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Why mentorship matters

Sept. 16, 2020
Few dental professionals take advantage of one of the most effective means of professional development—each other.

Mentorship is misunderstood. It's about more than friendship, more than networking, and more than having a good working relationship. That's because more than anything, mentorship is about vulnerability and intention.

In 2019, Olivet Nazarene University published results from a mentoring survey of 3,000 Americans from 50 states and 21 different industries. They found that while 76% of working professionals believed that having a mentor was important to growth, more than 54% did not have a mentoring relationship. Why was this the case?

To answer that question, we are going to look more closely at mentoring In the coming months of the Dental Works newsletter. We’ll profile different people who serve as mentors and mentees. We'll look how this valuable partnership begins in the real world and shed light on how it can be valuable for professionals at all stages of their careers.

In this article, we begin by looking at practical advice for recent graduates, who are the most obvious mentee prospects, and how they can overcome the three main hurdles to meaningful mentorships:

  1. Knowing what you needed
  2. Identifying the right kind of mentor
  3. Making the ask

Knowing what you need

Self-awareness isn’t an easy trait to develop. Looking at your strengths and weaknesses as a health-care provider, as a colleague, as an employee, etc., can be challenging. If you have a hard time identifying your growth edges, consider looking through criteria in various job postings and asking yourself how you rate on a scale of 1 to 5 for the most sought-after traits. If you are below a 4 in any one trait, that is a growth area.

That’s just one exercise, but the takeaway is to be specific about what you need and what your goals are. That will help you to select a more effective mentor.

Let's consider an example. Say you are a young dental hygienist. This is not about finding a nice older hygienist to have coffee with, or one who tells you you’re doing great and shares gossip. Think about what you need. Your dental education was focused on addressing clinical needs and not staff drama or toxic supervisors. But you’ll need to know how to manage both to have an emotionally healthy, and satisfying career.

If you are looking to develop a certain skill set, competency, or perspective, look through your network. This includes peers, colleagues, association contacts, and alumni channels. Find someone with the right kind of experience to share.

Identifying the right mentor

Is there anyone you can’t learn from? Out loud, you might say no, but in your mind, you’ve probably created a picture of an ideal mentor that causes you to disqualify people who could actually be effective mentors.

A big mental roadblock is age. Most people assume a peer can’t be a good mentor. But whether it is experience with a certain clinical procedure or an internal practice concern, there are folks a year ahead of you who may have much to share. This is why knowing what you need is so important.

If you’ve only had work in a certain kind of practice, meeting colleagues who have served different populations (elderly, rural, etc.) can be a way to open your eyes to more applications for your clinical skills. It can also help you build awareness and empathy, which will benefit you in any kind of practice.

Can you have a good mentoring relationship with a member of the opposite sex? The answer to that question may be personal, but it does go back to having a clear, specific ask that keeps expectations and boundaries clear no matter who the mentor is.

Making the ask

In the Olivet Nazarene University study mentioned above, survey participants were asked how the mentor-mentee relationship started. Here were the results:

  • 61% said the relationship developed naturally.
  • 25% said the relationship was initiated by the mentor.
  • Just 14% said the relationship started at the request of the mentee.

The truth is that in a field such as  dentistry in which people may work in multiple practices, not everyone is full-time. More time is spent with patients than with colleagues. So if you don’t ask for a mentoring relationship, you may never have one. Learning to make the ask is just one aspect of developing a level of professional agency that will serve you well throughout your career.

Once you know what you are looking for in a mentor, you can start doing research. Consider your network, be it through LinkedIn, professional journals, or informal connections. Identify a small group of people who "fit the description."

It is important to think through what you want from your mentor. Is it a conversation, a small number of meetings to learn more about a specific topic or challenge, or is it an invitation to a long-term relationship that includes both those things? If you are asking someone to give their time and expertise, you should be clear on how much you expect of both.

When you're ready, draft a professional email. Offer a brief introduction, a summary of the ask, why you want to meet, and an invitation to discuss further. If you make it to the conversation stage—yay! You should come prepared with a sense of what you expect of the potential mentor, but also what you expect of yourself. What does accountability in this relationship look like for you? How will you know when you’re making progress?

Final thoughts

Most important in any mentoring relationship is the attitude you bring to it. This means being open to hearing hard truths, being willing to try new things, and cultivating a posture of lifelong learning.

Good luck!

Thais Carter is a senior executive consultant with the Cellerant Consulting Group, in which she brings expertise in strategic planning, leadership development, and team building. Carter has worked in various positions within the dental industry, including senior manager for global PR and media relations at KaVo Kerr, editor in chief of Dental Products Report, and group editorial director of Advanstar Dental Media, which included publications serving dentists, dental hygienists, and lab technicians. In addition to her work in dentistry, Carter served as the executive director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University.