How to Create a Successful Mentorship Program

By Julie Miller, BSN, RN, CCRN-K Dec 16, 2019

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After crowdsourcing some of my favorite mentoring advice from AACN’s experienced nursing community, I got to thinking: I hear from many nurse educators that they want to build a great mentorship program, but they don’t know where to start.

It’s great that some hospitals provide a formal process for mentors and mentees to connect and grow together, but what if your hospital doesn’t provide that structure?

I decided to reach out to Janice Mink, one of my mentees from years ago and currently AACN’s clinical content specialist. She gave me her step-by-step plan for building a great mentor-mentee relationship every time. Here’s what Janice said.

  • 1Set Ground Rules
    Setting expectations gets everyone on the same page for a more successful partnership. Talk about what you’re hoping to achieve as a mentor or mentee and hash out logistics if necessary, such as how often you will meet. Then, set some concrete goals you can track later.

  • 2Use Questioning Methods
    Novice nurses know a lot, they just don’t always know that. It’s a mentor’s job to help their mentee build critical thinking skills and confidence. That means not giving the answer right away (unless it’s an emergency situation of course), but rather giving them a framework to understand the problem and find the solution. Ask the right questions, such as:

    • What problem are you trying to solve?
    • What have you done so far?
    • What do you know right now?
    • What strategies have you thought about already?
    • What decisions have you already made?
    • What have you learned through this process?
    • What can you do next time you see a patient or situation like this?

    Then, employ what I call the “eight-second rule.” Wait eight seconds before thinking about helping them through the answer. This gives them time to think and establishes the expectation that you’d prefer a well-thought-out answer than one off the cuff.

    These questions push mentees to internalize clinical inquiry. They reevaluate their assumptions and demonstrate to themselves that they’re smart and capable, which builds confidence. It also helps mentees realize that they can be their own resource rather than viewing mentors as the only ones with the answers.

  • 3Let Them Go
    There comes a point where a mentee has grown in their practice and confidence and they approach their mentor less often, but they still may not be completely comfortable on their own. At this stage, the mentor should focus on reinforcing the correct decisions made by their mentee, refining the new nurses’ tools, assessing progress toward goals and helping to correct any bad habits.

    The role becomes more about helping the new nurse find their “why” and building a foundation for a healthy, happy career. I make sure to acknowledge the mentee’s growth with a written observation/evaluation and recommendation that they can keep in their personal file. I will also include any patient thank you notes or words of praise that I’ve heard about them around the unit.

    It’s what I call helping my mentees develop their circle of excellence. The moments you’re proud of, the feedback from patients — these are the things that help you realize your impact as a nurse. They are what keep you going during the tough times.

    Julie’s Note:

    Janice is totally right. Still, sometimes mentees won’t want to let go even after you’ve encouraged independence and helped them build their circle of excellence. I’ve had mentees keep coming to me for answers to their questions when they didn’t need to. To help foster independence and help them build their confidence, I stopped answering questions and instead turned the question back on them.

    For example, one mentee kept coming to me for advice about how to communicate during a meeting, often asking, “What should I say?” Instead of answering, I asked the mentee to tell me what she wanted to say. After listening to her answer, I helped her restructure her comments more positively and then practice her speech. The mentee already knew what to say; she just needed that extra bit of confidence and a little coaching in how best to say it.

  • 4Pay It Forward
    Once the mentee is confident and competent, it’s time to transition into becoming a mentor. This adjustment takes some time, but by then, they’ve seen how a good mentor acts and built the skills they need to succeed. They’re ready to pay it forward to the next generation of nurses.

How do you promote mentorship at your organization? What do you do to help nurses be good mentees so they can succeed in their roles? Tell us in the comments below.