It should be common knowledge by now that the best way to get quickly ahead in your career is to follow the lead of those who have been there and done that successfully. Figuring out how these career pioneers succeed is a primary means for reaching your own career goals. But when directly seeking career advice it is easy to go about it the wrong way. If you are limiting your knowledge-seeking method to asking a simple, “What should I do for a successful career?” you are effectively shooting yourself in the foot. This is so for one reason: You aren’t being specific enough.
You aren’t gaining what you should from asking such a broad question because it isn’t clear to the answerer just what you want to learn. The solution to this problem should be clear enough—ask more targeted questions. Think of the main purpose for asking for career advice in the first place—to figure out what helped your role model to success in order to implement the same strategies in your own career pursuits. To that end, your questions should work to limit the scope of information you are seeking and should be something like the following: “What skill(s) should I learn to become more marketable in this industry?” “What can I do at this point of my life to help better prepare myself for my career?” and “How did you use [some industry-specific tool] to help you accomplish your goals?”
It is much more difficult for an individual to help you if they don’t understand what you need. Asking general questions doesn’t give the person the guidance he or she requires to best address your needs. Asking targeted questions means you will gain more actionable information that you can immediately start to use to progress toward your goals.
A secondary reason for phrasing your questions in a more guided fashion is to alert your mentor to the fact that you have done your research because you know what you want to do and what you need to know. In short, asking a targeted question shows your mentor that you value his or her time by using it in an effective way. However, one appropriate time to ask a more generalized question can be at the very end of a conversation where you have already exhausted your supply of specific questions.
Once you have received your detailed answers then you can ask a broad question since your mentor now has a good idea of the sort of information that best helps you and better understands your own goals. Viewing a general question through a narrower lens can often lead to more focused and useful answers appropriate for your specific situation. And since you are still in the process of growing into your industry, you may lack the knowledge to ask about certain details that your mentor will now see as helpful to you.