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25 February 2022
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Mentoring: the key to growth and development

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is one of the most effective approaches to developing your skills, knowledge and insight around specific goals. Typically, a mentee is matched with a more experienced mentor who provides career advice, guidance and insight over the long-term and can introduce mentees to relevant contacts in their network.

I could go on about how great mentoring is but there is already so much literature out there about why finding a mentor can be the single best thing for your career. We Doctors are proud. We are self-assured. And we are smart. Having overcome five-plus years of medical school, numerous rigorous theory and practical exams and multiple 12(+)-hour night shifts, why would we want or need a mentor? We know what we are doing, right?

To some extent, yes. There is no doubt you could navigate the career ladder alone; however, this medical landscape is rapidly changing. Now, medical students and junior doctors are empowered to take more ownership of their careers: we are taking advantage of F3 and F4+ years, getting involved in medical leadership and management, and founding start-ups and social enterprises left, right and centre. All these exciting opportunities and portfolio careers are adding to an already complex picture – finding a great mentor can support you in whichever path you choose to follow, improve your performance and help you to have a higher level of awareness of your own thoughts, values and purpose through challenging questions to prompt reflection and action.

In this blog, I will briefly cover my own experiences of mentoring, before then exploring how to find and approach someone to be your mentor and take your personal growth and professional development to the next step.

Mentor or mentee? 

I am fortunate to have experience of being both a mentee as well as mentoring others, at various stages of my education and career so far.  

Looking back, the first mentor I had was Utkarsh Ojha, a friend who was a year above me at medical school. Having interned in investment banking and at the World Health Organisation, he broadened my horizons and showed me there is more to healthcare than just clinical medicine. Since then, I have had other formal and informal mentors (not all at the same time), including Simon Pleydell (ex-CEO, Whittington Hospital), Sonia Swart (CEO, Northampton General Hospitals NHS Trust), Sunil Gupta (Chair, Castle Point and Rochford CCG) and Alex Prinsley (Deputy General Manager, Chelsea & Westminster Hospital) and I have found the variety of input incredibly useful to help me figure out how to advance my career. Although some of the conversations seemed a bit indecisive, they forced me to reflect on challenging situations, career decisions, my values and ultimately what I want to get out of my life and career. Deep stuff. Their ability to integrate various aspects of my responses and synthesise a very introspective and insightful conclusion is something I hope to develop with my own mentoring. Honestly, at times it was like free therapy. They have also been incredible for networking, introducing me to a variety of professionals within healthcare, ranging from a Public Health SpR to a Managing Director & Partner at BCG. It was also Simon who told me about, and encouraged me to apply for, the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme which I am currently on, and identified other leadership and management resources/opportunities that I might be interested in.   

I am now mentoring other professionals in various stages of their careers. Previously, I had only informally mentored (often very jaded) medical students, mostly through ad hoc conversations about leaving medicine for alternative careers. However, this is my first time mentoring in a formal setting, and with those who are more ‘senior’ and further along their careers than I am. Although it was challenging as I felt the need to really ‘prove’ my value to them and gain their trust, seeing the mentoring relationship from the opposite side has helped me to become a better mentee, too. I realised it is not a unilateral relationship, but a two-way dialogue where mentor and mentee work through the process together as peers – a partnership. I would also urge anyone who has been mentored to ‘pay it forward’ and offer to mentor anyone who reaches out to them for any support or guidance. 

How to find a mentor

Finding a mentor can be quite tricky, and even after you have identified someone, how do you ask them to mentor you?

The first step is to reflect on what you hope to learn and get out of a mentor-mentee relationship. Perhaps you are interested in cardiothoracic surgery and want support in navigating the competitive application process, or are returning to work following a career-break and want some advice from someone who has also managed that transition successfully, or maybe you would like guidance in raising investment for your medtech start-up. Although clarity helps, these goals do not have to be super specific – it is just as fine to want a mentor to help you with general career goals and decisions, although the clearer the purpose, the easier it is to direct your search. 

To find potential mentors there are several approaches you can take. The easiest way is to get involved in formal mentorship programmes or searching pools of existing mentors. For example, as a Scholar of the Healthcare Leadership Academy (HLA), you will be assigned a mentor based on your interests, experiences and aspirations – this is where I was matched with Simon. FMLM has its own mentoring scheme for members, as has the Royal College of Physicians and and Royal College of GPs, where you can search their pools of mentors and reach out to anyone you think may be suitable – the FMLM database is where I found Sunil. Otherwise, look to the community around you, such as family, friends, co-workers and even alumni. Who do you look up to? Whose job would you like to have in the next five or ten years? For example, if you are interested in applying for Core Surgical Training (CST), find some trainees at your hospital, either in person or through various channels, such as Mess groups or through your supervisors. Often, trusts have ‘buddy’ programmes, where FY1s are paired with FY2s, so leverage any similar informal mentoring programmes at your place of work. I also know several peers who attended conferences/webinars and resonated with some of the speakers and identified them as potential mentors. LinkedIn can also be a great place to find mentors, using keywords to narrow your search by specialty, region or specific skills. However, ‘cold’ messages/emails are less likely to result in a response, so getting any mutual connections to acquaint you with someone through a ‘warm’ introduction should have a higher rate of success.

