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How I Became a Mentor by Accident

by Matt Jones, CPA
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At the end of 2016 I had been free of public accounting for over a year and I certainly didn’t miss it. At that time, I met Sam, who I learned was eager to get into public accounting. Now, I’ve never been a mentor or career coach, but I had experienced public accounting so I offered to help Sam along the way. 

What resulted was more rewarding (and more impressive on Sam’s part) than I ever could have imagined. Once I got a taste of helping others find their way, I realized it’s more rewarding to help another person achieve their goals than even achieving your own goals. Although I didn’t feel quite prepared (and I warned Sam as much) to be a mentor, I decided to do my best because you’ll never feel 100% ready for anything in life

Lesson 1: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” – Arthur Ashe

Sam and I met when I walked into a retail store and struck up a conversation. Sam was hawking sweaters and I was “just browsing”, but he has such a friendly attitude that I didn’t blow him off and ultimately returned later to buy a sweater for my wife (girlfriend at the time).

Through our conversation Sam shared he was studying accounting at Cleveland State University and I shared that I am a CPA. Sam asked for a business card and I was happy to give him one, expecting that, as usual, I’d never hear from him. I left the store having enjoyed the conversation, but admittedly forgot about the interaction. 

Sam finally reached out via email six months later. I worked at my job for two years, but had just put in my two week notice. Had he waited any longer I’d have been gone from the company and never received his message. Better late than never, but Sam almost waited too long. Sam invited me to grab a cup of coffee when and where it was convenient for me, a key to making the initial outreach to someone you’d like to ask for advice.

Lesson #2: Make it easy for the other person to help you. 

Sam came prepared to our coffee meeting with questions and ambition and energy – it made me excited to talk with him. He asked simple questions and I gave simple answers: work hard, reach out, and follow-up. Follow-up is the most important in my opinion.

There isn’t a single suggestion or assignment I’ve given Sam that he didn’t follow through on to his very best ability. He went above and beyond from day one. I hit the mentee lottery, but not on the first try. Plenty of others have asked for advice and failed to follow-up.

Lesson #3: Follow-up. Do what you say you will.

If you struggle with this, check out Getting Things Done by David Allen. 

Sam was looking for an accounting internship. He sent his resume to me and I made suggestions to improve it: remove irrelevant work experience, shorten it to one page, remove distracting formatting, add action verbs, etc. He quickly made the changes and applied to internships, prepared for interviews, practiced his responses, and learned about the companies/interviewer, ultimately landing an internship with Sherwin-Williams. 

Every couple of months I’d get an email from Sam with new questions and challenges he was facing. Such as, “how do I tell my manager I’m taking another internship without burning a bridge?” 1 “They offered me a public accounting internship in Columbus, is it worth living away from home for a few months to do it?”, and many others. 

As Sam was approaching graduation, he wanted a job in public accounting. I told him how important his network (and networking) is and encouraged him to attend events and interact with CPAs, then connecting with them on Linkedin. I ended up introducing Sam to some of my network, confident that he would impress them as much as he impressed me. 2

As expected, Sam impressed everyone I introduced him to. He asked me questions in advance of meetings and interviews to ensure he made the most of the opportunity. In retrospect, I was actually helping the interviewer. They need to make hires and it’s challenging to hire people who will work hard and stick around. By “vetting” people and earning a reputation for making good introductions I can save others a lot of energy in the process. 

Sam was hired by one of my CPA contacts and works there now. He was the first in his class to pass the CPA exam (all four parts on the first try!) and is a hard worker (so I hear), no surprise to me. Now Sam has set his sights on bigger and brighter goals: investing, additional certifications, networking and writing. I encourage him to pay it forward, help others, and share his journey. Hasn’t disappointed me, I’m sure he won’t on this. 

Lesson #4: Pay it forward.

A final thought: We all feel like an imposter when we first attempt a new challenge. Sam felt that way as a public accounting intern and I felt that way as a mentor. But most of the growth we experience in our lives comes from outside our comfort zones. When you begin exercising, it can be awkward and uncomfortable (See: Matt does yoga for the first time).

But soon you come to enjoy the feeling of soreness, pushing yourself, and the exhaustion after a long workout. You’ll feel a similar attraction to moving outside your comfort zone after the first few times. I was nervous to write my opinions in a blog, speak in front of a group, and cold-call business owners. But once you’ve finished the task (regardless of the outcome) you realize how possible it is, the limited-to-no consequences for making a mistake and, as my friend Joey likes to say, “nobody is going to steal your lunch money” for trying.

I never told Sam how I felt an imposter for a long time as a mentor. In my mind, I though “I’m not old enough or experienced enough to give anyone advice.” But all that mattered was that I was honest and tried to help by sharing my experience with someone trying something for the first time. 

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