Changing of the Guard: When your mentor leaves and you have very large shoes to fill

This week is pretty momentous for me.  My boss and mentor of over 18 years officially retires.  His name is Dr John Hartley and to be honest he’s a bit of a microbiology legend, so much so we are talking about having a sign up in the IPC office that says ‘what would John do?’.  He is a completely different personality type to me, he’s an efficient, detail orientated perfectionist and most of all completely calm.  When John is in a meeting he sits there in calm contemplation and then swoops in to ask the one question that cuts right through all the noise, right to the heart of the matter.

John has been my boss from my first day as a trainee Clinical Scientist 18 years ago, when i didn’t even know what S. aureus was, right through till last year when I got my Consultant post and became his replacement as Infection Control Doctor.  He has been with me through marriage, deaths, PhD, FRCPath and every other significant career moment and so to say that I’m affected by his going is somewhat of an understatement.  So how do we cope when these moments of big change come around and we have to find a new way forward?

Trying to remember I am enough

John is loved by so many people and I have looked up to him for most of my adult life. It is normal therefore that everyone is mourning his moving on, it is almost like we are all grieving the loss of the familiar.  I definitely feel this.  I also find it hard in another regard, as we all grieve as part of the change there is a lot of understandable discussion about how amazing he is both as a person and in his job.  I feel this keenly.  I also feel very exposed by it as the person who is stepping into the space he occupied. It plays into all of those aspects of imposter syndrome where you ask ‘am I good enough?’.  As I said, we are very different people, John has an eye for details that I just don’t, he is calm and measured whilst I have a tendency to jump first and process everything of the fly.  This means that I will never live up to ‘what would John do?’ and still be authentically me.  There is therefore the inevitable chain of thought that if John is amazing at his job and I can’t be like John, does that mean that I will never be able to be equally amazing at that job?  Am I doomed to mediocrity before I even start?  It’s not like I’m a little bit ‘not like John’, the way we interact with the world is quite obviously different and so I’m very obviously not like him in every meeting I have and every interaction I’m involved with.  It’s easy therefore to let the self doubt and panic set in.

So how am I managing it?  I’m trying to not get too sucked into the John conversations. Not because I don’t think he is truly one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met, but because for the sake of my sanity I can’t get drawn into comparisons.   I’m trying to remember that despite the fact that he has occupied that role for my entire career that his way isn’t the only way of doing things, and that I have to try and play to my own strengths rather than attempting to imitate someone elses.  I am also trying to hold onto the fact that at no point in the last year where I have had the role instead of him has anyone questioned my right to be in it, or has he disagreed with any of my decisions when I’ve sat down and chatted them through with him.  He has been nothing but supportive of me being in post, and therefore if I’m going to emulate anything it should be the faith that he has in me that I struggle to have in myself.

I don’t have to have all the answers…….yet

John was Infection Control Doctor at my Trust for over 20 years, I have been ICD for 18 months, so what I need to ask myself is ‘am I comparing like with like?’.  It’s tempting to benchmark in the moment, it’s tempting to compare how well respected and how established he is against how I feel I’m perceived.  The thing is I’m benchmarking in completely the wrong way, I need to be benchmarking against how he was 20+ years ago.  Otherwise I’m setting myself an impossible task; I can’t benchmark against him now as I’m setting myself up to fail, and I can’t benchmark against him all that time ago as I don’t have the data.  That said, I suspect that Dr Hartley was probably born amazing and so it would be a challenging thing either way.  So, should I be benchmarking against him at all?  Should I instead be taking the time to reach out to my contemporaries to see how they are feeling and how they are dealing with similar changes?

The other thing that occurs to me whilst I write this post is whether anything has in fact changed, and whether benchmarking is actually the way to go at all.  You see, the thing is, I’m not really comparing like with like. John is a Consultant Microbiologist from a traditional medical background, I’m a Healthcare Scientist.  I’ve spent my entire career being the only person who was doing quite what I was doing and carving my own path.  Why suddenly now that John is leaving am I abandoning the approach that has stood me in good stead and trying to be the same as everyone else, instead of embracing that difference in a way I always have?  Why am I so tempting to discard everything that has previously made me, me?  The more I question, the more I doubt and so I need to return to embracing my gut and knowing that I am exactly where I always wanted to end up, and stop being so scared that it will all be somehow taken away from me.

