Successful Mentoring Relationships: Avoiding the Steamy Piles of Life

By Joe Thomas, Emergency Medicine Resident, PGY 1, Mayo School of Graduate Medical Education

As a child on our rural Kentucky farm, I remember spending my summers walking step by step with my grandfather through our pasture. One warm summer day with my flip flops on, I remember him telling me to walk behind him to avoid all the fresh, steamy piles of manure. Like many young boys, I thought I knew more so I ran ahead. And then, splat. I felt the warmth of something between my toes. With a smile and a chuckle, my grandfather told me for the first of many times, “If you’ll learn from the successes and failures of others, you won’t have to feel the crap between your toes.”

From my relationships with my grandfather and father, I realized the importance of mentors. My most rewarding mentoring relationships have involved reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, and personal connections, the same characteristics that Straus and colleagues found characterized successful mentoring relationships in their study published in the January issue. Of the fifteen plus mentoring relationships I have had and continue to have, none were formalized programs. They all developed out of mutual interest in an initial goal, idea, or project.

As a first year medical student, I was very passionate about the social determinants of health and the underrepresented students from our state at our medical school. I mentioned this interest to our associate dean of admissions.  Given our mutual interest, she asked me to work with her to develop a program to meet the needs of these students. From that moment, she took me under her wing. We wrote grants for funding, developed strategies to evaluate our program, and presented our work at national meetings and distributed it in academic journals. After this initial project, she would invite me to join other initiatives at our institution and national organizations. When I came up with new ideas, she would help me develop my thoughts. Then, she would introduce me to people at our institution and other institutions to help facilitate my goals. Until that relationship, I never had an interest in academic medicine. Due to her influence, I have built a tool box of skills that will be vital to my success as an academician. When you start at a common place with clearly defined goals, you avoid what Straus and colleagues identified as the characteristics of failed mentor-mentee relationships: poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, and competition.

As exceptional as my mentor is, she is not able to fulfill all my needs. At times, many people try to find the uomo universal, the universal man, or mentor in this case. In high school, college, medical school, and now residency, I have sought three to five mentors at each stage. Each has a unique set of skills, experiences, or interests. As an emergency medicine intern, I have an early career, mid career, and late career mentor with interests in education, health policy, administration, and research. Each brings a unique perspective to the goals and objectives I have for my career.

Finally, in all my mentor-mentee relationships, I have been the driver. Every time I have approached a faculty member with a project that has clearly defined goals, objectives, plans, and endpoints, I have never been turned down. Ultimately, I am the product of the time, energy, and passion my mentors have invested in me. I will forever be indebted to them for their help in avoiding the “steamy piles” of life.

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One Comment

  1. Kemi Tomobi
    March 21, 2013 at 4:09 PM

    What a great piece. I have found that the mentoring relationships formed around common interests and goals fared much better than those that did not take those 2 factors into consideration.  I found this to be true, whether the mentoring was pre-arranged or much less formal.  I am glad that the successful mentoring relationships exposed the physician to pursue academic medicine, a career path not previously considered.

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