The Importance of Mentorship

Have you ever thought about your legacy? Have you ever consciously ruminated and decided on how you want people to think of you? I am not alluding to everyone’s subconscious desire to be liked; I am touching on something greater and more significant. Although we can find out almost anything about everyone (good luck, General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR]), our legacies will not be our social media profiles, our fame, fortune or high-profile jobs. Our legacies will manifest in the thoughts, feelings and stories of the people that surrounded us. Whether they are our children, family, colleagues or neighbors, it is people who maintain and uphold the legacies of others. Imagine a world in which we are all striving to leave a lasting positive legacy. We would all be more aware of our daily impact on the people with which we spend the most time. In fact, we might be more proactive in their growth. These are my thoughts when I think about mentorship.

Paying it Forward

The legacy of mentorship lives on through those you mentor. I have a mentor, and mentees and protégés, and I cannot emphasize enough the gratitude I have for the experiences I share with them. Furthermore, I plan to cultivate my mentor’s legacy by sharing his lessons, insight, and wisdom with anyone that will listen. One insight that Doug Klares—my mentor and boss at my company—has is: “We need to pass our knowledge down. Freely giving to others what was freely given to us is the key to success. I understand the pull of wanting to keep things to ourselves so we can achieve personal success. However, participating in the success of others is the key to having a truly thriving community.”

Although mentorship is important for growth in all aspects of life, the mentor-mentee relationship is vital to the continuous evolution of the anti-money laundering (AML) and financial crimes compliance community. To be clear, coaching and mentorship are distinct practices. Coaching is essentially a short-term skill building done by a peer, designated executive or hired expert. On the other hand, mentorship involves learning strategic skills and developing qualities that are timeless. A mentor can have a protégé for life and help with all aspects of work and life.1 Steven Lindsey, a senior compliance and AML/financial crimes executive, says, “Mentoring and coaching efforts can be formal or informal. There are situations that exist where an individual needs coaching in a technical area to help build the employee’s knowledge. Mentoring is broader in nature and provides an employee a haven to ask about anything of concern or regarding their professional future.” When you boil it down, the purpose of mentoring is to help a person reduce a cloudy bunch of possibilities to a very small number of specific and articulate goals for the future.2

Coaching is very important to the daily operations and skillset of any compliance program, especially because training is one of the pillars of a Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) program. However, mentoring can help compliance professionals during all types of challenges and obstacles. Martin Feuer, a senior financial crimes compliance professional, explains the importance of mentorship to compliance programs when he says, “Whatever the reason a person decides to work in compliance that interest needs to be continuously fed and nurtured. Otherwise, after a short time we lose them. Mentorship, along with coaching, provides the best chance to keep the person in the compliance field.”

If you have read my career guidance articles, so far, you might have noticed I take a strong interest in authentic leadership, the effects of technology on the workforce, the fundamentals of growing your network, and the evolution of the AML and compliance employment market. If this is your first time reading one of my pieces, mentorship covers all those topics. With the right mentor, you can cultivate your leadership ability, have more tools when making difficult strategic decisions, meet successful and accomplished colleagues and contacts and become a strong competitor in the ever-evolving AML and compliance community. Being a mentor and finding a mentor are both difficult and, sometimes, could even be awkward. Nevertheless, in the long term, both are fulfilling.

Finding a Mentor

Just like becoming a mentor, finding a mentor is a process that is both deliberate and organic. The process can also be intimidating and daunting to the point that you do not take action. Do not wait for a potential mentor to approach you but rather find opportunities to connect with a manager, colleague or person you know who exhibits or models what you consider best practices and values. In addition, one mentor may not be enough since a mentee may want to advance in a number of functional skills at different phases in their lives. Your mission of finding a mentor can take place in and outside the office environment. But, remember: viable mentors are successful, experienced and busy people. Many possible mentor candidates are enthusiastic to bring on mentees and create protégés, but they need to believe you truly want to succeed. They need to believe from the beginning you are going to struggle through the hardships and take advice with an open heart and a willingness to execute with grit. Alma Angotti, co-head of global investigations and compliance at Navigant Consulting, says, “A mentee has to show me that he or she is a good use of my limited time. The people who strive to learn; the self-starters; the people who can take constructive criticism; those are the people that I am likely to give my time and attention. It does not matter so much whether they have a long way to go or whether they are almost there.”

