Leadership Series 2: Mentoring Matters

It is impossible to have a conversation about maximizing one’s leadership effectiveness and bringing out the best in yourself and others without considering the profound impact and benefits of mentoring relationships.  In my formative and adult years, I have served as both a “mentor” and the “mentee” in this informal and long-term, two-way relationship.  Typically, mutual respect and admiration exists before a mentoring relationship begins and it is maintained and strengthened throughout the mentoring process.  This special bond can transcend age, experience, success, title, and career path.

At its core, a mentor serves as a selfless and trusted advisor. It is about making ourselves available to support and counsel someone, delivering advice in a way that speaks to the individual, and always keeping the mentee’s best interest in mind. Becoming an effective mentor requires flexibility in our own learning, communication and teaching styles so we can adapt to what the mentee will understand and value. Ideally to maximize the benefits of mentoring, it is helpful when the mentor and mentee bring different perspectives and personality preferences to the table.

Thinking back on my early years, I looked to both my father and martial arts instructor as role models.  Without realizing it, these two men, whom I deeply respected and admired, represented my first experience with mentors. It also proves the point that anyone can be an inspiration and a mentor without even knowing it.  These “life mentors” were instrumental in developing my core values such as integrity, responsibility, discipline, loyalty, honesty, and service to others. A love for teaching was also ingrained in me by these mentors. My father taught me the importance of caring for others before oneself. He reiterated the message of “not seeking credit for what you do since it undermines the real purpose of doing good in the first place.” Master Kang taught me the importance of knowing your individual strengths and weaknesses to help build confidence and character. He also conveyed “the best way to learn something is to teach it.” Their counsel enabled me to go well beyond my innate abilities.

In addition to life mentors, I am fortunate to have been surrounded over the years by many “peer mentors” from both within and outside the institutions where I was affiliated.  These mentors have shown me the ropes, advised me on how to better work towards specific goals, provided support when I took steps forward and also backwards, and counseled me on organizational best practices for engaging people to get things done. In these interactions, I welcomed honest feedback and took advice seriously but never personally, thereby encouraging constructive mentorship.

Renowned leadership expert and author John Maxwell famously shared, “One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” I couldn’t agree more and this certainly applied to my journey in choosing a career path.

One “career mentor” in particular stands out, Dr. Qais Al-awqati of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, a truly gifted physician and person who helped me to envision my future as a “physician scientist.” At the time, this option was not a common career path. What I recall most about Dr. Al-awqait was his patience in listening to my ramblings and naïve perspectives.  By asking questions and providing feedback, he helped provide clarity on the direction to pursue and instilled confidence in trusting my own decisions. My biggest takeaway is how he made me feel empowered during the mentoring process which is something I always try to emulate.

In my current role overseeing my MD Anderson research lab, I mentor several dozen team members to accelerate their overall scientific knowledge and provide guidance in their career and professional development. Often with younger and new individuals joining our team, I help them gain organizational skills as well as navigate social interactions required to succeed in cancer research, a field that is both fiercely competitive and high collaborative.

Whether it is in the Lab, with others in healthcare, or even with family and friends, I find myself passing down what I was privileged to learn from my many life, peer and career mentors.  In each of these experiences, what is especially rewarding is the satisfaction of helping others learn and enabling them to grow in confidence and self-esteem. This reciprocal quality of the mentoring relationship also gives one, the mentor, an opportunity to reflect, look inward and learn something new about oneself.

Based on my experience, here are some recommendations to become an effective mentor:

  • Asks probing, open-ended questions to make the mentee dig deep, reflect and think
  • Finds a way to empower the mentee in identifying choices and making their own decisions
  • Truly listens and accepts without judgment
  • Possesses the ability to read between the lines of what the mentee is saying and feeling
  • Provides objective and subjective feedback for the purpose of personal and professional growth
  • Offers encouraging words of support for progress made and lessons learned from mistakes
  • Respects privacy and gives the mentee evidence the mentor is trustworthy
  • Makes a commitment to invest the time and energy required in the mentoring relationship
  • Increases the mentee’s sense of self-worth and importance
  • Demonstrates a passion for teaching and helping others reach their full potential

More than anything, a good mentor sets an example and serves as a role model for the professional conduct and behavior that we would want to see in others.  This “leading by example” approach helps to offset the limited time available for multiple in-depth, long-term mentoring relationships.  Regardless of the success attained thus far in a person’s career, the goal is to continue to grow and maximize one’s leadership effectiveness so that it may serve as an inspiration and example for others. This is both the challenge and opportunity for me and other healthcare leaders as we strive for excellence.

Especially noteworthy is how much attention we see today in healthcare about the lack of mentorship in developing our future leaders. As the industry and our organizations become more complex, top executives can barely keep their heads above water, let alone set aside time for developing leaders entrusted in our care. Many healthcare institutions have responded to the mentorship crisis by creating formal leadership development and mentorship programs. While leadership training is certainly important, being assigned a mentor (or being assigned someone to mentor you) who you may or may not know or have experience working with isn’t true mentorship. The mutual respect, admiration and trust so crucial to an effective mentoring relationship will likely be missing in these circumstances, thus minimizing success. Mentoring relationships typically don’t work when they are formulaic and forced upon two parties.

Along these lines, a more effective mentorship strategy healthcare organizations should consider:

  • Focus on educating top executives and senior leaders on the importance and value of mentorship for others, the organization and themselves
  • Help leaders learn and practice the elements/behaviors that comprise a strong and effective mentoring relationship
  • Encourage, reward, incentivize or require leaders to set aside time for mentoring
  • Allow mentors to organically select individuals (mentees) whose performance and/or attributes have already caught their attention and where mutual respect and admiration is already in place

By reinforcing the “servant-leader” philosophy (see Striving for Excellence) that says “to whom much is given, much is expected,” mentoring fits right in as a way to give back. From my perspective, developing and mentoring others is a top leadership priority for the future of healthcare.  Plus, one cannot overstate the amazing feeling of pride and joy when someone you’ve mentored and supported becomes an impactful leader.  Anyone participating in a true mentoring relationship will benefit making this particular journey well worth the investment of time and energy.

Other Articles in the Leadership Series:

Leadership Series 1:
Striving for Excellence in Healthcare Leadership

Leadership Series 2:
Mentoring Matters

Leadership Series 3:
Achieving Success as a Biotech Leader

Leadership Series 4:
Developing and Leading High-Performing Healthcare Teams

Leadership Series 5:
Leading in a Turbulent Time

Get Insights From Ron

Sign up for the latest news and updates from Ron DePinho, MD