From Boardroom to Bench

Nowhere is mentoring more important than in the world of medicine. Here are six mentoring tips from the business world that could handily apply to your lab.

Every physician and researcher fills the role of an apprentice in the early years of his or her career. The guidance of seasoned experts is vital to mastering any profession, but this especially emphasized in two domains: business and medicine. Mentorships have an enormous impact on the direction and success of one’s career in both of these sectors, yet there has been far more writing and research about mentoring in business.

In the world of medicine, limited resources exist to guide scientists and physicians through the transition from mentee to mentor. One might think that life is easier as the expert, but mentoring is an art in and of itself requiring a whole different set of knowledge and skills from the field in which one actually practices.

Pulling on advice from the business sphere, here are six tips for becoming a great mentor that are equally applicable to medicine.


  1. Set expectations together

Defining the relationship between mentor and mentee is the first step to establishing a positive and productive dynamic. What will one-on-one time look like? How will feedback be communicated, and what are the areas that the mentee hopes to develop? How can you two best work together? All of these questions should be considered at the very beginning of a mentorship relationship.

When one or both individuals fail to communicate expectations, it can lead to disappointment and confusion on either end. Mentorships sometimes dissolve when trainees and fellows do not know the terms of the relationship and feel uncomfortable asking for feedback or help from their mentor. Often, the impetus falls on the mentor to make sure that a conversation outlining these terms occurs early on, finding out what the mentee needs and letting them know the ways in which you can help.


  1. Take a genuine interest

Both professionally and personally, it is important to really get to know your mentee. Sure, good advice can be given to aspiring endocrinologists without the time investment of developing an individual rapport. But great advice comes when you truly understand the person you are mentoring.

There is a singular refrain that emerges across articles on mentorship: listen. It may feel like there is pressure to immediately provide helpful feedback, but it is often better to let the mentee lead a conversation, asking questions and waiting to offer guidance until you have had a chance to give serious thought to their situation. Through close listening, mentors also demonstrate that they have a genuine interest in their mentee, which fosters a supportive bond.


  1. Provide honest, but diplomatic, feedback

A successful mentorship requires honest, critical feedback. Mentors need to be upfront and direct with their thoughts on a mentee’s work, but should couch criticism with encouragement. The challenge is finding the right balance between candidness and reassurance.

Mentors should think about what their mentee needs to hear from them, not what they want to hear from them. With that as a barometer, the most constructive feedback for a trainee or fellow should come to mind, both positive and negative.


  1. Share what you know

Passing on knowledge is the most basic underpinning of mentorship. However, the imparting of skills comprises only part of the wisdom that great mentors share with their mentees. In addition to the steps that led to accomplishments, mentors should also explain the mistakes they made along the way. Your biggest bloopers may provide more valuable learnings than your biggest successes.


  1. Think long term

Eventually, every mentorship reaches a natural conclusion. The relationship between the two individuals may continue, but the need for frequent oversight and direction will diminish as the mentee grows in their career. This means a mentor has done their job well—it is the ultimate goal of any mentorship.

To attain this end, the mentor and mentee need a long-term plan. When a fellow or trainee is ready to start thinking about independent projects, it is time to outline next steps for their career and the changing circumstances of the mentorship. There is no exact formula for a mentor “exit strategy,” so the best way to move forward is through open communication about evolving expectations.


  1. Celebrate achievements

Conversations between mentors and mentees have a tendency to focus around problems that need to be solved rather than success that has been achieved. This is generally because the mentee is asking for guidance with obstacles they are working to overcome. But making a point of highlighting a mentee’s accomplishments will not only lift the mood of meetings, it will help build confidence.

When a mentee makes a smart move, recognition from a mentor reinforces such behavior in the future. This will keep them motivated despite the inevitable setbacks that come at the beginning of any career, and it is meaningful to hear positive words from someone they wish to impress. Such commendation can take multiple forms, ranging from a private compliment to public acknowledgment in front of peers and other experts.

Every mentoring relationship is different and there is no template for how to lead your mentees to success. The approach a mentor takes simply has to work for them and for the individuals they mentor. By keeping the channels of communication open and remembering these six tips from the business world, mentors can enhance the productivity and positive dynamic of the relationship helping ensure that the next generation of endocrinologists is positioned for great progress.

— Mapes is a Washington D.C.-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the artificial pancreas at the presidential plenary at ENDO 2016 in the February issue.

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