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Not All Partner Mentors Are Created Equal

Welcome to the latest installment of The Partner Track, a story of a Big 4 Senior Manager navigating a career in public accounting and thinking about the next step — the partnership.
It’s been my experience that mentoring is 90% talking about mentoring and 10% actual mentoring. No good goal setting session will pass without at least one mention of mentoring. Good mentoring is hard to find in an accounting firm because it requires taking the time to care about someone else, listening to their issues and providing thoughtful insight into their situation. Accountants aren’t cut out for that type of human interaction.
As a senior manager the “mentoring” seems to come from more places now as different partners either want to be involved in my career development or are obligated to be because it’s part of their goals for the year. In this position you often find yourself involved in various aspects of the firm’s operations and each person above you tries to influence your next steps.  In the past few years, I’ve had four different interactions with partners that would qualify in some way, shape or form as “mentoring” and only 50% of them have carried any real value.
The Company Man
I’m sure not every office in my firm is like this (especially the larger ones where even senior managers are just another number) but the lead partner in my office takes an interest in all of the senior managers’ career progression. He genuinely seems to be a nice man judging by my interactions with him outside of work, but that doesn’t keep him from bleeding Big 4 blood. The advice I’ve gotten from him has been generic at best and has centered around being involved in the office or community. For him, it’s about polishing your image locally.  It’s been: 
  • Be involved in a diversity network 
  • Do some recruiting 
  • Make sure you’re a part of the United Way campaign
  • Mentor some people in the office 
  • Make appearances at the office-wide events 
I expected more from a partner. Anyone knows that the more people see your face the more they assume you are “involved” and that’s never a bad thing come promotion time.  While supportive, I got the feeling that he wanted to help me become partner because it would look good for the office under his leadership.
The Industry Idealist
The least useful advice I’ve been given in the past few years came from a woman who was heading my industry. I worked in a cross-functional group under her for a little over a year. This was one of those groups where they throw together a bunch of high performing senior managers to give them one more step in the grooming for partner process. We were all supposed to be grateful for the high profile people we got to work with. She met with each of us twice during our time to discuss our careers. The problem was she didn’t really know any of us so her advice was about striving to increase your networking, international experience and industry exposure so you could become a partner and bring in more clients. There were no specific steps, only an advertisement for items she was already involved in. It wasn’t anything that I couldn’t have gotten just from reading Going Concern columns. For her it was all about polishing an industry expert image and I got the feeling that she was only interested in me becoming partner because it would look good for her industry and be one more person to bring in the cash.
The Realist
My current performance manager is a seasoned partner and he’s given me some of the best advice during my career. He’s achieved a lot in his years and has managed to get dominion over several large initiatives in the firm. Strangely, he less of a firm loyalist than many other folks I interact with. I think that’s because he believes the firm is woefully behind the times, can’t get their act together on how to execute an audit and generally has an unwillingness to change. With views like that it’s no wonder he’s a straight talker when it comes to career advice. He isn’t concerned with whose ass to kiss or which program to get yourself into.  
My advice from him has always been centered around getting partners to think of you like a partner well in advance of promotion. His simplest credo is to know your facts and talk to the partners like you were one of them when making a decision. If you act like you belong in the club, they’ll think of you as already being in the club and the promotion process will be a bit of an afterthought.  His intention here was not to spew the company line each time I talked with a partner (or when in the company of partners).  It was about confidence when dealing with partners and not acting like a subordinate.  It was about thinking about the firm’s finances when making decisions and not just those of my own contracts.
I found this to be the most useful image polishing advice because it made sense to me.  It was also something no other partner had bothered to tell me.  It was so simple and it was something I had always thought when looking at senior associates trying to make manager.  If they already acted like a manager and talked like a manager I was much more likely to push them for promotion. Again, this wasn’t about memorizing the company tagline. I knew a senior was ready to be a manager when he/she came to me with issue and well thought out solutions to that issue, rather than just complaining about the issue and wanting to be told what to do. Unlike the previous two, I also got the feeling that he cared about the people who worked for him, so his push for me to act like a partner was because he saw value in me being one (rather than just being a revenue bringer).
The "Mentor" Mentor
In previous posts I’ve mentioned how I had a partner that I turned to at different points for advice. This would be the person most of us would actually call a "mentor." Outside of the arranged chats we’ve had when I was on the fence about staying at the firm, most of our mentoring moments have been informal as topics came up around us. None of his advice has been about polishing my image. Since he’s been the closest to me over my career, he’s well aware that my image is what it is and has been trying to give more practical advice about the process as a whole. He’s given me the insight into the partner interview process (where I learned that administrative things can bite you in the ass), thoughts about going to market (jump onto requests for proposals whenever someone needs a partner because it’s easier than having to work you own leads) and he genuinely would like me to join the partner ranks.  
The one common thread through all of this has been that everyone above me has been supportive of my moving to the next level. Either every partner has been carefully programmed to say the right things to string all senior managers along or some people at the firm do actually care about career progression.