Mentorship is one of the professional relationships that fascinates me the most. We’ve all had those people in our lives that help us advance our careers, gain more insight to our practice, guide us to a more work/life balance. Some might call these people mentors, while other call them coaches or guides. Even after completion of training or schooling, people make use of these coaches/mentors as is the case in sports or medicine. For example Atul Gawande writes how a mentor helped him improve his practice as a surgeon years after completing his training.

This relationship is very complex, but at the same time vital for a successful career. In its complexities we must find what makes it functional and nonfunctional in order to benefit from this interaction. When this relationship is successful there are four winners:

  • The mentee
  • The mentor
  • The institution to which they belong
  • Patients

Mentees and mentors end up with better career satisfaction, career advancement, and better pay, but the relationship has to “click” in order for it to work. The institutions can benefit from improved morale, enhanced productivity, external recognition, and more. When these relationships become dysfunction, and it’s not remedied, it can be harmful to the parties involved. The study below published this past November in Academic Medicine, explores the characteristics that make these relationships a success or or a failure.

Fifty-four faculty members from different career streams were interviewed via telephone. Although this qualitative study has its limitations, it contains salient points that are worth considering in this complex relationship.

Characteristics of an effective MENTOR
  • Altruistic
  • Honest
  • Trustworthy
  • Active listener
  • Previous mentorship experience
  • Enriched network
  • Accessibility
  • Understands the potential and limitations of the mentee
  • Helps promote the mentee’s career
Characteristics of an effective MENTEE
  • Open to feedback
  • Active listener
  • Respectful to mentor’s input and time
  • Responsible
  • Pays attention to timeline
  • Takes responsibility for “driving the relationship”
  • Prepared for meetings
Actions of effective mentors
  • Act as guides rather than supervisors
  • Provides emotional support focusing on work/life balance
  • Warn mentee of potential pitfalls
  • Protects mentee from harsh interactions
  • Helps mentee have a clear vision of the career path and how interrelates with their personal and social life
Characteristics of a successful mentor-mentee relationship
  • Reciprocity
  • Mutual respect
  • Clear expectations
  • Personal connection
  • Shared values
Characteristics and consequences of a failed mentorship
  • Poor communication (lack of open communication)
  • Lack of commitment (lack of time, waning interest over time)
  • Personality differences (different worldview)
  • Perceved (or real) competition
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Mentor’s lack of experience
Tactics for a successful mentoring relationship
  • Start in the mentor’s office (safe environment)
  • Establish a communication network (“reiterate and review”)
  • Schedule regular appointments

When the mentor-mentee relationship did not work, participants still felt that these were good life lessons. Interestingly, people in more junior positions found it more difficult to approach more senior members about the failed relationship because of the potential for bad career repercussions. Two useful podcast from the Get-It-Done Guy:

Since this is a vital process which takes part under institutions, it is being looked at more closely these days. This is a great study and gives a lot of insight into quite an interesting relationship. Although I had participated in mentorships, I was not aware or mindful of all of the characteristics mentioned here. One should be cognizant on how to continually improve the relationship. Rather than waiting until the relationship ends poorly, it is important to have a mechanism to leave the relationship under amicable terms. I hope this post motivates you to become a mentor or gives you some important points to consider when searching for that mentor or coach.

Additional reading on blog about mentorship

  1. Blog post: CJEM 2010 review article (Pubmed) on Mentorship in EM
  2. Blog post: Acad Emerg Med 2004 article (Pubmed) on Mentorship for Clinician-Educators


  1. Straus S, et al. Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers.Acad Med. 2013 Jan;88(1):82-89.
  2. Atul Gawande. Personal BestThe New Yorker, October 3, 2011.
  3. Coates W. Being a Mentor; what’s in it for me?Acad Emerg Med. 2012 Jan;19(1):92-7.
  4. Get-It-Done Guy: Choosing a mentor Episode 245: November 26, 2012, Moving on from your mentorEpisode 208: February 6, 2012
  5. Tobin MJ. Mentoring: seven roles and some specificsAm J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004 Jul 15;170(2):114-7.

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Javier Benitez, MD

Javier Benitez, MD

ALiEM Featured Contributor
Javier Benitez, MD


Medical doctor, tweets not medical advice or endorsements. Interested in #MedEd & technology. Always learning. I'm no expert. No financial conflict of interest.
Javier Benitez, MD