For a young practitioner, the road to crafting a professional identity and building an ideal career is often littered with challenges. There are moments of self-doubt, ambiguity, and change. This dynamic process is necessary and important to discovering a career path that will lead to fulfillment and growth. One of the most effective methods for helping ease the tumult is having a mentor to guide, advise, and offer the benefit of perspective.
Effective mentorship has been shown to be pivotal in the development and success of professionals—regardless of industry. Different mentorship studies have shown improvement in job satisfaction,1 quality of leadership, efficacy of protocols, and even health-care outcomes.2
Mentoring programs for health-care providers have been created to increase sustainability and continuity in care. For example, this has been done for providers who treat underserved populations in rural America and underdeveloped nations.3 In both situations, mentors have helped less experienced practitioners balance the unique challenges of practicing. This includes managing limitations in access to specialists and health-care services, handling an increased scope of practice, and coping with feelings of isolation.
But mentorship is not for rural practitioners exclusively. Dentists in any situation, and arguably in any stage of their careers, can benefit from the guidance of someone who has traveled the path before.
What makes mentorship effective?
There are specific elements that create an effective mentoring relationship—as those of us who have experienced poor relationships with mentors know. This boils down to two main factors: the compatibility of the two individuals4 and the alignment of their experiences and goals.5
Having a mentor and mentee who have compatible personalities helps build rapport and creates a sense of psychological safety for the mentee. This helps form value for both individuals. However, having matching personalities is not enough. The path the mentor has traveled and the goals of the mentee must align well enough so that there is a shared experience that the mentee can benefit from.
How do you find the right mentor?
One of the biggest mistakes young professionals make is to search for or decide upon one mentor who will suit every need. This approach to professional growth is short-sighted. It is unrealistic to expect one mentor to be able to guide a young dentist through all of the challenges that a professional career may bring—and to have the time to do so. It is better to have three to five mentors to call upon when questions arise and be able to funnel them to the correct mentor based on expertise.
If you are a young dentist, a productive way to assess how many mentor relationships you should seek and foster is to do a needs-based assessment. Write down your career goals over the course of the next year, five years, and 10 years. Then make another list of the resources you will need to accomplish those goals. Where are your blind spots? What information do you need to learn to make your goals a reality? What are the weaknesses you will need to address to achieve your goals? Creating this list should then show gaps in knowledge. Each gap can then be addressed by a different mentor.
For example, if you seek to open your own practice in the next two years but learn that one of your biggest gaps is business acumen, you should search for an appropriate mentor. Perhaps this is a dentist who owns his or her own business—or perhaps not a dentist at all. The mentor should be able to direct you to resources that will teach you how to read a P&L, help you learn about hiring and firing techniques, and give you books about leadership that will help you develop. If this individual ends up being someone who is not a dentist—such as a small retail business owner or someone outside of dentistry with an MBA—you will also need to seek out a dentist who can address problems related to the dental business specifically.
One of the greatest things about of having multiple mentors is the added benefit of multiple sources of accountability. If you create robust and meaningful partnerships with your different mentors and are effective in communicating your expectations and goals, you can truly build a team of people who can collaborate with you to pave your way to success. Multiple mentors will address blind spots from different perspectives, and their collective advice can be more efficient in creating a comprehensive and accurate worldview.
How do you build robust mentorships?
The most common challenge for mentoring-based relationships to overcome is that of sustainability. Many mentorships start off strong, especially if forged by external factors, such as formalized programs from work or organizations. But like most relationships, without an effort and a plan, even the mentorships with the best intentions can fizzle out quickly. How can you avoid this common pitfall?
Creating sustainable mentorships is doable with some intentionality. At the onset of any mentoring relationship, the first meeting should be used to communicate needs, outline expectations, and define goals. Investing time to do this is crucial to ensure that both individuals gain as much value as possible. A plan for a long-term partnership should be created. Many mentees show up to the first coffee meeting with a blank piece of paper and an open mind. Although both are valuable tools, this approach of “I am ready” is not only impractical, it’s ineffective. Young mentees need to realize that the onus of creating value is in the hands of the mentee, not the mentor. Communicating needs and reasonable expectations is an absolute must for a strong mentorship.
The mentee should initiate a conversation that clearly defines how often he or she will be reaching out and what the best resources are that the mentor can offer. What are the specific goals of the professional? How will the mentor provide guidance? What does each individual need to accomplish in order to feel that this is a productive working relationship?
What should you focus on to create value?
Professional identity—As new dentists, we often believe we know what we want from our careers: owning our own practices, having the right practice modality, seeing ideal patient populations, etc. But these elements are dynamic and dependent on who we are as individuals and doctors. The first five years of a health-care professional’s life should be heavily focused on finding and defining professional identity. Consider questions such as these:
• Who do I want to help?
• What do I want my legacy to be?
• What things need to happen in order for me to find fulfillment in my work?
• What problems do I want to solve as a result of my life’s work?
We are often so focused on finding the right job or paying off school debt that we do not look at our careers this discerningly, and thereby we do ourselves a disservice. Finding a mentor who can help us address these questions, and more importantly, coach us to make life and career choices at the direction of the answers, is a powerful tool in finding fulfillment in our careers.
Guiding continuing education and development—Your commitment to a health-care profession makes you a lifelong learner. But oftentimes, and especially just as we exit formal schooling, continuing education can be daunting. The investment alone is enough to deter us. Finding the right mentor who can recommend courses, help identify gaps in our knowledge, and craft an intentional learning plan can be pivotal to success.
Career pathway decisions—In the first five to 10 years of practice, it seems that change is a constant. We are working new jobs, discovering new practice opportunities, and exploring new paths that will shape our professional lives. Having a seasoned practitioner who knows your values, understands your goals, and serves as a sounding board during times of pivotal decisions is crucial. It can add an element of intention to your career that will result in faster development and greater satisfaction.
1. Walensky RP, Kim Y, Chang Y, et al. The impact of active mentorship: Results from a survey of faculty in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. BMC Med Educ. 2018;18(1). doi:10.1186/s12909-018-1191-5
2. Feyissa GT, Balabanova D, Woldie M. How effective are mentoring programs for improving health worker competence and institutional performance in Africa? A systematic review of quantitative evidence. J Multidiscip Healthc. 2019;12(5):989-1005. doi:10.2147/jmdh.s228951
3. Rohatinsky N, Udod S, Anonson J, Rennie D, Jenkins M. Rural mentorships in health care: Factors influencing their development and sustainability. J Contin Educ Nurs. 2018;49(7):322-328. doi:10.3928/00220124-20180613-08
4. Hawkins J. Mentorship: The heart and soul of health care leadership. J Healthc Leadersh. 2010:2010(2):31-34. doi:10.2147/jhl.s7863
5. Schrubbe KF. Mentorship: A critical component for professional growth and academic success. J Dent Educ. 2003;68(3):234-238.