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No man—or product—is an island. Everything exists within a larger context and must fit into a bigger picture. But when it comes to product...
Being a mentor to product managers is the ultimate form of paying it forward. When you’ve amassed years or decades of experience, made mistakes, and persevered forward toward success, mentoring can smooth the path for others as they traverse the same bumpy terrain you’ve already crossed. But, sharing wisdom may not always come naturally. How do you find the right venue for mentorship without coming off as patronizing or preachy?
Luckily there are many opportunities to mentor other product managers in ways that benefit both parties. Not all mentorship opportunities require long-term commitments or a ton of your time. In this piece we’ll explore why you should consider mentoring, how to find mentees, and the best formats for passing on your life lessons to others.
Mentoring has benefits for both the mentor and the mentee. There are different reasons people consider taking more junior product managers under their wing. Understanding why you’re doing it and what you hope to get out of it is important when contemplating how you want to engage in mentoring.
Mentoring can be purely altruistic. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing your words of wisdom and sage advice help another excel in their own career. By offering up tips and being an available and attentive listener, a mentor can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Whether they’re feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for their new product management career, or you’re helping them out through a tricky patch by being a sounding board or offering some pointers, you can make a difference.
As their product management career blossoms, you can take pride in knowing you helped them achieve their goals. Who knows, they may even thank you in their award acceptance speech someday!
As our product management careers mature, we often find ourselves spending more time in board meetings and being “managers” than actually dealing with the nitty gritty, day-to-day aspects of product management that were on our plate when we first began our careers. Mentoring someone who’s not as far along gives us the chance to stay plugged into what it’s like to interview customers, write requirements, and argue with development leads and project managers.
Being a mentor is some of the best practice you can get for being someone’s manager. Since your direct reports will likely end up being other product managers, there’s no better opportunity to build up your skills and learn how to offer advice, encouragement, and guidance without being bossy and overbearing. Plus you have the chance to ask them for their feedback on how helpful you’re being and your general style of communication, which will be far more honest than when it comes from someone who calls you “boss.”
“I’d never really had a strong desire to manage people before but in mentoring I found a way to use my own experience to help others, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve learned that there’s a big difference between a manager and a mentor and that not many do both well,” says Tim Nunn of Kiwibank. “In fact, mentoring made me want to manage a team of my own and I do hope they benefit from my experience as a mentor. So my second piece of advice would be to get some mentoring under your belt before considering managing others.”
If you have your sights on a leadership role but are still suffering from imposter syndrome, a mentoring relationship can reinforce your self-esteem and prove to yourself that you have something of value to offer others in your chosen field and are able to deliver it in a useful and productive manner. Having some positive mentoring experiences under your belt gives you tangible examples and experience of helping others do their job better, which is what being a manager is all about.
If you’ve read this far, the answer is yes. Being a mentor doesn’t require decades of success, a trunk full of patents, and multiple exits under your belt. Anyone who has achieved any success or been through some battles has something to offer potential mentees.
In some ways, the closer in your career arc you are to your mentee, the more relatable and relevant your advice may be. If it’s been too long since you’ve been in the trenches you may not be as familiar with the current techniques and challenges new product managers face today. And because product management has so many diverse aspects to it, there’s always someone with experience in a particular area that has something they can teach others.
“One of my biggest mistakes was not being more active as a mentor earlier on in my career. My fear at the time was that I wouldn’t know enough about product management to give good advice,” says Clement Kao of Product Manager HQ. “Since then, I’ve gotten over that fear. It’s okay to say that you don’t know something, even as a mentor. By clearly saying that you don’t know, you enable your mentees to find better advice, and you teach your mentees to be humble and honest with themselves. Humility and honesty are fantastic traits to have as a product manager, and mentorship is a great opportunity for you to keep practicing those traits even outside of work.”
Many think that only product managers with tons of experience and great achievements under their belts should be mentors, but this really isn’t the case. We can all learn from each other and share our life lessons and anecdotes to be helpful, plus the truly successful and well-renowned product managers don’t have enough bandwidth to mentor every up-and-coming product manager looking for guidance.
Instead, think about the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, the good calls and wrong moves you’ve personally experienced and consider how you could translate those into something useful for someone following a similar career path. Even people who have experienced horrible failure can make great mentors by simply advising people to not do what they’ve already done.
