The quest for veterinary mentorship


Four ways to find the right veterinarian mentor and get the most out of this valuable relationship

Maybe it's just part of my upbringing, but until about five years ago, the word mentor brought to my mind the original Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars or Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. Mentorship seemed like an involved, antiquated process, and I never thought it would play a big role in my career as a veterinarian.

Today, however, I am blessed with amazing mentors. These people have changed my career and opened countless doors for me. They advise me on tough career decisions, direct me to resources and introduce me to other people who can help me accomplish my goals. They look over my shoulder during surgery and say things like, "I wouldn't cut that," or "Maybe we should talk about this," or "That looks fantastic!" They consult with me in person or over the phone on tough medical cases and validate me when I need someone to tell me that I'm interpreting complex situations correctly. I have dozens of mentors now, and I can't imagine pursuing my dreams without them.

Keys to a great mentorship

If you want a mentor, try these four steps to find and keep one:

1. Take the initiative. Waiting for a mentor to offer to invest time in your development is the fastest — and most common — way to fail in this endeavor. Establishing a mentor-mentee relationship is mostly driven by the mentee. If you're not willing to expend the effort to find a mentor, then you won't be willing to expend the effort to maintain a mentor-mentee relationship. Put simply, if you want mentorship, it's up to you to find the right mentor and make the relationship happen.

2. Aim high. Don't be afraid to approach great people. I find time and again that successful people are often people who received help along the way. Most are eager to pay it forward if the right opportunity presents itself. Identify people who can help you, be respectful of their time, and don't be intimidated by their success or stature. The fact that you see great value in their advice and experience will mean a lot to them, and we all enjoy meeting others who share our interests.

3. Bring value to the relationship. The more you can offer a mentor, the better off you'll be. Travel to them or to a conference they're attending (see "Mentors galore" at right). Share information or contacts who might be beneficial to them. Publicly acknowledge the contributions they've made to your success. And, if all else fails, at least pick up the tab at lunch. The value of mentorship is enormous, and while you'll probably never be able to repay your mentors, you should at least make an effort.

4. Have a goal or a project.I once met a mentor for breakfast. I asked him how I could take advantage of his knowledge and experience in the limited time we had together. He said, "Tell me what your goals are, and ask me specific questions."

Most of us don't have the luxury of spending lots of unstructured time with the best and brightest people we know. We need to have a clear understanding of where we want to go, so we can solicit useful advice in a limited amount of time. It's also important to have an active project or plan. You'll be able to discuss specific and real challenges you're facing. For example, if your goal is to buy a veterinary hospital in the next three years, your project might be conducting demographic research in the areas that are of greatest interest. Approaching a potential mentor with this project underway would provide you with a topic of conversation, specific questions to ask, and the means to start a mentoring relationship.

It's okay to be in the information-gathering phase of your plan when you approach a potential mentor, as long as you're trying to make progress. Talking through a project helps you recognize where you need guidance. It also shows mentors how you think, what your priorities are, and what sorts of advice or resources they can share to help. Soliciting advice when you don't have a plan or project can be difficult and frustrating for the mentor.

Final thought

Whether your interest is in surgery, exotic animals, practice management, public speaking or gourmet cooking, you can always benefit from a great mentor. If you know of someone who can help you, don't be shy. Introduce yourself, explain what your goal is, and ask for advice. Who knows where the conversation (or the relationship) might go? You could end up with your own Mr. Miyagi.

Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.

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