What doctors really want from their mentors

Mentorship is one of the most valuable experiences available to doctors in leadership positions. Unfortunately, those leadership positions don't come with manuals on mentorship, and the weight of a mentee's expectations can feel heavy if you're not sure what they need. It doesn't have to be that way, though. I recently spoke with three dentists at Aspen Dental-branded practices, discussing their experiences both as mentees and mentors. Those conversations converged on a few important insights about what doctors are looking for in their mentors.

Communication is the foundation for success

You can't have a great relationship with your mentee if you're not able to communicate. However, there's more to communication than the occasional email. Demonstrating that you are open to having a conversation about whatever the mentee might need to discuss can go a long way toward building comfort in the relationship.

Availability goes hand-in-hand with openness — your mentee needs to know you will be there for them when they need you. "In a mentor, I look for somebody I can call at any time of the day. I don't like feeling like a burden, and it's hard for me to ask for help. Having someone there for me when I need them, who doesn't judge me and who acts like a confidante, is the ideal mentor," said Amber Arshad, DDS, a managing clinical director in Texas.

Establish clear lines of communication so your mentee knows they can come to you when they need advice or support. As Nathalia Rodriguez, DMD, a doctor-owner in Texas, said, "In a mentor, I need someone I can have open communication with and be able to work towards developing each other. That trusting, caring relationship is really important."

Honesty is a necessity

The best relationships are built on honesty, but being honest can be difficult when you have to tell your mentee something they don't want to hear. "The most important thing I look for in a mentor is honesty. A mentor needs to be able to say, 'This is going to be hard, but here's what you have to do to get through it,'" said Kim Greene, DMD, a doctor-owner in New Jersey.

You might be tempted to shy away from those tough conversations, but don't. As Dr. Greene said, "We all come out of dental school with a bit of an ego, and nobody wants to be critiqued. When I first got out of dental school, I was confident with restorative dentistry, but shaky with extractions, so I made sure to find mentors who could guide me toward removing a tooth without panicking." By finding mentors who could not only assess her strengths and weaknesses but also help her improve, Dr. Greene grew rapidly in her career.

Doctors don't want you to sugarcoat the truth. When you do, you're not doing them a favor or being kind to spare their feelings — you're preventing them from growing. When you're transparent about what your mentee needs to improve, you do your mentee a great service. Build your mentee's confidence by praising their strengths, and build it even further by identifying their weaknesses so they can do the work necessary to improve.

Maximize growth with "reverse mentorship"

Although you are likely in a leadership position as a mentor, the mentorship relationship works best when both parties are treated as equals. As Dr. Arshad said, "In the best mentor/mentee relationship, there's no one in a superior or inferior position. We're just colleagues who talk through cases together and give each other feedback." When you approach your mentee as an equal, they feel more comfortable coming to you with their concerns and questions. Doctors want their mentors to be safe harbors — places where they can feel secure and heard without judgment.

Treating your mentee as a colleague is the cornerstone of what I call "reverse mentorship." Reverse mentorship means learning from everyone around you, no matter their position or experience level. As doctors, we can get stuck in our ways, but by embracing the idea of reverse mentorship and that our mentees are capable of teaching us, we have the opportunity for immense growth — and that's an opportunity we should never pass up.

As a mentor, you have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share with your mentee, but that doesn't mean you have all the answers. Dr. Rodriguez explained, "I don't need a mentor who has all the answers, but if they don't know something, it's important they can guide me to
another person who does."

Above all, remember this: More than anything, your mentee needs openness, honesty and trust. When you approach your mentorship like a partnership where the two of you can work to help the other grow and develop, you'll both be set up for continued success.

Arwinder Judge, DDS, is chief clinical officer for Chicago-based Aspen Dental, where he's responsible for developing, implementing and leading programs that support the dentists who own and operate Aspen Dental-branded practices.

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