5 questions NOT to ask your mentor

Got a mentor? Lucky you! You are in a very fortunate position if you have someone to turn to, as well as your line manager, who knows the ropes. Typically, a mentor has experience that the mentee can learn from and importantly, they’re not directly responsible for the work you do.

What that means is the person who has most of the responsibility for your career progression is…you. It’s a point I always make when working with new mentees. Your mentor isn’t a wizard who can weave spells to transform your career. Yet when I work with mentors in organisations, I hear them say they sometimes get the impression that a wizard is what their mentee seems to expect. An early warning sign is the kind of questions asked by the mentee. If you’re fortunate enough to have a mentor, avoid asking them these questions.

1. “Can you remember what we talked about last time?”

Really? You’ve got to be kidding. I hope your mentor doesn’t get to hear that question after giving you the gift of their time, experience and insights. It’s really up to you to identify the steps you’re going to take as a result of your conversation. Make clear notes of useful examples and points your mentor shares and what your next steps are. It would be a good idea to email them to your mentor after each meeting, along with your thanks for their time.

2. “Can you get me promoted?”

Reality check: if your manager doesn’t think you’re promotion material it’s highly likely that you mentor may agree with them. What a mentor can do is give you examples of what it takes to get promoted, based on what they’ve seen and done in their experience. If your mentor is in the same field or company as you – they know ‘how things work around here’ – they can be more specific. They may know about some opportunities that will open up. Ask them what they look for when it comes to promotion prospects – you may get a reality check. Your mentor may also coach you to do some fact-finding about the capabilities you’ll need to step up. They may challenge you to make a plan.

3. “Can you help me get a transfer?”

Don’t be surprised if your mentor says they’d rather not cross a boundary with your boss. But it can and does happen that a mentor with an extensive network, who sees the bigger organisational picture, can at least explain the transfer process or know someone who does. Ask them about their experiences of transferring across disciplines and locations: what are the pros and cons?

4. “Can you give me a reference?

If your mentor is a former boss then yes, they may well be in a position to give you a reference. Many a former boss has helped an ex-employee to make a good career move. [Note: it helps if you stay in touch with former bosses, rather than leaving it until you need to ask them a favour.] If your mentor has never worked with you directly, you’re putting them in a sticky spot and they will rightly say they don’t know enough about your performance to put their name to a reference about you. However, they may encourage you to think hard about who you can ask.

5. Can you help me get a pay rise?

Even if your mentor is the CFO…it’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that you’ll damage your relationship with your mentor. There are processes and pathways for discussing pay rises, stay within them. A trusted mentor may be happy to ‘play the villain’ as you practise asking your manager for a pay rise. Role-playing a high-stakes conversation you’re going to have is a good use of your time and that of your mentor.

You may find this post useful: ‘essential questions mentors need to ask’



Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ 


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