I never got up the courage to say it out loud to the senior physician leader who had declared he was now officially my mentor. Not exactly the way I usually start off a mentor-mentee relationship, but my leadership coach said be curious and go with it.
We met for my semiannual check-in. I came prepared to share what progress I had made over the past months since we last met and had some goals I wanted to get his advice on. He started with “How have things been going?” and within the first 30 seconds he had interrupted me and taken over the conversation. Over the next 45 minutes I never got more than a sentence in before he started talking again. He wrapped up by telling me what I needed to work on before our next meeting while escorting me out of his office. (I have to say, if that is how we make patients feel during office visits, shame on us!) It was an unsatisfying encounter leaving me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and angry.
Fortunately I have other mentors so I set aside my irritation and scheduled time with another senior physician leader. She laughed at the idea of meeting in her office, insisting we find a more relaxed setting to talk with minimal distractions. She started off the same way, asking me how things have been going. I was hesitant, waiting for the interruptions to begin, but she silently listened and nodded and smiled occasionally. When I was done she asked “Do you want me to tell you what I would do or what I think you should do?” Thank goodness for the waiter because I needed time to think about that one! I picked both, and we went on to have a great discussion incorporating her thoughts, experience, and insights with my dreams and aspirations. I left dinner feeling energized, with a ton of work to do but confident that I could do all things!
The stark contrast of the two experiences weighed on me. I started to wonder how I interact with my mentees. What if I am a mentor trying to shove them into the mold I’ve pre-cast for them in my mind rather than the self-discovery guide I imagine myself to be? Do my mentees find me patronizing, self-centered, and ignorant about their goals and aspirations? Do I talk too much and fail to listen? Is there a course or book that shares practical tips I can incorporate today to become a better mentor? Where are the easily accessible resources designed specifically for me as a family physician educator and leader?
I’m not entirely sure that I am always fully present and attentive to my mentees. If I hesitate to challenge my own mentors to provide me the guidance I need, there is a good chance my mentees are not choosing to challenge me to be a better mentor for them. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean satisfaction. Without some safe mechanism for feedback, it will be difficult to know where I excel and where I could use some improvement. Looking to my own mentors for guidance may not prove useful. After all, if my leaders are struggling to provide me an adequate mentor role model due to their own limitations, it is unreasonable to expect them to recognize my potential areas for improvement.
Where would I start if I decided to take it upon myself to be better? I vaguely recall a lecture in my faculty development training on mentorship, but clearly a one-time didactic was simply not enough for such a critical aspect of my personal career development.
An internet search turned up a number of requests for me to be a mentor but surprisingly little in the way of how to assess my current skills or develop them. Though highly popular in the business world, I suspect a small minority of family doctors will ever have the opportunity to work with a leadership coach. There is certainly no shortage of business books or leadership development and training models, but none are directly aimed at family physician educators.
Mentorship best practices should be more accessible to all family medicine faculty. I suggest starting with a faculty development book club on Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. It opened my eyes and gave me an idea.
Diminishing leaders often don’t know they are dimming your career. Multipliers may not know how they enhance you and therefore may not be able to teach others to do the same. But if we bring together our shared experiences we could create our own mentorship faculty development—a compilation of do’s and don’ts illustrated with our own stories, recommendations, and advice. We can help family physician mentors identify multiplying and diminishing behaviors and minimize the chance that another mentee leaves a mentorship session feeling the way I did after that first encounter.
Let’s start compiling those stories today. Take a moment and share your (positive or not so positive) mentor experiences below. It can be about a time you were the mentor or the mentee. (It’s probably best to not name names.) Don’t forget to tell us what made the experience a memorable one!