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Reflections on Mentoring and Coaching in Academics, A Coach's Perspective

academics coach mentor Nov 05, 2022

I’ve been thinking about writing on this topic for a while now. However, it wasn’t until a strategy coaching call (the initial exploratory call prospective clients have with me) that I found the urgency to sort through my own thoughts and offer clarity to myself and hopefully to others. During the call with a trainee, she said something that I couldn’t shake. She began the call near tears with, “I told my partner that I guess I’m going to have to pay to get a mentor.” I briefly reviewed how coaching and mentoring are different. But the majority of the call was spent on a mini-coaching session around her stated goals for the call. We sorted through some of her most challenging experiences and upcoming decisions. She thanked me.


After the call, though, my reflections kicked in.


  1. Why are our trainees experiencing so many toxic stressors? Many are avoidable. Some could be mitigated. And some come with the job. Perspective shifting and connection are crucial for the latter. And that is something a mentor and a coach could both help with. (These were not new questions, but they were the first to surface.)


  1. How is it possible that she has not found a willing mentor growing up around physicians, going through pre-med, medical school, and part of residency? What went wrong? Has she ever had one? Did someone disappoint her or even betray her? Did she feel unsafe? How many others go through training without a mentor?


  1. How much power and control does she feel she has, if any, to identify a mentor? What system changes could be implemented so trainees felt welcome to approach someone in this manner if they don't gel with their advisor, or to make it easier at the same time establishing a meaningful relationship? 


  1. What did she want from a mentor? Maybe she did want a coach? Next time, I may take the opportunity to explore this more, especially with trainees. 


  1. Is she depressed, experiencing PTSD, or generalized anxiety? She had some direction when got off the call, but there was so much non-closure. I couldn't be sure.


  1. Was my discounted resident pricing not low enough? What is my responsibility when one of 149,000 residents and fellows nationwide contacts me? The people-pleaser in me says I’ll take care of them all for free. The post-burnout me knows there are limits. I privately do pro-bonos in various manners. How many physicians and sessions are the “right” number to give away? Is it a disservice? I remember therapists citing studies saying patients need to be invested in it to reap the benefits. Is it the same as coaching clients?


Currently, I do what I coach others to do: trust my gut and try to avoid doing things out of unearned guilt, people-pleasing, & scarcity, and access my decisions from a balanced place of service, abundance, agency, and self-care. I’m human, so I may get it wrong sometimes, and I’m willing to learn and grow.


All these thoughts led me to send a follow-up email to the above-mentioned trainee – about mental health, inquiring if mentoring was really what she desired, opening her mind to who would be a safe mentor in her circles, and leaning into the courage to approach them. I also offered routes to less expensive and free coaching. I never heard back from her. 


What followed was a second set of reflections:


  1. Have I ever turned down someone in my circle who approached me to be a mentor? Not that I can think of. It could be possible, especially during my burnout that I may have missed cues that someone was looking for a mentor,though. 


  1. Have any of my mentees/prior trainees felt they had to pay once I became a coach? I never approached any and said you should hire me. I coached four previous residents for free during coach training. I coached another four during my pilot, for which they paid. All of them reached out and said they wanted to coach with me.


  1. I never told any mentee that I couldn’t meet with them, chat with them, or go for coffee or tea unless they were in town when I couldn’t make their timeline. And that was only twice in 15 years. At least I know some felt comfortable just meeting for connection and mentoring even after I became a coach.


  1. But, it still made me aware that I never clarified that I would be happy to be a collegial mentor if that’s what they really desired. And never walked them through the difference between those roles. 


  1. I think because I was in situations over the years where friends, prior residents, and colleagues occasionally became my patients, I become comfortable playing two roles in a person's life. I owe that to clearly defined boundaries that I discuss. There have been a couple of occasions in which I felt conflicted, and in those, I recommend another person to fill that role. It's the same with coaching. 


And so, I think it’s important for me, my previous residents who are now colleagues, and for all trainees and physicians who coach to think through this for themselves. 


Next week, I’ll tease apart the difference between mentoring and coaching and the overlap.

Until then, have a joy-filled week!  Tonya

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