By Stef Scott, Senior Digital Editor ICAS
9 December 2015

There are no right or wrong questions to ask your mentor, but asking these questions early in the mentoring relationship will help you to develop a firm basis for meaningful and productive mentoring conversations. They also show your mentor that you’ve got the initiative to drive the relationship and be responsible for your own career development.

1. What is your preferred communication style?

It is a good idea to ask your mentor about their preferred method and style of communication. That way, you can tailor your approach accordingly and get the best from them. For example, find out whether your mentor likes to know about the detailed facts and specifics of a situation, or if a broad overview will suffice.

Check whether your mentor likes to communicate primarily by e-mail, phone, or face-to-face. It is likely that you will use a mixture of all three, but setting some early ground rules about how you will communicate and how frequently you’ll make contact is an important first step to getting things off on the right foot.

The last thing you want to do is unnecessarily distract - or even worse - annoy your mentor, so finding out about your mentor’s preferred format of communication and frequency of contact will stand you in good stead for the future.

2. What skills or characteristics have been most important to you in your career, and how did you develop them?

Asking this question will encourage your mentor to reflect on their own experience and pinpoint the areas that had the greatest impact on their success. Being successful is rarely down to luck and is likely to be a consequence of your mentor taking the initiative - identifying how they needed to develop themselves and what steps they needed to take to move forward in their career.

For example, did your mentor develop their leadership capacity in order to move forward? Did they perhaps work on building up their technical expertise in order to become an expert in a niche area? Whatever their particular area of success, find out specifically what they did to get there. Did they go on a secondment, ask to work on more challenging projects or move to a different area of the business or take up a new role?

3. How have you handled failure or setbacks in your career?

Again, asking this question can give you a lot of insight. Everyone has faced difficult times in their career when projects go wrong or things don’t work out the way they should. Some of our most valuable learning happens when we fail, and although it may not feel like it at the time, failure helps people grow professionally and become more resilient.

You might not want to ask this question right away, but perhaps hold it back until you’ve got to know your mentor a bit better. Ask your mentor about particular setbacks they faced, and how they dealt with them. Ask them to share what they learned from the experience, how they moved forward from it, and how they would advise you if you were facing a similar challenge or setback in your career.

4. Ask a specific question e.g. "If am thinking about doing 'x' what should I be aware of?"

If you have a big career decision to make, don’t be afraid to get specific and ask your mentor about it. Remember that it is not the job of your mentor to tell you what to do or make decisions for you, but rather to increase your awareness of the bigger picture and other options you might not necessarily be aware of.

For example, if you are considering moving to a new role, or want to change direction in your career, talking to your mentor can help you identify particular pitfalls to watch out for, and where to focus your attention. Use what your mentor knows and has already been through to plan your own career development.

5. What can I do to help you?

It’s important to recognise that the best mentoring relationships are a two-way street, and to give something back to your mentor whenever you can. Some mentees are only concerned about what they can take from a mentor. Don’t let that be you. As well as making sure you thank your mentor for their time, try to be proactive and add value to the mentoring relationship.

You can do this by giving your mentor a unique insight into your industry or your organisation. If your mentor is quite senior, getting an insight into life on the front line of an organisation can be really helpful. Make an effort to find out about and take a genuine interest in your mentor’s key projects, clients and specific areas of influence. Read up on them, and share articles or news stories of interest to keep your mentor ‘in the know.’ If you are good with emerging or new technologies or social media, share what you know with your mentor in order to give something back.