Becoming a Better Mentor

Mentor and Telmachus, son of Odysseus
Mentoring has been identified as a critical factor in achieving success in many fields.  Unfortunately, like many skills related to the education of healthcare professionals, mentors rarely receive any training in how to become a better mentor.
This is unfortunate.  Faculty who have had an effective mentor report the following:
-Increased confidence
-Increased research productivity
-Higher career satisfaction
-Meaningful involvement in academic activities
-Development of close collaborative relationships
With all of the above benefits, it’s surprising that their isn’t more attention paid to developing more effective mentors.  As with many of the skills, we’re often left to figure it out ourselves.  
So what skills are needed to be a better mentor?
While not an exhaustive list, some traits identified with being an effective mentor include:
1. Being knowledgeable and respected in their field
As I identify mentors for myself, this is a key trait that I look for.  But what about the typical residency mentoring structure?  Residents are often assigned to a random faculty member based on volume and availability.  One change we made to our program was to allow residents to self-select after the first 6 months.  Residents can also change mentors as they see the need.  As a mentor, I know that I constantly need to continue to improve my expertise within my chosen niche.
2. Being responsive and available to their mentees
This can be a difficult task with the demands of clinical emergency medicine.  We’re often at work while the rest of the world goes to dinner, watches TV, and heads to bed.  Setting aside dedicated time to meet with the mentee goes a long way.  I try to make myself available on the residents education day.  They’re already going to be around, so why not take the time to sit down with them and see how they’re doing.
3. Interest in the mentoring relationship
This trait is somewhat of a no-brainer.  Why would you participate if you aren’t interested? Take a deeper look.  Many times we enter the mentoring relationship with full intentions to make the relationship work.  While our initial interest may have been high, sometimes life happens and we let the relationship stagnate.  We need to constantly monitor the effectiveness of our mentoring relationships and know when to direct our mentees on to a more effective mentor if we can no longer meet our end of the bargain.
4. Being knowledgeable about the mentees capabilities and potential
This can only be acheived with time dedicated to learning about the mentee.  Fortunately, working with residents offers ample time to learn about them and observe their capabilities first hand.  When initiating a mentoring relationship, it is helpful to dedicate at least 30 minutes of time to a relaxed interview with the mentee to delve deeper into their interests, goals, and to learn about what they desire from the relationship.
5. Motivating mentees to appropriately challenge themselves
I constantly struggle with this skill.  Unlike teaching, where the challenge comes from the subject matter, challenging a mentee is more difficult.  How do you challenge your mentee?  I try to offer my mentees involvement in projects that come along.  Follow this up with your expectations, and you have issued the challenge that they need for professional growth.  Don’t forget to offer support in additional to challenge.  It take just the right amount of each to grow.
6.  Acting as an advocate for their mentees
Failing to act on this trait came close to ending my academic career.  Early in my first year out of residency, I was mentoring a new intern who was having academic and professional difficulty.  In the ensuing months, I had a seat at the table for many remediation sessions.  Unfortunately, the whole situation became quite hostile.  What I should have done better was to take my concerns up the chain of command.  If I had been a better advocate for my mentee the situation would likely not have progressed as far as it did.  Like many things in life: Live and Learn.  As mentors, we owe it to our mentees to be their advocates.  If they need resources to get research done, we can help them get it.  If they’re having difficultly, we can level the playing field to make sure that each party has equal representation at the table.
Mentoring is a difficult skill to master.  With all of the demands of being a clinician and faculty member, it isn’t surprising that our skills are mediocre at best when it comes to being a mentor.  The above simple traits can help to guide you in the right direction as you continue to improve as a mentor to your students and residents.  
If you’re already an expert, what traits do you feel are needed to be effective?
Reference:
Ramani S, Gruppen L, Kachur EK. Twelve tips for developing effective mentors. Med Teach. 2006 Aug;28(5):404-8. PMID: 16973451 

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