Insights on Being a Mentor: What It Takes and What It Entails

June 2, 2017
Karen Appold

Mentors might be older or younger than their mentees-it’s their experience that matters

For Cynthia L. Comella, MD, FAAN, professor, Rush University Medical Center Department of Neurological Sciences, Chicago, Illinois, being a mentor ensures the future of her subspecialty in movement disorders as well as the field of neurology in general. “Unless you bring new physicians forward and upward, an area of expertise may not be sustainable,” she says.

Dr. Comella, who has served as a mentor and is a proponent of these relationships, also finds mentoring very satisfying: “When you mentor someone and they are successful, you share in that success.” Moreover, mentors can gain insight from mentees: “Mentees have some great ideas; you actually thrive on each other.”

Mentees might have more than one mentor. “Always keep in mind that at any level of your career, there may be someone else from whom you can learn. This can be a formal or informal relationship. It is important that you are always open to seeking advice,” Dr. Comella says. “Mentors can help you to succeed without taking the painful wrong turns of trial and error that you would most likely make on your own.”

Mentors might be older or younger than their mentees-it’s their experience that matters. “As a mentor, you’re providing your knowledge in navigating situations to someone who hasn’t had that experience yet,” Dr. Comella says.

What’s involved

As a mentor, you must allot time for the mentee and maintain communication with him or her. “That’s where many relationships go astray,” Dr. Comella says. “You also need to be a good listener. Mentors not only provides advice, direction, and guidance, but they also need to understand the mentee’s goals for the relationship.”

A mentor may have different roles. He or she may provide advice related to science, grantsmanship, or leadership. Or, a mentor plays the role of champion, or someone who provides opportunities for the mentee to succeed, such as a speaking engagement or being a principle investigator of a study. “As a champion mentor, you must have the humility to share opportunities that could be yours with your mentee,” Comella says. And, a mentor can be a coach, “It’s important to provide clear and thoughtful suggestions for problems a mentee may encounter.”

Possible challenges

As the relationship forms, both parties need to determine what role the mentor will play. Does the mentee need advice regarding handling a difficult situation, getting a promotion or leadership role, obtaining a research grant, or participating in a research project?

A mentee might be intimidated by a mentor and not feel comfortable reaching out. “Try to work with a mentee to overcome such barriers,” Dr. Comella says. “Make it clear that you are there to provide guidance-not to instruct or criticize. The mentee will need to be willing to discuss your insights, but should not feel obligated to take your advice. When you develop that degree of trust, it will take your relationship to a new level.”

It might also be challenging for the mentee to understand that the purpose of your relationship is not to be a best friend-rather, it’s to have a professional relationship where the mentee’s goals are met. The relationship may change as the mentee advances, but with good mentorship, attaining goals may prove to be less daunting.