In the cover article in the May/June 2009 issue of Fraud Magazine, Harry Markopolos, CFE, offered five pieces of advice to aspiring fraud examiners. This is the one that intrigued me most: "Find a mentor who can guide you in making career decisions and teach you the finer points of fraud examination."
When I was a student at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., I had two mentors who helped shape my career path. I want to share how they've helped me in my career since I graduated with a business degree in 2004. They've been instrumental in generating job possibilities, networking within the profession, and guiding my investigative strategies.
Joseph FitzgeraldI first met Joseph Fitzgerald when I took his labor relations course at Siena College. As he introduced himself to the class and told us about his investigative background, I whispered to a classmate, "This will be interesting!" Fitzgerald, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, had retired from the Navy and now worked as an adjunct instructor. He spent the bulk of his career, after serving aboard surface destroyers, as an investigator in the Navy's Inspector General (IG) command.
Fitzgerald began at the Naval Inspector General headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he was involved in numerous high-profile investigations of alleged misconduct of admirals and senior government executives. After his three-year tour of duty, he was appointed the IG at the Navy Recruiting Command in Millington, Tenn. He served there until his retirement in 2001.
I asked Fitzgerald to mentor me as I studied government contract and procurement fraud. He agreed, but he said he would conduct my mentorship as a graduate-level class with research, weekly readings, and assignments.
I applied principles I was learning from my mentorship when I interned with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the summer between my junior and senior years. During that internship, I authored a plan for the bureau's senior leadership to combat fraud and corruption in the naturalization process.
Fitzgerald arranged for me to meet with his former colleagues at the Naval Inspector General's headquarters when I was in Washington for my internship. My takeaways from that session:
All successful investigations begin with a plan.
Interviews and documentary evidence are critical to the investigation.
Writing accurate, grammatically correct, and succinct reports will give the findings a lasting legacy.
Every week during my senior fall semester I applied readings from a variety of sources (including the ACFE) on topics such as public administration, ethics, and fraud theory.
Fitzgerald was generous with his time and arranged invaluable experiences for me that have benefitted me greatly in my career. The mentorship's independent study counted as a three-credit course. I included the information and principles I learned during that internship in articles I eventually wrote for Fraud Magazine, Security Management, and Public Administration Times.
Fitzgerald and I are still great friends. His practical principles, proven by his hard-won experiences, will help me throughout my life.
Richard Sheldon was Siena College's director of security when I was a student there. Before his Siena position, he had been a New York state trooper for 20 years and an investigator for 10 of those years in the elite felony fugitive warrant and apprehension squad.
Sheldon and I met when I was a student senator and we worked together on a college board. I told him of my interest in law enforcement. After meetings, he would share war stories and we would chat about jobs for which I'd applied. I then worked for him on a work-study position - writing parking tickets, assisting with special event security, and working in the office and dispatch center.
Sheldon's advice was excellent. He recommended that I apply for an internship with a federal law enforcement agency. (I did so and worked during the fall of 2003 with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service - a rewarding experience.)
Sheldon said an investigation's success depends on thorough research, skillful interrogation techniques, and honed "people skills," such as interviewing, rapport-building, eliciting information from reluctant witnesses, and building a large information network. He was adamant that I focus not just on short-term experiences, but long-term plans that would comprise my "human capital." It was his way of saying, think about where you want to be in five, 10, and 20 years.
He believes that good investigators also need to be good managers who have the skills to influence strategy and make a difference in organizations. That "big picture" mindset makes us valuable assets to any employer, whether in he public or private sectors. Sheldon told me not to discount any option because an unlikely first job ultimately could yield great professional dividends.
Even after nearly 10 years, I keep in touch with Fitzgerald and Sheldon, and they're still great mentors. I'm blessed that our paths have crossed, and now I can use their mentoring skills to help others.
WHEN SEEKING A MENTOR
First, look at prospective mentors' backgrounds. Find out about their technical skills, the cases they've worked, and how they deal with people. You want a positive person who will teach you and give you solid advice. Good mentors can link you to other professionals and potential job opportunities.
Here are more tips:
- Look for multiple mentors - it's better to have mentors with a wide variety of interests and experiences that will give you a diverse view of the career skills and experiences you'll need.
- Ask lots of questions. You have to be comfortable asking your mentor the tough ones and know that he or she will freely answer them.
- Establish the mutual expectation that discussions will be kept confidential, especially those about sensitive career decisions.
- Meet regularly.
- Do your homework: Research and ruminate on your career goals so you can explain them to your mentors.
- Build a professional support network - not just mentors, but also peers.
Mentors can help you increase your skills, learn more about your organization, and find a job. They can influence your leadership and management abilities and give you a sense of direction long after you've graduated from school.
When you're established, consider becoming a mentor to give back to the profession. As Winston Churchill once said, "We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."
WHO WAS YOUR MENTOR?
We're looking for stories on mentors. What did they teach you? How did they influence your career path? Send your stories today to email@example.com, and we'll publish a few of the best ones in a future issue of Fraud Magazine.
Colin May, CFE, is a forensic financial investigator with a government agency (the views in Starting Out are his own) in Baltimore, Md.
Mark F. Zimbelman, Ph.D., CPA, Educator Associate Member, is an associate professor of accounting and Selvoy J. Boyer Fellow at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
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