Your Mentor Is Leaving, Now What?

This Coaching Forum is about a dialogue I recently had with Antonia, a nurse leader who will turn 40 this year. Antonia shared that she has been honored to have several outstanding mentors who have provided her counsel and genuine friendship in recent years. One of those trusted mentors is retiring soon, and a number of Antonia’s other colleagues are also taking leave of their senior leadership roles. So, now Antonia and other once-young leaders are moving into the positions previously occupied by those who were more seasoned and experienced.

This has given Antonia pause as she considers the doors that are opening around her. In a candid conversation, she shared her thoughts and feelings about the changes she sees and the challenges and opportunities she is experiencing.

With Antonia’s permission, I offer a snapshot of our conversation. Although these views may be the same or different than yours, our hope is that the ideas here will stimulate reflection and dialogue with you and other readers. What are your thoughts about the “changing of the guard,” the implications of that change, and the best ways forward for the next generation of nurse leaders?

Here are a few of Antonia’s reactions to the eminent departure of her mentors:

  1. On balance, Antonia feels well prepared for increasingly responsible leadership
    roles. She frequently acknowledges the generosity and wisdom of the mentors
    who have helped her gain this level of preparation.
  2. Antonia also acknowledges that she did not always feel welcomed or “ready” for
    leadership. In fact, when she first became a manager some years ago, she felt that her voice was tolerated, but not solicited. Fortunately, that changed over time, and Antonia attributes much of that change to the sensitivity of the leaders around her. They became aware of their own biases about “emerging leaders,” and when they did, they consciously opened their minds and encouraged broader participation at the leadership table.
  3. Despite her growth and supportive colleagues, Antonia still feels a bit intimidated
    when she works with “leadership experts.” Antonia has opinions, and she believes
    they are valid, but she often holds back while more seasoned others speak their
    minds. As she told me this, it was clear that Antonia has compassion for herself. She is not “beating herself up,” but even so, she has 2 concerns about her reluctance to speak up:

a. Without arrogance, she wonders whether her reticence causes her to
withhold information that could lead to better decision making, and

b.  What will she and others like her do when the senior leaders are no
longer there?

Antonia’s last question paved the way for the rest of our conversation. As a generation of leaders prepares to retire, what insights and reflective questions might be helpful for younger leaders whose peers and mentors are departing? Here are a few of our thoughts:

  1. When your leadership is called for, do not sit it out and wait until you are asked to step up. Instead, pause and give the situation your undivided and thoughtful attention, even if it is just for a few minutes. Then take your best shot. If it helps, think about what your mentor or another admired leader would do in the same situation.
  2. Watch others as they lead and consider what works and what does not. This is common advice, yet its importance cannot be overstated. It is easy to forget to observe behavior and impact when we are busy meeting the demands on us every day.
  3. Do the right thing as you understand it at the time. Then reflect and learn from your successes and your mistakes.
  4. Ask trusted others for their feedback when you are not certain about how you are doing. Then consider the “fit” of the feedback. Does it ring true? Is the feedback about you and your leadership in the situation, or is it mostly a projection of the provider’s personality and wishes? Both types of feedback are common; either way, what portion of the feedback is useful to your own learning and growth?
  5. Frame your feedback requests clearly so your colleagues can give you specific rather than general information. If you do not get what you need with your initial question, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. For example, “Can you tell me how I sounded when I led that meeting?” could lead to a flattering but not particularly helpful answer like “you were great.” If that happens, you can ask for more precise feedback by saying “Thank you. In what ways did my approach work for you?” That could lead to an answer with more details: “You spoke unemotionally, and your requests were logical and easy to understand.”
  6. If you have the opportunity, talk with your departing mentors about how you are feeling before they go. If you are inclined, ask them about how they are feeling, too. Let them know their work and their influence will not end when they leave because they have instilled them in you. Let them know what you are excited about, and what causes you some concern, intimidation, or fear. Invite their suggestions for how to move forward.
  7. As new opportunities come your way, notice how you feel and reflect on when you have felt this way before. What was the situation, and what feelings did you have? How did you move through your feelings and the challenges you faced? What worked well and what was not so successful? What does your past experience teach you about what to do now?

Antonia and I welcome your thoughts, experience and guidance on these issues. Please feel free to share them by writing to us at

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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