Have you ever felt unsure about your next career step or just needed advice from a more seasoned professional? Natalie Murphy, co-author of this article, felt that way a few years ago. Her solution: find a mentor. Here’s her story:
After 15 years of clinical nursing, I wanted a career change. So I began teaching at an LPN school and enrolled in an online MSN program. I’d obtained a scholarship from a local nonprofit organization that supports nurses. When I learned that this organization had a formal mentoring program, I joined in hopes of finding a mentor to guide me in my new field of nursing education.
Two weeks later, I had my first lunch meeting with my mentor, Dr. Rose Sherman (the primary author of this article). That meeting changed my life. I shared with Rose my hopes and dreams of becoming a nurse educator. I told her that although I enjoyed teaching, my goal was to work with RN students in a university setting. She encouraged me to apply to a new, fast-track BSN-to-PhD program offered by Florida Atlantic University. Over the next few months, she supported my efforts to apply. She was always available by phone and e-mail, and our lunch meetings continued.
Six months after our first meeting, I was accepted to the PhD program and began my academic adventure. I’m now well on my way to becoming a PhD-prepared nurse educator. Rose continues to mentor me, offering advice and listening to my concerns. Mentoring has made all the difference in my career path. With Rose’s support, I’m achieving my goals. I hope someday I’ll be able to mentor a nurse as effectively as she has mentored me.
Mentor and protege: A dynamic duo
A mentor helps open doors to new learning and career opportunities for her protege, exposing her to different viewpoints on her professional work and the challenges she faces. She helps build the protege’s self-awareness while giving gentle feedback on behaviors that might be hindering her career progress. A trusted sounding board for the protege’s ideas, she can help that person grow.
Unlike a coaching relationship, which usually focuses on improving performance, a mentoring relationship focuses on developing new talents and increasing self-awareness. Built on mutual trust and respect, it’s an empowering and noncompetitive relationship. A mentor celebrates the protege’s successes and provides support in difficult times.
What does the mentor gain? As she shares her professional successes and challenges with a developing professional, she acquires a different and valuable perspective on her own work.
How to choose a mentor
A mentor should be wise, knowledgeable, and experienced enough to help her protege achieve her professional goals. Nurse-mentors see mentoring as a way to invest in the future of the nursing profession.
Finding the right mentor can be a challenge. Although many organizations have formal mentoring programs, the best results may come from finding your own mentor. Your search might take time, so be persistent.
Before you begin, do some serious reflection:
- Identify what you want from a mentor and the mentoring experience. If you’re a novice nurse, you may seek a mentor’s help to smooth the transition during your first year of practice. If you’re a more experienced nurse, you may be looking for career advice, personal development, a “shadowing” experience, networking opportunities, or guidance on coping with a difficult professional situation.
- Know yourself. Consider your own personality and think about the personality types that complement yours. Identify your strengths and weaknesses; look for a mentor who has the traits and skills you want to develop in yourself.
- Decide what qualities you want in a mentor. The mentor you choose should be someone you admire who’s an excellent model for professional behavior. She should share at least some of your goals, be an excellent listener, and communicate honestly. Although she can be any age, someone who’s 5 to 10 years ahead of you on her career journey can provide the best guidance. Also, a mentor should be easy for you to talk to and be with.
- Consider availability. Do you want a mentor from within your own organization? Is geographic proximity a priority? If the mentor candidate lives outside your geographic area, consider how the two of you would meet or have regular conversations.
- Make a list of potential mentors. Identify the people who match your requirements and learn as much as you can about them. If you greatly admire someone who’s nationally known and think she could contribute to your growth, don’t assume she wouldn’t be interested in mentoring. It never hurts to ask, so approach her.
Once you’ve identified a possible mentor, ask her to lunch or coffee to discuss the idea of a mentorship. A personal invitation is best, but if she doesn’t live in your area, you can invite her by telephone, letter, or e-mail.
Prepare questions to ask during the initial meeting or conversation; this will show her you’re self-directed. This initial contact will probably give you a good sense of whether the relationship would be a good fit. If you think it would, ask her to be your mentor. Explain why you’ve chosen her, describe how you think she can help you, and identify what you’ll bring to the relationship.
If she turns you down, don’t take it personally. Most likely, she has other responsibilities that would prevent her from being a good mentor at this time. Thank her for meeting with you, and ask if she can suggest other potential mentors.
Nurturing the relationship
When initiating a mentoring relationship, discuss with the mentor how often the two of you should meet or talk. Most mentors are busy people with tight schedules.
Respect your mentor’s time. Set an agenda for each meeting or conversation, and be prepared with a list of questions or topics you’d like to discuss. Tell your mentor about your goals and timelines for accomplishing them.
Once the relationship gets going, be sure to follow up on the ideas and suggestions your mentor provides; this will show her you’re a good listener who’s committed to being mentored. Be willing to do the “stretch”; assignments or experiences she suggests. (For Natalie, helping to write this article was one such assignment.) Show appreciation, and thank your mentor often.
Mentoring as a career strategy
As your mentoring needs change over the course of your career, so will the qualities you seek in a mentor. You may find yourself changing mentors several times.
A mentor can push you out of your comfort zone, helping you achieve bigger things than you’ve ever imagined. An effective mentoring relationship can open doors to new learning and career opportunities. It can be among the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have. It’s a gift-one you can eventually pass on by mentoring others.
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Rose O. Sherman is a Robert Wood Johnson Nurse Executive Fellow and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. Natalie Murphy is a doctoral student at the same university.