You know your career aspirations and can imagine yourself accomplishing your goals in the future — but the path to get there isn’t always so clear.
This is why mentorship is important. An experienced mentor can help you navigate the steps between where you are and where you want to be.
“I would encourage everyone to seek a mentor, regardless of your stage of career. Everyone needs a mentor,” says Nisha Bansal, MD, MS, the chair of the Department of Medicine Mentorship Committee.
What is (and isn’t) mentorship?
Mentorship means different things to different people but, in essence, it’s a relationship between two people in which one supports and encourages the other as they work toward their goals.
“A mentor is somebody who is there to advise, guide and share knowledge and experience to help and support personal and professional career development,” Bansal says.
During mentorship, the pair meet to discuss the mentee’s short- and long-term goals. The mentor can share their experience handling different work and life situations, help brainstorm ideas, and provide feedback and direction.
The mentee gains an ally in navigating work and life endeavors, opportunities to grow, and improved work and life satisfaction. The mentor strengthens their leadership skills, grows through self-reflection and gains a sense of fulfillment in giving back and supporting more junior workers.
While a mentor provides career advice and guidance, it’s worth noting they generally aren’t someone who can give you a promotion or new job.
“It’s important to distinguish between a mentor and a sponsor,” Bansal says. “A mentor talks with you; a sponsor talks about you to others.”
How do you find the right mentor for you?
When thinking about who you want as your mentor, it helps to consider what you are hoping to get out of the relationship.
While a more experienced mentor will have extensive workplace and life knowledge, a near-peer mentor (or someone close to your age or position) may also be valuable as they may be able to advise on challenges you are facing since they have more recently navigated those hurdles themselves.
Either way, a good mentor will be accessible, nonjudgmental, candid and eager to listen and help. You are looking for someone who is a role model to you and who also has the time and flexibility in their schedule to meet on a regular basis.
You may also want to consider a mentor with a similar identity, Bansal says. For example, if you are a new mom who is returning to the office, you might seek a mentor who can speak to challenges like pumping at work or handling childcare with work responsibilities.
“People may also seek mentors who look like you or have the same beliefs, struggles or life experiences. It also makes you feel more a part of the community,” Bansal says.
How do you establish a mentorship relationship?
“There are formal and informal ways to get a mentor,” says Jonathan Newman, a consultant in Organization Development and Training at UW Medicine.
Formal mentorship programs pair you with a mentor based on your interests and goals. These programs are often run through work or professional associations, but you can also speak with your supervisor or department leadership to help you find a mentor.
When it comes to informal mentorship, Newman notes three main steps: form a relationship, ask the person if they are willing to mentor you (making clear this opportunity is optional) and take initiative to begin meeting.
Forming the relationship might come naturally via working with a more senior member in your field, but if you don’t work with your desired mentor, you can reach out and ask for an informational interview.
Once you’ve established a relationship, it’s time to make the ask. Be direct about your desire for mentorship and state your expectations. It also helps to let the individual know this isn’t an obligation, as this can take some of the pressure off if they do not have the capacity to mentor.
For example, you might say something like, “I really admire you and I think you could offer me sage advice, and I’d be honored if you would consider mentoring me. If you’re willing to mentor me, I’d love to meet once a month for an hour to discuss my goal to specialize in cardiac surgery.”
By clearly stating what you hope to get out of the mentorship and how often you would like to meet, you’ll ensure that you and your mentor start on the same page.
4 ways to be a good mentee
While asking for a mentor can be nerve-wracking, the real work lies in maintaining the relationship. Here’s how to make life easier for your mentor and ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial.
Know your goals
“Mentees should know their goals and have a vision or strategic direction of where they want to go with their career,” Newman says.
As the mentee, you should lead the conversations and set the meeting agenda based on what advice you are seeking and what goals you are trying to achieve. To help set concrete plans, try setting SMART goals, which are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound.
As with all relationships, one of the most important factors in successful mentorship is communication.
Establish up front how often you and your mentor will meet and how you will communicate, be it email, in person, or via phone or video chat.
It’s also important to foster honest, respectful and vulnerable communication. This means that both you and your mentor are comfortable sharing your stories as well as receiving feedback.
One way to make things easier on your mentor is to take initiative when it comes to logistics and organization.
Find a place and time that works for both of you to meet, then manage any calendar invites, video meeting links and reminders.
It goes without saying, but thanking your mentor shows you appreciate their help.
At the end of any sessions or meetings, thank your mentor for their time and any advice they provided.
Mentorship at UW Medicine
No matter what stage you are in your career, having a mentor can help you grow as a person and an employee, whether it’s providing insight on entering a profession or assistance with managing employees.
And there are plenty of potential mentors right here at UW Medicine.
In Bansal’s experience, the UW and UW Medicine community is supportive, and people are willing to give their time to help mentor others.
“It is a joy to mentor. I’m somebody who is mentored as well as serve as a mentor, and it’s really one of the best parts of my job,” she says.
Interested in formal mentorship? Talk with your department about what mentorship programs and opportunities are available.
Stay tuned for more how-tos and our upcoming article on how to practice active listening.