In surgery, we are trained in the high-stress environment of the operating room. Even now, 20 years into my career, I still hear the words of my teachers and mentors in my head as I operate, as if they are standing beside me. You never forget the people who personally invested in your education and success.
That investment often comes in two forms: mentorship and sponsorship. Mentors and sponsors are two very different (but somewhat related) entities that are critically important to career development. A mentor is someone who can help identify strengths and address weaknesses, assist in defining career goals, share ideas, and give advice. A sponsor is most often someone high up in the organization who recognizes potential and offers opportunities. This person may volunteer you for an influential committee, put your name in for an important assignment, introduce you to people who can help you achieve your goals, and advocate on your behalf.
Nine years as a fellowship director honed my skills as a mentor. While the fellowship had certain requirements, there was also a lot of freedom regarding academic achievement. To be an effective mentor for each fellow, I needed to really get to know them, their individual skill sets, and their goals, in order to guide them in the right direction: theirs, not mine. Most importantly (and most satisfying), their success, however they defined it, was my success.
As I became more senior in my own institution, I also had the opportunity to act as a sponsor. This was similarly a privilege that brought with it personal satisfaction in seeing others grow and develop, knowing that I had helped by opening doors, volunteering them for positions, and sharing opportunities. Being both a mentor and a sponsor allows me to contribute to the career growth of others in both a personal and a public way.
Your mentor or sponsor may be outside of your medical practice, your division, your department, your university, or even your state. In fact, most of us (myself included) enjoy mentorship and sponsorship from people outside of our institutions: those we have met through professional organizations such as ASCO, through research collaborations, or through other opportunities that take us outside of our own backyard. In fact, these may be the most important people in our careers as we grow.
So as you invest in your education and professional skills, nurture those mentorship and sponsorship relationships as well. They’re a two-way street. If you’re the mentee or the one being sponsored, remember the tremendous time and effort put into the relationship by a good mentor and the political capital spent and time vested by the sponsor. Repay their efforts with your dedication and hard work. If you’re the mentor or the sponsor, enjoy the incredibly rewarding experience of watching someone grow and develop due to your own skills and effort. Repay that professional and personal satisfaction by helping your mentee or sponsoree toward their definition of success.
These days, I often run into people I’ve trained, and they tell me that they hear my words in their heads when they operate, as if I’m standing beside them. And in a way, I always am. What they are really telling me is that they appreciate the effort I put into teaching and mentoring them, an effort that they will never forget, and for this privilege I am truly grateful.