Finding a mentor

So you climbed up the mountain in search of guidance and the guru there wasn’t your best choice. What with trying to establish your career and all, you don’t really have the time to scale random peaks until you find the perfect mentor. What to do?

Your first step might be questioning whether to bother—will a mentor really help? As our first article on this topic said, the evidence shows definite benefits.

Young physicians seem to agree. The College of Family Physicians of Canada has a “First Five Years of Practice Committee,” which recently reported on its research into whether physicians need mentorship early in their careers. The project involved a literature review and a qualitative and quantitative survey of newly-minted doctors.

The majority (57 per cent) of new family docs don’t have mentors, the survey found, but only 10 per cent didn’t want one. The rest didn’t know where or how to find one. Of the 43 per cent who do have mentors, 75 per cent have mentorship relationships that started “organically,” that is, there was no organized effort to connect beginners with an experienced advisor.

Those surveyed said the top three benefits of having a mentor were career coaching and support, increased confidence in personal and professional success, and networking. (They also had worries—about the time it would take, whether they’d get along with their mentor and what might be expected of them).

Mentors, however—as we said in the first article—are in short supply. The traditional model for the role is a two-way relationship, featuring regular meetings, sustained for some time.  Modern work pressures may have modified that into quick coffees and e-mails, but the one-on-one aspect is still seen as the gold standard. Getting away from it could bring the benefits of mentoring to more people, according to “Corporate Mentoring Models: One Size Doesn’t Fit All”, a white paper by a company called Management Mentors, which helps businesses set up mentoring programs.

The paper lists several options for helping more people find a mentor, including group mentoring, where a mentor meets with four to six mentees once or twice a month. Another is peer-to-peer mentoring, where a new hire is paired with a slightly more experienced colleague, to learn the ropes. Both work better if there is also some one-on-one time involved. (Among others, the authors also mention “speed mentoring,” one-time, time-limited meetings for a mentee to get specific questions answered. They’re not fans: “There’s no guarantee that something worthwhile will happen in such a limited timeframe.”)

In “Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships” in the journal Academic Medicine Sharon Straus and colleagues asked participants what goes wrong in mentorships. Participants described them failing for several reasons “…including poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, perceived (or real) competition, conflicts of interest, and the mentor’s lack of experience.” The paper says consequences of a failed mentorship can range from missed opportunities to people being so disillusioned they leave academic medicine.

Sometimes, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association “…mentor behaviour that puts a mentee’s academic career at risk crosses a threshold we term mentorship malpractice.” Mentors guilty of active malpractice include “Hijackers [who] are bullies who take hostage a mentee’s ideas, projects or grants, labelling them as his or her own for self-gain.” There is “The Exploiter” who loads the mentee with work that won’t advance their career, but is convenient for the mentor to have them do. “Possessors” are like jealous spouses, trying to prevent their mentee from working or even socializing with others.

There’s also passive mentorship malpractice, people who just generally neglect their duties. They include “The Bottleneck…preoccupied with their own competing priorities [who] have neither the bandwidth nor the desire to attend to mentees,”  “The Country Clubber…who wants to be everybody’s friend … [avoids] difficult but necessary conversations on behalf of the mentee,” and “The World Traveller…highly successful…Consequently they have little time for their trainees on a day-to-day basis.” 

Perhaps surprisingly, authors Chopra, Edelson and Saint are not trying to discourage physicians from working with a mentor. It’s because they think mentors are important they want people to have good one. As we said in the first article, they believe mentors help people develop critical thinking skills, and can offer advice on research ideas, scholarship and networking opportunities and point out “mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationships are a key predictor of academic success.”

But there’s also a saying that we make our own success. If the evidence and opinion on the benefits of mentors seem valid, you won’t be discouraged by the short supply of mentors, or intimidated by the time commitments, or put off by the prospect of sharing your mentor with a group. You won’t even be deterred by the possibility you might get landed with a lemon. You’ll persevere and find that mutually beneficial relationship. And being willing to work hard to find someone to support you in your career may itself be a key predictor of academic success.

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This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about physician-led innovation? Please connect with us at jouleinquiries@cma.ca.

About the author

Jane Coutts is an Ottawa-based writer and editor who specializes in healthcare issues. She worked as a journalist for 15 years, mainly at The Globe and Mail, where she was the health policy reporter for five years. Since she founded Coutts Communicates in 2002, Jane’s work has focused on making healthcare policy and research more readable and relevant. Jane also leads workshops plain-language writing.

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