Mentoring is defined as the process of advising or training someone and comes from the Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey.(1)
Medicine is an apprenticeship system and like all such systems, works best if the masters train their apprentices not just in a functional way, but with a deep level of care, as people and as colleagues. We now call this process mentoring.
The benefits of mentoring are myriad. On a professional level, mentoring can lead to greater career success, as people are supported by established professionals to become more confident, rounded professionals themselves. Organisations that embrace mentoring have higher levels of employee engagement, retention, and knowledge sharing. In fact, mentoring has proved so beneficial that 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs to their employees.(2) On a personal level, mentoring can enrich us and support us as people to love our work and our lives.
What is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?
Many people use the terms mentor and coach interchangeably, but they are not the same. In essence, coaching is about professional performance and mentoring is about personal and professional growth.(3)
A coach cares about your performance in specific activities, watching you practice particular skills and then identifying areas to improve. You’ll incorporate their feedback, practice again, and repeat the process.
A mentor helps their mentees with their personal and professional development. They are more concerned with them as a whole than the specific skills that can be learned through practice. Mentors can coach their mentees, but they also offer them advice and guidance shared from their own experiences.
As doctors, being trained in an apprenticeship system, we are used to the coaching process of learning, sometimes known as ‘see one, do one, teach one’.
We learn on the job, watching other people do each task, being talked through it as they do it and then walked through it ourselves, step by step, until we are able to pass on that knowing from our own bodies and teach it to others. This time-honoured method works well in general and forms the basis of our practical education. It passes on the skills we need to learn, and develops what we do, but does not always teach the way we need to practice, which stems from the way we are with ourselves and with other people.
Mentoring is more about the relationships between people – having a more senior colleague keep an eye on you, support you through your training, share the steps that they have walked that you may learn from them too, be an advocate for you as a person and as a professional, and safeguard your physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing as you journey through your training and your early years in practice.
The importance of this relationship cannot be over-emphasised. It can make the difference between your training being a struggle, an endurance marathon, sometimes feeling like torture, and being a source of satisfaction, inspiration, even joy.
Mentors can help lighten the load, put things in perspective, confirm and appreciate your inherent worth, add a dash of humour to the mix in dark times, remind us that we are all human and we all make mistakes, and that while we need to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t make them again, giving ourselves a hard time about them does not help anyone.
What makes a great mentor?
A mentor needs to be more than just a successful individual. A good mentor must have the disposition and desire to develop other people. Great mentors must be able to both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”, (3) willing to reflect on and share their own lived wisdom and experiences.
There is no room in these relationships for competition, comparison and jealousy. We must be willing to support the development of the other person, even and especially if it means they become a ‘better’ doctor than we are. To do this we need to be settled in ourselves, to value ourselves as we are without needing to be more, and willing to embrace seeing another person flourish. At the same time we must continue to commit to our own learning and development, to maintain and develop our own skills and experience, to challenge our own limiting beliefs and ideals, so that we can offer the best service possible to our trainees as mentors.
What makes a great mentee?
A mentee must be willing to hold themselves as an equal, even if their skill set and level of experience and lived wisdom is not yet as great as that of their mentor. When we do this, we raise ourselves up, but if we compare ourselves unfavourably with others, we put ourselves down and thereby limit our ability to learn and grow.
We all have something to offer the other person in any relationship and when we hold ourselves as their equal in essence, we can learn and grow together. The mentee must also take responsibility for the quality they bring to the relationship, not expecting to passively absorb or be fed what is needed, but actively enquiring, questioning, reflecting and resourcing to develop themselves as a person and a professional.
The mentoring relationship
A mentoring relationship is like any other relationship – it takes time to develop. And like other relationships, it will grow more if both parties take the time to get to know each other as people.
Even though one party in the mentor-mentee relationship may be more experienced in the field, the qualities of mutual respect, cooperation and acceptance are key. There is no place in these relationships for the bullying, harassment, and discrimination that too many young doctors experience, and in fact the mentoring relationship is much needed to offset this abuse and to advocate for and support our young doctors while we stamp out the systemic abuse that still blights our profession.
We all have mentors throughout our training and our lives, but it is great to have at least one person who stands by us on this journey, as we develop ourselves from student, to doctor, to teacher and mentor ourselves.
As with any good relationship, it must work both ways. Both people must take responsibility for the relationship and their part in it. The mentor is not just feeding a passive mentee everything they know and having the mentee soak it up without question. Both people can learn and grow from the relationship if it is a true and lasting one, as with any other relationship in life.
What are the benefits of mentoring?
Medicine is all about people, but sometimes it can be hard to remember that, with all the information that is to be learned and skills that are to be attained. Having a mentor gives medicine a human face and keeps the focus on the personal, on the quality you are living and the quality of care you are delivering, not just the nuts and bolts of it all.
There are also a lot of unspoken and unwritten rules and guidelines in medicine and having someone help you navigate through these can be an enormous help and support. They can be your advocate, connect you with other people who can help your career, and generally help you decide which career path you would like to pursue and how to go about it. They may also reflect to you that you may be better suited to something other than what you thought you wanted to do, which may save years of headache and heartache!
Developing a close personal relationship with someone who cares about you and whom you trust allows space for difficult conversations to be had, if needed, as you feel held and confirmed as a person first, valued for who you are, and are then more able to see constructive feedback for what it is without taking it personally.
Mentoring is a commitment
In mentoring, as in all relationships in life, things don’t always go well, and it is great to have a plan as to what the relationship is to be and how it will unfold so that both parties are clear what they are saying yes to and what is required of them.
There do not have to be any fixed rules, just a firm commitment to be open, honest, transparent and even (dare we say?!) loving with each other. Why not? Getting to know each other over the years can allow the development of a true intimacy, not with any sexual undertones or overtures, just really getting to know someone as a person and appreciating them for who they are. And if things are not going well, the level of developed intimacy will allow the open and honest expression of that, so that problems can be resolved, or the parties can decide to amicably separate, making room for other great relationships to come into being.
Mentoring is a great opportunity for all of us to be more open, honest, intimate and transparent with each other, starting one-on-one and then extending this level of relationship to all of our other relationships in our professional and personal lives. It can make such a difference to our lives as we support each other through the tough times and celebrate great moments together.