I recently had the amazing opportunity to both witness and participate in an event where my Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) pediatric mentor received a lifetime achievement award for her many years of exemplary service to the pediatric community of Southern New Jersey.
My mentor’s leadership, compassion, and dedication to serving the Latino community have set an example — not only for patients and their families but for generations of pediatricians who have come to depend on her for strong mentorship and wise guidance.
As her mentee, it was a proud moment to watch my mentor being recognized for her passion, professionalism, and endless pursuit of excellence in the field of pediatric medicine. I owe so much to her, as with each of my mentors, and I can only humbly hope to impart similar aid to those who would look to me for their type of effective leadership and encouragement.
As a mentee, I can strongly say that the time I’ve spent with my mentors has been a treasure. Throughout the years, even as I find myself transitioning between different job descriptions, positions, and roles, I have made it a point to stay in touch with my mentors.
As a mid-career professional, my personal path has me in a place where I’m being mentored, while simultaneously mentoring others. Although we are typically instructed on the importance of having and being mentors to aid our career development, I believe we often severely underestimate the impact that we, as mentees, can have on our mentors.
We can often forget, in prioritizing our personal growth, the many mutual benefits that can be realized from the mentor-mentee relationship. As I reflect upon my clinical career, I want to share my top five recommendations on how best to support, honor, and show gratitude for your mentors.
1. Never forget your previous mentors. No one has gotten to where they are in total isolation. I’ve had mentors in primary school, college, and medical school. I was mentored during residency and clinical practice while studying for my masters, even up to this very moment. I have never forgotten the counseling, support, and encouragement I’ve received through many years of study and employment.
As a fellow mentee, I encourage you to stay in touch, to let your mentors know where you are, and to remind them of the impact that their time, teaching, and overall investment have had on you, your career and your life. One of my earliest formative mentors was my college Histology professor. Although I couldn’t visit my alma mater frequently due to subsequent schooling and geographic locale, I always tried to visit or send a note sharing my progress.
I made time to express how the learning experience he provided had helped me to succeed in medical school. Eventually, much later, in fact, I was able to return to my old histology lab. I found it had been completely renovated and that my professor’s office was gone. When I inquired about him, I was told he passed away.
Although no longer with us, I still pay respect every time I visit, fondly remembering the college professor who taught me well and provided an excellent letter of reference, aiding my entrance to medical school.
2. Mentors need positive feedback. Don’t forget that mentors are human beings too and that they are extremely busy (quite possibly even busier than you are). Let them know how much you appreciate the incredibly valuable time they spend with you. As your mentor continues to excel in their career, take the time to congratulate them on their achievements, and openly acknowledge their strengths. Notice also when they struggle and never hesitate to offer a humble, helping hand. Although the symbiotic nature of the relationship will likely change with time, the strongest mentor-mentee bonds are always built on a foundation of mutual and continual learning, respect, and trust.
3. Don’t hide your failures from your mentor. My mentors consistently taught me the value of perseverance and the importance of resilience. When faced with challenges and roadblocks, I am always honest with my mentors, seeking feedback, and their honest opinion. The best mentors remember how they have faced their own challenges and celebrate with you when you overcome them, sharing in your victories. As a mentee, I avoid seeking solutions from my mentors. I have always benefited more from their constructive criticism and candid, frank discussions that are intended to help me grow in my professional journey.
4. You also have a responsibility to help and support your mentor. Mentorship is not a one-way street. As a mentee, you can also bring great value and vast resources to the relationship. Something as simple as nominating your mentor for an award, encouraging them to write an article, or recommending them for a speaker engagement can help promote your mentor’s career. Think about different ways you can support your mentor. Give back. Recommend and revere them amongst your current professional peer network, help them develop a slide deck presentation for a speaking role, or aid them in setting up or refining their online business profile.
5. Make time in your incredibly busy schedule for your mentors. Relationships take time to build. Schedule regular times to meet with your mentor and make it a priority. Once-a-month lunches, coffee, and phone calls are all examples of effective ways to maintain and continue building the type of important relationship that will impact you not only professionally. But personally. I will never forget the smile on the face of my histology professor, when I finished presenting my undergraduate senior honors thesis.
He gave me a pat on the back and told me, “My job here is done! You are ready for medical school!”
His vote of confidence was an inspiration to me, which I always called to memory when faced with the formidable challenges of achieving my doctorate. That same smile was a little bigger and a little brighter when I returned to college to inform him of my “A” in medical school histology. My updates and sincere gratitude, even during some of my “busiest stages of life,” helped my professor realize that the time he invested in his students was well worth it, and that time is the greatest gift a mentor can give their mentee.
Our mentors need to be encouraged, feel valued, and be supported. They all struggle, just like we do. We all share the experience of facing challenges and inevitable change. Learning how to cope with trials and tribulations is part of everyone’s life journey. A mentoring relationship built on mutual trust over a lifetime is invaluable. Remember, sooner rather than later, it will be you who is the mentor genuinely appreciating the support, encouragement, and gratitude of those whose lives you have poured your own life into. It may be better to give than receive, but we truly can never lose when selflessly serving and mentoring each other with integrity and a shared sense of gratitude.
In memory of Professor Dennis Smith.
Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician.
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