Jonathan Shap

Many organizations support mentoring in theory, but far too few have a formal program in place.

In fact, executives tend to rely on informal networks of well-intentioned and helpful individuals who are often ill-equipped to serve in either mentoring or protégé roles. Unfortunately, senior executives and up-and-coming potential future leaders then miss out on what could be the most critical and rewarding element of their career success.

The decisions made early in a career will set an individual on a track that can be difficult to reverse or change later. For this reason, I knew it would be important to surround myself with people who would help guide me down the right path as I looked to become a leader in acute care hospital operations and management. I decided to develop relationships with two professional mentors who would be able to guide me based on their proven experience and wisdom.

The Importance of a Mentor's Perspective

I chose two mentors because I wanted to receive more than one perspective, including viewpoints from inside and outside my organization and from both a male and a female. Their differing perspectives have helped me to craft my decisions and career choices. Ironically, these two very different people have given me similar advice and guidance.

When looking for a career mentor, my main focus was to find someone who had a proven track record in health care, had made it to the top of his or her field, and held positions similar to what I was aspiring to.

Having an external mentor has allowed me to see outside the organizational culture. A person who is just beginning his or her career typically lacks the experience to appreciate or understand whether what is considered normal within his or her organization is also normal for the industry. An external mentor can help one see the broad picture. On the other hand, an internal mentor can give insight into the inner workings, politics, culture, and connections within the organization. He or she can provide specific information on job-related questions, internal networking, and political sensitivities.

I avoided having an internal mentor who had direct input on my annual evaluations. The mentor needed to be a neutral party so that I could speak openly with him.

Again, although I have learned from the different perspectives of both of my mentors, they have given me a lot of similar advice. And hearing the same comments from both of them has reinforced the importance of the advice. They have both stressed the importance of understanding my personal work habits and preferences and making sure that my career path aligns with them. There is no sense in developing a career path that does not fit with one's personal strengths and preferences. Both mentors have had me complete self-reflection exercises and asked me to consider how the information disclosed through those exercises fits with my chosen career path.

Both mentors have suggested that if I focus on my personal strengths within my work environment, my career will prosper. Although this advice seems elementary, it really hit home when they told me what it has meant for them in their careers. My mentors have also stressed the importance of continuing my education and building upon my skill set. This guidance motivated me to attend a two-year executive MBA program at Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business.

The Importance of Networking

Another advantage I have gained from my mentoring relationships is the ability to broaden my network. Both mentors have stressed getting my name out in the workplace and in the community. They have told me to perform my job at 100 percent, and then go find another 50 percent to devote to something else in the company or community. Deliver on what you say you will do, and then exceed expectations. Volunteer for every opportunity that opens-if the opportunity aligns with your strengths and interests.

Make sure to get your name in front of as many people as possible so as doors open, you are remembered. It's not about whom you know, but who knows and remembers you. My mentors have been great at introducing me to people in the community, including former colleagues of theirs with other healthcare organizations, community business leaders, and local philanthropists.

Because of this advice and the resulting connections, I recently became involved with a major not-for-profit community organization in Baltimore. I am employing my skill set and background to provide recommendations that will not only help the organization, but also provide better care for the community.

My mentors also have stressed the importance of building relationships within my organization. Based on this counsel, I recently formed a group of a dozen young professionals from across the organization to meet once a month to discuss internal/external topics. We plan to work with hospital administration on leadership topics, such as generational differences in the workplace, social networking within an organization, and offering our input/views on requested topics. But what I have found to be most beneficial is having a community of like-minded peers at work with whom I am able to informally share and brainstorm ideas.

Through my mentoring experiences, I have also learned how to make the most of the time with my mentors. The relationship does not have to be formal, but it is important to have an agenda for each meeting, to follow up on the last meeting's topics, and to discuss progress. I have met with each mentor on average once every two months, and we communicated by e-mails and phone calls in between. Communication has been honest and open in both directions. The relationships will start to blossom once you are able to discuss topics openly, and receive the constructive feedback or advice you may not have gotten otherwise.

The Rewards of Mentoring

I have gained more than I expected through having these two mentors. Mentors are glad to share their wisdom and advice, and I am glad to listen, absorbing the information like a sponge. I was once told the best people to learn from are the people who have been there, done that, and done it well. No matter how much I read or study in textbooks, the impact of the grounded, basic, real-life advice from my mentors has been incomparable.

Jonathan Shap is an operations consultant, Lifebridge Health, Baltimore (jshap1@jhu.edu).

Publication Date: Thursday, July 01, 2010

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