Now, let us talk about the effects of mentorship on your compliance and financial crimes prevention skills. Jeff Ross, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney and current fintech BSA compliance officer, says, “AML, unlike almost all other legal and regulatory requirements, is subjective and risk-based. AML depends on leaders who can identify key focal or choke points and, on a risk-based perspective, attack those points. This is not an intuitive process, and must be learned. After all, where does innocence end and willful blindness to money laundering begin?” People are not born with the ability to embrace and appreciate the nuances and ambiguity involved in risk-based decisions in life, let alone AML and compliance. Mentorship and authentic leadership can be of great value to developing and cultivating those qualities in more junior staff. In addition, these are imperative qualities of CCOs, BSA officers and all executives. Meaning, learning from the best and developing your leadership skills are imperative to promotion and success. Lindsey also believes that mentorship has an ongoing part to play in all-risk programs, especially during tough situations: “When slippage exists in a compliance program, this routinely results in identifying systemic issues in data security, accuracy, completion and vendor management. We are uniquely privileged to help mentor, guide and advise on these risks.” Program leaders, CCOs and BSA officers depend on their team to execute daily operations to maintain compliance and avoid problems with regulators (like DFS Part 504 obligations3). Being part of the team provides you a great chance to understand what the leaders worry about and find ways to support them and mitigate those risks and fears.

If you decide officially to seek a mentor, you should start with a self-appraisal that involves asking yourself tough questions that require honest answers. These questions can include the following:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What skills do I want to learn?
  • What are my ultimate goals?
  • How much time do I have to dedicate to a mentor-mentee relationship?
  • What is my learning style?
  • What skills do I possess now?4

In honestly answering these questions, you will have started the process of recruiting the mentor(s) that fit your style, work-life balance and mission. The last question (what skills do I possess?) might be the most important. One of the most effective ways of being noticed by potential mentors is by providing value first in some capacity.5 Finally, do not stop seeking a mentor—persistence is key. Go to conferences, cold-call people you look up to, send emails, send LinkedIn invitations, ask for the extra work and continuously be there. No matter what industry or profession you are in, you have to be proactive to find a mentor. Mentors will not seek you out. But how will they notice you? Here is a list of qualities that veterans in compliance and in AML look for in potential mentees:

  • Possesses intellectual curiosity
  • Do not just go the extra mile, live in the extra mile
  • Is receptive to guidance without an agenda
  • Listens with intention and mutual respect
  • Highly engaged in both work and tasks assigned received
  • Is willing to share both experiences, success and failure with others

Becoming and Being a Mentor

Becoming a mentor is one of the most fulfilling roles that experienced professionals can have. You get to see firsthand the development of someone you truly care about and guide them through all or distinct phases of life through which we all transition. As a mentor or mentor-to-be, you need to be diligent when choosing your mentee and protégé. Just as mentees need to ask themselves questions about their intentions and dedication, mentors need to be aware of their ability to provide the resources and time to their mentees. Jack Oskvarek, SVP BSA executive director at Wintrust Financial and chairman of the Chicago ACAMS Chapter, says, “There might be a greater inclination or leaning towards being a mentor by some, but I wouldn’t describe it as something that is a natural born trait. Mentoring is a learned process that needs continued adjustments for different mentees and work environments.” Mentoring can be both formal and informal at institutions, and I will not opine on which one I believe to be better. However, all mentor-mentee relationships need to be genuine, organic and have a two-way direction of communication.

Mentors need to follow certain general guidelines to make sure they are living up to their end of the bargain in the relationship. For example:

  • Mentors must make a formal call to action and declaration that you will test the mentorship relationship. This requires a process. How will you communicate? What will you work on first?
  • Mentors have to be available and ready to be there for their mentees while they experience their inevitable struggles inherent to all growth.
  • Mentors have to be tough. Mentorship is not friendship (at least not at first). The ultimate goal is to test the capacity and determination of the mentee. This can be done through questions, activities, conversations, and raw—but constructive—feedback and instructions.
  • Mentors must be open to making introductions for their mentees. One of the most productive ways toward career advancement is growing your network. A mentor can do wonders for their mentee’s profile by introducing them to other high-level and powerful colleagues and contacts.
  • Most importantly, mentors need to be genuine and authentic leaders to their mentees. Trust is so vital to this relationship, and honest and open dialogue is paramount for success in the long term.

Mentoring can make an enormous impact on peoples’ lives and career paths. Mentors must decide to take on this responsibility for the right and genuine reasons. It is all about the mentee. However, the personal byproducts are invaluable.

