A profile of ACCA member John Barlow, who currently mentors seven employees
John Barlow, finance manager for property, fixed assets and capital at leading UK retailer Marks & Spencer, is a firm believer in the role of mentor as objective guide - someone who provides practical support and advice to students with the aim of getting them successfully through their exams with the minimum of fuss and stress.
In Marks & Spencer's finance team, mentoring accountancy students revolves around ensuring that the right level of support is provided - from time off for exam revision to technology and equipment, from understanding the demands of line management to interaction with the BPP, the company's tuition provider.
Giving something back
Barlow trained and qualified as an ACCA with Marks & Spencer - and enjoyed the benefits of mentoring himself.
'I was given a mentor during my training, and it was something I really valued,' he says. 'You can't necessarily anticipate the different aspects of your studies or working life that you might need help with - but when that practical help and support is needed, and it's there, you're certainly grateful.
'So for me, taking on a mentoring role myself with some of the next generation of trainees coming through the ranks was more than just a natural step in my own career progression; it was about giving something back.
'It's vital to be able to put yourself in their shoes,' he says. 'I can relate in a very straightforward way to what my students are going through.
'Another key aspect of my role is to help my mentees become more widely known in the business. If they do their best and outperform in a particular project, then I'm in a position to help communicate their successes to people who would appreciate knowing or who might be in a position to influence their career progression.'
Getting through exams
Barlow currently mentors seven ACCA trainees, which requires carefully time management.
'I work closely together with each of my mentees on ensuring their studies are well-organised,' he says. 'That will involve scheduled meetings to go over issues such as choice of exam papers - although I'm careful not to make the choices for them. My role tends to be more one of providing reassurance, rather than giving the sort of guidance that's in effect assuming what should be their responsibility.'
Many students also need support with completing their ACCA training development matrix (TDM). That's something Barlow also steps in to help out with: 'Whenever anyone wants to meet up and go through that, I'll make the time. It may be that they've identified gaps in their TDM and need to get exposure to a different are of finance. I can speak to the right people in the business to provide that.'
Barlow believes the job of a mentor is to be frank - even if that means delivering uncomfortable truths.
'Look, you have to deal in facts - but that doesn't mean being negative,' he insists. 'Yes, if someone has failed an exam, it's not good - but nor is it the be-all-and-end-all. To a certain extent, what many students want in that instance is some kind of reassurance that there were external factors that made them fail. But often the truth is that they've not put in enough work, and that it's wrong to try to blame someone else.
'The good news, though, is that if I can help them see where they've gone wrong, then they know how to change things and do better next time.'
Keeping a certain distance
What often discourages people from becoming mentors is the fear of becoming too emotionally involved - resulting in either sacrificing more time than they originally envisaged, at the cost to their own job responsibilities (and even home or family life) or taking on guilt when their mentee in some way fails.
'You have to be able to stand back,' says Barlow. 'It's immensely rewarding to see someone you've mentored enjoy success in their exams or in their future career progression. But you also have to remember that you're not in charge of their life. If someone performs badly, you have to still back yourself as mentor - otherwise, you risk letting down that mentee, and your other mentees. Your role is to help them improve and show that you can help them make a difference.'
BE PREPARED: JOHN BARLOW'S ADVICE FOR WOULD-BE MENTORS
- Base your mentoring advice on objective facts
- Schedule meetings but be ready to talk at any time
- Always deliver the truth, even if it hurts - but back it up with practical steps
- Draw on your own experience to reassure your mentee that you've 'been there, done that'
- Use your networks to help build their networks
- Don't become overly involved on a personal basis; keep it professional
This article is by Calum Robson, freelance journalist.