How to be an Effective Mentor

Amy L. Grice, VMD, MBA | Veterinary Business Consulting | Published: Issue 1 2024

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Whether the new team member is an associate, an intern, or even a new veterinary technician, a good mentoring relationship is crucial to the person’s professional development. By showing confidence in the mentee and generously sharing experiences, knowledge, and skills, the mentor can have a marked influence on the future of their colleague.

Mentors have been said to have seven functions. These include being:

  1. A teacher who passes on skills and knowledge.
  2. A sponsor who introduces the new entrant to others, and acts as a booster.
  3. An advisor who answers questions when uncertainties arise
  4. An agent who removes obstacles, when necessary.
  5. A role model who walks their talk and lives their values.
  6. A coach who encourages, motivates, and pushes when necessary.
  7. a confidante who listens, maintains confidentiality, and is trustworthy as well as reliable.

Filling all of these roles is a responsibility and an honor.

Starting a Mentorship

When starting a mentoring relationship, each party should begin by telling their stories, including some personal details. This beginning can transform the path of a mentoring relationship because it demonstrates that the mentor is truly interested in understanding the mentee and his or her journey, not just in dispensing professional advice.

By having knowledge of the mentee’s past, the mentor can make more germane inquiries over time. When the mentor tells their story by describing one or two of the difficult chapters in both their career and personal life, they can set the stage for a deeper relationship of more impact and value.

As the relationship develops, the mentor should be sure to teach the mentee how to work through a problem, not simply provide the answer.

Psychological Safety

Because all people bring different perspectives, an environment where psychological safety is present is essential for the best mentoring. Work by researcher Dr. Amy Edmundson has shown that psychological safety within the workplace is one of the most important factors leading to learning behaviors.

In her presentation at the 68th AAEP Annual Convention, Dr. Stacey Cordivano explained the concept in the following way: 

“Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” 

Sadly, Dr. Cordivano reported that 67% of equine veterinarian respondents to a survey question asking if they had been penalized or punished at work for a mistake or for offering an idea answered “Yes.” In order for maximal learning to occur, candor must be accepted, mistakes must be forgiven, questions need to be seen as a strength rather than a weakness, and questioning the status quo should occur without fear.

In a practice where the culture is not entirely safe, a mentor can provide a zone of safety where the mentee can be heard and learn more effectively

Reciprocal Mentorship

Many traditional mentoring relationships are hierarchical, one-way relationships where the mentor dispenses wisdom and the mentee passively receives direction. Although mentors, by definition, have more experience in the profession, mentees bring their own perspectives, life experiences, and talents to the relationship.

The best mentoring is reciprocal, where both parties benefit. In a high-quality reciprocal mentoring partnership, the mentor values and is influenced by their mentee. There is a bi-directional movement of knowledge. This helps the mentee feel more confidence and self-value.

New graduates often bring knowledge of the newest developments in diagnostics, treatment, and techniques. They are exposed to multiple veterinary practices through externships, internships, or attending a veterinary school using a distributive model for the clinical years.

If open to new ideas and approaching with curiosity, a mentor can learn many new ideas for solving common problems. Nothing stifles engagement like the answer to a new graduate’s suggestion or query being “No, this is the way we do it here,” or “We’ve always done it this way.”

The elements of reciprocal mentoring that lead to the most successful results include humility, shared power whenever possible, bi-directional reflective listening, and helping one another find success both in the career but also outside of career aspirations. Perhaps the intern loves to bake, and the mentor struggles with creating a perfect sourdough loaf. The mentor may know the best rock-climbing spots near the practice to share with the new associate.

In addition, the mentor should ask about the mentee’s professional aspirations and then direct their teaching to help them meet these goals. Asking for the new associate or intern’s opinion about a case that the mentor is a bit perplexed about could occasionally yield information about a similar case seen during their time in veterinary school but will always prompt a useful thought process that will benefit the new clinician.

Mentoring Challenges

Dealing With Success

A reciprocal mentoring relationship requires self-awareness in the mentor and the ability to not feel threatened or diminished by the mentee’s successes. While this may seem unlikely when an intern is the mentee, a mentor who dreamed of doing a residency at a certain university may have unexpected feelings of jealousy or loss if their protégé gains entry where they themselves did not.

