Most of the mistakes I’ve made in my career were through acts of omission – as in things I didn’t do. Like the time we had a major issue brewing with one of our clients and I was asked to convene the all-hands-on-deck call to discuss the matter.

The call was a disaster.

With 24 people from three offices dialing in, including my boss and several executive committee members, the call meandered. I kept wondering why these senior people didn’t step up and take charge.

It wasn’t until my yearend review that I got feedback about my surprising lack of leadership. It turns out that as the convener, I was also expected to take ownership of leading the call.

Just as I needed to take ownership of this all-hands call despite other participants being more senior, the same holds true for taking ownership of your meetings with your mentor.

Having been a mentor and also a mentee, here are three tips that will help you have successful meetings with your mentor.

What we’re going to cover is:

  1. Content – what to talk about
  2. Starting strong – how to talk about it
  3. Managing the time (and your reputation)

When it comes to the meeting, it’s up to you to drive the agenda

Even though your mentor is likely to be senior to you, you need to be the one in charge of shaping what gets discussed and taking the initiative in the relationship. Your mentor is a resource available to help you navigate your career journey, but it’s your career not theirs.

And the more proactive you are about the topic areas you want to cover, the better the meeting will go. Doing a little preparation and pre-thinking about what you need their help with goes a long way.

Treat it as a business meeting

Come up with 1-2 topics or issues you’d like to get input on when you meet. This allows you to frame what needs to be accomplished in the meeting. Or as a CEO I know likes to say, “tell me what’s in the bucket of work”. That way, you can both know when you’ve gotten to “done” and feel the time together was worthwhile.

In contrast, one of my mentees had things the other way around. He would come into my office and expect me to do the work of figuring out what to talk about. Not only did the session wander, it felt like a waste of time for both of us. I began to question why we were meeting all. I also perceived him as passive and lacking leadership, which made me less inclined to advocate for him.

Which brings us to the second point.

The way you start sets the tone for the rest of the meeting

And how you handle each meeting sets the tone for the overall relationship. So it’s worth starting each meeting strong.

Here, I’m not talking about the opening greetings – by all means, engage in whatever level of greetings and initial “chit chat” that’s appropriate for the cultural context. This is about what happens once you’re ready to get down to business and lay out what’s in the “bucket of work” for the meeting. Or signal that there’s no work to be done because it’s an update.

Think of this as providing a headline or title for what’s to come. You’re setting out the scope and expectations for a successful meeting. Some crisp ways to set the tone include:

  • “I’d appreciate your advice on X and Y”, or
  • “The issue I’m dealing with is …” or
  • “I wanted to update you on how things went after implementing the advice you gave me last time.”

Then describe the situation concisely and succinctly

Identify the minimum amount of background they need in order to help you. Distill it down to the essence and tell the story in a way they can immediately grasp. See if you can do this in two minutes or less. It’s a skill that will help you in all areas of your career. After all, you can’t go wrong if you build a reputation for being a clear and concise communicator.

And this brings us to the third point.

Develop the reputation for running an efficient meeting

We’ve already established that you’re in charge of the meeting, even though your mentor is likely to be more experienced or senior than you. The main thing here is to manage the time well. Confirm the amount of time your mentor has available (just because the meeting is scheduled for 30 minutes doesn’t mean they still have 30 minutes). Then make sure you end on time. Better yet, finish early and give them the gift of having some time back.

In fact, think of your meetings as shorter conversations that happen more regularly. So instead of insisting on an hour for every meeting, think about whether 30 minutes will do. And at times, you might surprise yourself on what you can accomplish in just 10-20 minutes!

That way, your mentor won’t dread hearing from you, and you won’t feel like you’re imposing. It’s far better to have shorter more frequent meetings with your mentor than a marathon session once a year.

Now that we’ve covered what to talk about, how to talk about it and for how long, you may be wondering whether there’s anything you should avoid when it comes to meeting with your mentor.

While it’s a private conversation, you’re still in a professional setting

Many people forget this. Whether it’s due to nervousness, lack of judgment or the sheer relief that someone is willing to help you with an issue you’re facing, it’s easy to let every detail come gushing out. Or worse yet, talk about personal issues that would be more appropriate in a therapy session.

When that happened to me with a mentee, I felt afraid that I couldn’t help them. Worse yet, anything I said might do more harm than good. I was being pulled out of my depth and wasn’t sure what to do.

So in terms of what not to talk about, remember that this is not the time to relate the depth of your fears and let it all hang out. Instead, keep it professional and make yourself help-able.

Meeting with your mentor presents tremendous upside for your career

When you handle the meeting well, it gives you a chance to demonstrate leadership and polish your reputation for running an efficient meeting while also getting wise advice.

So set yourself up for success with your mentor: take charge of the content, start the meeting strong and manage the time well.

Which aspect of meeting with your mentor is the most challenging for you?

Leave a comment and let me know.