Mentorship in health care leadership


In health care, leadership positions are continually emerging. There is someone rising to a new position somewhere; at another place, someone is just being replaced, while some others have initiated leadership by creating a position that was previously not in existence, either by a new discovery or leadership simply initiated by knowledge. Though leaders are daily emerging, no one seems to be asking: who is mentoring these neophyte leaders?

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Participants on a facility tour of the Medcare Hospital during the Health Care Financing and Innovation Workshop held in Dubai last year

Mentorship is principal in ensuring effective and continuous leadership in health care. No other system requires more precision and less error than health care; hence, the need for workers, even leaders, to seek mentorship. Sadly, mentoring in health care is not deliberately carried out, especially in most countries in Africa, where workers or new leaders are thrown in the wild to survive. In fact, there are only a few health mentorship programmes in Nigeria. Many health care organisations do not pay close attention to deliberate mentorship or other leadership development initiatives.

There are those who believe that a mentor-mentee relationship should occur naturally,rather than being a planned programme of action. As Byrne describes it, “mentorship though appears ubiquitous, yet elusive, not deliberately initiated but left to chance.”Developed countries like the United States of America have planned mentorship programmes. For example, the USACentre for Disease Control and Prevention sponsors a formal mentorship programme for Public health advisors – a strategy for developing new managers. So also does the American Dental Education Association (ADEA). Recognising the dearth of women in executive positions and serving as deans of dental schools, ADEA, in 1992, created a programme for women liaison officers (WLOs) appointed by dental school deans.The purpose of the programme was simple: to develop new women leaders.

According to Hawkins and Fontenot (2010), an important gift health leaders can give to their professions is to serve as mentors to those who will lead health care organisations and institutions into the next decades.


Requisite skills

Mentors in health care should possess certain qualities for effective mentorship. First, they should be highly cognisant of the professional landscape. They should not only be experienced, but should be fully aware of how the health system works – they should be abreast of long-standing structures and cultures.

Second, mentors should be visionary; they should have strategic insight into events that will later shape the climate of most circumstances in their chosen fields. They need this to provide direction for new leaders. In addition, mentors should be creative, risk-takers, inspirational and possess good communication skills.

Hawkins and Fontenot further add that mentors should be politically astute, sensitive to ebbs and flows of human life, and should possess self-knowledge.

Though these qualities are attractive,the style employed by a mentor can affect the quality of leadership he provides for a mentee in health care.

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Relevant styles

There are different styles of mentorship adopted by mentors.Mentors’ styles are as varied as the persons who choose careers as health professionals.

According to Hawkins and Fontenot, some mentors appear to have a philosophy of mentoring that one can best characterise as trial by fire or critical, and others appear to have more nurturing styles. Both styles can either be effective or a hindrance for a mentee. The key is to discover the right match between mentor and mentee that will be beneficial to both parties.

Mentors who are toxic can do more harm than good for their mentees. They (Hawkins and Fontenot) quoted Darling (1985) as saying there are four categories of toxic mentors: avoiders who are seldom, if ever available and impossible to reach; dumpers, who believe in the sink or swim approach to surviving as professionals; blockers, who either micromanage or withhold information; and destroyers whose goal seems to be to undermine anything and everything the mentee proposes.

The trial-by-fire mentors may bombard their mentees with criticisms of their work in the extreme. The underlying philosophy appears to be that such hazing will toughen the mentees up for the real world of academia or clinical practice or whatever the field and role for which the mentee is preparing.

The nurturing style of mentoring is one in which the mentor assumes more of a parental role, creating a safe, open environment that allows the mentee to both learn and try new ideas and methods by himself. It is a more participatory style of leadership.


Rational strategies

Mentorship can be done in two forms. Byrne (1991), as quoted by Ehrich (1999), says mentoring can be traditional or formal. Under the traditional mentoring system, mentors employ their personal resources to assist their mentees to develop their career. The senior member in the organisation initiates a relationship with young members who he recognises as having certain potentials that could be developed. In this case, the mentor chooses his mentee. This form of mentorship is left to happen naturally, and though it appears sentimental, some best mentor-mentee relationships have been produced by this “natural selection” process.

In the twilight of the twentieth century, Byrne notes, mentorship became formal. Under formal mentorship, raising new leaders is a systemic policy issue and a standard part of management practice. Most times, the effectiveness of the policy rests on the following factors: mentor’s commitment to the programme, mentor’s compatibility with mentees, and mentor’s competences in terms of technicality and interpersonal skills. This type of mentorship is not voluntary.

Additionally, there is the professional mentorship system. This form of mentorship is voluntary. It is a process which is promoted and encouraged by top leadership as part of mainstream staff development. Leaders are simply encouraged to mentor young managers.

