By Franz Wiesbauer, MD, MPH - 29th Aug 2018 - The Medmastery show

How to be a kickass mentor

Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash

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’s tempting to fall into autopilot. We’ve spent so much time confronting our weaknesses, hacking our productivity, and honing our critical thinking skills, so it’s natural to want to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. 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 creme de la creme, 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. The voice is always there. At each stage of our professional journey, there is someone else out there 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 reach 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 in whom we see potential?

Mentorship is all of those things, and so much more. We’ve spoken a lot about finding mentors and approaching them to take a special interest in us, but what do we do when we see that special spark in someone else and decide 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 the choice you make to advise, support, and guide someone 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 a 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 leadership positions in a way that traditional leadership can’t. Some of the core qualities expected of good leaders—empathy, active listening, interpersonal skills, guiding others, problem-solving, trust-building—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 a lifetime to those that last a couple of coffee dates, the length matters less than the substance and purpose of the relationship. The beauty of it is that you don’t need to wait till you’re an ageing 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 that are close to you in seniority, age, and 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 you have nothing to offer another aspiring physicians. But there will always be those 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’ll 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 someone makes as they traverse along their chosen professional path. This stage is more suited to mentors who are further along the path than their mentees. A career mentor should be able to rationalize their 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 there yourself.

  • Life mentors: 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 would have experienced situations in life that 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 a hand to someone who’s still in there and help them jump out.

Finding a mentee

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

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

How to be a kickass mentor

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

1. One size does not fit all

Take the time to understand your own mentoring style before you jump in the deep end. Ask yourself the following questions and set the bar for yourself so 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 they look like?

2. Become genuinely interested in your mentee

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

3. Admit your mistakes

Doctors often frown upon, and 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 career / life than they will from your advice. Mistakes give context to your advice. There’s a reason 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 also open up about their mistakes.

4. Give without expecting anything in return

What goes around, comes around, right? Think about all 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, and the fact that you likely offered them nothing in return. Think about how much they’ve helped you and do the same for your mentees. 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, there is already a relationship in your life right now that could be classified as a mentor / mentee relationship where you offer all the insights and advice. 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.

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