Everyone needs a little guidance at some point in their career. You don’t need to have a formal mentor/mentee relationship to benefit from someone else’s experience. But you do need to know the right questions to ask a mentor, in order to unlock their wisdom.
Mentors can appear along your professional path in all kinds of different ways. You may even be lucky enough to have a few people who fill this role in your professional life, rather than just one.
How you find your mentor isn’t important. It’s how you utilize the relationship that really matters.
Why you need a mentor
If you’re like many workers today, you’re fiercely independent. You probably choose your career path on your own. (Don’t forget that for most of history this was determined by your parents or options were limited by social customs.) You worked hard throughout your education and training. And, finally, you were hired without the help of nepotism or any other “handout.”
But, the fact is that countless people helped you to get where you are today. Where would you be without the people who raised you, the teachers who taught you and the friends who loved and supported you? You read books written by experts who’ve come before you, benefiting from both their mistakes and their wisdom.
No professional is an island. Having a mentor doesn’t mean that you “need help.” It simply means that you’re human and that you understand that you can grow and learn through the hard-won experience of others. There are a lot of fantastic benefits and advantages associated with having a mentor. It can help you grow your career, your skills and your relationships. It allows you to make better decisions and find answers to your questions as they arise.
However, your relationship with your mentor is just like any other relationship. You’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you slack on the connection and don’t prepare for your meetings together, you won’t benefit as much as you could. But, if you’re thoughtful about the time you spend with your mentor, you could learn a great deal.
A few questions to ask your mentor:
1. What can I do to make our meetings most convenient for you?
Being prepared to work around your mentor’s schedule can go a long way toward helping you forge a strong bond. The relationship’s focus is often on you. But, don’t forget to consider your mentor’s needs and preferences when asking for face-to-face time.
Asking how you can arrange things in a way that’s best for them is considerate and simply the right thing to do. So, remember to check in once in a while about how you can adjust things to make the connection as easy as possible for your mentor. Also, don’t forget to say thank you at the end of your meetings. It’s a simple gesture, but a very important one.
2. What do these words actually mean?
The language of any given profession is pretty confusing sometimes. Industry-specific jargon can be difficult to decipher when you’re new to a field or a job. But, your mentor can help you to get to the bottom of things.
Ask your mentor if and when you’re confused about what something means. Maybe your boss used a phrase on your performance review, and you aren’t sure exactly how to interpret it. Or, perhaps a client tossed out a term that you need to know more about. You mentor can be a great source of information in these kinds of circumstances.
It’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything. Demonstrating this kind of humility to your mentor will help to strengthen and deepen your relationship. (Just be sure not to bother your mentor with a question that Google can answer.)
3. What do you wish you'd known when you were starting out?
You know what they say about hindsight being 20/20. It’s super easy to look back with the wisdom and knowledge of experience and know what you should have done differently. Why not ask your mentor what they’ve learned that they can share with you?
Your mentor might say that they wish they’d gone back to school for an advanced degree sooner. Or, maybe they wish they’d developed certain relationships more fully. As with everything else, their ideas may or may not apply to you. You can decide what advice to take and what to leave behind. It all starts by asking your mentor what they wish they’d known when they were starting out, or at your stage in their career.
4. Can I shadow you sometime?
I have found having employees shadow their mentors gives them the best opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the business. This way the individual shadowing the mentor can learn all the aspects of the business in a practical way. Another benefit of shadowing is that the employee with learn the most efficient way to work with someone much more experienced than they are.
Spending time with your mentor in their environment can teach you a lot. Even if your jobs or even your industry are pretty different, there’s still a lot to be gained from the conversation.
The truth is, you can learn something from watching almost anyone do their job. Be on the lookout for what works and what doesn’t. And, enjoy the experience. This is an opportunity to bond with your mentor as much as it is a chance to learn something new.
5. What am I missing?
One great way to show your mentor that you’re really truly open to their feedback is to ask for it directly. Try asking your mentor if there’s anything that you’re missing. Is there something they can see about you that you can’t? Let your mentor know that you are open to any and all feedback.
For example, perhaps your mentor feels that you should dress more professionally. But, if you never think to ask about dress, they might never offer up this information. Or, maybe they think you would be wise to distance yourself from a certain project or role. No matter what the case may be, you’re keeping the door wide open for any and all feedback when you ask your mentor if there’s anything you’re missing.
6. How do you unplug?
Every job and industry is a little different. And, some folks are better at detaching from the workday and enjoying some needed downtime than others. Ask your mentor how they unplug at the end of a long day. They might have some tips, or maybe even some stories to share, that can help you develop your own positive habits.
7. How do others see me?
One of the most amazing things a mentor can do is hold up a mirror, so to speak, and help you get to know yourself a little better. Next time you’re together, initiate a conversation about how you’re perceived professionally. Ask about what strengths others notice and what weaknesses are rising to the surface.
The conversation will likely naturally turn to what you can do to improve your skills, your presentation and your reputation. Developing a better understanding of other’s perceptions will help you direct your attention in an advantageous way.
8. How can I do this one thing better?
Your mentor has practical advice to share with you as well as far-reaching wisdom. Before your next meeting, think about the day-to-day duties and tasks of your job. Is there one thing in particular that you’re struggling with? Maybe you’d like to do that thing better, or more efficiently, or in a creative new way.
Once you’ve identified the task you’d like to work on or improve, ask your mentor about it. Asking how you can do something specific a little bit better could provide some rich and useful insights.
9. Do you have any book recommendations?
One thing we know for sure about the reading habits of highly successful people is that they are significant. CEOs and other leaders tend to read a lot. Bill Gates, for example, reads 50 books a year. And, Warren Buffet averages about 500 pages a day. When you think about it, it really stands to reason. There is so much to be learned and gained from staying not only informed, but curious, about your industry and the world in general.
Ask your mentor if they have any book recommendations that they can share with you. They might point you toward books that relate directly to your profession, or even to tomes outside of a career-specific genre. Either way, you could learn a lot from reading some, or all, of the books your mentor recommends.
10. Who else would you recommend I meet?
“Making the most of your mentorship is extremely important, and expanding your network is as well,” says Rob Fulton, founder of Automation Heroes, in an interview with Inc.. “So when you have time with your mentor, ask them who else you should contact to help you with your beginning experiences. Most likely they’ll refer you to one or two people – but that’s more than you had before, and they’ll appreciate you taking initiative in asking.”
Always remember that no one person can, or should, be your solo guide to career and professional success. It’s important to develop connections with multiple people who can help you learn and flourish. You mentor just might have some ideas about other folks you could connect with. You just have to ask.
— Gina Belli
This article originally appeared on PayScale.