Mastering Mentoring Series Part 1: Back to Basics

By: Sana Ali, MD

Mentoring is one of those things, like volunteering and DIY home improvement, that people say they would love to do if only they had more time. Paradoxically, talented and experienced professionals who are inundated with requests to give talks, informally counsel, and provide community service hesitate to accept the mentor role– they are too preoccupied with doing the things that garnered the attention of others in the first place. Essentially, successful mentorship is rooted in time management – how to find it, manage it, and make it worthwhile. 

Positive learning partnerships are vital to professional growth and personal gratification. Whether you are mentoring doctoral students, coaching business executives, or guiding young Muslim mental health professionals, the same principles apply. Much like setting the frame in counseling, mentoring should be well designed, purposeful, and adaptable. The key to successful mentoring (and preventing problematic experiences) is developing a deliberate approach to the who, when, where, why, what and how questions of the mentoring paradigm.

Who: The options of who can mentor are wide

Mentors are themselves people who are fascinated by personal growth – and when they see someone with potential, they want to help nurture it. Mentors are often associated with people in authority figure positions. Truthfully, an individual’s achievements do not equate to his or her effectiveness as a mentor. A mentor can be anyone whom the mentee sees as having experience, knowledge, and wisdom of value to them. The term “mentor” has evolved from meaning intense, exclusive, multiyear relationships between senior and junior colleagues to also include a wide variety of short-term, low intensity interactions with peers, slightly older workers, and direct supervisors.

💡 ProTip: A team approach to mentorship

The concept of “mentor by committee” describes a network of talented and seasoned individuals a mentee can rely on for different things at different times. Each mentor on the board of advisors brings with them a unique perspective, skill set, and history of experiences. In this way, a team approach to mentorship provides efficiency and effectiveness. 

When: Consistency is more important than frequency

The frequency of interaction during the first several months is predictive of the success of a mentoring relationship. Oftentimes, busy mentors make a notional commitment to mentor, but are unable to follow through. An absent mentor unintentionally conveys to the mentee that they are not worthy.

💡 ProTip: Set Mentoring Office Hours

Similar to how professors post office hours for students, mentors can allot a specific time and place for mentor meetings. A set day and time period provides consistency and the ability for both the mentor and mentee to plan ahead and be prepared. If warranted, these mentor meetings can meet at regular intervals, i.e. weekly or monthly. This cuts down on the tedious “availability emails”.

Example: 

Mentor meeting scheduled for Thursday 4pm this week, Tuesday 2pm next week, skip a week, Thursday 4pm the following week 

VS 

Mentor meetings every Thursday 4pm – 4:30pm. 

Which is easier to schedule? 

Where: Consider appropriate settings

Whether public, private, or virtual, consider the appropriateness of the mentor meetup location. This may vary depending on the individuals involved and the degree of familiarity. Regardless of the setting, effective mentoring requires approaching every session with professional decorum and discipline. 

💡 ProTip:  We’re all Zoomed out

For those of us who have been slow to familiarize ourselves with online meeting tools, pandemic era urgency has thrown us a steep learning curve. Mentoring by video chat is now more commonly accepted. Virtual mentor meetings ensure a functional space for mentors and mentees and also presents an opportunity to increase user-proficiency. 

What: Mentorship should be distinct and customized

Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all deal. Formal mentoring is structured, strategically matched by a third party, addresses specific objectives, has measurable outcomes, and lasts for a specified amount of time. Informal mentoring has very little structure, is long-term, and is based on self-selection and chemistry. Mentoring can be applied across disciplines, including academic, administrative, research, clinical, leadership, career, business, private practice, etc. 

Examples: 

Traditional Mentor

A traditional mentor is someone who fits the idea most closely associated with mentoring: an older, more senior individual in your organization who has more experience than you do in a certain area.

Reverse Mentor

The mentor in a reverse mentoring relationship may be a younger or a less experienced person in the organization. The key here, though, is that they are still the more experienced person in some critical area that the mentee (possibly an older, more senior individual) wants to learn about. It has less to do with age and more to do with where both fit in the organizational heirarchy. 

Peer Mentor

A peer mentor is a coworker who holds a similar level of responsibility as you do in your organization. They are on the same level with you hierarchically speaking, and they often encounter comparable types of work issues and situations.

How: Character, ethics, and boundaries

Good mentors practice a form of leadership that is less about creating followers and more about creating other leaders. To do this, mentorship requires rapport, an alignment of expectations, and an avoidance of overriding a mentees’ dreams. In addition to helping to develop knowledge, a good mentor helps to shape a mentee’s self-awareness, models good character and imparts a strong sense of ethics. Certainly, the mindful observance of Islamic values and ethics not only serves as innate guidance, but also helps to preserve and elevate the mentoring relationship.

Additionally, the things that lead to better mentoring – self-disclosure, an increasingly bonded, trusting relationship – can also lead to issues like crossing boundaries, intrusion or overzealousness, and even romantic inclinations. Just like a mental health professional might recognize feelings of attraction towards a client, mentors should accept but not act on those feelings. The impetus of maintaining ethics and boundaries falls on the mentor.

💡 ProTip:  Lay ground rules

Establishing clear ground rules helps to prevent mismatched expectations or boundary crossings. Initial conversations should clarify expectations from the partnership. Expect misunderstandings and misperceptions, and resolve them explicitly. A consensus on goals, approach, and communication style improves the overall efficiency of the process.

Why: Intrinsic and extrinsic value

The most admirable leaders and organizations are the ones devoted to bringing others along. Good mentors recognize that leadership is a duty and service to others, and the best way to inspire commitment is to be genuinely committed to the best interests of their colleagues and professional communities. Most of us have people, such as family, friends, and religious leaders, who serve as our confidantes and guides outside the workplace. Through partnerships in learning, we can bring this same high level of trust and support inside the workplace. We owe it to the Muslim mental health professional community to serve as something more than just career mentors. 

A successful mentorship is a partnership in learning – individuals committed to helping one another become fuller versions of themselves. It is a joint venture of sharing responsibility for learning. Good intentions, however, are not enough. Effective mentoring takes time; and in the mentor relationship, time is currency. Mentors donate time – time that could be used to pursue one’s own career goals or to install a new backsplash- to someone else’s career development. Incorporating mentor-specific time management techniques, aligning expectations, and clarifying boundaries gives mentors the ability and availability to contribute to the mentoring partnership in a meaningful way. Consistency, efficiency, and mutual benefit is the best way to ensure the mentorship enjoys a healthy, purposeful existence.

‘’The believing men and believing women are allies [helpers, supporters, friends, protectors] of one another.’’ (Surah At-Tawbah, 9: 71)

The Institute for Muslim Mental Health (IMMH) seeks to develop mentoring relationships as part of its organizational culture. 

  • Get involved with IMMH now to participate in our successful mentorship programs: 
    • Works-in-Progress (WIP) provides guidance and mentorship to early career researchers and is designed to cultivate and support such work. 

Meet the Expert Webinar series is a two-part webinar in which scholars share their expertise with community members and mental health professionals, respectively.


About the Author:

Dr. Sana F. Ali is a drug safety and pharmacovigilance medical doctor. An appreciation for biopsychosocial interventions for older adults with mental health and cognitive disorders propels her interest in geriatric psychiatry. A passion for health equity and bioethics underscores her clinical and research work in global health, primary care and community medicine. She is a frequent guest speaker on topics surrounding mental health, wilderness and rural medicine, and preventative medicine. Dr. Ali serves as the Director of Mentorship at the Institute for Muslim Mental Health, and she champions personal and professional growth, mentorship, and community for Muslim mental health providers.