It is easier and more satisfying to rely on the hard-earned experience of your mentor to enable you to avoid common pitfalls and embrace proven techniques.
All the successful business people I have spoken with over many years have noted the much-appreciated assistance/guidance they have received over the course of their careers. They attribute their success not only to their hard work and perseverance, but also to one or more individuals who took the time and made the effort to counsel them and offer them important advice. They say that these mentors made a real difference in their lives and hold a special place in their hearts.
What is mentoring?
The origin of mentoring is Greek. Mentor was a friend to whom Odysseus entrusted the education of his son, Telemachus. The mentoring that helped me was informal. It was not executive coaching, career planning, job search assistance or resume writing. It was a mentor/mentee relationship that gradually evolved over time and included sharing ideas, advice and wisdom.
One of my personal mentors who helped me for almost 20 years before his untimely death in 2008 was Howard Kirz. I met Kirz in 1983, when we were both taking the Physician in Management course offered by the American Association for Physician Leadership (then called the American Academy of Medical Directors) in Scottsdale, Arizona. At that time, Kirz was already the medical director of Group Cooperative of Puget Sound, one of the first and foremost HMOs in the country. I was still 100 percent clinical, in practice as a solo internist in the Boston, Massachusetts, area, but was working a few hours per week as the medical director of an IPA-model HMO we had created at our hospital to compete with Harvard Community Health Plan, a growing staff-model HMO in the area.
I could not understand why Kirz, already an accomplished physician leader spending 100 percent of his time on administrative tasks, was even taking the course, but he explained that he thought he might send some of his promising young doctors through the course and wanted to evaluate for himself whether it would be worthwhile.
To me, Kirz's career represented a path I had not even considered, and as we became friends over the course of that week, we created a relationship that in the end benefited us both, although I am sure I reaped the greater share of those benefits.
Over the next two decades, we shared our successes and our failures and would speak at least a few times a year over one issue or another. Kirz’s advice was invaluable as I wrestled with various work-related projects and challenges, considered new positions as they were offered, and charted what would become my personal career path. Because he was well ahead of me in the career curve, I was able to use his own personal experiences to benefit how I approached my own career opportunities.
Why is mentoring important?
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
A wise and experienced mentor helps us avoid mistakes. When faced with a difficult challenge or issue at work, a mentor is someone with whom you can discuss various options and float your ideas for how to proceed.
This is a good reason for seeking a mentor outside of your own organization because it provides a level of distance and safety to the discussion. You will already have those within your work environment upon whom you can rely for advice and feedback in the context of the culture and politics of your own employer, and you should use them as well. The ability to hold a confidential conversation with a mentor outside your company is a valuable opportunity.
Who needs mentoring?
Everyone needs mentoring. Although we may not all be lucky enough to find someone to be a mentor, it is a very ongoing supportive relationship and the necessary experience to provide pertinent and effective advice and guidance. A mentor has to first be willing to provide mentorship and to do so in a free and easy manner.
A mentor should be sincerely interested in mentoring for the altruistic purposes of giving back to the profession, making the path easier for others than it was for him or her, and building a successful next generation of physician leaders.
A mentor should have already amassed enough experience in his or her field to be useful to the mentee. Beyond that, any criteria would be related to what type of career experience is suitable, accessibility and location (although this is less an issue in today’s wired world), and level of career success and attainment of more senior roles within organizations.
How do you create a mentor/mentee relationship?
The best venue for finding a suitable mentor is probably your professional associations. Although there are almost always opportunities for networking with colleagues, this is not the typical purpose of such networking sessions, and they usually do not provide an atmosphere that is supportive of identifying a potential mentor.
A mentor should expect to have his or her time valued and not made to feel either pressured or burdened in the relationship.
The presence of specific activities held for connecting potential mentors and mentees is a real plus, and you should make the effort to find and attend such events. The clear advantage is that everyone knows why they are there, and their presence is itself a sign that they are receptive to the aim of establishing such relationship. Both parties have something to gain from the experience and are open to making the necessary connections that form the heart of a successful collaboration.
These relationships cannot and must not be forced. My impression over the years is that such relationships take time and multiple exposures to develop so patience is required on all sides. Much like a successful marriage, there need to be equal measures of interest, respect and commitment. Given the willingness to try, a mentor/mentee relationship will blossom when the personalities align.
What should one expect from mentoring?
A mentor should expect to be reasonably accessible and provide advice when requested to do so. The mentor should always be able to admit a lack of expertise when that is the case, especially if the mentor can refer the mentee to a potentially better source of accurate and useful information.
A mentor should expect to have his or her time valued and not made to feel pressured or burdened in the relationship. The frequency of contact will vary quite a bit depending upon the personalities and needs of the participants, but if both parties are satisfied, there is no “correct” amount of interaction.
Similarly, a mentee has a right to expect reasonable access and practical advice based on the mentor’s greater level of expertise. Effective listening skills are critical for both mentor and mentee. Likewise, confidentiality is to be expected from both parties, and building of trust between them is a vital part of the ongoing relationship.
What are milestones that signal a need for mentoring?
Although everyone can benefit from mentoring during their career, there are times when it becomes more critical. A new position presents new workplace challenges, and a supportive mentor can ease such transitions. Likewise, when faced with specific organizational barriers or interpersonal issues, a mentor can often provide a useful outside perspective and sound recommendations for ways to potentially address the situations.
If a mentee is considering the idea of switching employers, especially if relocation is involved, a mentor can be of significant help in weighing the pros and cons of such a decision. For physicians doing clinical work and considering a transition, whether gradually or abruptly, into an administrative role, a mentor can provide the benefit of his or her own experience in making a transition that is often fraught with uncertainty.
An experienced mentor, having already made that transition, can make a tremendous difference by preventing the mentee from making the all-too-common errors seen in our field. It is, however, important to develop a successful mentor/mentee relationship before such events arise, because it takes time and familiarity to create the trust necessary to address such sensitive issues.
Mark Bloomberg, MD, MBA, CPE, FACPE, is a senior physician executive with HealthNEXT Inc. and the president of Bloomberg Healthcare Group in Sudbury, Massachusetts.