Leadership Insight #13 / 2022: Building a panel of role models and mentors is an essential leadership skill at any career stage

28 July 2022

The importance of strong professional relationships and networks, and of identifying role models, mentors in this network, has been a topic of previous leadership insights[1] Recent conversations with doctors have raised the importance of this issue again: People are looking outward to see who’s out there, who can inspire them and who can provide examples and exemplars of how to lead a successful and fulfilling career.

Role models provide real life versions of people who have reached professional milestones that we aspire to, who share similar interests and research areas, and who model the types of leadership styles and collaborative work behaviours and practices that we might want to learn from and emulate. Role models and mentors help us to:

Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour who has written extensively on the value of networks and networking, leadership identity and authenticity, examines how early career professionals use role models and mentors to support their transition into senior roles. While the research was done in the context of professional practice firms, much will resonate with doctors, who frequently tell me that while they feel sure of their clinical expertise, they are often less confident of their  interpersonal and leadership skills, which we know are critical in supporting the effective transition into more senior leadership roles. If you identify this is a skill gap for which you have had no formal training or development, then looking to others around you, who you admire, respect and who model the leadership skills and behaviours you aspire to, can provide useful support.

Ibarra suggests having a “repertoire of role models” as a starting point: Not just one or two, but a range of people, who embody and represent a whole range of things that you many want to learn from or emulate. In the context of medicine, sourcing role models and mentors outside of the profession would be encouraged. This also frees up the idea or assumption that a role model or mentor must be everything at once: a role model for all areas of skills, career path and work-life integration. An ideal that is unrealistic, unhelpful and likely sabotaging of our efforts and confidence. 

Ibarra notes that early career professionals who were successful in their advancement not only had a range of role models and mentors in mind but embarked on a learning process of three stages: “Observing role models, experimenting with new behaviours, and evaluating the results of those experiments”. In the observation stage, junior staff who were successful in advancing their career asked themselves three questions at the observation stage:

The experimentation stage would then involve trying out these new behaviours and seeing how they feel in your own skin and in your context. Ibarra writes: “They must hold each effective behaviour up to themselves and evaluate it, asking, “Does this resonate with who I am? Will it work for me? Do I want to be like this person?” For some people a very experimental approach is helpful. For others, they may feel the need to stick closer to their own style, picking behaviours and ways of doing things that feel more authentic and closer to their personal style and personality.

Ibarra’s insight into this process as learning is a helpful one. Learning takes time and effort. It is not a process that can happen straight way, or that can be accomplished quickly. Rather it has a more iterative timeline – observing, experimenting, evaluating and reflecting – just like any continuous improvement cycle. Ibarra notes that “Over time, most juniors refine and perfect their approach, homing in on a style that is both effective and authentic” —but this takes time. The speed and outcome of this process depend on the quality of self-reflection and the quality of feedback that junior people receive from their more experienced colleagues.”

But what about when you can’t seem to find a role model? When you can’t see who you want to be? Or perhaps or you can’t see how to access conversations that feel really safe, psychologically safe, to ask the things you want to ask or share the fears, hesitancies and questions that you might have. And this is hard, this is not an easy place. An insight from Ibarra’s research that I think is helpful here is to remember the value of looking at a range or different people. Don’t just think of one role model or having one formal mentor. Think of having a whole variety of role models and mentors – a panel of them, where each person has something that you admire, respect and/or want to learn from. For example, one senior colleague might have technical expertise that you want to learn form, but you find their interpersonal style one that you wouldn’t want to emulate or one that you feel you are vastly different from enacting. Another person may have similarities to your personality or research interests, and these may help support a path to talking with them and learning from them.

And as you grow and change, your role models and mentors can change too. Don’t feel stuck in one mentor relationship, especially if it doesn’t feel helpful. Look around you and talk to colleagues, friends and family. Search for a variety of different people – who resonate on various dimensions you might be interested in.

Dr Anna Clark (PhD)
AMA Victoria Leadership consultant and coach

Dr Anna Clark is AMAVs Leadership consultant, coach and educator, currently offering individual coaching for doctors and directing the AMA’s professional development programs in leadership, the Emerging Leader Program and Middle Leader Program

References and resources

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