From the Executive Director

Tom Burkgren Mentoring

As is often the case, I am writing about a subject that has been inspired by personal experience. In September 2005, a friend of mine, Rich, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He was told that there was no treatment available to extend his life. His response was "Well, I guess that's not the news we wanted to hear." In typical fashion, he went back home to his family and to his life's work. In a short 5 weeks he lost his battle to this killer disease.

Through the funeral and in talking with other friends, I came to the realization of how Rich had mentored me and many others during his life. Throughout my early days in practice, he offered me business advice and assistance. More importantly, he offered his friendship. As the years went by, we did less business together but our friendship persisted. During this time, I watched as he transitioned from a job he had held for several years to starting from scratch as the owner of a fledgling business. This business venture grew from a humble beginning to a very successful and thriving enterprise.

Rich was good at business, but his greatest strength was not in finance or accounting. He was great at building relationships. He thrived in a tough business environment because he instinctively knew that the foundation of a successful business was based on relationships. Whether dealing with customers or suppliers or colleagues, Rich recognized that relationships were to be valued and cared for. Business was not just about beating someone out of another dollar or getting ahead at all cost.

Rich also served as a mentor to me on the importance of family. Business was business, but family was the priority. He once shared with me how hard it was to send his son off to college. They enjoyed a close relationship and he missed him so much. Rich also knew how great it was for his son to start this new phase in life. Rich's relationships with his wife, son, and daughter were characterized by unconditional love and support.

I will continue to miss Rich, but his mentoring continues to have a lasting impact on me. A long time ago, I heard a speaker distil mentoring down to the following: "Find someone who knows more than you and learn from him. Then find someone who needs to know what you have learned and teach him." This is perhaps an overly simple definition, but it is certainly one that I agree with. Keeping it simple does not make it any less effective when put into action.

Mentoring relationships can take many forms. The value of mentoring is not found in the structure of the relationship. Value is created in the transfer of knowledge and experience. It can happen in a short time frame or it can persist over a lifetime. You can probably identify a number of mentors over your career, with each relationship characterized differently. It may have been a one-time occurrence when you received some wise advice. It may have been a long-term relationship with constant contact. No matter what the time frame, if learning and teaching have occurred, then mentoring has transpired.

The topic of mentoring came up during the AASV Board of Directors' last meeting. Although we currently have no formal mentoring program, the leadership of AASV recognizes the need for mentoring. With rising concern over the need for more food animal veterinarians, the AASV has initiated efforts in attracting more student members. These efforts have been successful: AASV student membership currently stands at an all-time high since the mid-1970s.

However, the attraction to food animal medicine cannot be sustained if we sit back and rest on our laurels. Sustainability is only possible if we mentor students, recent graduates, and colleagues. I am not advocating for a formal program. I am advocating for AASV members to mentor and be mentored in whatever form works best for them. Many members are already doing this, but we can always do better at building relationships.

I challenge you to look back on the last time you mentored someone or someone mentored you. If it has been more than 3 months, it has been too long. "Mentor" is both a noun and a verb. It requires action. It requires recognition that we can all benefit from mentoring relationships, whether we are teaching or learning.

If I learned nothing else from Rich, I have learned this: at the end of my life, I will not reflect on how much money I have accumulated or the business I have done, but rather on the people who touched my life and the relationships that enriched it.

-- Tom Burkgren