Disclosures: Petrelli reports no relevant financial disclosures.
October 28, 2020
3 min read

So, you want to be a mentor?

Disclosures: Petrelli reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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Mentorship is defined as the guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution.

Usually, one describes the three ‘C’s of mentorship.

Businessman supporting paper cut out of a man climbing stairs.
Source: Adobe Stock.

The first is consultant, which is the most obvious role for a mentor.

The second is counselor, where listening is critical. I have a tough time with role No. 2, because listening is not my forte, although I am learning humble inquiry in baby steps.

Humble inquiry is the gentle art of asking rather than telling. Those of you who know me can see why I need baby steps for that.

Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, FACS
Nicholas J. Petrelli

The third role is cheerleader. In addition to all the constructive feedback and advice that a mentor can give, it is important to provide support and enthusiasm. I don’t like the word cheerleader, but this role is essential.

Phases of mentorship

Successful mentoring relationships encompass four phases: preparation, negotiation, encouragement and closure. I disagree with the fourth phase of closure, especially in the field of medicine. I think it is important to have a mentor throughout one’s medical career. I had a mentor who mentored me for 22 years during my full-time academic career. When I left to become medical director at my present institution, he continued to mentor me — and did so until he died several years ago.

There is great value in mentoring not only during a young physician/investigator’s training period, but also throughout his or her professional and private life. Nothing supplants experience and giving advice based on mistakes I have made in my career, which are many. Learning from my mistakes makes the mentee a better individual, both professionally and personally.

Like my oncology colleagues, I have mentored many residents, students and surgical fellows. I see my former fellows at surgical oncology meetings, and it’s not uncommon for us to sit down and for me to offer continued advice about their careers. As the mentorship relationship grows with age it can be a two-way street, with the mentor learning from the mentee. This is probably one of the most satisfying aspects of mentorship.

Elements of good mentors

Good mentors are interested in helping someone else without any official award in return. Outstanding mentors want to see mentees succeed. They put their egos to the side.

The best mentors have a deep knowledge of the expertise that the mentee wishes to develop. However, I have seen mentors in medical oncology — including HemOnc Today’s Chief Medical Editor for Oncology, Derek Raghavan, MD, PhD — be excellent mentors to fellows in surgical oncology. Sometimes a perspective outside of the mentee’s area of expertise can be effective. It allows the mentee to understand that the issues he or she may experience are not limited to his or her specialty.

A critical element of mentoring is education in time management. A time management discussion and plan can come from any mentor specialist. I’ve never seen a medical oncologist mentor at 7 a.m. That would surely prompt a raised eyebrow from Dr. Raghavan and a diplomatic email.

Speaking of 7 a.m. reminds me of one recent example that demonstrates the importance of instilling motivation in the mentee. I was working on a manuscript with one of our surgical residents and a meeting was called for 7 a.m. The resident was late and ended up phoning in. I reminded him about time management. He apologized and said he was in Hawaii. I asked if he was on vacation, because that would certainly demonstrate motivation. He said he was on his honeymoon.

Hawaii is 6 hours behind the East Coast, so he was calling at 1 a.m. on his honeymoon. That is motivation.

‘The other side of the coin’

The affirmative aspects of mentorship that I have emphasized clearly are crucial. However, what I have learned from Dr. Raghavan in our years working together is the value of what he calls “tough love.” This is the other side of the coin in mentorship, where constructive but clearly defined negative criticism has a useful and positive impact. We can both attest to that fact.

In closing, it is important to mention that despite efforts on both sides, sometimes the mentee/mentor relationship just doesn’t work. It’s rare, but recognizing it is critical rather than spinning one’s wheels.

A quote by Tyler Perry, the American playwright, actor, screenwriter, producer and director sums it up best:

“There are some folks you can talk to until you're blue in the face — they're never going to get it and they're never going to change. But every once in a while, you'll run into someone who is eager to listen, eager to learn and willing to try new things. Those are the people we need to reach. We have a responsibility as parents, older people, teachers, people in the neighborhood to recognize that.”

Take care and stay safe.

For more information:

Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, FACS, can be reached at npetrelli@christianacare.org.