Develop a mentorship program to help associates and team members grow


In this season of change, plant the seeds of career growth with a mentoring program.

Like the leaves that change to golden hues in the fall, your team members join your veterinary practice eager to learn and change. And some gentle nurturing can help them fulfill their potential. Mentoring helps you boost employee satisfaction and keep talented team members at your hospital. It also helps create a practice culture where staff satisfaction and retention are key and people are the top priority.

Mentoring helps employees maintain high levels of job satisfaction. In the 2010 Benchmarks Study of Well-Managed Practices, 59 percent of practice owners, 42 percent of associates, and 41 percent of staff members said they were "very satisfied" with their job. When asked if there was someone within the practice who encouraged growth and development, 34 percent of associates and 40 percent of staff members strongly agreed (see "Fall into opportunity and growth" for more). So you can see there's room for improvement. And one solution is to create a mentoring program.

Fall into opportunity and growth

What mentoring means

Mentoring is a relationship that connects seasoned team members with less experienced colleagues who want to grow in their profession. In this relationship, mentors help mentees improve their job performance and grow in their careers.

In the 2010 Benchmarks Study, Well-Managed Practice owners reported the top things they could do to foster a career mindset in team members. These included encouraging continuing education and training, setting practice and personal goals, and providing opportunities for advancement. A mentoring program offers all of these benefits. It also demonstrates that you value your team members' commitment to the practice.

But effective mentoring requires more than common sense and enthusiasm. Both parties need fundamental skills such as the ability to listen actively, build trust, maintain confidentiality, encourage progress, and identify goals. In addition, mentors should be able to direct their protégés, develop their capabilities, provide corrective feedback, manage risks, open doors, and inspire. And mentees need to be able to learn quickly, accept feedback and coaching, show initiative, follow through, and manage the relationship—i.e., they're responsible for making sure they get what they need by being proactive and following up with the mentor.

"Patience and tact are critical to a successful mentoring program," says Dr. Kevin Caylor, DABVP, co-owner of All Pets Veterinary Hospital in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "Time and again I see a wonderful mentoring moment lost between two team members when a mentor decides it's easier and faster to just do it him- or herself. You've got to take a breath, clear your thoughts, and reposition your focus. In a busy practice, that's really difficult."

But it's not all up to the mentor. Nora McKay Clark, RVT, a technician at Kingsbrook Animal Hospital in Frederick, Md., says mentees must be motivated to learn. "They need to seek out information and ask a lot of questions," she says. "It's also helpful if they offer feedback about how things are going for them: what they appreciate about the training process and what they need help with. They should feel comfortable, not vulnerable."

Getting started

In a typical mentoring relationship, the mentee takes the initiative since he or she benefits most. Mentees normally establish the guidelines for the relationship, set the goals, do the work, and monitor their own progress. They're also responsible for concluding the formal mentoring relationship when they've learned as much as they can and feel it's time to find a new mentor.

To create a mentoring program in your practice, start by bringing potential mentees and mentors together for a set period of time. At the end of that period, participants can choose to continue the mentoring relationship or to end it. Present the purpose and benefits of the practice's mentoring program to your team, and clarify who's responsible for what.

Inform team members that participation is optional and based on a desire to learn or teach—if a team member feels pressured, the mentoring relationship will fail. Likewise, if mentors or mentees are interested only in exploiting the relationship for their own purposes, such as upward mobility, improved office status, bragging rights, and so on, they've missed the purpose of mentoring. The focus should be on learning and developing talents. Networking is simply an added benefit.

You can get your potential mentees excited by explaining how they'll benefit from the program. Their mentors will answer questions, provide a friendly listening ear, offer advice, and share their own experiences. The key is for team members to identify their goals and areas were they'd like to grow, and then to choose a mentor with the right knowledge and influence. Some employees will need a mentor with skills different from their own, and others will need one with similar skills but more experience. Plus, the mentorship relationship will change over time, depending on the mentee's needs.

Engage your team

To create a stable of potential mentors, approach doctors and team members who could provide a valuable mentoring experience and ask if they would consider participating. But keep in mind that a stellar team member may not necessarily be a great mentor. You'll want to look for volunteers who demonstrate a focus on others, good listening skills, and motivation to help develop their coworkers' abilities.

Don't forget to mention the benefits a mentoring relationship provides for mentors. It offers them the chance to learn from the mentee's experiences, helps them expand their people and team-training skills, and allows them to give back to the profession.

"Strong mentor candidates must be good teachers, not necessarily the best performers," Dr. Caylor says. "Good mentors don't have to be the team members first out of the gate, but they're always there at the end of the race. They're the ones who are willing and able to stop and smell the roses along the way."

Although you might employ many great potential mentors in your practice, it's important for a team member to have just one mentor. At Kingsbrook Animal Hospital, Clark recently took on a mentoring role with two new team members. "Our new employees can learn from our five experienced technicians, but it helps to have one designated mentor to communicate with," Clark says. "I'm the one who works through their checklists and goals with them."

Once your staff understands how a mentoring relationship works, offer an enrollment period. During this time, potential mentees complete a questionnaire indicating what they hope to learn through the mentoring process, as well as any personality traits that might be helpful in matching them with an effective mentor. (See "Training ideas to adopt or ditch".)

Training ideas to adopt or ditch

Mentees should provide specific, measurable goals in areas that include developing skills and competencies, understanding concepts, or accomplishing a goal from their most recent performance evaluation. Potential mentees may also request a specific person as a mentor.

Ask potential mentors to complete a similar questionnaire indicating areas of expertise, what they hope to learn, and personality traits that might be helpful when you're matching them with a mentee.

Build strong relationships

After you've made a mentorship match, get the ball rolling by calling the first meeting. Then schedule regular meetings every two to four weeks for about an hour. This provides the pair with a structure they can follow and keeps the relationship from atrophying. Continue offering support and accountability by requesting proof of meetings, providing assistance if the relationship isn't productive, and switching mentors and mentees as needed.

For the first several meetings, provide specific conversation topics. Eventually mentoring pairs will need to self-direct their discussions, so it's a good idea to offer a list of general conversation ideas and let them choose discussions that best benefit their relationship. (See "Sample conversation guide".)

SAMPLE Conversation guide

At the end of a period, such as three, six, or 12 months, let mentors and mentees continue the relationship on their own or seek a mentoring relationship with someone new. While it's important for you to help establish new relationships, the goal is to teach employees how to develop mentoring relationships on their own.

Dr. Brent Cook, co-owner of Kingsbrook Animal Hospital, says shadowing has been an effective mentoring tool at his practice. "It's a great experience to see how other doctors handle their appointments and communicate with clients," he says. "It's also valuable to see how the technicians set up appointments before the doctors enter the room. Watching other doctors and team members at work is a critical learning tool at our practice."

Dr. Caylor agrees. "When I was mentoring an associate who was interested in orthopedic surgery, I encouraged him to find a few moments to scrub in at any point during a procedure," he says. "I also made sure I was available to consult with him about cases. Most important, he had to be motivated to want to learn, not have me spoon-feed him the process at every step."

Mentoring can energize your team, give the practice a recruitment edge, shorten employee learning curves, increase employees' job satisfaction and loyalty, and improve productivity and work quality. If the relationship is properly managed, both sides will benefit and the practice can merge past and present into a better future.

Denise Tumblin, CPA, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and president of Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates in Columbus, Ohio. Helen Hoekstra is a financial and valuation analyst at Wutchiett Tumblin. Please send questions or comments to

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