By Barbara B. Huffman, M.Ed., FACEHP, Consultant, Barbara Huffman Consulting
First, let me say thank you to the Alliance, to those who submitted my nomination, to those who supported my nomination and most of all, to everyone here, for your presence tonight in support of mentoring.
Thank you also to my husband, my daughter and especially my grandson, Sawyer, who is six years old and who recently told me, “Nana, horses are happier than dogs.” Mind you, he said this with total confidence, and yes, life is that simple. Horses are happier than dogs. When asked how he knows this to be true, he just said that he knows; everyone really knows that horses are happier than dogs. This started me thinking about mentoring and how is it that most of us who mentor “just know” what to do. Think about that for a minute — that most of us, who mentor “just know” what to do.
Have any of you been to formal training for mentoring? Mentoring classes? Did you major in mentoring in college? Mentoring seems to be handed down through generations of people who are first mentored themselves and then begin to mentor others. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Mentor himself was said to be rather ineffective, but the goddess Athena would take his form and was rather successful with young Telemachus. Just as young Sawyer knows that horses are happier than dogs, you and I know mentoring to be an almost innate process. We can all do it.
Yet, there is no denying that some mentors are better than others. I also believe that the chemistry between the two individuals affects mentoring as well. This bit of chemistry or serendipity can seriously change the mentor-mentee relationship from flat and meaningless to big and meaningful.
Now that I have established what we already know — that mentoring and being mentored are as natural as knowing the emotional disposition of certain four-legged animals — I want to share three different characteristics that I believe are important to mentoring: flashlights, license plates and heart.
Flashlights: Lighting the Way for Others
In mentoring, there are moments when it is clear what is needed, as though someone is shining a flashlight to point the way. At other times, both the mentor and mentee are in the dark.
For this award, I was asked to reflect on my philosophy of mentoring, which is: Mentoring is mostly about personal growth. If you want to grow as a person, then ask someone to be your mentor. If you want to grow as a person, then offer to be a mentor to someone. As a mentor, you start out in the dark until you listen to your mentee. Then, you can show the way with a response and finally support your mentee in (his or her) journey.
As someone who has received mentoring, I have grown most when I acknowledged what I don’t know ... and listened to the person with the flashlight. I made conscious decisions and felt supported by my mentor. For me, the flashlight is a good metaphor — we use the light when needed, we move about in the dark when we know we won’t get hurt, we feel and learn our way, and we grow into someone who doesn’t need the flashlight all of the time.
My mentoring flashlight has developed over the years because I have participated in the Alliance mentor program affiliated with the Annual Meeting nearly every year since its inception. I have watched it grow from a handful of folks at a table to matchups requiring a computer spreadsheet to assign. Some years, I had two mentees but most of the time, only one. For me, having an Alliance mentee is most fun because those of you who are new to our field have so much enthusiasm, energy and curiosity. You reassure me that I don’t need a flashlight for everything.
For seven years, I was a volunteer for the Alliance Basics program, for which I held the mentoring flashlight by providing leadership for this concept of experienced folks helping the novice find their way. I believe that elements included in the Basics curriculum, like faculty development, scheduling time for interaction with colleagues, modeling openness and sharing, are the key to successfully acclimating newcomers to this organization.
Mentoring at my job has centered mainly on providing student internship experiences. Although I am freelancing now, most of my professional career was spent as a manager of continuing education in a hospital setting, where I worked closely with area universities to make sure that each semester our education department provided instructional design and program-planning experiences for student interns. Looking back, I personally have held the flashlight for some 40 student interns, each working toward an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree and, in one case, continuing education requirements to become a high school principal. These semester-long experiences offer time to provide guidance, expose others to the insider world of medical education, and boost my own enthusiasm for adult learning.
Nothing is better than knowing that your intern loves coming into the CME office and tells other interns how great their experience has been. While I have lost track of most of these interns from the past 20 years, I know that some now work for hospitals, specialty societies, corporate America and themselves. One is a successful surgeon, some are retired and one has just published a major leadership book. Many keep in touch, and I have celebrated their promotions and career advancements through the years. As a mentor, I can continue to support them by gladly serving as a job reference, as a sounding block or editor for their career submissions.
As a newcomer to CME back in 1992, I was the fortunate recipient of mentoring by some of the greats in our field. These individuals showed me the very important role that medical education plays in patient care and medical advancement. They also showed me that education is not competitive but collaborative. That is so very true; education is not competitive but collaborative.
I remember being welcomed into the fold by Frances Maitland, as she gushed over how some of the best minds are in this very field of education. She was so right. That enthusiasm made me want to become a true contributor as well. You might say that Frances held the flashlight for me.
License Plates: Don’t Hide Your Enthusiasm to Learn From or to Teach Others
I believe that I must give off a “mentoring vibe” through the process of living and loving this profession — or it could be my license plate that I have had since 1995, which reads: “Teach CME!” Perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm for some, but the point is that it is OK to show your enthusiasm to learn from and teach others.
A side story: I was driving in downtown Chicago with a car full of CME folks on our way to the Basics Institute, when a taxi driver yelled out to me at a stop light, “Teach me lady.” I think the eye naturally filters out the letter “C” in front of the “ME.” I have also had comments from those who work for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which also goes by CME, and wonder if I am a commodities broker.
The true question is: Is your mentoring out there for public display? Do others know that you are approachable? If you have one, wear the Alliance mentor pin with swag the next time you meet up with CE colleagues. The Alliance annual conference is all about formal and informal mentoring, and those in attendance should begin with this basic assumption — everyone here is open to sharing.
Your membership alone is a type of license plate message. I was recently reconnected with a colleague who has been out of CME for more than 10 years but who is now coming back into the fold. She found me through the Alliance membership list and called to ask if I would be her mentor as she gets back up to speed on changes in the industry. I was flattered to be asked and I hope that I can fulfil her needs and support her career shift. As I pulled some of my favorite resources, it made me think about the power and efficiency of mentoring, rather like a Readers’ Digest condensed version only with a personal touch. Call me old-fashioned and biased, but I do not believe that mentoring will be replaced by a Google search any time soon.
As for informal mentoring at the annual conference, look at the person to your left or right. Ask them for suggestions on how to best spend your time these next three days, what speakers are great at instruction and how they network with others. Think of this conference as a great adventure. Attend at least one session that has nothing to do with what you do now but represents something you are curious about. Use this opportunity to meet colleagues and to conduct both general and specific networking. I always try to remind mentees that if you can eat lunch with someone at home, don’t each lunch with them here. Use this time to dine with strangers.
Heart: In Other Words, Mentor with Purpose
Viktor Frankl, who survived the concentration camps during the Holocaust, wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I am reminded that the last human freedom is choice of attitude, even in the most desperate times and circumstances.
While our daily lives are not as horrific as the Holocaust, they are complex and full of challenges; yet, we each have the opportunity to choose to mentor. For me, much of my heart, my purpose and the process of discovering my purpose, have been wrapped up in the people who believed in me and guided me, and the people to whom I have had the pleasure of offering guidance. My choice, every day, is to find the teachable moment either for myself or with someone else. In this way, I can contribute to making the world a better place. And so I ask you, what is life asking of you today? What is your contribution going to be?
Author E.B. White once wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” This is another way of saying, “what is life asking of me today?”