Take a leaf out of his book

If I’m not going to benchmark against him, what am I going to do?  Well, first things first I’m going to reflect on what it is about him as a boss, a clinician and a leader that makes me and others respect him so much.  I want to do this not in order to copy him or compare myself to him, but in order to be inspired by him to be better. 

One of the things that John has done for me be, ever since I joined, is that he has championed me in rooms where I wasn’t present or wasn’t invited into.  He has never let our difference in professional backgrounds stand as an obstacle to what he thought I could achieve and, when I’ve needed him, he’s fought tooth and nail to guard my corner.  He has also sometimes been more honest with me than I could handle in the moment, and never stopped pushing and challenging me to be better than I believed I could be.

No matter what room he has been in John has always been his honest and authentic self, he’s not tried to curry favours, he’s not tried to manipulate or play power games.  He has always gone into every room with both his staff and his patients at the centre of his decision making.  The ability he has therefore demonstrated to handle conflict and disagreement is something that I can but admire.  He’s not scared of being the lone voice in a room if he believes that he is doing it to give a voice to others.

All of these things are things that I want to do, want to be better at and strive towards every day.  There will be times when I don’t achieve them, but by using him as a continued source of inspiration, rather than a benchmarking tool I use to beat myself up, I hope to become a better version of myself rather than a shadow of John.

Find my new allies

One of the other actions I’ve realised will be important for me in moving forward is be proactive in identifying new mentors and allies. People who will push and support me in being brave, and in standing up for both myself and others.  Losing a keystone of your network and support mechanisms is always jarring, but it is also an opportunity to evaluate what your needs are now, and where you need to develop your networks further for the fresh challenges ahead of you.  Finding mentors is often a fortunate accident, but there are also times when you need to actively seek out those people who will be able to help in any new phase of your career.

I’m also beginning to realise that I need to maximise my horizontal networks as well as looking upward for improved learning and guidance from those ahead of me.  I’ve always found peer support like this organically, but I think the time has come to undertake deliberate action and to actively invest resources into it.  This has been of great benefit in my role as Lead Healthcare Scientist but isn’t something I’ve attempted so much in my clinical role, partly because I suspect I’ve been too comfortable and had such great existing support.  I have plenty of connections in this area, but turning those connections into something more requires time and the building up of trust and shared experiences.

I will have different battles and different challenges

Firming up networks and identifying new sources of support is important as well because I think the challenges ahead of me are going to be different to the challenges I’ve already faced.  John has done an amazing job of leading the way and has built excellent foundations for me to stand upon, but the world of healthcare has changed so much in the 20+ years he’s been in post, and it would be naive of me to think it won’t continue to fluctuate.  All of this means that if I am going to be able to tackle these new challenges and prepare for a dynamic future, I can’t just rely on what has been before.  I need to have my toolbox ready to enable me to deal with what lies ahead, and a really important part of that is making sure that I have people around me who will challenge my thinking and inspire new ideas.  If we want to create real change and improvement we have to be prepared to take a leap into the unknown.  Sometimes this is helped if you have people around you who are both supportive but who can als give you a little push to get over any hesitancy. Although, in my case, it’s more likely they may need to stop me gambolling down the road with too much alacrity.   Finding your tribe has always and will continue to be important to me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I find this all so hard is that the reality is hitting me that I’m no longer the new kid on the block. I’m no longer the young whippersnapper who is coming in and seeing the world in a completely different way.  I myself am becoming the old guard, I’m becoming the person who has been somewhere long enough to harken back to different times when things weren’t the same.  This presents a lot of cognitive dissonance when at the same point you still feel like you are new and haven’t quite got a handle on things.  Just merely realising this helps, it helps to see the strength in where I’m at.  I am still young, I am still new, and the position is novel enough to me that I can see 101 ways where I would like to grow it and me for (fingers crossed) the better.  I have also been in the Trust for long enough that I know how things work, I know who to speak to, I know where the barriers and opportunities might be.  If you look at it in this light, I am in the best possible position to embrace what is to come.  So, although I am still grieving the loss of the past, I am beginning to be excited about the future.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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