Good mentoring qualities to look for include experience, authenticity, empathy and having similar values to your own. Although I mentioned experience, mentors can vary from near-peers (eg a CST1 who has just been through the application process) to senior, experienced mentors with decades of sector expertise (eg a Professor of cardiothoracic surgery). Both offer different value propositions and can provide alternative perspectives.  A good mentor does not always have to be the most successful; learning from others’ mistakes can be just as valuable as learning from someone who has yet to slip up. So, make sure you invest adequate time and effort into finding and researching potential mentors as this will increase your chances of a successful relationship.

Will you be my mentor?

Once you have identified someone (or a few people) whom you believe would make a good mentor, the next step is to reach out to them. Think about this process in the way you made your friends; how you met them, built a relationship and got to know them over time. You didn’t just go up to someone and ask, “Will you be my friend?” That would be awkward.

Of course, your approach depends entirely on your relationship with that person, and will differ between your CST2 friend whom you have known since medical school, versus a random CEO whose DMs you have slid into on LinkedIn. Typically, the better you know someone, the more direct you can be about what you want from them. The conversation will also be more straightforward if you are on a formal mentoring programme, or have found someone from one of the established mentor pools. Here, the main expectation is already defined and so I’ll focus on how to approach ‘strangers’. This is very similar to reaching out to someone whom you would like to shadow, which I covered in my previous blog – message/email people to organise an initial, casual call with them. Get people talking about themselves, their experiences and career path to build rapport and any general advice they can offer. However, throughout you should also be screening them – can I relate to them? Can I open up to and trust them? Was their advice and insight useful? Do they give off the good mentoring qualities I mentioned above?

If you think they have potential, a great conversation pivot to getting them on board is to ask whether they had any mentors (and then exploring their experiences), or asking if they have mentored anyone previously. Don’t be afraid of using the term ‘mentor’ when asking if someone would be open to mentoring you, whether it is a friend/colleague or someone you found independently. Be enthusiastic and highlight why you think they would be a suitable mentor (specific experiences/skills, eg ranked top 10 in CST applications), briefly cover what you would like to get out of it (eg a successful CST application) and that you won’t be a burden but willing to put into the relationship. You can suggest ironing out the logistics and practicalities of the relationship (number and length of sessions, communication preferences, content, etc) in this conversation, in a follow-up email or a further call. People who have had previous mentees are more likely to be open to mentoring, and don’t be disheartened if there isn’t a positive outcome – perhaps they feel inexperienced, or do not have the capacity to mentor. Likewise, if, during the initial conversation, you feel as if they aren’t the right ‘fit’ for you, or their experience isn’t what you thought it was, there is no pressure to ask them to mentor you or pursue a mentoring relationship with them. This is also relevant at any stage of the mentoring process, although it is worth having a conversation with them about why you feel like it won’t work/isn’t working if sessions have already started.

Overall, it might be easiest to find formal mentors through established programmes, such as FMLM, HLA and Royal Colleges, especially for your first time. Here, you can learn how to be a good mentee with an experienced mentor, and learn the elements of good practice, such as organising sessions, creating SMART goals and showing initiative and gratitude. This can go hand-in-hand with informal mentors at work, with colleagues or friends, and existing mentors can also introduce you to their network to whom you can then go. There is no ‘correct’ order but once you become confident about identifying a mentor and being a mentee, then you could branch out and seek your own mentors independently. People are usually flattered by your requests to be mentored by them, so don’t be shy. Lastly, you are likely to have multiple mentors throughout your career, some consecutive and others simultaneous but be aware of too many voices drowning out your own – a great saying from my good friend and mentor, Lyric Jain, CEO of Logically is “Hear everyone but listen to yourself".

So, why wait?

Having a mentor is a huge asymmetric bet – if it doesn’t work out, there is a capped downside of only the several hours invested in finding and talking to a mentor. However, the potential upside is uncapped, and a great mentor can be the most valuable asset for your career growth. So, why wait? You could start right now by signing up to FMLM, searching the directory and identifying a mentor who can take your personal growth and professional development to the next step.

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