How to be a kick-ass mentor!

It's never too early to become a mentor... but should doctors even bother?

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
29th Aug 2018 • 6m read

We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life—William Osler

As we progress through our careers and become more comfortable with where we are (and our place within it) it can be tempting to fall into autopilot. We’ve spent so much time confronting our weaknesses, hacking our productivity, and honing our critical thinking skills, that it’s natural to want to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors. We’ve worked hard for this. We deserve this.

But a little voice at the back of our minds stops us. We’ve had our mentors and gleaned valuable insights from the crème de la crème, and that little voice is quick to remind us that it’s now our turn—our turn to pass on the torch, our turn to guide the next generation and help them grow faster than we did. That little voice is always there. At each stage in our professional journeys, there is always someone else out there who is just a notch below us, learning from the insights we have to offer.

So what does it mean, then, to be a mentor? Is it (as we’re primed to believe) a vocation we take on only when we've reached the golden years of our careers? Or is it a choice we make every time we pass on a nugget of insight, or take a special interest in someone who demonstrates potential?

Mentorship is all of this and so much more! We’ve talked a lot about finding mentors and how to approach someone to take a special interest in us, but what do we do when the tables are turned—when we see that special spark in someone else and decide that we’d like to help them grow?

Why mentorship should be a way of life

Becoming a mentor can mean a lot of different things. At its core, being a mentor is simply a choice you make to advise, support, and guide someone else, without receiving anything in return. Why would you want to do that? Altruistic intentions aside, it feels good to help others build a path for themselves. It’s gratifying to watch someone's career take shape and flourish, in part due to your wisdom and advice.

Actively mentoring others comes with its own set of externalities too. Yes, we do it without expecting anything in return, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get anything in return. Becoming a mentor primes you to take on a leadership position in a way that traditional leadership opportunities can’t. Some of the core qualities expected of good leaders—empathy, active listening, interpersonal skills, guiding others, problem-solving, trust-building—all of these can all be nurtured as a side-effect of taking someone under your wing and investing yourself in their development.

A mentor / mentee relationship can be as long (or as short) as you want it to be. From relationships that last for a couple of coffee dates to those that last for a lifetime, the length matters less than the substance and purpose of the relationship. The beauty of it is that you don’t need to wait until you’re an aging physician to do it.

Types of mentors

Successful investor, Anthony Tjan, believes that there are three types of mentors—buddy mentors, career mentors, and life mentors.

  • Buddy mentors: As a buddy mentor, you’d be looking out for those who are close to you in seniority, age, and / or experience. If you’re at the beginning of your career, it might feel as though you’re at the bottom of the career ladder and have nothing to offer other aspiring physicians. But there will always be individuals who are further down the line than you are. If you’re an intern, there are medical students who could learn from you. If you’re a resident, you’ve got a slight edge over the interns just starting out. Heck, even if you’re a medical student, there will be plenty of pre-medical students clamouring for your advice! Start mentoring as early as you can.

  • Career mentors: As a career mentor, you’d be more instrumental to the choices others makes as they traverse their chosen professional paths. This stage is more suited to mentors who are further along in their journeys than their mentees. A career mentor should be able to rationalize the mentee’s career decisions in the context of the goals they want to reach. Ideally, you’ll either have reached that goal already or be well on your way to getting there yourself.

  • Life mentors: Being a life mentor has no prerequisites and yet, they are likely to be the most important mentors anyone can have! As a life mentor, you have experienced situations in life that would qualify you to offer solutions to those facing similar situations. You’ve been in the trenches and survived to tell the tale. Your role is to extend your hand to someone who’s still in there and help them jump out!

Finding a mentee

Admittedly, this may present a problem but, at the same time, a pretty disingenuous one. Asking if someone wants to be mentored is almost as awkward as someone asking you to be mentored (if not more)! Unless it’s a formal requirement or program enacted through your hospital or workplace, chances are that you’ll never be in a situation where the mentoring relationship is made official. So then, how do you go about finding someone to mentor?

The simple answer is, you don’t. It just happens. At some point in your career, there will be another person who will naturally gravitate toward you and be curious about your work, experience, and insights. They may even be a friend or someone you simply get along well with. The point is, the dynamic of that relationship will be such that you may often find yourself providing advice which is usually eagerly taken. By definition, you are mentoring. Don’t label it. Just go with it.

How to be a kick-ass mentor

Every mentoring relationship is different and will flourish under its own set of circumstances. But there are some general principles that can help you to master the mentoring game.

1. One size does not fit all

Take the time to understand your own mentoring style before you jump into the deep end. Ask yourself the following questions and set a bar for yourself so that you don’t come up against any surprises.

What does a mentor / mentee relationship look like to you?

How would you define a successful mentoring relationship?

How much time and effort can you commit to this person’s growth?

What do you want your mentee’s development to look like, over the course of your mentorship?

Will you schedule mentoring dates? What will these look like?

2. Become genuinely interested in your mentee

I know I said not to label the relationship, but you do need to label your expectations and identify how you hope to help your mentee. Get to know your mentee deeply; try to understand their motivations, fears, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses so that you can better influence them. If you’re helping them with career growth, don’t stop at asking only about their career aspirations and current situations—you’ll end up giving mediocre advice and being a mediocre mentor. If your mentee tells you about a trip they just took, go deeper and find out where they went, who they went with, and what they got out of it. Actively listen and ask good questions so that you can get to the heart of who they are. Unlocking these hidden gems requires a degree of emotional intelligence.

3. Admit your mistakes

Doctors often frown upon (or ignore) their own fallibility. Don’t fall into that trap—it helps nobody! Your mentee is likely to learn more from the mishaps you’ve had over the course of your life and career than they will from your good advice. Mistakes give context to your guidance. There’s a reason why fables, literature, and cautionary tales define the experience of being human—we learn to avoid situations based on the experiences of others. It also helps to build trust and encourages your mentee to open up about their own mistakes.

4. Give without expecting anything in return

What goes around comes around, right? Think about all of the mentors you’ve had who’ve gone out of their way to meet you for coffee, answer your gnarly questions, give you career feedback, or whatever else you needed in the moment. Very likely, you offered them nothing in return. Think about how much they helped you and do the same for your mentees. Of course, sometimes it can get stressful, time-consuming, or frustrating. That’s ok. Lean into it and enjoy the ups, downs, and roundabouts that come along with helping someone else find their footing in the world.

You’re never too young or inexperienced to start mentoring someone else. Chances are, right now, you are probably already in a relationship where you are offering insights and advice to someone—one that could be classified as a mentor / mentee relationship. Don’t shy away from it! Take the opportunity to help that person grow, and watch yourself grow in turn.

Do you have any other mentoring tips? Share them below.