How ‘Drive-By Mentoring’ Changed Drex DeFord’s Life

Drex DeFord, VP/CIO, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Drex DeFord, CIO, Steward Health Care

I’ve never really subscribed to a formal mentoring philosophy. Mentoring has just happened for me. To me. Usually without a lot of structure and with zero fanfare.

I’m sure this means I lack style, and further signals my unwillingness to go along with the mentoring “norm”. It might also signal my unwillingness to put the concept of mentoring into a well-defined box. In fact, I admit that it flies directly in the face of my usual desire to put everything into a thoroughly-documented “Clark Kent” process so we can avoid the “Superman” unplanned emergency moments that inundate IS departments throughout healthcare. For me, mentoring is one of those processes that work best when it’s unstructured and left in an unforced state.

I’ve been mentored, informally, by literally dozens of people. I recently sent a note to my staff about my high-school football coach/driver’s education teacher who mentored me through the last couple of years of high school. His mentoring was done mostly through a loud, yelling technique he had perfected. But once I got past the volume in the “channel” he used to communicate, his message was unmistakably clear: focus is important; prioritization is a must; filtering is critical. In a nutshell, he said most of the stuff we deal on a daily basis is noise; don’t be distracted by the noise. Filter, prioritize, and focus. In fact, he never actually said those exact words. Kate can’t actually publish the words he used, so trust me, that’s the distilled version of his message.

Upon graduating high school, I had two personal priorities: get off the farm and go to college. Unfortunately, I had no money. So I thought I was stuck. Then I encountered a new concept I now call “drive-by mentoring.”

One afternoon, I took my rusted junker into the Midas shop for a repair. While sitting in the waiting room, I struck up a conversation with another customer who was driving a new Nissan. I asked him what he did for work, and he went on to tell me that he was an Army Sergeant. He described the military’s tuition assistance program, and how he went to school at night, got his degree, and was working part-time making good money. That’s how he could afford the car.

To this day, I have no idea what that guy’s name is or what became of him. But within months of that conversation, I had joined the military and started going to college at night. Within a few years, I’d been selected for a direct commission as an Air Force officer. That “drive-by mentoring” changed my life.

Informal mentoring has occurred in other forms throughout my life. Some of my mentors have been with me for more than 20 years. Others have, over time, gone from being the mentor, to the mentored, and sometimes back to the mentor again. I like those relationships the best.

One of my best mentors — the longest-running mentor in my life — gave me this advice when I was a young hospital administrator doing my best to figure out how to do everything possible with my new PC: “Give up your fascination with computers, Drex. There’s no future in it.”

Sometimes your mentors are wrong. Although this particular mentor has played a major role in my career has given me tons of great advice over a number of years, in this case, I chose not to follow his coaching. Remember, in the end, mentors are there to advise — not mandate. The final decisions about your career belong to you.

Having good mentors made me want to model that behavior. As a result, I’ve tried to be a good mentor to others. In some cases, those I’ve mentored have become my best friends, and in other cases, the relationship remained strictly business. Either way, I’ve always looked at mentoring as a two-way street. In the best relationships, there are times I’m not sure if I’m giving advice, or getting it!

Thinking back, it’s pretty easy to say most of those I mentored long-term were already 90 percent on-target. Their “machine” usually only had a gear or two out of alignment, and some minor adjusting was all that was required. In fact, I did none of the “adjusting” personally — I usually just pointed out the issue and gave a little advice on how to fix the problem. Then I coached, coached, coached. Those being mentored did all the hard work, and their hard work has led to some pretty great careers. Hard work plus job experience, of course.

Speaking of experience, those I’ve mentored often asked how I “planned” my career. I’ve apparently “done a lot of cool stuff” and “been in lots of great jobs.” First off, every job has been a challenge. Here’s my secret career plan: Find the most messed-up place possible. The job that will make you the most uncomfortable. Then dive in head-first, work hard, and focus on fixing those underlying broken processes. All of my CIO jobs have been painful (at best) early on. But through those “painful” times comes strong experience. I honestly believe that if the job is tough enough, you can gain “compressed experience.” It’s like dog years — for every one year in a super-bad job, you can actually get seven years’ worth of normal experience. Okay, it might not be a seven-to-one ratio, but many of you know what I’m talking about.

In the end, here’s the best mentoring advice I can give you. Work really hard at what you’re doing right now. Make the place better every day, even if it’s just a tiny bit. Build good processes. Strive for perfection but have patience, and push your teammates for the same. At some point you’ll realize others were watching, because they’ll offer you a new challenge. A bigger and more complicated job. One with dog years’ worth of experience. Talk to your mentor about the opportunity, weigh the pros and cons, and then choose. And never regret the decision.

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