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Mentoring ophthalmology’s leaders of tomorrow takes structure, goals


Educators must connect their own behavior to message of what is important

Reviewed by Nicholas J. Volpe, MD

As the ophthalmology profession prepares for a potential skills gap while the average age of its physicians continues to increase, a key to finding tomorrow’s leaders may rest with teachers, who will be tasked with molding the next generation of ophthalmologists.

To ensure that a pipeline of talent continues, a key element for successful teachers today is mentoring. A key element in a mentoring program is a structure that informs action. Using a detailed, step-by-step, goal-oriented program helps individuals smoothly navigate on a successful career development pathway

Nicholas J. Volpe, MD, noted that it is key for leaders of education programs to connect their behavior to their message regarding what is important. Conflicting messages are unacceptable.

“Education is an unfunded but valuable mandate,” said Dr. Volpe, chair, Department of Ophthalmology, George W. and Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Ophthalmology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.

“The bottom line is that, except for the limited resources given to program directors and educators by our medical centers, this mandate is mostly unfunded.” Mentorship and career development for ophthalmology educators differs from “faculty affairs” but it is intertwined and related. Successful development often is focused on success in various education roles.

Mentorship vs. development

There are important differences between mentorship and development. “Mentoring is the most important tool for developing leadership, and how future educators want to develop as faculty members often can emerge through mentorship relationships,” Dr. Volpe noted. “Unfortunately, mentoring is almost never aligned with resource allocation.”

In contrast, Dr. Volpe noted that development of career goals, often measurable milestones and directional, are met by faculty members as they achieve academic success. An important prerequisite to the mentoring process is a good match between the mentor and mentee. The relationship may be easiest when a very senior individual is matched with a very junior, Dr. Volpe noted, and explained that a conflicting role may exist when the mentor is both a chair and mentor.

Dr. Volpe said ophthalmology departments should take advantage of benefits beyond the department. Mentorship tools are important, he explained, because they can formalize the mentoring relationship, make the connection and move the mentor and mentee through the important sequence of events in the mentoring process.

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Key steps

“It is critical that mentor and mentee keep open minds,” Dr. Volpe noted. “Mentors must listen actively. I make the biggest mistakes when I haven’t heard what the mentee is asking or wanting help with.”

On the opposite side of the coin, mentors must learn the art of constructive criticism, which can be difficult but is a critical to mentorship. Other important components are encouraging actions, and most importantly learning from and with the mentee, care and empathy, and being realistic about what is accomplishable, Dr. Volpe said.

There also are several mentoring apps that are available today, including MentorcliQ, Chronus, Wisdom Share, Together, Mentorloop, River, MentoringTalent, and Mentor City. They can be compared to identify the one that best fits your organizational needs. Northwestern University, Dr. Volpe explained, has a very active website for the mentorship program that is highly involved with every step of the mentoring process.

He said believes that most important part of the mentoring relationship is a discussion about the expectations in the next step, with defined goals and anticipating potential road blocks critical to that discussion.

Goals can be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely (SMART). Dr. Volpe mentioned the use of SMART goals, and “keeping the conversation focused and specific can be helpful.” The American Academy of Ophthalmology also has a mentoring program to accelerate minority mentoring.

Faculty development

“There are clearly defined medical school goals for faculty development regarding individual and institutional goal achievement,” Dr. Volpe pointed out. “Developing faculty as educational leaders is important.”

The process comes with some downsides, including a disconnect between salary and teachers’ expected roles as educators, decreased time for scholarly activities, and decreased morale. Other developmental factors address fatigue and burnout, grant writing, and teaching skills.

Tools that are used in development are appropriate faculty and department selection, meetings to focus time one-on-one as individuals develop as mentors and setting a plan. Dr. Volpe advocated using forms to set goals. Writing the goals formalizes and psychologically makes the goals more concrete.

The face of leadership

Dr. Volpe noted that leadership as an educator is power, not authority. “Developing as a teacher often informs a very rewarding and successful academic career,” he said. “We must align the education goals of our programs to make the benefits to faculty and learners visible.”

As leaders, Dr. Volpe noted it becomes key to recognize the people who “can” and “cannot” and “will” and “will not.” Department chairs will have a number of critical roles.

“This includes managing and mentoring the environment, identifying outliers, monitoring and encouraging with realistic expectations, Dr. Volpe noted.

A familiarity with resources, promotion of the educational culture, alignment of messages and incentives, and recognition of the value of rising educators after they arrive in the program and before they leave can increase the chances for successful mentorships.

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Nicholas J. Volpe, MD
E: n-volpe@northwestern.edu
Dr. Volpe has no financial interest in any aspect of this report.

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