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How to Prepare for a Mentoring Conversation

How you get ready determines how effective you will be.

Key points

  • Building effective mentoring relationships can be challenging due to a lack of uniform roles and expectations.
  • Effective mentors and mentees build intentional relationships to support defined learning goals.
  • Before each mentoring conversation, both partners should reflect on why and how they will show up.
Amy Hirschi/ Unsplash
Source: Amy Hirschi/ Unsplash

By now you should know that having mentors, sponsors, and others who can help you is critical to your progression. Rightfully so, much focus is placed on how to find these people, which I have written about in another post.

Identifying and building relationships with mentors in the working world can be incredibly challenging, for multiple reasons. Many people are too busy to take on this additional responsibility. Some people don’t understand what it means to do the work of mentoring. You may not fully understand what it means to ask someone to be your mentor. As Stoeger, Balestrini, and Ziegler (2020) note in detail, while the idea of mentoring still holds sway in many corners, the actual execution of mentoring varies widely, due to its lack of a standard set of practices and expectations.

Once you’ve done the work of establishing a relationship with someone, the next challenge is: What do you do with this person? Too many people enter mentoring relationships believing they are a good thing to do, without knowing how to make the most of the experience (which can, in turn, lead to disappointing and ineffective relationships). To make the most of your mentoring relationship, whether mentor or mentee, you have to start before you show up. You need to think about the four Ps: purpose, preparation, participation, and plan.

Hallmarks of Effective Mentoring

We know that effective mentors provide key support functions, thanks to the work of Kathy Kram (1988) and others. Mentors provide short-term career outcomes, which look like socialization to an organization or a role; long-term career outcomes, which look like career pathing; and psychosocial outcomes, which look like exploration and identification of values, identity, strengths, and interests, and how those impact both personal and professional decisions.

Additionally, Kram (1983) identified the key phases of a mentoring relationship. In the initiation phase, the relationship begins, and mentoring partners establish roles and expectations. In cultivation, the partners do the work of developing the relationship and working towards defined learning goals. In separation, the mentoring partners acknowledge that goals have been met or needs have changed, and therefore it is time for the relationship to change.

And lastly, there is redefinition, when the mentoring partners must redefine their relationship with each other. These phases are both distinct and can overlap during the relationship.

At my institution, we have developed the COREFour Mentoring Skills to specify the roles that both effective mentors and mentees fulfill within mentoring relationships. Briefly, these are:

  • Identify and take action toward personal learning goals
  • Build and support effective relationships
  • Seek out and give objective feedback
  • Practice reflection on key learning moments

Effective mentoring relationships occur across identified stages to achieve individual learning goals. Both mentoring partners have roles and responsibilities to fulfill. And, to take advantage of what a mentoring relationship can provide, both partners need to enter every conversation with intention.

It is active, ongoing work, by both mentor and mentee, ensuring both are making the most of the time they have together. How do you do that? Before you show up, spend some time thinking about the 4 Ps below.

Use the 4 Ps to Have Better Conversations

Before every mentoring conversation, spend some time thinking through the questions below.

1. Purpose: What is the specific purpose of this conversation? Why are you meeting? What is the current goal or challenge the mentee is working on? This might be the result of previous action taken, it might be the initial goal that led you to this relationship, or something new. For the mentee: What would success look like for you as you think about addressing this goal? For the mentor: What are you uniquely positioned to offer to the mentee (think: resources, connections, feedback) to help them move forward? If you're unsure what the mentee will need, what questions will you ask for discovery?

2. Preparation: What do you want to get out of this specific conversation? Remind yourself of the last conversation you had together and any lingering questions you may have, or topics you wish to revisit. For both mentor and mentee: What specific questions can you prepare ahead of the conversation that will lead to new insight, deeper connection, and a stronger relationship?

3. Participation: How will you ensure that you are fully present in the conversation from start to finish? What distractions do you need to set aside? What is the mindset you need to bring into the conversation to make the most use of your time together? For both mentor and mentee: What questions can you ask to gather feedback on both the work and the relationship? What commitments can you make to practice active listening, presence, encouragement, and gratitude?

4. Plan: How does this conversation fit into your overall goals for the relationship? For the mentee: What are your next steps, and what do you need from your mentor to move forward? For the mentor: How will you uphold accountability and ensure the mentee is continuing to move forward with their goals? For both mentor and mentee: When will you meet next and what will be the goal of that meeting?

It's worth remembering that mentoring relationships are intentional. There is a purpose to the process. You can become friends with your mentoring partner, but that is not the goal.

You are there to do some work together. Be thoughtful about how you enter into these conversations. A little bit of preparation will go a long way towards ensuring the relationship is successful.


Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. The Academy of Management Journal, 26 (4), 608-625.

Kram, K. E. (1988). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. University Press of America.

Stoeger, Balestrini, & Ziegler (2020). Key issues in professionalizing mentoring practices. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

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