Words of Wisdom

The AML and compliance community has grown tremendously over the last 16 years—especially the last six (read: HSBC, 2012). Remediations, look backs and project-based work have given non-compliance professionals an opportunity to join the field. The new generation of compliance professionals is going to need mentorship and coaching now more than ever. The field of AML is changing because of technology, the dependence on data analytics and artificial intelligence, and everyone—from analysts to CCOs—is going to have to adapt. Mentorship (and strong leadership, coaching and management) will help the seasoned financial crimes fighters create and guide the next generation of AML professionals. From a practical perspective, mentorship has a daily impact as well. They say that people do not leave companies; they leave bosses. Martin Feuer provides keen insight here: “I have seen situations where a person is on the verge of leaving a company and through mentorship their performance improved, and they became a valued employee (and then themselves a mentor).” Mentorship can also maintain the integrity and stability of compliance programs. For instance, succession planning is easier; the organization creates more and stronger leaders, values and missions are constantly affirmed and practiced, and knowledge property stays within the organization instead of lost through turnover. In addition, mentors themselves find personal fulfillment and joy, a sense of purpose and, possibly, a higher stature, promotional opportunities and respect. Jeff Ross says there is “Nothing better than to see a mentee speak publicly, or make a difficult decision, or organize a difficult task that previously seemed beyond that mentee’s capabilities. In many ways, the success is much sweeter as the mentor.”

However, you will have experiences with your mentees and protégés that are discouraging, disconcerting and even disappointing. Seeing those you care about and feel responsible for (although you have no obligation to be their parent, those feelings exist) fail and steer sideways is part of the process. The mentor is always growing and developing along with their mentees, which leads to me the last point: do not forget your own mentors, mentors. Instead, hold on to your mentors for as long as you can while developing new relationships with potential ones. You will have occurrences when you do not have the sage advice or experiential guidance for your mentees at the right time. Having your own mentor is beneficial when you are in need of advice.

If you are looking for a mentor, I salute you. Your desire for direction, support and leadership says something about your own character. I believe you have an innate sense of wisdom if you know the benefits of learning from the experienced and wise. Eleanor Roosevelt (or Groucho Marx depending on whom you ask) said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” The world needs more leaders; those who care about not only their own success, but also the success of their colleagues, friends and community. The same goes for compliance and AML. I cannot express enough the importance of cultivating leadership skills for one’s career advancement.

Management and leadership are two different roles. You can lead without a title, and people follow those who give, not take. If you focus on cultivating your leadership skills, continuously build new relationships with potential mentors, and guide your fellow colleagues to success, it will lead you to great roles and success in your career in AML and compliance. Jim Dinkins, Enterprise Financial Crimes Compliance operations director, says: “You want the mentee to be a future leader, someone you can pass along your leadership lessons to, good and bad, so they can learn from them without having to repeat the failures while enjoying the successes. Compliance is a difficult, high-pressured profession, so it’s very important. The success of any program is based on the quality of the employees in that program.” So, if you are looking for a mentor, do it because you expect to be a mentor yourself one day. The world will be a better place for it and so will the legacy you leave.

Sanjeev Menon, ACAMS Career Guidance columnist, compliance, legal and privacy senior practice area manager, Infinity Consulting Solutions, Inc., New York, NY, USA, smenon@infinity-cs.com

  1. Kelli Richards, “What’s the Difference Between a Coach and a Mentor?”, Forbes, October 15, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2015/10/15/the-difference-between-a-coach-and-a-mentor/#ec7213b75564
  2. “Mentoring Others,” Lynda.com, October 2, 2013.
  3. Chris Recor, “Understanding the new DFS Part 504 Regulations and the Associated AML Program Testing Challenges,” ACAMS, http://files.acams.org/pdfs/2017/Understanding_the_New_DFS_Part_504_Regulations_C.Recor.pdf
  4. “How to Get the Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students,” University of Michigan, Rackham Graduate School, 2018, http://www.rackham.umich.edu/downloads/publications/mentoring.pdf
  5. Mathieu Fortin, Mentors 101: How to Get a Mentor to Help You Make Your Dreams Come True, July 5, 2016.

One comment

  1. Amazing information in the article on Mentorship. Most of us think of this as an extra activity – being either a mentor or a mentee or both. Something that takes time, energy and a lot of thinking. The article’s emphasis on ‘Pay it Forward’ is so compelling. Thank you, Sanjeev Menon.

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