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Resultant success

Studies conducted among health care leaders proved that those who have mentors were more likely to succeed than those who were not on any form of mentorship programme. In other words, mentorship, no matter the form, provides the mentee, as well as the mentor, with immense benefits.

First, the mentee enjoys rapid career advancement. Mentoring helps mentees navigate through the career path because they are being guided by those who have been there. They also enjoy personal support in carrying out their duties as they work under the supervision of a mentor. Mentees in a mentorship programme have the chance of increasing in learning and personal development.The strong sense of being under supervision can also help to increase mentee’s confidence.

Second, those who volunteer to or participate in mentorship programmes enjoy personal fulfilment. Mentors in health care, as in other fields, derive a sense of satisfaction for providing guidance to emerging leaders. This state, psychologists say, is a major motivation for mentors’ participation in a training programme. Also, they getassistance on projects as neophyte leaders can serve as research fellows and help to manage projects.

Third, a well- planned mentorship programme can befinancially rewarding for the mentor. Health care organisation may pay those who get involved in a mentorship programme, as it requires extra work and effort to successfully guide emerging leaders. In the same vein, coaches enjoy increased confidence. Success recorded from a mentorship programme will spur mentors to adopt more protégés and re-vitalise their interest in work.In addition, there are immense benefits for organisations that organise a mentorship programme.


Result-oriented structures

As earlier discussed, health care organisations in Africa need to plan, prepare and adopt monthly or yearly mentorship programmes for staff members. These mentorship programmes can be organised in-house or outsourced to health care training providers.

However, there are factors that influence the success of mentoring programmes.First, is the availability of time for mentoring. This often constitutes a major setback in mentoring, as those who should mentor sometimes complain of being short of time. Mentoring leaders require time, attention and a close follow-up on the activities of the mentee. For effective mentoring to take place, senior health executives should be ready to give their time, which in most cases, is very limited.

Second, is the training of mentors. Mentorship can only be as effective as the skills and personality of the mentor. For effective mentoring to happen, mentors must be thoroughly and continuously trained to be able to succeed in both group and individual coaching. A good mentoring programme is designed to train mentors to communicate with rather than talking to the mentee, andto network with other mentors.

Third, matching mentors and mentees can be a challenge to effective mentoring. Issues such as ethnicity, gender, and religion can influence a mentorship process. A good mentorship programme is planned to discourage outright rejection of any mentee or overly sentimental displays by senior executives in the choice of those to mentor.

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Other factors include overdependence of mentee on the mentor, possibility of sexual attraction and clash between mentors and chief executives.

Despite all these, organisations still benefit greatly from mentorship programmes in that they lead to the development of their staff. According to Hawkins and Fontenot, physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, dieticians, veterinarians, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists, social workers, and other health professionals assume their first leadership positions often with some trepidation. With formal mentoring, however, the confidence of such personnel is bolstered.

Similarly, mentoring increases staff commitment to the organisation. By enrolling a staff for leadership training, the employee views his organisation as committed to his welfare, and will in turn give away heartily his loyalty. Leadership programmes for mentors and mentees are cost effective, especially, on the long run. A lot is saved by encouraging mentorship among senior executives. Neophyte leaders, entrepreneurs and managers need to embrace mentorship programmes.



In order for organisations to stay ahead in health care, there should be a constant improvement in leadership. The Pharmanews Centre for Health Care Management Development, for over 20 years, has continued to provide relevant and qualitative leadership training for mentors, managers and emerging leaders in the health care system. It is Nigeria’s leading healthcare platform for developing and networking health care leaders. Our leadership development programmes run for different months in the year, each designed to meet specific leadership and management objectives.

We believe that a more effective health care system is possible with a deliberate and well-planned programme of action for emerging leaders in the Nigerian health care industry. Attention needs to be paid to effective leadership through the discourse and implementation of pragmatic leadership models. Our trainings are not just events but well thought-out campaigns designed to initiate change in participating organisations and the health care industry.

We sustain a strong trainer-trainee network as well as promote open channels for mentor-mentee relationships. You can send nominations for any of our 2015 health leadership workshops, starting with the Health Care Entrepreneurship Workshop,scheduled for 24–25 March in Lagos.

Stay on this page, as we begin, from the next edition, a panorama of distinguished leaders in the Nigerian health care Industry.



Hawkins J. and Fontenot,H. Mentorship: The heart and Soul of health care Leadership. Journal of Healthcare Leadership. 2010: (2) 31-34

Naicker, I.; Chikoko, V. and Mthyiance, S. Does Mentorship Add Value to In-Service Leadership Development for School Principals? Evidence from South Africa.Anthropologist 2014, 17(2) 421-431

Ehrrich, L. Mentoring: Pros and Cons for HRM. Asian Pacific Journal of Human Resources. 1999: 37 (3) 92-107


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