Mentoring: Are You Doing It Right?

June 22, 2017 | Jenine John, MD
Career Development

Each of us in cardiology, wherever we are in our career, is in a position to be a mentor. Think about who you are mentoring. Are they aware that you are their mentor? Do you know how their career is progressing and what their current struggles are? Are your mentees a good mix of men and women, and is there a good racial mix?

If you have trouble answering some of these questions, it’s time to be more deliberate about your mentoring.

Decide Whether to Mentor

W. B. Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” As a mentor, your aim would be to inspire your mentees to rise to levels that they did not think were attainable.

Accomplishing this requires commitment. You would devote yourself to developing your mentees without expecting anything in return. With increasing pressures at work, mentoring can add a fresh new dimension to your career. This is a chance for you to make a lasting impact that extends far beyond yourself. Done right, it is a process that can be immensely rewarding no matter what course your mentees’ careers take.

When choosing a mentee, look for those with potential. Be thoughtful about this process and consider those who may not be the most obvious choice. Once you decide to mentor someone, a key to success is to have unequivocal faith in them. When you believe in your mentee, they will rise up to meet your expectations.

Set Goals

Clarify how often you will meet with your mentee and stay consistent with these meetings. Meeting regularly is better than meeting only as-needed, because many mentees will hesitate to ask for the time of someone more important than them.

Monthly meetings work well for most primary mentoring relationship. Accessibility is vital and a mentee should feel comfortable approaching you at other times as well. At these meetings, work with your mentee to set short-term goals, such as developing a skill or starting a project, and long-term goals. Write these goals down and monitor progress over successive meetings. Feedback should be frequent, honest and mostly positive.

Throughout the ups and downs of this process, providing unwavering support is essential. This support should be based on your faith in your mentee’s potential rather than being contingent on their accomplishments.

Even the mentee who appears confident could be plagued by the impostor phenomenon, in which highly successful people feel that their success was a fluke and that they will eventually be found out to be a fraud. The value of a mentor’s affirmation and encouragement should not be underestimated.

Give Counsel

Good mentors give more counsel than advice. When you give advice, you tell the mentee what you think they should do. Advice often starts with, “If I were you…” In contrast, when you counsel a mentee, you ask questions and clarify the mentee’s own thoughts. You aid them in sifting through what is important and what is not, and provide new perspectives by reframing their situation. Keep in mind that guiding your mentee within the framework of their own values requires you to allow your mentee to make decisions that you would not make.

Discuss Work-Life Balance

A healthy balance between work and other aspects of one’s life will lead to greater success long-term. This is an issue that is particularly important to the younger generation of cardiologists. They often have spouses who also have demanding careers, and they want to be in equal relationships where both partners are evenly involved with raising children. This desire can often be difficult to balance with their ambitions in cardiology. Sometimes an individual may decide to alter their career expectations if they find that their involvement at home feels inadequate. This is not a failure. Instead, it is another step in one’s personal path toward fulfillment.

Ask how career fits in with the rest of your mentee’s life to show that you consider it an important matter. Let the mentee guide how much they want to talk about it. They may be more willing to talk about it over time as trust develops.

Open Doors

Open doors for your mentee by providing insights on how to get ahead, pointing out opportunities, making introductions and advocating for them when appropriate. You can invite your mentee to shadow you, which can also improve their visibility.

Eventually, your mentee could start becoming more successful than you. A good mentor understands that a mentee’s success reflects positively on the mentor. They will welcome the opportunity to consider their mentee a colleague and peer.

Know About Other Forms of Mentorship

Advise your mentee to seek multiple mentors to provide different perspectives. Such mentors can be found through institutional mentoring programs or through the ACC's Mentoring Program. Mentoring among peers can be particularly helpful as it can provide greater friendship and emotional support. One program has successfully formalized peer mentoring.

Informal mentoring also occurs everyday. Keep in mind that your words have weight, and the feedback you provide to a trainee on the wards can end up shaping their career path. Be aware of who you mentor this way. A male co-fellow who supports gender parity recently commented, “My floor team was great. The residents were all guys and we got along well. I could joke around with them and tell them bluntly when they were doing something wrong. Now my residents are all girls and it’s not the same. I can’t be as straightforward with them.” This is how “old boys’ networks” are perpetuated. If you are a man, joke around with women, invite them to join you on your coffee break, and be straightforward with your feedback. The support and guidance provided in this way are more important than you may think.

Please leave a comment below with any thoughts on mentoring. Also, see my other article, Mentoring Women: What Men and Women Should Know 

This article was authored by Jenine John, MD, a Fellow in Training (FIT) at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York.

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