Career Resources

Advice from the Experts

Experts address the professional concerns of healthcare executives.

Reed Morton
Marilyn Moats Kennedy

Q. My state hospital association has recently established a mentoring program. I am considering becoming a mentor, but before I commit, I want to be certain I have what it takes to be successful in this role. What must one do to make a mentoring relationship succeed?

Mentoring is a voluntary learning relationship in which one professional contributes to the professional development of another. When mentoring first became an accepted learning strategy in the workplace, relationships deemed “successful” were those founded on similarities between the partners. It was almost as though through the relationship, the mentor nearly produced a clone. With today’s rapid rate of change in the field, however, mentors must focus on preparing the next generation of healthcare leaders for an increasingly complex and uncertain environment.

To this end, mentors must be facilitators more than commanders. Perhaps the most important guidance mentors can offer is to ask their proteges to take responsibility for developing their own agenda and then to push it forward. Don’t try basing the relationship only on your agenda. An exemplary mentor is one who listens attentively, poses thought-provoking questions, and offers challenges. This means making yourself available during your meetings by focusing totally—intellectually and emotionally—on your protege’s needs. If you can commit yourself completely to the mentorship, you will earn the trust of your protege. And trust is the real glue of the relationship. Knowing that he or she has your confidence will give your protege room to explore without fear. To build this trust and confidence, you should reserve judgment until the appropriate time for providing feedback. Then, your feedback should be constructive, both in content and in its delivery.

The most successful mentoring partners develop clear expectations of each other. They create and adhere to a schedule of meetings that both parties treat as a priority. After establishing goals at the beginning of the relationship, they then work together to create a plan to reach those goals. For example, a protege may be reluctant to deal with conflict. The mentor may suggest ways to learn about conflict management and scenarios that might ensue from attempting to manage conflict positively. The protege can then try a new approach and debrief with the mentor on the results.

With trust in the relationship, it will be natural to establish benchmarks to gauge whether the arrangement is succeeding. For example, at your first meeting, both you and your protege should spend one minute writing an initial response to the statement, “Tell me about yourself.” At the end of your mentorship, do the same and compare your opening statement with your final one. Examine how—or if—these statements have changed and what role the mentoring relationship has played in that process. The significance of the mentorship in your experience—developing leaders for the mentor, developing as a leader for the protege—will be important information that differentiates you from other executives. You may decide at this point that you are satisfied with your accomplishments in the mentorship, or you may want to continue and redirect your plan. In this case, be prepared to be flexible. Do allow some room for discovery and change, both in the goals and the steps for achieving them.

Clarity of purpose and commitment of time and energy are the key ingredients for mentoring success. There should be no expectation that the mentor will deliver the protege a new job as part of the experience. Both parties, however, should expect that they will emerge with greater insight into how to lead and how to develop new leaders. Remember, organizations succeed when colleagues behave as leaders even without holding formal leadership positions.

Q. My boss recently retired, and I was her designated successor. She had held the job for 20 years and developed a huge organizationwide network. She could call on almost anyone for a favor. My peers are now my subordinates, and they are not responding with much enthusiasm. How can I take control of the job and overcome the inevitable round of comparisons?

Before this litany becomes your eulogy, count your assets. Your new boss obviously believes you can do the job. Don’t even hear those who say you got the job because you outlasted the other candidates, would work cheap, or were a favorite. Instead:

Partner with your boss. You require his/her back-up and support while you take control. Even if your former boss told you everything he/she thought you needed to know before retiring, only your new boss can give you the power to do the job. Don’t even consider running to your old boss with questions and problems; you’ll convince your subordinates that the job’s too much of a stretch. Present your priorities in writing to your new boss. List deadlines and get his/her agreement that you’re on target. Inevitably, a newly appointed boss assumes that the higher-ups want business as usual. Not necessarily. Your current boss can now make changes and will.

Set parameters for subordinates. They expect business as usual. Imagine their surprise when you meet with each one and explain how his/her job will change. If you tell them what to expect and how to manage you, their adjustment to your style will be easier. Explain your hot buttons. Let there be no surprises. The more you share your expectations, the easier the transition.

Network. You must maintain all your ex-boss’s contacts. They need you as much as you need them. Even though you are swamped, make time for lunch and/or coffee with new peers and important support people every day. You’ll need breaks almost as much as you need contacts. Once a week have coffee or lunch with the troops. They may be feeling overwhelmed or confused, too. They will tell you so if given a chance.

Pace yourself. Don’t let the need to show you’re in control make you rush to take on too many projects. You may think that you’re under enormous pressure to produce a quick, splashy success, but most likely, this pressure is self-imposed. Your boss probably has a more humane, reasonable timetable.

Correct mistakes immediately. The essence of control is whether people do what you ask. If you announce changes in process, output, or content, and someone continues in the old ways, explain again what you expect and then ask, “Can you live with it?” If the person agrees, that problem will not arise again. You may find one or two people who will tell you quite candidly that they don’t want to change and are looking for new opportunities inside and outside. Give them your blessing and assistance.

Shirk the border wars. Your new peers are as curious as your subordinates to find out what you’re made of. A group of managers who are pressing a particular issue may see you as an ally who could tip the balance in their favor. Avoid them and their cause unless death from extreme stress is your first goal. The first rule of peer relationships is to keep them at arm’s length until you have control of your job.

Keep your sense of humor. Even if every nerve ending in your body is tingling on red alert, don’t let it show. A subordinate who calls you by the old boss’s name should be subject to the dog bite rule. One bite is allowed, the second will be punished. If you’re left out of a meeting, don’t obsess. Watch to see that it doesn’t happen again.

Both large and small organizations loathe change. The infrastructure had 20 years to become accustomed to your boss; give it at least three months to adjust to you.

Marilyn Moats Kennedy
Managing Partner
Career Strategies

This article is reprinted from Healthcare Executive.