Mentoring and constant personal growth – making the most of you

Written by: Steve Bailey
Published on: 23 Feb 2021

Image: primipil / Adobe Stock

Image: primipil / Adobe Stock

The new RCVS Veterinary Graduate Development Programme (VetGDP; VT50.51) has the potential to be a huge step forward in turning our veterinary practices into more nurturing and supportive working environments where new entrants into the profession can not only survive, but thrive.


But despite this potential, the lingering threat always exists that these good intentions end up as little more than a tick-box exercise, all too easy to be equated with performance review meetings or subsumed within regular “business as usual” catch-ups. True mentoring is not, and should not be, either of those things.

On the surface, the fact the new scheme is badged as part of the RCVS’ “lifelong learning” offer is to be applauded. What is a little harder to reconcile is the concept of “lifelong learning” with a programme that is specifically badged as ensuring “that all graduates receive a consistent level of support, tailored to their specific capabilities and requirements”.

For if coaching and mentoring are really as powerful and effective as claimed (and they are), then surely practices should be looking to ensure they are available “lifelong” to all staff, regardless of experience or tenure?

When you get the chance, I highly recommend taking 17 minutes to watch the TED talk, “Want to get great at something? Get a coach” by Atul Gawande.

Atul is no new grad. He is a leading, experienced US surgeon at the top of his game, but also someone who recognised that his surgical skill and expertise was at risk of plateauing, and took the initiative by inviting an experienced former colleague into his theatre to observe every nuance, every action and every decision he made.

Not to criticise, or to tell him how he should be doing it, but to question and to shine a light on even the smallest detail of his surgical practice and, in doing so, to encourage him to reflect and reconsider whether his current practice was truly the best way, or whether other, better alternatives exist.

So, many of our practices have vets connected with them with 20, 30, perhaps even 40 years of clinical experience inside them. That’s tens of thousands of cases seen and operations performed, and a treasure trove of mistakes made and lessons learned that could be passed on, given the chance.

Yet I’m always amazed at how often former partners who have perhaps been recently bought out, but are not yet quite ready to hang up their stethoscopes, spend their time TB testing or passing the time in other relatively low-value roles – quite literally put out to grass – when they could be so much more usefully and profitably employed by the practice by passing on that knowledge and learning to other less experienced colleagues.

Now, to allay any fears. This is not about encouraging some old-timer to spout on about the good old days, and fondly reminisce about outdated principles and practice. Effective mentoring is a skill and discipline, and needs a keen appreciation of the role, and an awareness and acceptance of some ground rules if it is to be successful.

The initial RCVS training will certainly be a good starting point, but to truly realise its potential practices may need to think more widely, not least by ensuring ongoing support and continuing CPD for their mentors beyond the initial training. Perhaps even the provision of mentors for their mentors…

Guiding principles

But to start with, it may be worth bearing in mind the 10 guiding principles in the panel below to help ensure that your mentoring programme does not fade away into line management or practice bureaucracy.

Looking beyond the RCVS mandate, how about organising some opportunities for mutual mentoring between colleagues? With a little reorganisation of rotas, might it be possible to occasionally observe a colleague in theatre or in the consulting room and to compare notes over a coffee?

It’s often amazing how much of what we do we do out of habit and because it is the way we have always done it – and, as a consequence, how much can be improved following some honest reflection in response to three simple questions, which I call the “three whats”:

But we can do more. We can be more proactive about sharing the learning from our failures and creating a working culture where it is clear to all that continuing to learn is taken seriously by all. How about putting up a “lesson of the week” board in the staff room? Somewhere where staff can be encouraged to share both “what they did”, but also, critically, “and what I’ve learned”. Maybe with the added incentive of a cake or chocolate bar at the end of the month for the entry people like the most.

Lead from the front

Again, it’s important to lead from the front, but it won’t take long for staff to see the contributions of their more senior colleagues – be they serious or trivial – and to start to feel more emboldened to contribute from their own experience whenever a mistake is made.

Why is this important? Because we are human, and mistakes will always happen – whether we admit to them or not. But wrapping ourselves up in a cloak of infallibility, either to our clients or to our colleagues, risks sweeping them – and their causes – under the carpet.

Not only can this mean that we lose the opportunity for the whole practice to learn from them, and to put in place whatever changes may be required to help minimise the chances of it ever happening again, but we also lose the more immediate opportunity for the practice to work collaboratively to try to put right whatever situation has emerged as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This cannot happen if staff feel they are working in an environment where mistakes will be criticised, and performance judged accordingly – possibly leading to even greater negative consequences to your patients, your clients, your reputation and your bottom line. With a bit of creativity and effort, I believe all practices can build on the minimum requirements laid down by the RCVS for new graduates, and can reap significant and ongoing rewards for all, and for very little investment.

At a time when practices are struggling to recruit and retain staff, and when there is an ever-increasing awareness of the emotional and mental strain that the role places on vets, perhaps being able to demonstrate a genuine investment in – and commitment to – the “constant personal growth” (a new term that might usefully sit alongside the more familiar CPD) of your staff may also just be the factor that makes your practice the preferred destination for your next new potential team member.

The new VetGDP is a great and promising step forward from the RCVS, but it’s now down to each individual practice to turn it from theory into practice.

Ten guiding principles for effective monitoring

  1. Your mentees’ interests and development are paramount, and above all other considerations – including your own, or any wider organisational concerns
  2. It must be a relationship based on total trust and confidentiality between mentee and mentor
  3. Consider the physical environment. Ensure you create or select a space for sessions that encourages openness and honesty
  4. The focus and direction of mentoring sessions should be determined by the mentee, and what is important to him or her at that moment; not what the mentor feels or believes he or she should be talking about
  5. The mentor should encourage reflection through asking open questions; not lead through offering instruction
  6. Focus on facts. Concentrating on the detail of what actually happened, rather than what the mentee thinks might have happened, is often far more enlightening when reflecting on past events
  7. Avoid making judgements, or bringing your own opinions or biases to bear
  8. Mistakes should always be viewed as a positive opportunity to develop and learn, never criticised or used as an opportunity to apportion blame
  9. Mentors should share their own experiences sparingly and always having first asked permission to do so. Remember, this is about your mentee, not you (see point 1)
  10. Give the mentee your total attention during the session – show you are actively listening in everything you do and say