Although the path to career success is often rocky, if you're smart, you aren't doomed to travel it alone. With the guidance of a mentor, it's easier to stay on course and avoid professional pitfalls. Mentoring relationships are particularly meaningful in healthcare, experts say, where an experienced practitioner can give a personal boost to a new practitioner who is adjusting to the fast-paced, high-stress work of caring for patients.
"A healthcare mentor doesn't just help you advance your career; he or she also helps better prepare you to serve the public," says Zardoya Eagles, RN, a labor and delivery nurse in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and author of The Nurses' Career Guide: Discovering New Horizons in Health Care. "Mentoring takes on more importance in healthcare settings because of the human factor."
Eagles and experts from several healthcare disciplines offered these tips for new health professionals on how to find and cultivate a relationship with a mentor.
Start Your Search Early
It's never too early to start seeking out mentors, says Arlene Pietranton, CCC-SLP, PhD, chief staff officer for speech language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). You should try to connect with and observe healthcare workers who are in your field of interest before you even decide to pursue a profession, Pietranton advises. ASHA offers a program that links students to speech-language pathologists and audiologists in their communities, and some of the relationships are maintained after graduation, she says.
If you can't make a contact through a professional association, Pietranton recommends using your local phone book to identify professionals who practice in your area of interest. "Take a chance and call someone out of the blue," she says. "Chances are you will get a very warm reception."
Take the Initiative
Once you've landed your first healthcare job, start to scope out potential mentors immediately, experts say. Some healthcare employers have formal mentoring or preceptorship programs for employees. You can learn a lot from an assigned preceptor, experts say, but preceptors are usually spread exceedingly thin. Once your training is over, your preceptor will probably be assigned to someone new. Your best bet is to try to identify a potential mentor yourself. "Ideally, mentors should be selected by mentees," says registered respiratory therapist Carl P. Wiezalis, MS, a professor in the department of cardiorespiratory sciences at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University at Syracuse and past president of the American Association for Respiratory Care.
Your boss should not be your mentor, Wiezalis cautions. "It needs to be someone who is not doing your annual evaluation," he says. "It has to be someone you feel safe with and someone who won't drill you for being candid and sharing your heartfelt concerns." Your mentor should also be knowledgeable about your workplace, he says. Some organizations keep lists of people who have volunteered to serve as mentors, and you could select someone from the list. If your workplace doesn't keep a list and you haven't met anyone you think would make a good mentor, ask for suggestions from your colleagues in the human resources, staff development or education departments.
Expect Support, Not Miracles
You can expect a certain level of support and advice from a mentor, but he can't solve your problems for you. Perhaps the most valuable quality a mentor can offer is perspective, Eagles says. "A new nurse's confidence can erode quickly when bad things happen," she says. "A mentor can put the situation in perspective and let her or him know that these things happen to everyone." Through the years, a mentor can give you feedback, serve as a sounding board and identify resources that may be helpful to you, Pietranton says. "Once you're out in the real world, you'll inevitably face some challenges," she notes. "It's always great to have more seasoned folks to count on."
Cultivate the Relationship
Health professionals shouldn't be intimidated about seeking a mentor's time, but they should be organized and cognizant of their mentor's time restraints, Eagles says. She recommends that mentees put some focused energy into organizing their thoughts and concerns before talking with their mentors, so that the time is spent wisely.
Mentees can learn a lot about behind-the-scenes organizational issues and values from mentors, and the knowledge can translate into quicker promotions or better raises, Wiezalis says. Healthcare professionals are working in a feverish environment these days, he explains, and don't have much time to plot their own professional futures. "A health professional's altruism may anchor him or her down," he says. "A mentor can point out that they have an obligation to continue to grow professionally." A mentor should honestly answer such questions as "What is the informal organization of this hospital," "What does it take to be promoted here," or "What type of volunteer or committee work is valued by this institution?"
The More Mentors the Merrier
Experts stress that healthcare professionals can benefit greatly from having more than one mentor. For example, one mentor could provide expertise on clinical practice, another on research, and a third could advise on professional development or administrative issues. "Usually you find islands of excellence, and a mentee can really grow by taking the best of a collection of mentors and developing those qualities," Wiezalis says. Seek out mentors from different aspects of your job and use them to develop your support network.
Return the Favor
When a mentee becomes senior in an organization, she should consider it a responsibility to carry on the mentoring tradition. The generation of health professionals who are mentored today will be taking care of their mentors -- and the rest of the population -- in the future, notes Dot Mundy, MN, RN, professional development coordinator at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "Healthcare is a tough place to be right now," she says. "If we're going to keep competent and caring people in the field, we need to mentor them."
Mentors are often unrecognized heroes. "Many institutions are counterproductive when it comes to mentoring," he says. "They say they value mentoring, but they don't demonstrate it in raises, promotions or [a lighter] workload. Institutions should think of mentoring as significant to the attraction and retention of employees."
Mentoring should be built into the employee evaluation system, and mentors should receive tangible rewards, Wiezalis says. Rewards could range from a gift certificate or special annual dinner for mentors to discretionary salary increases, he suggests. Mentors should also receive continuing education to improve their comfort level with mentoring and their mentoring skills, he says. Most importantly, "mentors should never be punished for the time it takes them to do it," he says.