You may have had a mentor as a resident and possibly in your first year as a hospitalist, but don’t count out these valuable resources as you continue in your career. And don’t count out mentors who may come from other walks of life.
“It’s natural for physicians to look toward other physicians for guidance,” says Russell L. Holman, MD, chief operating officer for Cogent Healthcare, Nashville. “For physicians, including hospitalists, their natural inclination is to seek mentors who are physicians or have a similar training background. While there are many great physician mentors, you may be limiting yourself and missing opportunities that come from broader mentoring.”
Informal mentoring relationships are an excellent way to learn all sorts of leadership skills, from the subtle—like handling complains about a physician’s constant body odor—to hard skills, such as putting together a budget for your department or practice.
—Russell L. Holman, MD, chief operating officer, Cogent Healthcare, Nashville
Dr. Holman identified people at various stages in his career who could impart skills he sought, from a vice president of [human relations] for an integrated health system who steered him on personnel management and leadership development, to a carpenter-turned-attorney who helped him hone critical thinking skills.
“Talking to a mentor can show you the fresh side of new or old situations,” says Dr. Holman. “And you can feel comfortable telling them things that you wouldn’t tell anyone else. [When] you don’t work together, it provides a safe harbor to express ideas and opinions you normally wouldn’t.”
Mary Jo Gorman, MD, MBA, chief executive officer of Advanced ICU Care in St. Louis, Mo., agrees. “If you want someone to bounce ideas off of, try to find someone outside your organization,” she advises. She recommends physician organizations such as SHM: “Find someone who will listen, can keep their mouth shut and give you some honest feedback. For that reason, I’m a fan of professional coaches and career counselors. They provide an objective and unbiased audience and can suggest straightforward ways to manage sensitive issues.”
You also can find valuable mentors inside your workplace. “An often overlooked resource for hospitalist leaders is the other managers in their facilities,” says Dr. Gorman. “When I was a new manager, one of my mentors was the director of nursing. We could toss ideas back and forth, and she knew the politics and the personalities of the place, knew what mattered and what didn’t, and could steer me in the right direction.”
The managers and directors you work with, regardless of whether they’re physicians, are likely to have a lot of management experience, and can be resources for on-the-spot advice and guidance.
“Depending on the situation, even a chief operating officer or CEO of your hospital can give you good ideas and help you,” adds Dr. Gorman. “You’re a hospitalist; they’re supposed to be on your side. And they may be just five or 10 years older than you, but they have a lot of people management experience under their belts.”
If you look beyond physicians and other healthcare professionals, finding an informal mentor is simply a matter of keeping your eyes and your mind open.
“You find a mentor by being in different situations,” Dr. Holman says. “Take advantage of getting to know people in different spheres, see what makes them tick that you can learn and apply to yourself.”
Consider all aspects of your life outside the workplace—your neighborhood, your church, your children’s school, any organizations you volunteer for, or social venues. Even your family—does anyone have management or business experience?
Keep your options open for learning from others, but if you have a specific area where you want to gain knowledge, you can search your circle of acquaintances to see who might be able to fill in that gap.
“Outside of healthcare, my personal accountant was a huge help,” says Dr. Gorman. “He sat down with me and helped me understand the financials I was supposed to do. You may have to pay for this service, but if you’re just asking for a few hours of their time and you have a good relationship, they’ll help you out.”
Regardless of what you want to learn, keep in mind that mentors can come in any shape and form. “A mentor can be someone younger than you, someone less well educated,” Dr. Holman points out. “What matters is when you recognize the value of the perspectives they bring.”
In fact, Dr. Holman says, he deliberately looks for people who are a little different from himself. “We tend to gravitate to those who are like us, but [in mentoring] this doesn’t lend itself to the greatest growth long-term,” he explains.
Make Mentoring Work
When you target someone as a potential mentor, it’s best to start with occasional questions and keep the relationship casual.
“My experience—and this is supported by literature—is that mentoring relationships are most solid when they form naturally,” Dr. Holman says. “The mentorship arena lends itself to flexibility and informal structure.”
Dr. Gorman agrees, suggesting that you not even mention “the M word.” “In my experience, asking someone flat out if they’ll be your mentor doesn’t really work,” Dr. Gorman says. “It sounds like a big commitment, and they shy away from it. Instead, I’d say just keep going back to the same people for guidance. Find those people who will listen to you and give you some help.”
Once you establish a mentoring relationship, try to find a way to return the favor—at least by being a good mentee.
“It’s particularly rewarding when mentoring is not one-sided, when each person has something to bring to the table,” Dr. Holman says. “Though it may be mostly one-sided, it’s good to be able to give some advice or counsel in return.”
Dr. Gorman adds that a good mentee either will act on advice or address why they didn’t. “No one likes to give advice just to see you blow it off, or head straight into a situation they warned you against,” she stresses. “Be respectful of their time, and be prepared when you present a problem. And be sure to thank them. You don’t have to send flowers or anything, just a verbal thank you for their time.”
No matter what stage your career is in, you can always pick up new skills and perspectives—particularly if you’re in a leadership position. Even if you feel you’re well established, finding new mentors can only make you better at what you do.
“You should always look for someone to learn from,” Dr. Gorman says. “They’re out there, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Throw out some questions and see who you hit it off with, who gives you sound advice.” TH
Jane Jerrard writes “Public Policy” for The Hospitalist.