Looking for a mentor? You may not be Daniel-san and you may not be assigned Mr. Miyagi, but Big 4 firms (as well as 71% of Fortune 500 companies) invest in mentoring programs for a reason:

They work.

Really well.

A 2006 study conducted at then tech giant Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle in 2010), indicated that 25% of employees participating in the company’s mentoring program received a salary grade change, compared with only 5% of employees not in a control group not in the mentoring program1.

What else did Sun find in their study?

    • Mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in the program
    • Mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program
    • Retention rates for both mentors and mentees were significantly higher for it was for employees not in the program (72% and 69% vs. 49%)

Beyond the financial impact, I’ve found many qualitative benefits of having a mentor:

    • If you have someone to bounce ideas and pain points off of, often times your mentor will have been through the same thing. Having difficulty building a financial model or structuring a proposal deck? A strong network of experienced mentors can help you overcome these roadblocks and save you from reinventing the wheel.
    • Mentors can help focus your career and give you a sample path to follow. You don’t need to follow someone’s exact footsteps, but Big 4 firms offer an almost overwhelming amount of career paths between the lines of service (audit, advisory, tax) and verticals / practice areas, so having a few defined career paths can help give you some focus and accelerate your career.
    • You will become a better coach to others as you expose yourself to more and more coaching. Two years into my career I found myself with three “coachees” – I was responsible for presenting their files during annual reviews, and giving them formal feedback and guidance. Luckily, my coach was a rockstar and I was able to mimic a lot of his practices and just mix in my style. Now, my coachees have a 99.9% likelihood of becoming Presidents, business tycoons, and titans of industry.


So now we’re sold on mentoring, right? The studies and experience suggest you’re going to make more money and have a more fulfilling career.

Well, what exactly is a mentor and how should you go about finding one?

Big 4 mentors

Generally, you are going to have two different types of mentors in your Big 4 job – formal and informal.

Formal mentors

Your “formal” mentor(s) will be assigned to you by HR. In most firms, this will include someone at the associate / sr. associate level (“buddy”), manager level (“coach”) and Partner level (“relationship Partner”).

Your “buddy”

A “buddy” is generally someone who is 1-2 years more senior than you and can show you the ropes. You will likely meet this person your first week or so on the job over coffee and have a more informal conversation about work, adjusting to the job, expectations etc…

Getting the most from your conversations

Please, please, don’t be too stuffy or stuck up during your buddy chats. You’re not going to act the same way you do around your best friends because you’re still in a professional setting, but don’t be afraid to show a sense of humor or be relatable. The best book I’ve read on networking is called “Never eat alone” and learning to be relatable during small talk was the biggest takeaway for me.

If you really struggle to make small talk, try to ask open ended questions or closed questions with easy follow ups that have a low risk factor (absolutely no politics). If you’re a new hire and new to the area, that will make it easier to come up with some good questions:

    • What part of town are you living in? How do you like it over there? Where were you before that?
    • Did you grow up around here?
    • Where did you go to school?
    • What are your favorite lunch spots around here?
    • My parents / family / friend is coming to visit in a few weekends, what should I take them to see / do?

What questions should you ask?

Once you’re out of small talk and making friends with your buddy, a few good work –related questions you can ask are:

    • What kind of project are you working on?
    • Is it local?
    • How long have you been on that project?
    • How do you like your team?
    • What are some things that you see new hires messing up that I should avoid?
    • Who are some of the people you look up to at the firm?

Don’t overlook the impact that peer mentors can have on your career. Your peers are still in your shoes and are closer to the types of challenges you’re likely to face. When you have close relationships, people won’t mind taking a read through a deck or checking the calculations on your model, showing you the website for work benefits or how to fix your powerpoint formatting.

Your coach

A coach will have a more formal role, and often times is the one presenting your performance review file to a group of Partners, who then determine everyone’s year end rankings, bonuses, promotions, and salary increases.

You coach may or may not be on your project team (I never worked directly on a project with my coach of 5+ years). This can be both good and bad. If they are on your direct team, they will have intimate knowledge of your work product and delivery and can provide detailed context as part of your review process. However, if they are not on your team, they may be easier to approach with team / project issues and advice.

You can ask the same questions to your coach as you do your buddy, but also think about your desired career path and what questions you can ask your coach to help them guide you along the right path.

Your relationship Partner

Your relationship Partner is the head honcho. Talking with any Partner, you should be a bit more guarded than you are with your buddy / manager. On more than one occasion I’ve said some not so smart things around Partners (usually at team dinners after a few scotches) and it always came back to haunt me.

Remember, Partners are owners of the firm and take great pride in the work that we do. Be wary of complaining or being too negative, and never go to them with problems without also having a proposed solution.

Informal mentors

While your firm may pair you up with a few mentors in an arranged-marriage type situation, you should also proactively be seeking out informal mentors. These are people you may not have a firm-directed relationship with, but will be mentors you choose to align with based on your goals and personal “fit.” You can find informal mentors on your project teams, meet them at training / networking events, or community service days etc.

Finding a mentor

The college I went to has a motto:  “the world belongs to those who show up.” It took me a while to really understand that, but now it’s engrained in my psyche. It’s easy to skip the networking events, lunch and learns, training sessions etc.., but each event you go to is an opportunity to either meet new people or strengthen existing ties.

Beyond “showing up” – other ways to find your Miyagi

Volunteer to help. The more specific and proactive the better. If your offer to help is vague, it will take them time / effort just to think about what work to give you. Remember, we want to make others’ lives easier! Instead, offer to help with something specific (formatting, proofreading for typos etc.), it will be much easier for someone to say “yes – that would be great!”

Then, once you have your assignment, make sure you do a great job.  Assume the first time you went through it you screwed something up, and go back through it with the intention of finding / fixing your mistake.

Coffee breaks. If you’re already working with someone, or they are in the same office as you, short coffee breaks can be a good way to build rapport and develop a relationship. Most Big 4 employees are fueled on LOTS of caffeine, so make those coffee trips count by building / developing relationships!

Do your homework (on your mentor and on yourself). If you have scheduled time with someone or are even just grabbing coffee, it’s imperative to do your homework on both your mentor and yourself. Doing prep work on your mentor can be as simple as a google search, Linkedin review, and asking around. Do a gut check on if you have good answers for likely questions they will ask you, such as “What are you working on?” Make sure you can articulate your project quickly / efficiently. Know your client’s basic stats (CEO, # of employees, what other work your firm is doing there etc..)

Be a great mentee

A mentorship is a two-way street, and as a mentee you should actively participate in the relationship and be ready to learn. Some of the responsibilities of a good mentee include:

  • Make your mentor’s life easier. Help with any administrative tasks, owning the calendar appointments, putting their schedule first and rearranging your own if necessary. The more you can take off your mentor’s plate, the more they can think about meaningful development conversations.
  • Don’t just be open to feedback. Proactively seek it, implement it, and share back with your mentor. Tell them how that piece of advice has made an impact on your project / career / life.
  • Pay it forward, and look for others you can mentor. No matter how junior at the firm you are, there are always people you can help mentor. If you’re a first year associate, try to help mentor an intern or a college student. Learning to be a great mentor can also help you become a great mentee, and can complete the “learn – do – teach” mentoring triangle.