Mentors

Good mentors help us to get close to our full potential. Here are 10 tips to help you find yours.


One of the first things people tell you when you take a faculty position in medical education is this: “Get yourself a mentor.” It doesn't matter if you're a clinician educator, a clinician researcher or both. At some point somebody is going to catch you at the coffee maker and ask nonchalantly: “So…who's mentoring you?”

Courtesy of Kimberly Manning
Courtesy of Kimberly Manning.

This is the point where you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you have a clear idea in your head of exactly who that person is. Maybe you're so savvy that it's more than one person. But if you are like many fairly junior folks, that answer isn't as clear as you'd like for it to be.

Here's why. Many institutions help you identify a mentor right from the start. Someone looks at you and your accomplishments and serves as a professional Match.com for you and your future. The problem is…as well meaning as these arrangements are, oftentimes it doesn't result in “eHarmony.”

And so. You give that name that was given to you whenever someone asks, but secretly you kind of recoil because there hasn't been the kind of magic you'd been hoping for.

Good mentors help us to get close to our full potential. We all need good mentors to nudge us, advise us and sometimes taze us into doing what we need to do. The most effective mentors coach, inspire and lead by example. It took me a minute to recognize and identify my mentors in medical education. And man, am I glad that I finally did!

Haven't found one yet? Or don't realize who yours are? Never fear because right now I bring you: The top 10 ways to know a GREAT mentor when you see one. Use this to help guide you to the promised man or woman. (Not in the romantic sense but in the mentor sense, alright?) Drumroll please…

#10: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. A mentor that's right for you is someone that you respect. This is trickier than you might imagine. Just because someone's a rock star professionally doesn't mean that you'll fully respect them. Maybe you don't like the way he speaks to his administrative assistant, or that she never leaves work to be with her family. Whatever it is, if there's a disconnect in your ability to feel genuine respect for the person, it's probably not a good fit.

#9: PRODUCTIVE. It's kind of ideal to have a mentor who has actually done some of the things that you aspire to do. Don't confuse that for EXACTLY the things that you want to do.

Case in point: My main professional mentor happens to have some interests that don't exactly mirror my own. However. He is a highly accomplished teacher on the local, national and even international levels. His teaching style is quite different from my own, too. And that's fine. Because he is very, very productive and helps me to push harder both through his encouragement and his example. Plus he's a great teacher, which I always aspire to be. I respect that. It works.

#8: AVAILABLE. It doesn't matter how amazing of a fit a person is for you if they don't have time for you. Some folks are well meaning but ridiculously busy. Too busy to reply to your emails or your phone calls. And if that's the case? Regrettably, it's probably not a good fit.

There are some times when the mentee falls short and isn't assertive or prepared enough. This might leave said busy potential mentor less than enthusiastic about making time for them. But when it's not that, then at some point you just have to cut your losses and keep it moving.

#7: WISE. A great mentor has been around the block enough to have gained some wisdom here and there. Sometimes you need to turn to your mentor for insight on what to do when those paths diverge in a yellow wood. It helps if they don't have to use a Magic Eight Ball to give you some advice.

#6: EXAMPLE. Those I identify as mentors are people I consider role models. And not just professionally. I like knowing that, yes, you work hard but you also go on vacation with your family or take a cooking class with your husband on Tuesdays after work. No, you don't need to be perfect. Just working to achieve some sort of balance, you know? It also helps if you're nice.

By the way—I gave a speech once called “Let your life be a mentor.” It was about how even when folks don't know you personally, they can be mentored by your example and the lessons in your life. I am mentored, for example, by a blogger. She's a mom and a professional and a wife, and when I read her writings, I get guidance. That's just a little bit of food for thought.

#5: UNSELFISH. Time is a precious thing. This is why many people would much rather write a check toward food for the homeless than go to a shelter and actually feed them.

It takes an unselfish person to spend time focusing energy on someone else. Exceptional mentors are willing to sacrifice their time, ideas and energy to bring out the best in you.

Oh, and don't be fooled. Sometimes productive mentees find themselves working with people who seem unselfish. Ask yourself a question: Would this person still be as interested in working with me if they weren't the last author on all of my papers in their field or if I weren't completing the manuscripts that have been sitting on their desk for the last five years? If the answer isn't an immediate absolute yes, then know that the relationship could be difficult to sustain.

#4: INSPIRATION. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Some serve as “coaches.” They stand on the sidelines watching you and tell you how to improve your technique. They have ideas that you never thought of, point out strengths and weaknesses that never occur to you, and they just…invigorate you.

One of my mentors like this is a Grady doctor who is quite possibly the busiest, most hard-working person I know. But he does all of the things he does with such zeal. He teaches with zeal. Treats patients with zeal. And even responds to my most simple text messages with a spunk that often makes me laugh out loud. I learn so much from watching him and listening to him. And though he is not my mentor in the formal sense I count him as one because he makes me better.

There's a whole movement about peer-mentoring that I have to mention here, too. Many of my peers in medicine hype me up so much! I watch them teach or talk or do what they do and I feel invigorated. Ready to try something new. That list of people is long. But I count these people as the swirling moons around me that serve in a mentoring role, too.

#3: NO-COMPETE CLAUSE. Your mentor should NOT be in competition with you. Period.

#2: FUN. Mentor-mentee relationships can be time consuming. It sure can be painful to spend all that time with someone who's a stick-in-the-mud. When I meet with my mentor we spend at least 70% of the time laughing out loud. It's productive, yes. But always fun.

Okay, except for the last chapter we wrote together. That wasn't fun. But he did laugh at all of my jokes regarding how un-fun I found that whole process. And the reason he insisted I do it was because he thought it would help me professionally.

#1: GENUINE INTEREST IN YOU. Not what you can do. Not how fast you write. Not how willing you are to work long hours. And not just what you can do to make them look good.

You.

They remember that your son's turning five and they fly back to be at his birthday party because it's important to you. They want to hear your ideas and have the patience to help you flesh them out. They take the time to look at your unique qualities and try hard to come up with the best ways to utilize them. They know when to push you and when to back off because they've taken the time to get to know you.

In other words, they care. About you. You. Even if you don't have great comic timing. Even if you got a “B” on the medicine clerkship or if you didn't get awarded that big grant from the NIH. They still make room for you in their schedule and start that meeting off with simple things like: “How are you? How was Harry's birthday? Are the kids out of school yet? Have you ever eaten at Antico Pizza?”

And then they get down to business. I think everyone knows that there is a very fine line between business and pleasure. It sure helps when it gets blurred.

Oh and mentoring isn't just a doctor thing or a medicine thing either. Many of my mentors coach me in life and motherhood and everything else as well. And many people mentor you without even knowing it. Kind of cool, isn't it?