Mentorship: Who benefits?

Mentorship is one of the professional relationships that fascinates me the most. We've all had those people in our lives that help us advance our careers, gain more insight to our practice, guide us to a more work/life balance. Some might call these people mentors, while other call them coaches or guides. Even after completion of training or schooling, people make use of these coaches/mentors as is the case in sports or medicine. For example Atul Gawande writes how a mentor helped him improve his practice as a surgeon years after completing his training.

This relationship is very complex, but at the same time vital for a successful career. In its complexities we must find what makes it functional and nonfunctional in order to benefit from this interaction. When this relationship is successful there are four winners:
  • The mentee
  • The mentor
  • The institution to which they belong
  • Patients 
Mentees and mentors end up with better career satisfaction, career advancement, and better pay, but the relationship has to “click” in order for it to work. The institutions can benefit from improved morale, enhanced productivity, external recognition, and more. When these relationships become dysfunction, and it’s not remedied, it can be harmful to the parties involved. The study below published this past November in Academic Medicine, explores the characteristics that make these relationships a success or or a failure.


Fifty-four faculty members from different career streams were interviewed via telephone. Although this qualitative study has its limitations, it contains salient points that are worth considering in this complex relationship.

of an
effective MENTOR
Active listener
Previous mentorship experience
Enriched network
Understands the potential and limitations of the mentee
Helps promote the mentee’s career

of an 
effective MENTEE
Open to feedback
Active listener
Respectful to mentor’s input and time
Pays attention to timeline
Takes responsibility for “driving the relationship”
Prepared for meetings

effective mentors
Act as guides rather than supervisors
  • Offers: advice, advocacy, network, goal setting, opportunities, how to navigate the system
Provides emotional support focusing on work/life balance
Warn mentee of potential pitfalls
Protects mentee from harsh interactions
Helps mentee have a clear vision of the career path and how interrelates with their personal and social life

of a successful 
Mutual respect
Clear expectations
Personal connection
Shared values

and consequences
of a
failed mentorship
Poor communication
  • Lack of open communication
Lack of commitment
  • Lack of time or waning interest over time
Personality differences
  • Different personalities have different ways of approaching the world
Perceived (or real) competition
  • How much credit does the mentee get as opposed to the mentor?
  • When working together, it is important for the mentor to step back and let the mentee have the spotlight.
Conflicts of interest
  • The mentor should not be in a position of authority over the mentee
Mentor’s lack of experience
  • Lack of knowledge to provide advice

for a successful
mentoring relationship
Start in the mentor’s office (a safe environment)
Establish a communication network (“reiterate and review”)
  • May use a checklist to address: career, education, administration, and personal issues
Schedule regular appointments

When the mentor-mentee relationship did not work, participants still felt that these were good life lessons. Interestingly, people in more junior positions found it more difficult to approach more senior members about the failed relationship because of the potential for bad career repercussions. Two useful podcast from the Get-It-Done Guy:

Since this is a vital process which takes part under institutions, it is being looked at more closely these days. This is a great study and gives a lot of insight into quite an interesting relationship. Although I had participated in mentorships, I was not aware or mindful of all of the characteristics mentioned here. One should be cognizant on how to continually improve the relationship. Rather than waiting until the relationship ends poorly, it is important to have a mechanism to leave the relationship under amicable terms. I hope this post motivates you to become a mentor or gives you some important points to consider when searching for that mentor or coach.

Additional reading on blog about mentorship

  1. Blog post: CJEM 2010 review article (Pubmed) on Mentorship in EM
  2. Blog post: Acad Emerg Med 2004 article (Pubmed) on Mentorship for Clinician-Educators

  1. Straus S, et al. Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers. Acad Med. 2013 Jan;88(1):82-89.
  2. Atul Gawande. Personal Best The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.
  3. Coates W. Being a Mentor; what’s in it for me? Acad Emerg Med. 2012 Jan;19(1):92-7.
  4. Get-It-Done Guy: Choosing a mentor Episode 245: November 26, 2012, Moving on from your mentor Episode 208: February 6, 2012
  5. Tobin MJ. Mentoring: seven roles and some specifics Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004 Jul 15;170(2):114-7.

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