On Mentoring

Article Citation:

Timothy M. Sullivan (2017) On Mentoring. Journal of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation: Fall/Winter 2017, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 92-93.


Timothy M. Sullivan, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Minneapolis Heart Institute® at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Minneapolis, MN

Address for correspondence:
Timothy M. Sullivan, MD
Minneapolis Heart Institute®
920 E 28th Street #300
Minneapolis, MN 55407

E-mail: Timothy.Sullivan@allina.com

As I become a more “senior” or “mature” surgeon (read: old), I find that one of the most enjoyable, and sometimes most challenging, parts of my job is to mentor younger surgeons. It’s become a major focus of mine, my fellow senior surgeons, of our section of vascular surgery, and many of the specialty sections within the Minneapolis Heart Institute®. While our junior colleagues come out of residency and fellowship training with a wealth of cutting-edge knowledge about a wide variety of cardiovascular diseases, most are still pretty “green”, and need time to develop the confidence and behavior necessary to become successful in their chosen fields. This not only involves achieving confidence in their technical prowess (for proceduralists), but perhaps more importantly learning how to conduct oneself in the operating theater and how to interact with colleagues in a professional and respectful way, especially in the face of adversity and stress. For me, the journey to becoming a mentor has had its ups and downs, and I’ve learned a great deal about myself and my leadership style along the way—and have had to make some changes as I’ve gone along. Here are some of the “top 10” lessons that I’ve learned along the way:

1. Being a mentor takes time and commitment. An effective mentor must be willing to invest the time necessary to help a junior partner through the process, which can be taxing on days that are already overburdened with clinical and administrative duties.
2. It takes 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that for most individuals, it takes about that long to develop true expertise in a specialized field. As I look back at my career, and doing some rough math, those hours were accumulated during 7 years of surgical training and about 4 years of practice. At that point, I (sometimes mistakenly) thought that I could handle just about any situation, no matter how complex or dire. Be prepared for the process to take years; have a plan.
3. Sublimate your ego. Being a good mentor requires you to work with the mentee in a way that’s different than with a student or resident; the mentee is now your partner, your equal, and should be treated as such. Your ultimate goal should be to shape and develop junior staff who will become better than you, which requires setting your ego aside when they ultimately do.
4. Be patient. While you may think that you were the second coming of Michael Debakey when you finished your training, if you’re honest with yourself, you also needed some mentoring, made some mistakes, and took a while to mature into the physician/surgeon that you are today. Don’t rush the process. It takes time to unfold.
5. Willingness on both sides. It’s important to reach out and offer your help, but some may not willing to take it—or may need a different mentor, based on abilities and personalities. The mentee has to be willing to accept your help; don’t force it.
6. Timing is everything. While being a mentor for clinical and technical skills seems pretty straightforward, doing so for leadership is a different kettle of fish. Don’t assume that the mentee wants to follow your path, and be sensitive to timing. Most surgeons want to operate, especially during their early years (to accumulate the 10,000 hours toward true expertise). Don’t rush the path to leadership.
7. Let your values be your guide. Be consistent in following your values on a daily basis; they will almost certainly “rub off” on your junior colleagues. Don’t hesitate to tell your mentee the values you hold dear. Mine include: honesty, integrity, and personal accountability. I fall short most days, but I strive to walk the walk.
8. It’s the journey that’s important. There will be stumbles along the way, sometimes requiring a reset—by both parties. Patience… Time… Perseverance… You’ll learn along the way that it’s a two-way street, and that you’ll learn as much from your junior colleagues as they do from you.
9. Money in the bank. When my three boys were very young, I wanted to get them interested in fishing—one of my favorite pastimes. For many years, it was the four of us in a 12-foot aluminum boat, and I hardly wet a line during that time (I was mostly untangling lines and resolving disputes). Years later, it’s one of our favorite things to do together, probably because I took the time when they were young to get them interested. Mentoring and raising kids have some parallels.
10. The greater good. Developing highly competent, compassionate, and effective physicians elevates the organization and secures the future for your individual section. Leave a legacy.

I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but have absolutely enjoyed the journey. Take the time to be a mentor; the rewards will be incredible.

Suggested Reading
1.Stoddard DA. Tamasy RJ.The Heart of Mentoring: Ten Proven Principles for Developing People to Their Fullest Potential. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress;2003. [Google Scholar]
2.Maxwell JC.Mentoring 101. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books;2008. [Google Scholar]
3.Gladwell M.The ethnic theory of plane crashes. In Gladwell M.Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company; 2008: [Google Scholar]

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