Dear Fellow Alumni:
For a physician managing a career, successful aging requires adapting to an environment that’s changing at an increasingly rapid rate, as well as recognizing and capitalizing on the opportunities these changes afford. Rarely can one do this alone. Rather, we need the counsel and help of others: mentors and coaches.
This issue of the magazine coincides with the 25th anniversary of the 1991 founding of our Medical Alumni Association Board (MAAB), which has made mentoring a top priority. Mentoring is also a personal interest of mine1 that began when I became chief of Gastroenterology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and it has grown in importance and scope over the course of my career. In this letter, I’ll touch on several issues related to mentoring that are not often addressed.
Mentoring vs. coaching
Mentors cannot be all things to their mentees; there are times when specific training or coaching may be required to teach a particular skillset. In contrast with a successful mentor-mentee relationship, which typically matures and evolves over years, coaching can be temporary, as short as one or two sessions. Understand the difference and seek coaching when you need it.
Personal characteristics may be career limiting and tough to change
As physicians, scientists and healthcare professionals, we work daily with very bright and dedicated colleagues. I can remember few trainees or co-workers in academia or industry who were limited in their careers by inadequate intellect. By contrast, many bump into career limitations as a result of poor interpersonal or communication skills and/or a lack of overall effectiveness, such as the ability to bring projects or issues efficiently and smoothly to fruition or resolution. The paradox here is that personal characteristics are often the most important yet also often the most difficult to confront and deal with. There is no silver bullet that applies here. Rather, in my experience, addressing personal characteristics and behavioral issues takes courage, hard work, sensitivity and a sincere willingness of both the mentor and mentee to engage, often with the help of a skilled coach, in a spirit of mutual trust and goodwill. It also takes patience, persistence and continued coaching focused on real-life interactions and encounters of the mentee rather than abstract concepts.
Mentees are often the best teachers
Robert S. Brown, Jr., MD, MPH, Gladys and Roland Harriman Professor of Medicine and clinical chief of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Weill Cornell Medicine, was a GI trainee at UCSF, where he worked in my laboratory. During his training, Bob wrote a short piece on mentoring, which included ten commandments for mentors and mentees. His guidelines are so good that I have kept them for over 20 years and reproduced them here with his permission.
There often comes a time when mentees need to separate from their mentors, or at least pursue a different type of relationship where they interact as peers and colleagues. This is not always easy. It can be difficult for the mentee to leave the comfort and shelter of a senior colleague, who may also help to provide funding and support. And it can be even more difficult for the mentor, particularly if the accomplishments for which the mentor is recognized and on which his or her research funding or professional stature are based, represent, in part, the work of the mentee. Anticipate these transitions and address them proactively.
The roles of mentor and mentee are lifetime endeavors
As an early graduate of the Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME) in 1970, I was under the titanic misconception that my need for mentoring would largely end coincident with post-graduate training and my first real job. Now, approaching my 50-year reunion and having navigated several career transitions — from NIH physician-scientist, to NIH-funded academic investigator, to academic medical subspecialty division chief, to medical journal editor, to professional society president, to “big biotech” and then “big pharma” VP, and, most recently, to chief medical and development officer at a small biotech startup where we successfully developed and launched a product for a rare metabolic disorder, completed an initial public offering and then were acquired — I have benefitted enormously and repeatedly from the counsel and mentoring of others.
Our continued survival as physicians in practice, academia or business, as scientists in academic and nonacademic settings, as parents and, indeed, as a human species, depends on our ability to conceive, nurture and effectively equip the next generation. It is a primal force that binds us. Most mentors find that mentoring is a rich source of continuing discovery and excitement, and it is precisely for this reason that our MAAB has made mentoring a top priority. Please let us know if we can help and/or if you would like to get involved.
Bruce Scharschmidt, ’70 MD (HPME)
Medical Alumni Association Board President
1 Scharschmidt, B. “Mentoring: A personal perspective from academia and industry.” Gastroenterology. 2015; 148:276-9.