Want to Make an Impact? Try Lateral Mentoring

What do you imagine when you think of mentoring?

Most people think of mentoring in hierarchical terms: Find someone a level or two higher than you to take you up the work ladder. Many have also heard of peer mentoring, targeted one-on-one mentoring from staff (or often students) at the same level. There is another type of mentoring that is often overlooked but just as powerful: lateral mentoring.

This form of care is usually not intended. It’s not collaboration, intentional working with someone to create or produce something. It is not a mating of individuals. It’s organic instead. You probably do and don’t even know it. It’s a form of mentorship that we can engage in throughout our lives, inside and outside the work environment, and it often produces powerful results.

Physicians engage in lateral mentoring on an ongoing basis: curbside counseling, formal counseling, and large rounds often lead to lateral mentoring. How many times have you stopped someone at work to ask for advice? In hospitals, doctors do this all the time. They just call it a consultation.

We’re not usually comfortable sharing our vulnerabilities with a boss or hierarchical mentor, which makes sense because we want our standard-bearers and those who open doors to have confidence in our abilities. Trust is why a lateral mentor is so important. We need someone who isn’t our boss to say, “Hey, can you help me with this problem?” “Any advice?”

The problem here is that we rarely acknowledge the support and guidance we receive from friends and colleagues. It seems only natural that we don’t even realize that we are engaging in lateral mentoring. We only intervene when it is critical or when we feel we really need to ask for help. The interaction does not go as far as possible.

Lateral mentor in the hospital

Sanjay Saint, MD, MPH, Chief Physician, VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System

Source: Photo used with gratitude by Sanjay Saint

Sanjay Saint, MD, MPH, is Chief of Medicine at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and George Dock Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan. Saint is the mentor of a mentor. He writes about mentoring, is actively involved in mentoring, and works closely with a lateral mentor, Dr. Vineet Chopra, together. “I like the idea of ​​lateral mentoring. Look left and right and you can learn from each and the superpowers that each of us has. I used it not knowing that’s what it is. I used it as an icebreaker with a new team of medical students and residents.”

When he begins his block as an attending physician on a medical team, he uses an “icebreaker” to find out what each person’s superpowers are. On day one, Saint asks each of them to tell where they are from, what they would like to learn from their time together, and other questions to help them calm down. He also invites each person in the room to share their superpower or unique ability that makes them special. “You can learn all sorts of things from these great doctors and future doctors,” says Saint. One intern said he memorized every line Lord of the rings Trilogy.” And of course, if he was tested, he could actually do it! “The idea of ​​learning from everyone morphs nicely into mentoring,” notes Saint.

Lateral mentor in the office

    Photo by John Abbott

Ruth Gotian, EdD, Chief Learning Office and Assistant Professor of Education at Weill Cornell Medicine

Source: Photo by John Abbott

dr Ruth Gotian is Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education at Weill Cornell Medicine and the author of The Success Factor. She finds lateral mentoring to be guilt-free and expectation-free. “If an older person is a bit out of reach, a co-worker, friend or colleague may be able to offer the guidance and support that is needed in the moment. With no guilt or expectation of anything in return, lateral mentors want what is best for you and believe in your abilities and potential, often more than you believe in yourself. They can help you speak up and see new perspective and potential in every challenge.”

Gotian’s lateral mentors “helped me improve and streamline my writing, recommended marketing avenues for my new best-selling book, and helped me think bigger and bolder about opportunities. They removed my blinders and helped me overcome both overt and covert challenges, giving me the inspiration and sparking my creativity to move forward.”

Lateral Mentor in Innovation

courtesy of Bill Cheswick

Bill “Ches” Cheswick

Source: courtesy of Bill Cheswick

Bill “Ches” Cheswick is a retired innovator. He was a long time worker at Bell Labs, a world-class research facility and the source of many of the inventions you probably use every day. He described his work environment as a wonderland of lateral mentorship where everyone works together. Everyone was working on inventions, and if you needed help or had a problem, you could just walk into someone’s office and say, “I have a problem with statistics. Can you help me?” And the answer was mostly yes. Bill worked on the Internet firewall and turned to his colleague Steve Bellovin, who taught him a lot that he didn’t know. Together they authored the first book on firewalls that sold over 100,000 copies.

Lateral mentoring is an organic form of mentorship that allows the mentor and mentee to engage in a meaningful relationship with no expectations attached. It is not a tit for tat relationship but a generative relationship in which both parties hope to help the other without expecting anything in return.

Take a look to the left. Now look to the right. You are probably looking for a lateral mentor!

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