The highway runs both ways

Many of you know that I have a strong interest in mentoring and the impact of mentoring on career development in academic surgery. I’ve been wrestling with this question in one form or another since the middle of my own residency.  It’s easy enough for us to be prescriptive about qualities of effective mentors or structures that foster effective mentor-mentee relationships.  What we focus on less commonly is the mentee’s role in the relationship; the reality is that a mentor can be the best mentor in the world, but if the mentee isn’t active in the relationship, it’s doomed to failure (see analogy here: you can lead a horse to water…).

Since the academic year is about to change, I figured there’s no time like the present to provide tips and tricks for being an effective mentee.  Full credit goes to some mid-career and senior women surgeons who I interviewed from 2013-2015, and who provided the following concepts of being an effective mentee.

  • Put yourself in the driver’s seat– No, I’m not telling you to boss your mentor around.  What I am telling you is to be clear about what you want/ need/ expect from the mentoring relationship.  Not only do you need to actively seek mentorship, you need to have a purpose in that relationship. If you come into my office and ask me to mentor you, I’m pretty likely to ask you to think about in what your goal is for our mentoring relationship…and send you away to think about it.
  • You are accountable, and it’s up to you to report back– Let’s pretend that you came to my office and asked me to mentor you, but you didn’t have clarity around what you wanted that to look like or what exactly you wanted from me.  I gave you the task of figuring that out and told you I was happy to meet again once your ideas are better formulated. In general, I’m not going to come find you to get some idea how your brainstorming is going.  It’s your job to do your homework (so, put on your thinking cap) and reach out to me when the time is right.  I’m not clairvoyant so I can’t guess, and if you do your homework then come back I know that you’ve got skin in the game. I’ll make time for you, and please don’t worry about me being busy- I am, but if you’re invested I am invested too.
  • Be receptive to feedback- A high-performing mentor will have to perform acts of radical candor if they’re doing their job effectively. That means that the feedback they give you may not always be sunshine, rainbows, and bunnies.  When I am having to give you hard feedback, I’ll do my best to deliver it respectfully and thoughtfully as long as you try to stay tuned in.  I know how challenging hearing negative things is because I’m not perfect either and have heard plenty of them over the course of my career.  I’m also giving you the challenging feedback because I suspect it’s not part of who you aspire to be, and my job is to help you be the best version of you. Oh, and after I say the hard things? Please act on them!
  • If I open doors for you and provide you with opportunities, please capitalize on them- This is self-explanatory.  Go out there and shine bright if I’ve sponsored you for something!
  • While this may be a long-term relationship, we’re not married- I know that you’ll likely outgrow me someday, or that I may help you meet the goal that you set in working with me as a mentor. If we’ve had a successful run together, I’m always going to be interested in what you’re doing, even when I’m not directly part of it, and it’s not going to hurt my feelings if you tell me you’ve got another mentor(s).  Quite honestly, my best success is shown when you’re succeeding, and perhaps when your own success exceeds mine.

Any other “best mentee ever” tips out there, readers?  Please share!