisville Chapter Mentoring Program is now in its third semester, with five students participating. Its first semester also included five students, and the second had four students. Students from three local universities have taken part, and the chapter continues to reach out to additional local campuses as part of its efforts to slowly grow the program. According to Bordador, “There are plenty of willing student participants for the mentoring program. To grow the program will require finding more willing mentors.”
BENEFITS FOR ALL INVOLVED
Mentees join a mentoring program or relationship because of the anticipated benefits. A successful mentoring program can help mentees jump-start their professional careers. According to Bordador, “We are pleased with the development and performance of the mentoring program. Mentors and mentees work together over several months to enhance mentee professional skills.” The Louisville Chapter program can help college students determine if a particular career path is appropriate for them, enhance their interpersonal skills, and give them industry-related knowledge—all in less time than it would take otherwise.
According to one mentee, “Getting to build a relationship with a professional in your chosen field of study is a valuable tool.” Another mentee noted, “I really enjoyed meeting with my mentor and talking about how he got to where he is today. This showed me that there is not one path to success but rather many paths that are unique for each individual. However, by having your goal in mind and learning from those around you (in this case, your mentor), you can make your path to success easier and quicker.”
While most people think of mentoring programs benefiting mentees, there also are distinct benefits for mentors and sponsoring organizations. Mentors have the satisfaction of knowing they are giving back to their community and the education system, and they have the opportunity to use their expertise to guide mentees in improving their interpersonal skills and making appropriate career path choices. In addition, mentors may identify prospective employees in the mentoring program. For one young professional mentor, the program provided her an unexpected but significant takeaway. “You not only had to know how you got to where you currently are, but where you plan on going in the future,” she explained. “This provided me an opportunity to look into additional paths that I want to follow in the future.”
What benefits can a mentoring program bring you and your IMA chapter? Your chapter can gain new members, generate exciting activities for the mentees and mentors, and help increase IMA’s exposure among college students, who are prospective members. In fact, to participate in the mentoring program requires IMA membership. IMA also benefits by word-of-mouth publicity from the mentees.
For the Louisville Chapter, according to Harding, the program has also “started to show the intended plan of building new members into the board. We have started to get several students [who] have either joined [the chapter board] or showed interest in doing so once they finish school.” The program has helped the chapter promote the benefits of CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) certification. Harding recognizes that many local colleges and universities are almost exclusively promoting CPA (Certified Public Accountant) certification. “We are trying to change that approach,” he said, “and the [mentoring] program has gone a long way in a short time…getting students to realize that there are other options, including doing the dual approach for taking both the CMA and CPA.” In fact, six of the chapter’s mentees expressed interest in pursuing CMA certification and have since received the CMA Scholarship, furthering their future commitment to the management accounting profession.
The participating schools also benefit. Adding a mentoring program in cooperation with IMA enhances the educational experience for its students. As an additional educational activity available to outstanding management accounting students, the program increases networking opportunities with business leaders.
For Lisa Book, Louisville Chapter board member and lecturer at Indiana University Southeast, the program provides her students a chance to experience what they can expect in real life, beyond their textbooks and classroom work. It opens their eyes to the true diversity of the accounting field. Book explained how valuable that discovery was in her own career. “Many years ago as a student, although I was at the top of my accounting classes, I really wrestled with my decision to continue pursuing accounting as a profession,” she remembered. “Becoming a tax accountant or auditor at a CPA firm seemed to be the only career choice discussed, and that just didn’t seem to fit my personality. I had to chart my own path and learn the hard way. I pushed off certification for several years after graduation until I finally stumbled upon CMA certification.”
“At any point,” she continued, “I could have become discouraged and, instead, chosen a different, less fulfilling career. I nominate and encourage students in my chapter’s mentoring program in hopes of making their journey easier and also to continue to fuel their passion for pursuing their accounting degree and what they are learning in class. I am extremely grateful to Kristina Merrill for her innovative idea and ‘bulldoggish’ persistence to put this program into action.”