6 Ways Mentors Elevate Your Career

By Marv Dumon AAA

Finance professionals looking for ways to elevate their careers have a variety of sources to turn to that provide career-enhancing information. These sources include television, websites, magazines, journals, newspapers, friends and colleagues. These various channels provide tips and insights on industry developments, the latest finance and accounting-related regulations, finance and accounting certifications, conferences, executive education courses, job opportunities and networking functions.

Unfortunately, the motivated finance professional can become overwhelmed with the diversity of information sources, the sheer volume of data and the constant stream of junk information that comes along with bits and pieces of good advice. Experienced, credible and trustworthy mentors can serve as a hub for ideas on elevating your career. Additionally, they can customize their suggestions based on your unique circumstances and professional interests. The following are six ways that mentors can help advance your career.

Gain Respect and Credibility by Association
You should select mentors that are widely respected by visible and influential members of your organization, not just the finance department. Because your mentor has earned a high level of respect, his or her credibility will rub off on you. People will hold you in higher regard simply by associating with these high-caliber individuals. When visible and influential members see that you are proactively seeking these mentors' advice and guidance, this increases your chances of securing coveted positions and opportunities within the company.

Ideally, these mentors should be at the executive level and have a strong track record of success. If you are at the analyst or associate level within your organization, managers could also serve as your mentors.

Get Practical Advice from a Tested Veteran
Executives walk the walk; they've done it, and they have the battle scars to prove it. One thing you can't argue against are results. You don't want to be in a position where you "buy" the advice of a talker, as it usually ends up being terrible advice. Finance is a competitive field, and if you value your career, then you should take it seriously enough to seek the advice of business sages.

Mentors can provide sound advice on approaches to delicate salary negotiations, how to succeed in a new job, dealing with difficult people or confronting unethical practices. You need high ROI advice, not contemplations, musings or armchair theorizing. Leave that for the unimpressive – they have a knack for blindly torpedoing their own careers.

Learn to Read Between the Lines and Deal with Organizational Politics
Are there business situations that confound you? There might be difficult people or adverse workplace situations that you frequently deal with. As an example, perhaps you did a great job on that division audit and recorded your findings in a solid-looking report. Oddly, your audit manager is acting "weird" and you feel that you are not getting the recognition (and bonus) you deserve. After all, you ended up putting in six-day weeks for the past three months. Mentors may be able to help you read between the lines in soft situations. Departments can be a fluid, dynamic and politicized entity.

Finance and accounting is composed of typical people with personal desires and shortcomings. Finance and accounting – in the real world – are not purely robotic exercises. Perhaps your manager has ambitions of taking over the CFO role for that particular division, and does not want to alienate the division president. Thus, he does not want the internal audit department to flag the division's operations with what he considers to be "gray area" audit findings. If someone did not point out this possible motivation to you, would you have figured it out yourself?

Secondly, throughout your career you will frequently come across especially difficult (or dysfunctional) people within your company. Understanding organizational politics and dealing with difficult (or dysfunctional) people, takes experience and wisdom. Your mentors may be able to provide you with effective (and often sensitive) strategies on dealing with these people. What you don't want to do is ruin your career by humiliating yourself in front of your team (i.e., by unnecessarily blowing up on difficult people) or embarrassing your manager by using ineffective methods and approaches. All it may take is a simple phone call from a key executive or senior manager to secure that person's cooperation. 

Do a Professional SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis
Mentors can point out observations on your strengths and weaknesses, helping you to identify, understand and take action on areas that need improvement. They might also be able to suggest ways in which you can improve in a particular area, such as tact, communication skills and emotional intelligence. These "how to" suggestions come from experienced and wise professionals, and incorporating their advice into your daily life can help you reach the next level.

Find Career Opportunities and Expand Your Network
Mentors are often in the loop of current or future job openings within the company or industry. As they see your strengths and interests, they may forward you career opportunities that they come across, based on your skill sets and professional goals. You will also have the opportunity to expand your professional networks by way of introductions facilitated by your mentors. Referrals and introductions by widely respected individuals is the most effective way of getting in the door.

Determine Your Contributions and Value-Add
While it is critical for finance professionals to have confidence, unfortunately most people think too highly of themselves. Such inflated views on one's own skills distort perspectives on actual performance, contributions and value to the organization.

Let's say you're a newly minted MBA; you feel very proud that you were able to successfully yield attractive returns on the company's marketable securities while working in the treasury department. After a two-year stint with this group, you apply for a prestigious strategy position reporting directly to the vice president of strategy. Strategy is a highly visible and extremely respected role that requires immense industry and company insights. It is often a breeding ground for future CEOs. Unfortunately, you get blatantly turned down for the job. An experienced mentor will point out what you should already know: investment strategy has nothing to do with company-specific business strategy.

An objective appraisal by a wise mentor can bring finance professionals down from their high horses, especially recent grads. Succeeding in business requires constant reality checks and accurate appraisals, not wishful thinking. 

The Bottom Line
Mentors can save you potentially costly mistakes and pitfalls throughout your career. Avoiding wasted time and effort, as well as elevating your career through savvy insights, is worth the investment of two to three hours a month garnering feedback from a mentor. Professional football players who earn millions of dollars a year typically have multiple mentors and coaches all attempting to elevate their level of contributions. The same approach can be used to elevate your career.

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