From the CEO


Mentoring: A Powerful Learning Strategy for Leadership Development

By Mike R. Fraser, PhD  

“A brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

--John Crosby, Author

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on “people development” sponsored by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Women’s and Children’s Health Policy Center. The panel featured four MCH professionals discussing our thoughts on how to best cultivate maternal and child health leaders and support people development activities in our own agencies. The dialogue was fascinating and the four of us brought different perspectives to the conversation from our vantage points in academia, government and the nonprofit health sector.

One point on which we all agreed was the importance of mentoring as a people development strategy. After sharing our autobiographies it was clear that we had all benefited a great deal from mentors. Mentors guided and prepared us for future leadership positions. We also agreed that we would not be where we are today were it not for the interest and influence of mentors. And we agreed that our work lives would be incomplete were it not for our relationship with “mentees” and those whom we currently mentor. Indeed, we felt almost obligated to mentor colleagues in our organizations as payback for the contributions our mentors had made to our own professional lives.

After the panel, I was struck by the simplicity of mentoring as a strategy and its profound implications for workforce and leadership development. Mentoring can certainly be time intensive — to do it right takes routine and regular communication and engagement — but compared to other kinds of people development, such as classroom training, mentoring requires only a modest financial investment and is often performed for free. Mentor relationships can be relatively unstructured or very formal, depending on the context and the need. Mentoring epitomizes the best of adult learning theory: peers learning from peers, engaging in real-life, case-based learning strategies, and applying the concepts shared in a mentoring relationship to everyday life back at work. And in tight financial times, mentoring may be the only available training option for many MCH programs which could not otherwise afford to support people development programs and others kinds of skills-building for their staff. 

AMCHP engages in mentoring in a number of different ways. Several of our staff have mentors in their specific work areas, for example mentors in similar positions at other associations here in Washington. New AMCHP Board members are assigned “seasoned” Board members as mentors to help guide and orient new members on Board processes and procedures. Our Family Scholars are matched with Family Mentors as part of our Family Scholars Program. And the New Director Mentor Program (NDMP) matches new Title V directors (MCH and CYSHCN directors) with veteran Title V directors to share information, compare programs, and address challenges and opportunities in the mentees’ programs. Participants in the NDMP report that it is an invaluable learning experience and contributes a great deal to their understanding of their roles and responsibilities as MCH leaders. This is true for both mentees and their mentors. As part of the NDMP, participants arrange routine conference call “check-in” times and the mentee is also encouraged to travel to the mentor’s state to see what their mentor’s program looks like. It is a great program that we are looking to grow here at AMCHP so that all new and acting Title V directors can take part.

I can think of many ways that AMCHP builds the capacity of Title V agencies but few get me more jazzed than the NDMP. Why? Because I know firsthand the power of mentoring and the payoff such arrangements have to people development activities and organizational effectiveness. As new Title V program directors confront the many challenges of their positions, the power of peers learning from peers has proven to be very effective in building MCH leadership competencies in state programs. It makes sense that a national association such as AMCHP promotes mentoring and engages in programs to develop leaders through mentoring relationships and other, similar peer-to-peer learning strategies.

Author John Crosby stated that “mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” As we look toward the future of maternal and child health, we are going to have to continue to learn from each other and expand the number of brains to pick, ears to listen, and arms to push us in the right direction. To meet the challenges and opportunities of this new era for maternal and child health, mentoring may be one the best investments we can make to assure we develop the MCH workforce. I look forward to continuing to work with our staff, members and partners to build effective mentoring and other workforce development programs for Title V programs and partners. 

[The panel session on People Development is part of a series developed by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Maternal and Child Health Leadership Skills Development Series. The video of the session should be available later this spring at]