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How mentoring works
by Dianne Gardner, School of Psychology, Massey University
About the author: Dianne Gardner is a registered psychologist and senior lecturer in industrial/organisational psychology in the School of Psychology at Massey University. She researches wellbeing and healthy work, in particular, the positive and negative outcomes that can arise from work demands. She has published papers on work–life balance, coping, resilience, generational differences at work, the role of optimism, self-esteem and social support in work-related wellbeing and stress, emotional intelligence, learning from errors, workplace bullying and the effective management of hazards at work.
Veterinary practice can be demanding as well as rewarding. Some veterinarians might feel challenged by the need to maintain their skills and competence, keep up with changes in technology, and manage everyday demands from clients, peers, managers and family. The key to effective coping and continually developing skills and expertise is to have supportive networks of people who have the time, expertise and willingness to help. Many are finding it valuable to have a mentor who can provide some of this support.
Mentoring is a relationship in which a mentor, who is usually older and more experienced, provides guidance and new learning to a less experienced mentee to help the mentee develop competence and professional effectiveness. Mentoring can be informal, in which a veterinarian identifies a mentor and establishes the relationship, or formal, as in when the Veterinary Council of New Zealand recommends or requires that a veterinarian work with a mentor to deal with personal or professional problems. Formal mentoring relationships are less common than voluntary, informal ones.
Mentoring, counselling and supervision
Mentors can provide advice, support and encouragement that is objective, non-judgemental and confidential. Mentoring is not the same as therapy or counselling: these are usually aimed at specific problems and end when the problem is resolved. Mentoring is not the same as supervision, the “monitoring of, and reporting on, the performance of a vet by another vet”, because mentoring is usually confidential and not necessarily related to professional or personal problems. While mentoring can involve problem solving or coaching, the mentor aims to help mentees build skills and solve problems for themselves rather than doing it for them.
Little research has been done into mentoring among veterinarians, but mentored professionals from other fields have been found to stay longer with their organisations, be more satisfied with their jobs, collaborate more effectively with their co-workers and be better able to adapt to workplace change. A good mentor can help mentees build professional skills and gain self-confidence – important aspects of resilience and stress management. In the long run, mentees can remain effective without the support of a mentor and may become mentors themselves.
What makes a good mentor?
The list of positive qualities required by mentors can be impressively long. Mentors should be accessible, respectful, wise, honest, trustworthy, altruistic, generous, motivating, warm, approachable, interested in their mentees, enthusiastic and experienced. They need to be able to listen and guide, deal with others’ problems, be a positive role model, challenge in a constructive way, support the development of others, and build trust and rapport. They need good professional networks, time, openness to new ideas, candour and listening and communication skills. Put more simply, mentors need strong interpersonal skills, experience, a genuine desire to be a mentor, ongoing training and support, and a mentor for themselves.
A mentor who shares the mentee’s educational background and does similar work may be best able to provide technical guidance, networking activities and learning opportunities, as long as there are no issues of competition or a conflict of interest. A mentor from the same workplace can be effective but, in general, should not be a boss or supervisor – it can be difficult to separate the developmental and supportive role of a mentor from the appraisal and performance management roles of a manager or supervisor. Someone from outside the organisation is often preferable.
What makes a good mentee?
Not everyone will want or benefit from mentoring. Factors that may stop veterinarians and veterinary students from engaging with mentors include the fear of being judged or receiving unsupportive criticism, unwillingness to acknowledge professional uncertainty to others and concerns about not having enough time or not knowing what to talk about.
Effective mentoring can help uncover a mentee’s strengths, challenges, responses to stress, coping ability, training needs, motivation, personal support networks and interests. A mentee can discuss patients, clients and situations, and learn more about their own responses, problem-solving approaches and skills development. Support and competence build confidence and a positive belief that future problems can be resolved. Over time, mentees can find they have improved interactions with their clients and reduced anxiety about work.
To gain the most from mentoring, mentees need to be open to feedback and to being challenged constructively. They must also be active partners in the mentoring relationship. Mentees gain the most when, before a mentoring session, they have thought about issues they need help with, spent time preparing their own analysis of the issues and are willing to share and discuss this analysis. Willingness to develop and act on plans for improving skills and knowledge, and a commitment to reflecting on and evaluating progress, are important.
Making mentoring work
Long working hours can be a challenge for veterinarians. Mentees need to commit time to preparation, self-reflection and professional development. Mentors need to be accessible to their mentees and to use email, online and phone contact effectively, but meetings should be face to face. Part of making the best use of limited time is being organised: plan each session, keep and review records, keep to time and make sure expectations are clear on both sides. Different mentees have different needs so negotiation is required about how long and how often to meet – anywhere between once a week and once every six weeks may be effective. Mentoring sessions require structure: preparation, an agenda, a concluding review of what was discussed, learning goals for next time and planning.
The early stages of a mentoring relationship are about building trust, which, in any relationship, takes time. Trust also requires open, honest and equal communication. Mentees can help this process by working out what they are hoping to achieve, helping to set the meeting’s agenda, coming prepared, doing the work between sessions, following up and letting the mentor know what they are doing differently as a result of the mentoring. They also need to respect the many demands on their mentors’ time and to be prepared to discuss the limits to confidentiality within the mentoring relationship.
Early on, it can be difficult for mentees to identify or discuss their real concerns, so the focus is likely to be on work or career issues. Later, as mentor and mentee learn more about each other’s capabilities and the benefits of the mentorship, there is more scope for psychosocial support such as coaching, challenging and role modelling. Over time, the mentee becomes more independent until mentoring is no longer necessary and the relationship changes to one of informal contact, mutual support and peer friendship. Veterinarians may have several mentors over their careers and, by staying in touch with them, a valuable professional network is built up.
Successful mentoring relationships show reciprocity and sharing, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connection and shared values, while failed mentoring relationships are characterised by poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, competition, conflicts of interest and the mentor’s lack of experience.
Mentors can provide an opportunity to discuss difficulties and develop a problem-solving approach without attempting to resolve mentees’ problems for them. Mentees can gain skills in dealing with problems in their personal and professional lives, identifying and managing stress and improving self-care. Mentors need training and should have mentors of their own. To be a mentor can be highly rewarding, with opportunities to learn from mentees and be part of another’s professional growth.
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Wilson, HJ (2008) The Mentoring Handbook. Otago, NZ: The University of Otago.
Veterinary Council of New Zealand (2013) Mentoring Guidelines. Wellington, NZ: Veterinary Council of New Zealand.
Straus, SE, MO Johnson, C Marquez and MD Feldman (2013) Characteristics of successful and failed mentoring relationships: A qualitative study across two academic health centers. Academic Medicine 88(1): 82–89.
Chao, GT (1997) Mentoring phases and outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior 51(1): 15–28.