6 Things Every Mentor Should Do

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Vineet Chopra, MD, and Sanjay Saint, MD, for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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As academic physicians, we do a lot of mentoring. Over the course of our careers, and through our formal research on mentoring within and outside of academia, we’ve found that good mentoring is discipline-agnostic. Whether you’re a mentor to a medical resident or marketing manager, the same principles apply. The best mentorships are more like the relationship between a parent and adult child than between a boss and employee. They’re characterized by mutual respect, trust, shared values, and good communication, and they find their apotheosis in the mentee’s transition to mentor. We’ve also seen that dysfunctional mentorships share common characteristics across disciplines — the dark side of mentoring, which we’ll get into later.

Given how important mentoring is, there’s surprisingly limited guidance about how to become a good mentor. This is perhaps even more the case in the world of management outside of academic medicine — whether it is finance, consulting, or technology — as the path from professional to senior executive requires more than individual success. We offer here an informal set of guidelines for good mentorship — a playbook, if you will, for a game that is very much a team sport. While we draw many of our examples from academic medicine, the lessons are pertinent across disciplines.

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Choose Mentees Carefully

Effective mentorship takes time. Mentors trade away hours they could use to pursue their own career goals and spend them on someone else’s. Although the prospect of having an energetic, personable junior partner for a multitude of projects is appealing, having the wrong mentee can be painful.

Beware the diffident candidate who expects the mentor to keep the relationship going, or the candidate who insists on doing things their way. A mentee should be curious, organized, efficient, responsible, and engaged. One way to look for these traits is to test prospective mentees. For instance, we often ask mentees to read a book and return within a month to discuss it. Similarly, we sometimes give a candidate a few weeks to write a review of an article in a relevant area. In a business setting, you might ask a prospective mentee to prepare a presentation in their area of expertise, or join you on a sales call or at a strategy offsite and write up their observations. This gives you a good sense of their thinking process, communication skill, and level of interest. If they don’t come back or complete the assignment, you should breathe a sigh of relief — you have avoided taking on a mentee who lacked commitment.

Consider the case of a partner in a major consulting firm who told us of how he struggled with his first mentoring relationship. A young gun (let’s call him Sam) wanted to join the partner’s team, which was helping a client with a difficult human resources problem. Sam appeared keen, ambitious, and enthusiastic. He emailed constantly, asking about the position and reiterating how much he wanted to join this team. “He reminded me of a younger version of myself, and I thought I could groom him to be a superstar,” the partner recalled. Unfortunately, Sam proved to be a disaster. He showed up late to meetings, never turned in reports on time, and didn’t get along well with the offsite team. When the client finally complained, the partner had no choice but to take Sam off the project. Rather than being apologetic, Sam criticized the manager for cutting him loose. “I realized I had made a huge mistake, but only too late,” the partner told us. Sam could certainly talk the talk, but he didn’t have the commitment, organization, or motivation necessary to succeed.

Establish a Mentorship Team

The exclusive, one-on-one relationship of mentor and mentee, long the norm, was ideal for a time when both parties stayed put in one institution or devoted to a single mission. That time has passed. Professionals in business and academia are highly itinerant, moving from one project or institution to another. Moreover, faculty and managers alike are under constant and growing time pressure. As a result, most mentors today share responsibility with others for the growth of a mentee. It makes sense: Few senior-level people have the time or range of expertise to serve as a solo mentor. Having a handful of co-mentors also gives mentees a fallback position if the relationship with their primary mentor fizzles.

Mentees should work with mentors to create a mentorship team, with members selected for their various areas of knowledge, such as subject matter expertise or career advice. The individuals chosen need to work well together and with the mentee. The primary mentor should function as the go-to person, providing mentees with moral, career, and institutional support, ranging from choosing a project focus, to helping build a network, to strategizing for success.

The concept of mentorship teams has slowly started to spread through management. A recent HBR article (“Your Career Needs Many Mentors, Not Just One,”) advanced the concept of mastermind groups, or a personal board of directors, a clear allusion to mentorship teams. Inherent in each of these brain trusts is the notion that the myriad skills and knowledge needed in business are difficult to acquire from a single individual. Indeed, firms such as Credit Suisse now employ a multiperson mentorship strategy when assigning new analysts to projects. An analyst needs much more support than a single staffer can provide, and will only grow more fluent in a firm’s culture and language through guidance from key figures across the organization. A young analyst we spoke with, who is soon to become an associate, described their experience in this way: “What I learned in onboarding was only 40% of what I needed to be successful. By having several key people, from staffers to VPs, assigned to me early in my career, I was able to gain the other 60% quickly.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Vineet Chopra, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Research Scientist, The Patient Safety Enhancement Program and Center for Clinical Management Research Ann Arbor VA Medical Center and the University of Michigan Health System. Follow him on Twitter.

Sanjay Saint, MD, is the George Dock Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan, the Director of the VA/University of Michigan Patient Safety Enhancement Program and the Chief of Medicine at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter.

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