Now that you’re ready to mentor, the next step is finding mentees that are the right fit. Fortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to match yourself up with someone who could benefit from your wisdom.
Sometimes the perfect mentee is just down the hall. In this case, there are a few potential types of candidates working for the same company.
When you’re managing a team of product managers, you already have a built-in crop of mentees. These folks should be your top priority because not only is it your responsibility to help them develop skills and advance their careers, but them doing a better job directly impacts your life and improves the performance of your team.
If you haven’t reached the leadership ranks just yet, there are still opportunities to mentor others in the company. Look for fellow product managers or anyone else in the organization eager to learn a new skill that you’ve already mastered or invite your peers to shadow you on a given project so they get more exposure. While they may not want to officially call you a “mentor” it’s still a great thing to do and good practice for the future.
Beyond your own company, there are lots of ways to connect with others looking for some mentorship. Participating in LinkedIn groups and other online product management communities can build up your reputation and help establish relationships that could evolve into a mentor/mentee dynamic. Don’t be shy and offer advice or a deeper dive when you think you can add value.
There are also dedicated communities for pairing mentors and mentees. Local communities are always happy to match a seasoned veteran with an aspiring professional or student. Look for meetups, nonprofits, industry associations and colleges to find ones nearby so you can include face-to-face interactions as part of the experience.
They key to providing real value as a mentor comes from being a great listener and being willing to share your own personal stories and insights as a highly effective product manager. Depending on which environment you’re offering your mentoring services, there are some best practices to lean on so you both get the most out of it.
If you have direct reports, every one-to-one meeting should try and incorporate discussions of the employee’s career growth and future. While it’s easy to get caught up in the crisis-of-the-moment or latest office drama, it’s important to make some time for these developmental matters. It conveys that you care about them as more than just a pawn in your empire and are actually interested in their own personal success.
Beyond those regular meetings, break out of the grind and have an occasional coffee or lunch where the conversation can wander and meander beyond the usual business. Doing this off-site might also make the employee a little more relaxed discussing things outside their comfort zone.
And you don’t always have to wait for them to bring up a topic where they’re seeking mentorship. If you’ve seen an area they’ve struggled with or a new domain they’ve taken an interest in, proactively bring it up and offer some pointers or invite them to ask you questions. Let them know nothing is off the table during your sessions if they want to discuss it.
Another great tactic is including mentees in settings where they normally don’t get much exposure. Bring them in as a guest speaker at an executive meeting or let them be a fly on the wall during planning meetings or client engagements. The more chances they have to see what else is involved in a senior product management role the better prepared they’ll be when it’s their turn.
Since you don’t have a direct relationship with mentees outside of your company, it can often help both parties to create a formalized mentorship. This properly sets expectations and elevates the relationship beyond an occasional quick question or exchange.
To keep the mentorship productive, it makes sense to define a regular cadence to when you’ll meet so it becomes more of a regular routine. It can also help with takeaways/homework for either side and making sure those get followed up on.
What is very important, however, is to note the difference between mentorship and networking; you might have a lot of connections that an up-and-coming player wants to tap, but that is a very different relationship than one based around mentorship. Be clear with each other what you both want to get out of this and if they only want you for your Rolodex you can tell them you’re not interested.
Sometimes mentoring is all about being in the right place at the right time. You might have relevant experience or be encountering someone at the perfect moment where your expertise can add some real value. But to make those impromptu moments of mentorship happen, you’ve got to put yourself out there.
Online forums, blog posts, tweets, LinkedIn and Quora are all excellent channels for raising your profile and demonstrating that you’re willing to share your wisdom and have some experience that others might like to tap. Be an active participant in the online channels you find valuable and offer your take when you have something unique to share.
IRL, you can also go to events and meetups, starting informal conversations or even volunteering to lead sessions or give a talk. Once people know you’ve got a perspective and are willing to share it, they’re far more likely to approach you when they’re looking for some guidance.
Mentorship can be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved; both sides get a chance to learn from each other and you get to invest a bit of time and energy in helping someone get through tough spots and elevate their career. The relationships built through mentorship can lead to all kinds of things down the line, from job opportunities to friendships, while also simply being a great chance to give back to the community.
Best of all, mentorship doesn’t require a huge time commitment and shouldn’t cost you more than a cup of coffee. Mentors don’t need a huge stable of mentees; even one meaningful relationship can be a great pick-me-up and distraction from our own routines and responsibilities.