What I have learned

"Becoming a mentor enriches your own life as well as that of your mentees"

Optometrist, Don Williams, and consultant ophthalmologist, Professor Peter Shah, explain the mutual benefits of their mentor-mentee relationship

Don and Prof Shah

Don Williams, consultant optometrist and director at Edgbaston Eye Clinic

When did your mentorship with Professor Shah start?

Over the years, I’ve been tutored and mentored by various brilliant consultants. You can’t really put a price on the experience that you gain over time.

My practice is in a medical building. It’s not a High Street practice. I don’t sell glasses, see children, or do routine sight tests. I only deal with clinical, medical problems. When I started the practice, in 2017, I had Professor Shah and others to help. As a team, we supported each other. Then, Professor Shah took a lead role in mentoring.

That relationship has got a lot stronger over the past few years. I’ve just finished my diploma in glaucoma, and he mentored me through that. Every Sunday morning at 8am we had an hour’s Zoom meeting, where we discuss complex cases and how to get through the exams. It’s great, because you don’t feel isolated.

If I’ve seen a complex case, we’ll discuss how to best manage the patients. Professor Shah and I run a complex glaucoma clinic on a Friday, where a lot of tutoring and mentoring goes on.

How long have you been aware that mentoring is important?

I realised really early in my career. When I started, I was a locum. I realised, after about a year, that my knowledge was not as good as I thought. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I need more experience. I need someone to really guide me here.’ So, I left High Street practice after about a year and a half and started doing hospital work. I knew that to learn, I needed someone who knew better than me.

I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve worked alongside really helpful, optometrist-friendly consultants. Mentoring is very important. I cannot stress enough the importance of it.

How has mentoring improved your own workplace?

In terms of my work, obviously experience. I’m more comfortable to manage my patients. The more you broaden your comfort zone, the better it gets. You feel more comfortable managing your patients. Patients pick up on that. With that experience and that knowledge, you become more comfortable as a clinician. For me, that’s the main value: the experience and comfort of managing my patients.

What are the mutual benefits between mentors and mentees?

It works both ways. There’s a clinical benefit, because we both learn. When there’s co-management, it makes it easier.

What is the most significant lesson you have learned from your mentor relationships over the years?

You have to listen to your patients. Don’t assume that you know everything. Always ask, if you’re not sure. We’re dealing with people, and trying to help people. I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to every patient.

Do you have advice for other optometrists on finding a mentor?

It’s not easy. Not all consultants are optometrist-friendly, unfortunately. It’s difficult to find a good mentor. I’ve been lucky.

When you come out of university and your pre-reg year, you think that you know everything. But you should realise that your knowledge is fairly basic. So, to improve on your knowledge and experience, it’s important to find someone who is willing to tutor you; to mentor you.

Finding that right person is not easy, but you have to put yourself out there. Hospital work is a good start. When I first started doing hospital work, I wanted the clinical benefit of it: the experience and the knowledge. I was thirsty for that at the start. You have to enjoy the benefit of learning. I think that’s very important.

To improve on your knowledge and experience, it’s important to find someone who is willing to tutor you

Optometrist, Don Williams

Professor Peter Shah, consultant ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist

How long have you been aware of the value of mentoring?

I’ve been very fortunate. When I look at my whole career, 42 years in the NHS, I’ve had a continuous stream of great mentors. So, I knew the power of mentoring through direct experience as a mentee.

I started mentoring people when I was at registrar level, but when you become a consultant, you’ve got a much bigger team and you interact with more people. So, when I became a consultant in 1999, I really threw myself into mentoring.

Do you have any advice on becoming a mentor?

Learn a little bit about mentoring. There’s quite a lot known about how to set up a mentoring framework, and how to do it properly. The three pillars of mentoring are support, challenge, and vision. You need to understand the interrelationship of those. It’s not just about supporting someone. There’s also a challenge in moving them out of their comfort zone, and vision in giving them a role model or something they can aim for in the future. It’s worth investing a bit of time in mentoring skills.

Mentoring is not the same as coaching. You’re not a tennis coach, which is a very specific type of relationship. Mentoring is not the same as a therapist. If your mentee has mental health issues, you are exactly the wrong person to be dealing with it. That’s a therapist’s job. The mentoring relationship could move into areas which are not your strength, and are not appropriate for you as a mentor. You need to set those boundaries.

When I look at my whole career, 42 years in the NHS, I’ve had a continuous stream of great mentors

Consultant ophthalmologist Professor Peter Shah

What do you think the key benefits of mentoring are?

The most important reason for doing it is to share knowledge, and to help the mentee become the best possible person they can be to achieve their dreams. You’re trying to give them skills that help them to be the best clinician that they could be. As well as knowledge, you may be imparting things around time management or management of energy or wellbeing. It’s a very holistic thing. You’re caring for that person, as well as sharing knowledge with them.

Becoming a mentor enriches your own life as well as that of your mentees. There are huge benefits that you accrue for yourself, as a mentor, not least of which is that you have a great network of people that you can call on to work with. You future-proof yourself, because many of the people you’re mentoring might be a lot younger than you. Maybe they’re more IT proficient; maybe they know things that you don’t know. In interacting with them, you’re going to learn new skills yourself. Mentor because it’s the right thing to do, but don’t forget that it benefits you as well. Mentoring is a two-way relationship. You’ve got knowledge flowing both ways.

Mentoring is a two-way relationship. You’ve got knowledge flowing both ways

Consultant ophthalmologist, Professor Peter Shah

Any advice on finding a mentor or finding a mentee?

Finding mentees is relatively easy. I mentor two people a year, and that takes quite a bit of time. I couldn’t afford to spend time in a mentoring relationship that came to nothing. As part of the boundary management at the start, I’ll set that potential mentee a small task. That will assess how keen they are to do it, how motivated, how much time they’ve got themselves. Is it the right time in their life? If they pass that, I’ll take them on. If they fail that test, it’s just not the right time for us to be involved. That is critical, otherwise you can waste a huge amount of time.

Finding mentees is not a difficulty. If you let it be known that you want to help people, more people will come to you than you can mentor.

Finding a mentor is tougher. The number one piece of advice is to avoid isolation. If you’re isolated, and you’re not part of a network, it’s going to be very hard for you to find the kind of people who would want to help you. There are some optometrists who in their daily practice are quite isolated. Your first step might be to try and build networks, maybe with other optometrists or maybe with secondary care, or maybe through social media. That’s where you’re going to find mentors. They’re not just going to walk into your life. It’s an active process to find one.

The very last person that I mentored, for his glaucoma diploma exam, was Don Williams. Don has put a huge amount of time into creating networks within optometry, but he’s also connected to a lot of specialists in secondary care. He’s put a lot of effort into those relationships.

How do you think the mentor/mentee relationship can positively influence the workplace environment?

Mentoring is a nurturing thing. If as many of us as possible mentor, we’re creating a more nurturing workplace, where people can be listened to and express their ideas. It moves us away from bullying cultures and other things that are not good, like sexism and racism. In a very broad sense, mentoring allows you to influence the culture of an organisation or a profession, in a very positive way.