As an associate mentee develops their career, it is important for the mentor to “move over” and let the mentee achieve success out from under the shadow of the mentor. This can sometimes be personally challenging to the mentor. An associate with strong communication skills, clinical strengths, or being of a different generation may gain clients who used to prefer the older doctor. Sometimes, this provokes a feeling of personal failure or irrelevancy rather than pride.

These uncomfortable emotions can be managed by embracing leadership where the highest good is in creating other leaders, not in gaining power or prestige. 

Gender Differences

Sometimes difficulties can emerge when there is a difference in gender between mentor and mentee. Research at the Harvard Business School has shown that men who mentor women sometimes assume a hero role to protect and rescue the mentee from harm in the organization, or become the all-knowing guru, implying weakness in the subordinate.

Women can struggle to become independently successful in these situations, and over time, their revenue production and engagement can suffer. Likewise, women who mentor men can be challenged by the communication style differences between genders and struggle with being effective in a mentor role. Awareness of these challenges and meeting them with transparency can mitigate many of the issues.

Providing Feedback

When giving feedback on the mentee’s performance, best practices include asking how the person prefers to receive it. At the end of the day or at the beginning? At the end of the week or before a day off, or never before such a time? Immediately, regularly, or intermittently?

Obviously, some feedback requires immediacy, but it should be given in private, away from clients and team members as much as possible. Some people prefer to go for a walk rather than have a conversation in an office. If a response is expected, ask the mentee how much time they need to formulate one. This respect for individual preferences is appreciated and builds trust.

Some of the most effective and important mentoring conversations may center on concerns such as professional identity, work-family integration, personal confidence, and resilience in the face of stress. By being vulnerable and understanding, as well as voicing one’s unique areas of weakness, a mentor can provide a strong model of human imperfection partnered with expertise and success. This example can help a mentee build resilience and prevent imposter syndrome. 

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is very common in the medical profession and can paralyze newer veterinarians as well as experienced practitioners. The feelings of not being adequately prepared, being uniquely unqualified compared to their peers, and fear of this inadequacy being discovered lead to low confidence, failure to take risks, and the tendency to avoid situations where their performance will not immediately be perfect.

A mentor who can provide opportunities for learning that normalize the necessity for building skills with repetitive experiences minimizes the risk of adverse events through thoughtful supervision and builds confidence through a series of successful experiences of increasing difficulty. These opportunities can have a great impact on preventing imposter syndrome.

Necessary “Gatekeepering

While mentoring is generally accepted as involving lifting up new entrants to the profession, enhancing their learning, and introducing them to networks that will enhance their success, mentors are also gatekeepers, especially in the medical professions, to prevent unqualified individuals from attaining positions where they could harm patients.

This aspect of mentoring can be uncomfortable and, fortunately is not frequently called into play. However, honest conversation in these circumstances is absolutely warranted if a mentee is self-directed toward a career path for which they are obviously unsuited.

Kindness, empathy, and clarity are needed in these difficult moments. Avoiding this discomfort by judging, rejecting, or distancing from the mentee is very harmful. While candor is not easy, it is necessary. The conversation may be made easier by suggesting more appropriate opportunities for the mentee’s strengths and offering assistance in pursuing those other directions.

In Conclusion

Mentoring is a commitment of time and energy, but the satisfaction of helping create a skilled practitioner and new leader in the profession is enduring. While it can sometimes be hard to see another veterinarian’s achievements as not diminishing one’s own, overcoming this fear is one of the transformations of becoming a high-level leader. Approaching mentorship as a commitment to giving back to the profession through servant leadership can be the beginning of a life-long fulfilling journey. 

This article originally appeared at https://equimanagement.com/articles/nextgen/mentoring-new-veterinary-grads-effectively/

About the Author

Amy L. Grice, VMD, MBA

Dr. Grice was an ambulatory equine practitioner in the Hudson Valley of New York for over 25 years, serving as the managing partner of the thirteen-doctor equine referral hospital in Rhinebeck, NY. At the end of 2014, she retired from clinical practice to concentrate on veterinary business consulting, and moved her residence to Virginia City, MT. 

Dr. Grice received her BA in Biology from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and completed her veterinary education at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. She earned her MBA with a concentration in Ethical Leadership from Marist College School of Management in 2014.

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