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A masterclass in mentoring

Written by: David Payne
Published on: 17 Aug 2017


Picture the burnt out professional whose career has come to a standstill, who is plagued by self-doubt, perhaps facing the threat of redundancy or disciplinary hearing, and seeking solace through drink or recreational drugs.

But consider also the person dealing with more prosaic frustrations, someone who feels they could be more effective in the workplace, who is conscious of missed opportunities and untapped personal potential.

Gerard Egan describes both scenarios in The Skilled Helper, his guide to problem management and how mentoring and coaching is a collaborative process.

First published in 1975 and now in its tenth edition, Egan’s model applies not just to people facing major career crises, but to those of us grappling with more general problems thrown up by work and life in the digital age, and the increasingly blurred boundaries between them.

References to the skilled helper model and its three stages (“exploration”, “challenging” and “action planning”) feature heavily in conversation with Giles McCracken, the clinical senior lecturer and consultant in restorative dentistry who is leading a BDJ session on mentoring at the British Dental Association’s annual conference in Manchester from May 25-27 2017.

McCracken, who is based at Newcastle University and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is helping the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow develop its mentoring programme. He also chairs the British Dental Association’s committee for academic dentists.

How is coaching different to mentoring? And is a routine discussion with a manager the same thing?

“This really depends upon who you talk to or read, and hence the wider confusion that surrounds these terms.  I see coaching as a shorter term activity where the question is ‘how do we get to this endpoint?’ As a coach it’s about driving that agenda.

“I see mentoring having similarities to coaching in that there is goal-setting, but it is a longer term relationship. The focus is on the individual, the mentee, but working collaboratively with them to find their ‘best fit’ solutions. These come from within them by helping them to learn and develop themselves. It’s a lot about personal discovery and insight.

“The conversation with your manager is by its very nature a directive one. As a manager you’re saying ‘I need you to do this’ and probably outlining a clearly defined way of what you want to happen. It’s more of a power play.”

How has mentoring helped you personally?

“There have been many moments in life when I’ve taken stock of my career. There’s been direction, but I’ve also been very open to opportunities as they have come my way.

“Quite early on in my career I had conversations with the local postgraduate dean. Outwardly I was full of confidence and clear direction, but he helped me to handle the inner angst I was feeling about where my career was going and the opportunity that I was not going to take.”

GMcM 1What are the challenges for dentists who are mentoring colleagues?

 “Dentists and doctors tend to always listen in a way to make a diagnosis, although this is probably changing with the current focus on patient centred care. It’s therefore sometimes hard for them not to impose their own judgments on what is going on around a specific issue. They struggle with that. They are chomping at the bit to say ‘This is what you need to go and do.’

“But you can help someone discover the best way forward for themself. If you do it for them they are unlikely to take ownership of it.  They may not feel comfortable with the suggested action and then not progress.”

Are there many common issues that dentists bring up in mentoring sessions?

“I often use a mentoring style in educational supervision. Junior colleagues may talk about their challenges they are facing, their careers, and where they want to go and what they want to do. Many have questions and opportunities around adapting to a new role.

“Then there are organisational issues that become problematic, such as a difficult relationship between a dentist and another member of the team. Unravelling how power play at work affects our roles? Alternatively you could be a clinical leader who has a problem with the CEO in a large organisation like a Trust or university.

From a personal perspective I’m concerned that we’re getting lonelier as individuals. Even in big organisations we are spending a large amount of time sitting alone. Isolation in many work roles is another big issue.

“Developing mentoring skills in others is really empowering.  When you are working with someone and they have ‘a light bulb moment’ and realise there’s a different way of working, identifying what they can change and accepting the things they can’t.”

How do I find a mentor?

“Traditionally mentors have been seen as senior within an organisation, but this  doesn’t need to be the case.

“It’s about identifying helpful people around you, with whom you enjoy a degree of trust. You then have to ask yourself why you find them helpful. Find out what sort of skills they have. Have they had any mentoring training?

“I get a bit concerned when I hear about people who are assigned into a mentoring relationship, when it’s imposed on them. Ultimately the output of these types of relationship comes from the individual seeking a mentor, who also recognises that they want to have help and support.”

What are your hopes for the Manchester session?

“Mentoring is not about someone standing in front of an audience didactically teaching the topic, as I will be doing in Manchester! In essence it’s generating a mutually beneficial personal development opportunity, that involves two people having a calm and reflective moment to facilitate some movement from where someone finds themself.

“I hope the session will start to uncover some of the mystique and the myths that surround mentoring, and encourage those who come to persue the idea and skills further.”


Further resources

Egan, G: The Skilled Helper: A Problem Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping. 10th edition. First published 1975.

Connor, Mary P and Pokora, J: Coaching and Mentoring at Work: Developing Effective Practice MCGraw Hill Education, 2012.

Making your mark: top tips for choosing a mentor: Guidance from the BDA

The General Medical Council requires all UK doctors to participate in a mentoring scheme offered by their employer. Find out more at