Mentoring is a common practice in all aspects of medicine. A mentor is someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.
As you would expect from any human endeavor, some mentors do it well and provide guidance that positively influences an entire career. Some do it badly with unfavorable consequences or a lost opportunity.
Like many, if not most, of my colleagues in the medical profession (especially in academia), mentoring is a normal part of our personal development as both a recipient and later as a donor. But mentoring is also common among nurses, pharmacists, and others in our general field. Mentoring may also be common in business, skill trades, and other activities, but I know little about that.
The mentoring I have done, and continue to do today, has evolved over the years. Early on, it dealt mainly with the nuances of patient care and clinical research with some career counseling thrown in; the mentees ranged from medical students, nurses, interns, and residents to fellows and junior faculty. That continued for quite awhile, but as my administrative roles grew and my clinical and research roles shrank, the dominant mentoring activity became career advice and counseling.
I believe I have helped quite a few people and, sadly, failed to help others. But my “successes” and “failures” taught me a great deal about the limits and possibilities of this activity. I put successes and failures in quotes because one never really knows whether one's advice was good or correct or useful, no matter what the outcome was.
Some of those seeking advice have often made a decision already and are merely looking for confirmation of that decision, so if they don't get that from you, they will go elsewhere. Others disregard one's advice—I have learned to take that in stride and if that person's decision backfires, I never ever say “I told you so.”
One thing I have learned from mentoring is humility. Giving career advice and guidance is a heady role and one can become puffed up by one's ego when someone asks for such help. I remember my failures far longer than my successes. So here are a few bits of advice from an old warhorse:
1. Be humble, but not excessively so. I value humility a great deal, as you no doubt have noticed. But it is not unusual for a mentor to get to a critical bit of advice that she is very, very confident of—that may be a time to say “don't do it,” or much better, “I cannot make your decision for you, but if it were me I would run away from that opportunity screaming bloody murder.” Or I might say, “You are better than that position; you should keep looking.”
As a senior person with direct experience, you may know that the potential boss of your mentee is a no-good, lying SOB who eats young people for lunch. Or another circumstance might cause you to say, “Hawaii is a wonderful place, but you will not grow in your subspecialty at that institution; you will just be another mule to see patients until you drop.”
On the other side, one might say, “You have small kids, and moving near the grandparents is a great idea, but be absolutely sure that you are not covering over some serious shortcomings in the job to justify convenient babysitting. Remember, if your work is not fulfilling and you become unhappy, your family will suffer as much as you do.”
2. Take the time to understand the nuances. Some of mentees' problems or decisions are fairly straightforward, and the proposed change is well thought out by the mentee. He has done his homework very well, and though it is a close call whether to choose option A or option B, he has chosen wisely and with good reasons.
But most are not so clear-cut. Even if you know the mentee well, to do a good job requires time to peel off the layers to get to the core issue(s). There may be a difficult family issue, financial worries, insecurity, and a host of other common problems for the mentee to factor into his decision and your advice.
Once you realize that this is the case, it is time to take the mentee out of his normal stressed-out environment and have a leisurely discussion—dinner, lunch, a beer, or at your home (or his home, if the spouse is amenable and interested)—a comfortable place where you can gather important information, tell jokes, and shape your thinking, and his.
And keep in mind that your primary goal is not to “create a successful academic or private practice career” with your advice. The goal is to help the mentee understand the issues and choices as clearly as possible so that he can make a decision that is likely to help him thrive professionally and be happy as a family. That is a tall order, but no one said this was easy.
3. Be generous with your time and advice. I believe we are in a noble profession, and part of the privilege of helping save lives and ease pain and suffering is helping the next generation gain the skills and wisdom that are so essential. Since I retired from academia and began life as a consultant in 2001, I have not infrequently been called by oncologists and other specialists asking if they could hire me to provide advice on career issues. I have always said, “No, you cannot hire me; it is part of my professional responsibility to give advice to any who ask at no cost, and with great pleasure.”
The vast majority of my colleagues feel the same way. In fact, it is a privilege to be asked to offer a person career advice. It is one of the great parts of being a physician. Mentoring, I believe, is a sacred responsibility. That means, of course, that we give advice and opinions from which we have absolutely nothing to gain except the satisfaction of helping someone work through a difficult problem or decision.
Unfortunately, a mentor may be tempted to give advice that benefits the mentor. For example, to advise a fellow in the mentor's program to remain as a faculty member because the program is short-handed and desperate, when she might be better off elsewhere. A mentor must set aside his own troubles and focus solely on the best solution for the mentee.
4. Above all, be supportive. Whatever decision the mentee makes, your job now changes. You must support the decision and encourage the mentee. You may offer a few tips for making a smooth transition, but your job does not end there. You should remain interested in the mentee's career and offer help when asked. If the job or track chosen turns out to be a dud, you should be prepared to help out with encouragement or advice, or, in the extreme, to help her find another job.
As I have said, mentoring is a privilege and a sacred trust. Doing it is important; doing it well with generosity and in a balanced manner is more important.