A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
When we’re new at something, we turn to trusted experts. Sure, we also glean all we can from the resources available to us, but there’s nothing quite like learning directly from someone who’s been through it all before.
Experts can make great mentors because they’ve acquired valuable wisdom and mastered their craft through years of day-to-day experiences. They’ve also learned valuable lessons the hard way. They once stood where you stand today, which gives them firsthand knowledge about what’s further down the product manager (PM) path for you.
If you are just getting started at your first product manager role, mentorship can have a powerful impact on your experience and success. A product manager mentor can help you get up to speed faster and put down strong roots in your new role as an associate PM. In this piece, we’ll outline the importance of product mentorship and share tips on finding a great mentor.
Your first days and weeks as an associate product manager are critical for getting yourself established at your company and off to a solid start with your product and team. (If you are just starting, here are 12 things every product manager should do in their first 30 days at a new company.) Having a mentor can give you a leg up in those early days of getting up to speed with people, products, and company culture.
At its core, effective product management is about nurturing and managing relationships. Product management is also a learned discipline. These make two compelling reasons why connecting with a product manager mentor can increase your impact and success as a junior product manager (PM). Mentorship can also help you create a history of success by attaching yourself to successful products – even if only via a mentor – as you establish yourself as a highly effective product manager.
If mentorship seems a little out of your comfort zone, consider this: About 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a mentoring program. Why would so many established organizations invest resources in mentorship? It turns out healthy mentorship is not only good for mentees — it’s also good for mentors. Mentors benefit by growing their leadership skills. The organization also benefits thanks to productivity gains, more supportive, cohesive teams, and a reduction in silos due to knowledge sharing.
In the CIO article “Why Every PM Needs a Mentor,” project management expert Colin Ellis asserts, “Mentoring isn’t something that can be read about in books. It’s anecdotal and can only be found in hearts and minds. It’s someone else’s experience, enjoyment, frustration, success, and failure. It’s the sum of the personalities that they have dealt with in the situations they have overcome.”
Keep these tips in mind as you search for a good mentor:
As you embark on your quest to find a good mentor, take time to observe relationships around you. Do you see examples of mentorship in your own company? If so, how does that look?
Look for potential mentorship candidates by evaluating how effective they are in their PM role. Do they interact with stakeholders and other colleagues as a leader? Take a look at their product track record and career highlights. Do they have any of the key habits of highly effective product managers that would make them excellent role models?
Next, start conversations to get a better sense of personalities and how they mesh with your own. Talking shop with other folks who speak the language of product management can feel really good, but remember that shared language isn’t the only qualification for vetting a good mentor. Dig deeper to find the right fit for a solid match with someone who knows what the path looks like a little further on (i.e., experience), who has wisdom worthy of sharing with others (i.e., expertise), and who is secure enough to share space and wisdom, as well as supportive and patient enough to give you time to grow in your role (i.e., coach vs. competition).
In general, good mentors across just about every discipline share these characteristics.
Sometimes you get lucky and find the perfect mentor just down the hall. Connecting with experienced PMs within your company is ideal. They wear the same team jersey, so to speak. They share the same company culture as you, and their experiences are more likely to mirror your own. Their insights are shaped by the same environment as yours. They can provide invaluable institutional knowledge since they know and work with the same people as you.
A prospective product manager mentor might manage a team of PMs and have the professional responsibility to help others like you develop skills and advance their careers. Or, maybe they aren’t officially in a leadership position yet, but have a few years’ experiences under their belt and are looking to develop their leadership skills with an eye towards management. They might be willing to let you shadow them on a project, and in doing so, increase their visibility as a leader.
Beyond your own company, there are lots of ways to connect with others looking to establish mentorship. Participating in LinkedIn groups and other online product management communities can help you network and develop relationships that could evolve into a mentor/mentee dynamic. Online forums, blog posts, tweets, Product Stack, LinkedIn, and Quora are all excellent channels to explore.
Physical events and meetups also offer benefits for community, plus they give you extra face time with potential mentors and the opportunity to grab a coffee afterward to continue the conversation.
Mentorship isn’t a brain dump. Instead, it’s a two-way street with both parties investing time and energy. The relationship should be mutually beneficial.
Of course, like any healthy relationship, a mentorship takes time to nurture and the right chemistry to bring people together. Sending an email to the VP of Product with the subject line “Please mentor me!” probably won’t result in an invitation to be mentored. Perhaps an invite to lunch is a better first step to making a connection and laying the groundwork for a future relationship.
Better yet, raise your visibility with potential mentors by showing initiative in your role, sharing ideas, asking questions, and building a reputation for going the extra mile. This initiative and hard work will get you noticed and underscore your desire to learn and grow in your PM role.
Like you, potential mentors are very busy. They’re not likely sitting behind a cardboard booth (à la Lucy the psychiatrist from the Peanuts comic strip) twiddling their thumbs while waiting for someone to wander by looking for a mentor. Also, like you, they want to invest their precious time meaningfully. They want to know that their expertise can add some real value to someone else’s experience. No one wants to mentor a dud. Your determination and future potential success will reflect on your mentor. You must demonstrate that you’re worthy of investing their time and resources mentoring you.
As you explore mentorship, don’t forget to get the word out. Let your contacts know you are looking for a good product manager mentor. Think of it this way: When people are looking for a new job opportunity, they let the world know. Soon colleagues and friends are on the hunt within their circles to help find a good match.
Right now is an excellent time to start looking for a great product manager mentor because January is National Mentoring Month. It’s also the perfect time for PM leaders to reflect on the value of mentoring within their teams.
Really, though, don’t be shy about seeking mentorship. Keep in mind that mentors are also looking for mentees. Welcome to the product management tribe!