July 17

How to ask your mentor for career advice


During the Young NTUC’s Annual Conference, where amongst many other things, they introduced the Starter Membership for those under 25, which would give them access Mentorship, a pilot programme that matched mentors to those under 25.

How to ask mentor for career advice
Ah, more mentors for you?

And if you haven’t seen the focus on mentoring over the past year, you might have been living under a rock.

There is now a hub for mentoring in Singapore. Where you can find any mentor, in any field.

But does mentoring really work? And what do you do if you are finding a mentor? Or what do you do if you don’t have a mentor?

The ‘in’ thing

Having a mentor seems like the ‘in’ thing to have, especially when you can namedrop the mentor with the big job, who’s taking time to guide you.

There are pitfalls though.

Wondering why your mentor isn’t replying you?

You might think that talking to your mentor will move you to the next level of your career, or that he would give you some insightful advice that changes your life. But from what I’ve experienced, realise this.

Talking changes nothing.

And mentoring is mostly a conversation.

There are two main value-adds that mentors can bring to your life.

Firstly, they might ‘sponsor’ you.

This means that they refer you to a job opportunity or someone in their network who could help you in your journey.

And if they refer you, sometimes (but not always) it does mean that you get the plum assignment that you want. Because your mentor is sticking your neck out for you. And the person he refers you to trusts your mentor.

But this doesn’t always turn out well.

One mentor I had referred me to a job within his organisation. When I had the interview with them, it seemed they were more interested in interviewing me just to fulfil their boss’ requirement, rather than really trying to figure out the skills I had for their assignment.

Secondly, they might offer you some insight into your situation. Perhaps you struggle with a difficult colleague. Or you struggle to get noticed for the promotion. The mentor could give you advice based on his experience.

But from my experience, this too has issues.

Because even if the mentor tells you what to do, you might not do it.

Surprise, surprise.

I know.

You might imagine that if someone gave you the answer, you would take it.

But we don’t. Just like how we don’t take the flu medicine, even though the doctor tells us to take it.

Because implementation is difficult. There’s always a million reasons for you to say no.

But do mentors really work?

For all the mentors I’ve had in my life (and I count about 12 as those who’ve formally mentored me), I’ve learnt two key lessons about making them the most effective in adding to your life.

You do the work, not them

Talking doesn’t change things.

Taking action does.

Even if the mentor tells you what you should do, you need to take the action to change the situation.

Not him.

To do the work, just implement the smallest piece of advice

Often the easiest way to do this is to record down what he says during the meeting with pen and paper, and then implement the smallest piece of advice he gives you.

The wrong questions to ask

As a ‘professional’ mentee, having done this for the past 14 years, I’ve learnt this the hard way.

As much as your mentor can say,

There are no stupid questions.

There are.

And one of the worst questions to ask is,

What should I do?

It seems that’s the natural thing to ask, especially if you want answers.

It’s a bad question because of two things. And I say this having mentored others.

Asking what you should do may just be the worst question to ask

Because one, the mentor cannot fully empathise with your situation, and asking this will simply give you answers that are from his point of view. From where he is. with the resources he has.

If your mentor was a head of department, he might give you answers that utilise actions with that level of experience.

If you ask him, “Should I switch my job?”

He might tell you,

Yes you should.

But he says that having changed jobs before, and knowing that over the course of one’s life, changes will inevitably occur.

You, being in your first job, might think that it is the end of the world.

But it’s not.

Your mentor’s advice might thus be hard to accept, especially if you want empathy.

But sometimes, a better question would be,

how would you approach this issue?

What would you do if you were in my position?

How would you think about this issue?

Mentors might not be at the head of their department

Superbosses, are a rare find.

These are bosses who are like ‘talent spawners’, who seem to be the motherlode of all the talent that appears in the industry.

But if you’re really looking for someone to mentor you, don’t look at the top of the organisational chart, and ask the CEO to mentor you.

He might not have time.

Yes, sliding a DM (direct message) into his LinkedIn won’t help too.

But over the course of your work, as you meet more and more people, if you see someone you click with, ask that person,

Hey could I ask for your advice over a cup of coffee?

You might be surprised at what you get.

Go with low expectations, and you might land with something special.



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