How to Have a Productive Meeting with Your Mentor
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:
- Content – what to talk about
- Starting strong – how to talk about it
- 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.
Thanks for the actionable advice. I’m entering a new mentoring relationship with a senior executive and appreciate the direct guidance on how to set the tone for the meeting.
Congratulations on your new mentoring relationship, Kim. Our timing is impeccable!
Wising you well on building this important relationship.
Very productive information. Communication is so important!!!
Yes, communication is key for our professional lives…and personal lives as well! Glad you found this productive.
I think it’s worth noting that most people don’t have an opportunity to work with a mentor which is why most people don’t ever get the chance to advance in their career.
Hi Sean – thank you for raising this interesting point. Perhaps you may be referring to formal mentoring programs that are set up by employers and only available to a small group of employees?
If that’s the case, the good news is that in my experience, the most effective mentoring relationships are built outside of those programs. And anyone can find their own mentors (and yes, it’s good to have more than one).
What you do is identify a few people you’d like to learn from (ie, they have more experience and expertise in an area that you are working on, whether that’s making sales calls, being more strategic, making the move from individual contributor to people manager, navigating the politics, or career advancement more broadly).
Then reach out to them to ask for advice. If you don’t already know them, you could get someone who knows both of you to make an introduction. Or even just send a very short email that says who you are and what it is about them that impresses you, and ask if they would be open to a 10-15 minute chat over a “virtual coffee”.
Most senior people love to give advice and share what they’ve learned. The worst that can happen is they say “no” – that’s why it’s good to reach out to a few people at a time. And the upside is you become more visible, you get some useful insights, and begin building a mentoring relationship.
Hope this helps, Sean – and looking forward to hearing how things go!
PS – You’re inspiring me to write a blog post on this topic as I’m sure you are not alone in wanting to have the opportunity to work with a mentor. Thank you!
Thank you so much May.
I didn’t have a clue but thanks to your various posts on mentorship, I fi nally had an idea on who my mentor would be,
Well, I’ll have to follow through on this one, see if it’s possible, but I wanted to thank you anyway for your insight and always caring about us and our careers.
You did more than any on “quarantined” days and this will not be forgotten.
I don’t really know what the situation is in the US right now but I hope sincerely that you’re not quarantined anymore and free to ” spread the word” to your safety of course.
If you may, send a salute to your father from me as he is a wise man and you’re lucky to have him (but you already know that),
May you and your family be well and I send you all my best regards from France. Keep us posted if you can!
Keep the good times going!
Many thanks Cecile – I truly appreciate your kind words! And I’m so pleased that you have identified a potential mentor and that you are going to follow through. That’s the way to success – take action and follow through. Trust your instincts.
And yes, I feel fortunate to have such a wise father – and a wise mother as well.
Wishing you well from the UK!
I was part of the Catalyst programme at MS and have been a followere of your blog since then.
Thank you for this helpful article. It reminded me that mentoring needs to be treated as a professional relationship, even though it’s built on personal rapport.
I make notes after each of the sessions with my mentor and they help me to set the tone for the next meeting. Even if I don’t have any issue in mind, sharing an update on the advice given at the previous meeting made my relationship with the mentor more fluid and it feels like this feedback works both ways, allowing my mentor to gain something from the experience too.
Thanks once again for your content!
Wonderful, Elya. I’m so pleased to hear you have a mentor and that you’re building the relationship well. Love that you make notes after each session which you use to set the tone for the next meeting.
This professional approach will serve you well! Keep going!
HI, do you have an agenda template?
Hi Caroline – thanks for asking! I don’t at this time, but think this is a great idea. Let me get to work to create one…!
Valuable tips to limit the content, to deliver best outcome.
Best advice I ever read about Mentoring.
Recently, I have entered my first Mentorship relationship. As English being my tertiary language and my Mentor being Australian, I am afraid that I will not be able to fully express myself which lead me to feel nervous during the meeting.
Your advice is the best one I ever found on the internet.
I’m glad this advice is serving you well, Enkhjin. And congratulations on entering your first mentorship relationship.
Maybe you can express this concern to your mentor and you can work on it together.
Thank you for posting this helpful set of talking points on how to frame follow-up mentor/mentee conversations. It was particularly useful because I have a formal mentor relationship through my employer and I am not always sure what to discuss or what is our common ground, since he is a senior executive in a very different part of the company. Using your advice, I was able to propose a thoughtful agenda prior to our meeting. Thanks again!
That’s wonderful to hear, Rebecca. I’m so glad you were able to apply what you learned here and get results. Keep taking action!
That’s great and amazing , God bless you
I am finding difficulties to set the tone for the meeting.
Not sure if I should prepare few questions about broad topics such as leadership, public speaking, storytelling… etc
or Should I just come up with specific questions related to my own role and experience?
Please help! I had already 2 session where we spoke about broad and general things
So wonderful you have a mentor (or sponsor)! Remember that this is meant to be helpful to you, so no stress! I like your idea of trying the specific questions.
And you could always talk to your mentor about how to get the most from your meetings together – maybe they have some suggestions, and maybe they are equally wondering whether they’re being helpful to you…in which case, they’ll be relieved you’ve brought up the subject.
Enjoy every session. And if it doesn’t serve you in the end, you don’t have to continue.