Professional Development

Mentoring Our Way To the Future

What happens to optometry if mentoring is lost?

By Roger Mummert
Content Director, Review of Optometric Business

June 6, 2018

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is called away to war, so he asks his friend Mentor to serve as a life guide for his young son, Telemachus. Unfortunately, Mentor falls short of the task, and the goddess Athena takes on his appearance to impart the confidence and assertiveness that Telemachus needs to meet life’s challenges.

Through the ages, the example of guiding and coaching in this epic tale came to be known as “mentoring.” Distinct from the book learning of a formal education, mentoring enables us to better navigate life and livelihood. In the guild system of Medieval Europe, many professions were regulated and closed to outsiders, so having a mentor was essential to developing a craft and earning one’s daily bread.

Fast forward to our time where business books and web sites on mentoring abound, as new types of mentoring emerge. Cited in Wikipedia:

Situational mentoring: A short-term mentorship by an outside expert.

Supervisory mentoring: Guidance from a “go to” manager.

Mentoring circles: Group-sourcing knowledge and strategies.

Flash mentoring: Short-term mentoring, often from a single encounter.

Diversity mentoring: Increasing sensitivity in our changing society.

Reverse mentoring: A two-way exchange where younger and older generations both share knowledge.

At the core of all types of mentoring is a common concept: the generation-to-generation exchange of knowledge that yields countless benefits in life and in business. This was the subject of a recent discussion at the Vision Source Exchange, where I sat down with Kristin O’Brien, OD, who heads the Mentor OD program at the alliance.


“Mentoring: Passing Knowledge Between Generations,” an ROB Roundtable with Kristin O’Brien, OD; Paul Williams, OD, and Jim Greenwood of Vision Source.

Mentoring is essential to continuity in the profession of optometry, Dr. O’Brien notes. Mentoring fills in many of the blanks in handling clinical issues, in developing people skills, and in conducting business processes that cannot all be taught in optometry schools.

“The mentor-mentee relationship works both ways,” Dr. O’Brien emphasizes. “Students gain confidence and information…and mentors often find their next associate.”

At ROB, we have seen how mentoring plays a major role in success in practice, through such programs as the Management & Business Academy (MBA), and through practice alliances, OD panels and round-tables where mentoring relationships emerge and grow. Such relationships guide ODs to expand their practices, meet staff challenges and set goals for personal fulfillment. The mentor-mentee relationship seems embedded in the profession of optometry.

All of which leads to concerns over a current trend of practice consolidation, in many cases backed by private equity funds. PE poses a new equation for these changing times: You be the doctor you were trained to be, and we’ll handle the business side.

That sounds appealing if you’re primarily focused on being an exceptional clinician, and many ODs are. Business ownership is not for everyone.

But for the entrepreneurial OD looking to realize the full-value potential of a successful optometric practice, that holds limited appeal. Entrepreneurs are driven to build value and gain a handsome return. Where goes the incentive to do that in this increasingly pervasive model?

And where goes the mentoring tradition of optometry? As more and more ODs transition simply to being clinicians, what happens to the mentor-mentee relationship? Perhaps in clinical areas that is sustained. But in business? Once incentives to succeed are removed, those essential knowledge synapses atrophy.

This loss is not unique to optometry. Talk to surgeons, talk to carpenters, talk to fisherman, and you’ll hear the same story. Once the bridge between generations is ruptured, the knowledge base of a profession, or trade, is all the poorer. And its future is less secure.

Returning to the Odyssey, who will be our Mentor and provide life guidance? And who will be our Athena, who steps in to embolden the profession to meet future challenges?

Roger Mummert is Content Director at Review of Optometric Business. Contact:


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