Charlotte: I initially met Richard at a wedding. Standing near the much-desired sushi buffet, we quickly started talking about the broken infrastructure of the health care system. At the time, I was an exhausted intern in internal medicine, happy to have the right weekend off. I shared big dreams of one day creating a new model of medical delivery. Richard, a senior executive with decades of leadership experience, listened compassionately. The conversation, empty of small talk and full of reflections and ideas, ended with Richard giving his business card to me.
For the next three years, I occasionally stared at the business card in my wallet. When I emptied out expired Zoo and Museum of Science membership cards, I kept the Richard card. But I felt too insecure to actually reach out. Imposter syndrome thoughts all too well known to physicians in training consumed my brain: Why would he possibly want to talk to me again? He’s a senior vice president at a large health care company. Deep in the loneliness, busyness, and hierarchy of medical training, the idea of asking for assistance or guidance seemed too far-fetched. The generic advice of “it’s important to network” made absolutely no sense to me.
Three years later, in a pandemic world (no more weddings, or maskless conversations, or communal food), I finally took the business card out of my wallet and reached out to Richard. What tipped me over was that I needed to figure out my first job post-specialty training. In my well-known world of academic medicine, I was being told it was not realistic to find a leadership position right out of training, that my ideas would never survive the bureaucracy and culture of traditional hospital systems. To my academic mentors, it made sense to stay at my home institution, start with clinical work, contribute to projects in my free time, and wait for a leadership position to open up. “Opportunities will happen with time.” When I visualized going to this type of job day in and day out, I saw unpredictability and frustration. My spirits were lifted when remembering that conversation with Richard: where he used words of possibility rather than impossibility.
Zooming with Richard (after he missed the initial meeting!) created a different way of thinking about a career in medicine. Initial questions included: What’s your vision for how health care can be different? What are you hoping to optimize for both professionally and personally? Richard then provided categories of care delivery, and care creation, types of clinical and administrative positions, and then spent time trying to understand which resonated the most with me. He also thought on the spot of people with similar interests and different trajectories to connect with and immediately made those connections.
I have since learned you should not figure out your professional aspirations alone. The process definitely requires both time and hard work, but it’s worth the prioritization (even when I was in fellowship with three young children, I talked with more than fifty people). It starts with believing in yourself and finding people who believe in you, who make themselves available to you. You then need to actually take people up on the opportunities and connections they are offering to you. Each conversation is a chance to connect, to gain wisdom, to grow, to hear of an opportunity. Sure some people don’t respond (and you worry about how many follow-up emails to send); some conversations resonate more than others, but my overall understanding of health care and professional development has transformed over this past year. Not only have I created many mentorship relationships (a Rob, a Randi, a Lois, a Josh, and even a Charlotte!), but the process over time has become less nerve-wracking and more rewarding.
Richard: I was in the habit of chatting to people in buffet lines – something I picked up at trade shows over the years. As someone who lives “it’s important to network,” I was always happy to meet someone new, and appreciated how much I learned in any such encounter. I knew very few physicians in training, and was delighted to hear Charlotte’s thoughts and aspirations. I felt lucky to learn from someone who was definitionally the future of our health care system and, it soon became apparent to me, a future leader of our health care system.
I gave business cards to everyone I met in these random ways, and always wondered whether there would be any follow-up. Some people did, others didn’t; I wasn’t too bothered either way, which in retrospect seems heartless. Should I have been the one to proactively follow up? After a while, the conversation with Charlotte faded in my memory. If I thought about it at all, I figured I had not made much of an impression. In my own insecure moments, I wondered if I had come across as someone with too much of a focus on the business of health care. I had no idea that someone so thoughtful and passionate about her work as a physician might have imposter syndrome thoughts.
I have been mentoring leaders for many years (and I believe everyone is a leader); in for-profit and not-for-profit roles, at small and large organizations, and at every career stage. Even when I’m busy in my day job, I always carve out time for mentoring because I love it. Someone seeking mentoring is someone doing deep thinking, and whose questions challenge me to think beyond what is in front of me at my own work and provide new illumination to whatever I am facing. Every good mentoring conversation encourages me to be my best self and is as enriching for me as it is for the mentee.
In my experience, good mentoring is advice-free, but when someone is considering career moves, they really want advice, I paused at one moment and said to Charlotte, “you know, there is only one thing worse than you ignoring my advice, and that is if you follow my advice!” That always elicits a chuckle, but it is at the heart of my mentoring. The choices you make must be yours. I encourage people to get so many opinions and so much advice that you experience “mentor whiplash.” Then you have to realize your own decisions, and you are empowered in all the senses of that word. Mentoring is also knowing the limits of what I can say, and suggesting that others might have more useful thoughts to offer. I was delighted to share some ideas about people to talk to, and to make introductions that felt relevant to Charlotte by giving her the choice of who to connect with.
I have found out the hard way that the heart of good mentoring is not being attached to my own opinion about what is right for a mentee to do or be. Good mentoring is helping someone own the shoes they are already in, take the next steps in a journey they are already on, and find the wisdom and knowledge they already possess. I know Charlotte did all this on her own – I saw her already doing it in that first conversation in line for sushi. And now Charlotte is my mentor in writing. One unplanned conversation has the potential to turn into a friendship, innovative ideas, job opportunities, and even this hopefully helpful article!
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