The Gift of Product Mentorship

The biggest gift I got this year wasn’t under a Christmas tree, or wrapped in pretty paper.

It cost nothing to give to me, and yet I value this gift endlessly.

This year, I received the gift of product mentorship – through work, through friends, and through events. Without mentorship, I would not be in the position I am today.

Regardless of seniority, product mentorship will always prove useful. Whether you’re an associate product manager or the Head of Product, there’s always so much more to learn – new perspectives and frameworks to consider, new technologies and methodologies to stay on top of, new industry trends and competitors and partners to evaluate.

That’s why I want to take the time this holiday season to reflect on product mentorship. Let’s talk about both sides of product mentorship: 1) getting it, and 2) giving it.

Getting Product Mentorship

Let’s be real – product management is still an emerging field. Most colleges don’t offer product management as a major, and many of our relatives may not have heard of product management before. That means that traditional avenues of mentorship and knowledge transfer are not as reliable for product management in particular.

Therefore, you’ll need to be scrappy if you want to get mentorship. There are literally hundreds of thousands of product managers in just the United States, and even more worldwide – you’re sure to find someone who can help you out! Here’s how to break down your network:

  1. Existing personal connections
    • Work and colleagues
    • Friends and family
    • Alumni
  2. New connections
    • LinkedIn
    • Physical events

Let’s walk through best practices for each of these avenues for potential mentorship.

Existing Connections

Most of us aren’t good at asking for help, especially from people we already know. Part of it is cultural – in the United States, we have a legacy of Puritanism and Calvinism, which means that we try to be as self-reliant as possible or else we “risk looking bad” in front of others.

Here’s my take on it though. It’s better to temporarily appear uneducated and ask the “dumb” questions, than it is to be permanently handicapped by lack of knowledge.

In my experience, I’ve found that it’s easiest to ask for mentorship from my direct manager, even if they aren’t a product manager themselves. Direct managers are usually clearest on your strengths and areas of improvement, and can offer targeted advice and resources for continued growth. Plus, your direct manager is in charge of your career trajectory – it’s critical that you inform them on how you want to grow, so that they can assist you in that endeavor.

I’ve found that it’s also important to ask for mentorship from your manager’s manager. This means that I’m meeting regularly with my CEO or my VP of Product. Since they’re one layer removed from your work, they can offer better long-term advice, and can share key insights about the trajectory of the organization as a whole. Of course, be sure to get the green light from your direct manager first, or they might feel that you’re trying to circumvent them.

Don’t forget asking friends and family for help! Whether they’re product managers themselves or whether they know a product manager, you know that they’ve got your back. I have a couple of very close friends who are also my product mentors, and I can’t thank them enough for all of the guidance and support they’ve provided me.

Be sure to give friends and family a clear indicator of what sort of help you need. Is it a one-off question, or is it a long-term relationship that you want? Are you looking to learn about technologies or about people management? Only by providing clear asks can you receive exactly what you need.

And finally, reach out to alumni. Schools have alumni networks for a reason, and alumni place themselves on directories so that you can contact them. I’ve reached out within my Berkeley alumni network and found amazing individuals who are excited to give their time and expertise.

Here, I’ve found success in searching specifically for alumni who have relevant product experience, and then reaching out with a personalized message on why I’d love to learn from them. That way, alumni can easily determine whether they can answer your question, and if not, who in their network they can connect you to.

New Connections

While it can be daunting to reach out to total strangers, sometimes it’s absolutely necessary. Your existing network won’t always have relevant experience in the areas where you’re looking for help.

In cases like these, it’s absolutely on you to take the initiative to reach out and find the resources that will best enable you to achieve your objectives.

LinkedIn is a great way to quickly identify potential mentors. In fact, many of my mentees found me through LinkedIn. When I ask them what factors they used to identify me as a potentially good resource for them, they’ll mention some combination of company, role, and previous experience. Plus, LinkedIn recently released a feature where individuals can opt in to give career advice.

On LinkedIn, I find that I’m most receptive to targeted asks. That is, you’ll want to be absolutely clear on what you’re asking for.

Imagine your reaction if someone asked you this question: “I’m looking to switch industries as a Product Manager. I’m currently in e-commerce, and I want to pivot to gaming. I noticed you’re a gaming PM, and would love to learn more about the structure of the gaming industry. Would you mind if I scheduled a 30-minute call with you?”

You’re probably going to say yes. They’ve taken all of the guesswork out of the interaction.

Now imagine if someone asks you this question: “I’m interested in product. I think you’re interesting. Can you tell me more about product?”

You have absolutely no idea what to say next. What aspect of product do they want to learn about? Why do they find you interesting? What value are you supposed to bring into the conversation? How much time do they expect from you?

Phrase your asks so that they’re crystal clear. After all, the worst that could happen is that the person turns you down. Asking for advice is low-risk and high-reward.

While LinkedIn is a powerful tool, I’ve found that physical events are fantastic ways to find mentors as well. After all, attendees usually decide on which events to go to based on the topic of the event – this fact holds true for speakers, panelists, organizers, and general attendees.

At the end of an event, there’s usually a huge mob swarming the speakers. You don’t want to be perceived as part of the mob, because the speakers will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of interactions they need to make within such a short period of time. The speakers will likely forget who you are, and what you asked for.

