Find chemistry with your Yoda

Mentoring experts offer advice for making the right match.

Attendees at Hospital Medicine 2008 might not have expected to spend a session talking about first dates and Star Wars characters, but it's all part of an effective plan to advance your hospitalist career, according to speakers Jeffrey G. Wiese, FACP, and Andrew Auerbach, MD.

Professional meetings like Hospital Medicine are good places to find mentors
Professional meetings like Hospital Medicine are good places to find mentors.

The two led a session on “How to Network, Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor” at the San Diego meeting in April. “Throughout your career, there's that one person, that Yoda, that is still pushing you to the next level,” said Dr. Wiese, who is an associate professor and director of the internal medicine residency program at Tulane University in New Orleans.

He offered a series of steps for finding the right person, and making the relationship work. “If there is one thing you should take away, it is to see this mentor/mentee relationship as a relationship,” he said.

Making the connection

The first step in finding a mentor is to know what kind of mentor suits your current position and goals (see ). “You're going to need multiple mentors,” said Dr. Wiese. “Each mentor should have a specific task.”

Once you know what kind of mentor you're looking for, the next step is to find one. Meetings like Hospital Medicine are a good place to do that, Dr. Wiese said. Always carry a business card, and have a friend or colleague introduce you around during poster presentations. It's also acceptable to approach the speaker at a session you enjoyed and see if he or she would be willing to communicate further with you by phone, email or in person during the meeting.

“The worst thing that can happen to you is that they say no,” said Dr. Wiese.

When approaching potential mentors, the keys are explaining your interest, establishing what you want from them, offering them an out, and setting up a plan for follow-up. To offer the out, say something like, “Would you be willing to talk to me about doing this? If not, could you think of somebody else that I could talk to?”

Assuming things work out, the follow-up will be the start of your mentoring relationship. The crucial tasks of the first meeting are to establish goals and start to get a feel for each other. “The first meeting with the mentor is going to be a little bit uncomfortable,” noted Dr. Wiese.

Stick out the discomfort for a while, but if it doesn't get better, it's OK to give up and move on to another mentor, he advised. “Sometimes it looks like it should work out perfectly, but when you get the two together, it just doesn't work. You just have to have that chemistry.”

It takes purpose as well as chemistry to make the relationship run optimally, however. “Come in with a hypothesis. It's easier for a mentor to respond to that than to try to get out of you what you want to do,” said Dr. Wiese. “Too many times, I've had people come into my office and say, ‘I want to get promoted. What do you think?’”

The five-year plan

Dr. Wiese suggested asking yourself two questions before you meet with a mentor: “Where are you now in your career?” and “What is the next most proximal point where you want to be?”

These questions can be the start of a five-year plan, which is a good thing for all hospitalists to have, according to Dr. Auerbach, who is assistant professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco.

Immediately after residency, physicians are often overwhelmed just adjusting to a new role and fulfilling their clinical duties, but they should also be thinking about what “other stuff” they want to focus on, Dr. Auerbach said. The typical choices are quality improvement, education, research or administration.

Your area of interest is key to your choice of mentor and should also be a focus of the relationship, the experts said. “Find someone who can work with you to develop other stuff. And it's got to be both remunerative and promotable,” said Dr. Auerbach.

When you've found the right mentor and gotten in to see them (and late in the day is usually the best bet for appointments, the experts said), you should be proactive about asking for assignments and deadlines. “The important piece isn't what you read. The important piece is that you're demonstrating your commitment to the work,” Dr. Wiese noted.

The last critical component in building a successful relationship is attitude. A good mentee is always prepared to be corrected, according to Dr. Wiese.

“The ego has to stay at the door. You're going to be wrong and you're going to be wrong a lot,” he said. “That's the point of mentorship.”