Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mentoring in the veterinary profession

Doughnuts. Morning tea. Pink icing.
Veterinary problems are always less confronting when discussed with a mentor over morning tea...

When I was a new graduate, I was struggling to intubate a dog with airway problems. Flustered, concerned about the patient, terrified I was making things worse, I called a neighbouring practice and the vet there – her name was Sue – dropped everything, drove over, showed me what to do and gave me a hug.

“You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to relive my first six months out”.
she said.

Her words – although alluding to the stress of being a new-grad – were an instant balm. Knowing this incredible, generous woman had been through what I was going through and survived – but acknowledged it had been stressful to her – made me suddenly feel not alone. She didn’t make me feel bad for interrupting her day. She didn’t make me feel like I was out of my depth in this job because I couldn’t do something simple. She acknowledged it was tough and offered her support.

Sue drove away again and I’ve not seen her since. She was not a formal mentor, but that is a moment of kindness, that informal mentoring moment, is one I will never forget and certainly one which gave me confidence to reach out to colleagues. It also taught me the importance of being there for others.

I’ve learned there are dozens, even hundreds of people like Sue in our profession. Vets, nurses, technicians, specialists – so many are so willing to help if asked. Which brings me to mentoring.

Have you ever considered participating in a formal mentoring program? Mentoring is an incredibly rewarding opportunity to provide support to other colleagues. It’s not about being a counsellor or psychologist, rather it’s about acting as a sounding board, sharing experiences and it’s really a two-way development process.

Most of us mentor colleagues, and are mentored, informally. But participating in a formal program is fantastic as you receive training and support. Both the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science and the Australian Veterinary Association are seeking volunteer mentors to match with students and new graduates. The University of Sydney program was established by veterinarian and counsellor David Foote (read more about his work here).

I am Director of the Bachelor of Veterinary Science mentoring program at the University of Sydney, so I think it’s safe to say I am sold on the benefits of mentoring. But I thought I’d ask some other mentors about their experiences. Drs Cathy Warbuton, Bill Howey and Kim Lim were happy to share their thoughts and some lessons learned along the way.

Dr Cathy Warburton

Why did you become a mentor?

I did not have a great time in my first job and my determination to succeed made me stay longer than was healthy. A wise mentor may have helped me to choose a different practice to start in, brain-stormed coping strategies with me so that I could better survive the experience and/or helped me to see that the problem was not all mine and I might be better to cut my losses and leave. I find it very rewarding to be that objective person easing somebody elses’ transition to practice. The happiness that comes from helping others is my other main motivation. The veterinary industry can be amazing – and it can be tough. I want people to see more of the amazing and avoid the unnecessary tough stuff.

Did you have informal mentors?

I have never been part of a formal mentoring program. During my 25 year career I have had some excellent and supportive bosses who have been informal mentors. The downside of mentor bosses is that they have a vested interest in the outcome of your work, introducing potential bias in to the interaction. The best informal mentors for me were those that acted like a sounding board and then left you to make your decision.

What was the best advice or support you ever had from an informal mentor?

The two best pieces of advice were; 1. Do the right thing by the pets and clients and the money will come. 2. You have to be healthy to look after others. Do what you need to do to stay healthy.

When in your professional life would you have liked a mentor?

All through my career - although I may not have thought that I needed one in the early days. I am your typical high achieving, competitive vet (I like to think I only compete against myself – but maybe I am delusional). I have been through burnout and back more than once (you would think I would have learnt the first time!). It has taken me a long time to realise that just because I could, doesn’t mean I should. A mentor may have helped provide an alternative perspective on the life I was leading and decisions I was making.

What can mentees offer in the relationship?

Enthusiasm, fresh eyes on old problems, youth, different life experiences sometimes in other industries. A mentor-mentee relationships is definitely a two way exchange of information and ideas – just as any effective communication should be.

Dr Bill Howey

Why did you become a mentor?

Naively I thought I could help. Now I know my limitations!

Did you have informal mentors?

My ‘informal mentors’ were actually my first two employers. They were both tough; but kind. Lucky me!

What was the best advice or support you ever had from an informal mentor?

‘Common things commonly occur’. ‘When you eliminate the common diseases there’s nothing very much left’. ‘Be positive even if you don’t feel confident’. ‘If you can’t be sterile at least be scrupulously clean’.

When in your professional life would you have liked a mentor?

Almost always; even after all these years!

What can mentees offer in the relationship?

I am greatly stimulated and encouraged by the attitude and application of my mentee; this is enough. I wish I could do more!

Dr Kim Lim
Why did you become a mentor?

Having known a couple of vets that have taken their own lives, my immediate reaction was, “Why didn't they talk to someone? I felt guilty that I didn't notice”.

While having Asian vet students on work experience, I also noticed that I had useful skills in understanding cultural etiquette that I could pass onto them.

Did you have informal mentors?

I was lucky that my first boss was a good role model on how to deal with clients. He also supported me during adverse situations. The rest of it I learnt over the years talking to colleagues, clients and other complementary practitioners.

What was the best advice or support you ever had from an informal mentor?

It doesn't matter if you come on a bike or in a flash car, just don't be ordinary.

I put a dog down for an elderly client in my early career and asked her if she would be alright. She replied that she had buried her husband and her son so she would be alright with this death. I was in my early twenties and had never buried anyone. It made me really humble and value life lessons, not just veterinary knowledge.

When in your professional life would you have liked a mentor?

From when I was a student. I think if you are lucky, you get some of it when doing work experience.

What can mentees offer in the relationship?

My mentee is a little older than my kids and may become a bit of a mentor to them because what would mum know! The satisfaction of seeing my mentee stand on more solid ground and deal with challenges while having someone to check in with is enough for me. I am by nature a fixer so enjoy seeing pieces of the puzzle come together.

The only 'downside' is that you feel responsible for another young person, like having another child, you feel anxious when they are applying for their first job, elated when they get it , anxious when they look for accommodation etc, it is probably partly an Asian thing or maybe just my fixing tendencies.

Thank you Cathy, Bill and Kim.
If you’ve thought about being a mentor but not sure how to go about it, or want to sign up please see below. Your profession needs more mentors.

If you’d like to sign up to mentor a new veterinary graduate, please contact Monika Cole at the Australian Veterinary Association at monika.cole [AT] NB you need to retype this address with the "@" symbol.

If you’d like to sign up to mentor a veterinary student in final year or in the DVM program at Sydney University, please contact frances.roqueza[AT] NB you need to retype this address with the "@" symbol.