Instead, I’ve found that if I hang back for 10-15 minutes, the mob usually thins out, and I can ask a specific person a specific question. This way, I leave a much stronger first impression, which I can then use as the foundation for our relationship.

If you are unable to meet with a particular speaker at the event itself, then use the same LinkedIn strategy that I mentioned above. Wait a couple of hours until after the event to make your ask – after all, if you ask any earlier, they may still be in transit or have other personal commitments to attend to.

Giving Product Mentorship

Let’s break this section down into 3 parts:

  1. Why you should be a mentor
  2. How you should mentor
  3. Other ways to give

Why Mentor?

Let’s take a step back from our individual situations and look at this question from an industry perspective.

What is the effect of having mentors within an industry? With mentors, industries become easier to navigate and grow faster, as the collective knowledge of the industry grows with compound interest. Without mentors, industries stagnate because critical knowledge isn’t being passed down from generation to generation.

Switching back to the individual perspective, let’s look at why you – yes, specifically you – should be a product mentor.

First off, if you already have a mentor, you know that you don’t really have a good way of paying back your mentor. After all, they’re your mentor for a reason – they have knowledge that you don’t have, and have gone through experiences that you haven’t yet. Mentors aren’t in it for the money or the fame – they’re mentoring because they want to help.

Therefore, when you accept product mentorship, you also take on the responsibility of paying it forward.

From a more selfish perspective, mentoring grants you tangible benefits as well.

Working with mentees keeps your skills sharp. Your mentees will ask questions about interviews, resumes, cover letters, portfolios, etc. By answering these questions, you’ll find that your own skill will improve over time as well.

Furthermore, mentoring keeps you in the loop with emerging industry trends. For example, I had a mentee reach out to me to ask specifically about machine learning products. I can honestly say that I’m not a domain expert in machine learning – therefore, her question motivated me to conduct deeper research than I normally would, so that I could provide the best possible advice to her.

How to Mentor

Schools don’t teach us how to be mentors. Therefore, I’d like to offer my thoughts on how to be an effective product mentor. Note that I am assuming that you’re already a product manager. If you aren’t, feel free to skip down to the next section on “Other Ways to Give”.

First off, you need to determine what sort of mentorship structure you’re comfortable with. I categorize mentorship into two buckets: structured recurring mentorship vs. one-off mentorship. Let’s break down each.

Structured recurring mentorship means that you and your mentee mutually commit to meeting on a regular schedule to talk about specific agenda items. PMHQ Founder Kevin Lee wrote a fantastic post on how to structure and formalize this kind of mentorship. It’s worth the read, and I’ve personally used his exact framework to great success.

With structured mentorship, you and your mentee grow side-by-side. You set clear expectations for one another, and you get to feel that amazing sense of personal pride as your mentee continues to grow and achieve.

Of course, structured mentorship comes with tradeoffs. Structured mentorship requires a constant investment of time. Because it takes up so much time, you can only take on so many formal mentees at once. That means that you’ll have deep impact, but only across a few individuals.

One-off mentorship means that you and your mentee expect to interact with one another only on a very limited basis. For example, this could be fielding a couple of questions over LinkedIn, or meeting someone for a coffee chat to talk about their current job hunt.

You can quickly impact many people through one-off mentorship. When you open yourself up to one-off requests, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with people of various backgrounds. I’ve personally had one-off mentees coming from a variety of roles (analytics, data science, engineering), from a variety of industries (real estate, health, gaming), and from different schools and countries and cultural backgrounds.

Of course, due to the nature of one-off mentorship, you’re unlikely to make a deep and lasting impact. You won’t get to see how your mentees grow, and your mentees are unlikely to form any meaningful relationship with you.

Once you’ve identify what mentorship you’re comfortable with, it’s time to identify how to position yourself as a mentor. Have a clear narrative of why you’re in product, what’s worked for you so far, and the key mistakes that you’ve made. Think through what you’d say to yourself in the past, and what you wish someone had told you earlier.

Remember that you’re likely part of a portfolio of mentors, so think about what unique perspective you’ll bring. Repeating previously given advice gives diminishing marginal utility for your mentee – that is, it’s valuable for them to hear the same statement from multiple people so that they understand its importance, but it also means that they get less exposure to orthogonal perspectives that could provide crucial benefits to their careers. What’s your twist on product management, and how can you best share it with your mentees?

One final point on being a product mentor: it’s never too early to 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.

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.

Other Ways to Give

If you’re not a product manager, or if you are and you can’t give your time right now, then here are a couple of other ways to give the gift of product mentorship:

  • Membership to our Product Manager HQ Slack Community – $25 for lifetime membership
  • One Week PM course (includes access to the PMHQ Community) – $197 for lifetime access
  • Books recommended by Ken Norton (partner at Google Ventures) – ranges from $5 to $30 per book

Of course, the most important thing to give to the product manager(s) in your life is your support.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and for supporting us at PMHQ as well!

From all of us at Product Manager HQ: we wish you happy holidays and a fantastic new year ahead!

 


Whether you’re looking to give or receive product mentorship, our PMHQ Community is a great way for you to do just that! We look forward to welcoming you soon.

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