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Find a product management mentor to further your careerFind a product management mentor to further your careerFind a product management mentor to further your career

Find a product management mentor to further your career

Whether you're aspiring to break into product management or already working in the field and looking to get a new job or promotion, finding a product management mentor can be a great way to further your career. But only if you approach it in the right way.

In this article, we'll explore what a mentor is (and when you might want a coach instead), how they can help you, and where to find one. Let's get started.

What is a mentor? (Hint: you might be looking for a coach)

So, what is a product management mentor? This is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines a mentor:

a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school

So, in the context of product, this is usually an experienced product leader or specialist who makes time available to help and advise less experienced people.

Although not strictly part of the definition, the mentor-mentee relationship is usually informal, unpaid, and tends to rely on the mentee arranging the times, and making sure things happen.

Product managers are experienced in their day-to-day product work but don't tend to be trained teachers or coaches, so again, the focus is on the mentee making the most of the meetings, asking the right questions to get the advice they need, and then putting that advice into action.

Product management mentors are usually quite well-connected people, who might be able to put you in touch with the right person to help you solve a problem or further your career.

When people really need a coach instead

Unlike most mentors, the day-job of a coach is to help people build their skills and achieve their goals. And, justifiably, they tend to charge a relatively high fee for this. However, a coach is more likely to take the active role in a relationship with clients, pushing them to schedule sessions, follow-up on what happened during the session and so forth.

Also, because they often coach people who are facing similar challenges, a coach is likely to know the most effective and practical way to identify and fill knowledge gaps that will progress your career.

So, based on that description, if you think you might find a coach more useful than a mentor, here's a more detailed description of what a product coach does and how to find one.

If you still think you'd prefer a mentor, and you work in product management, read on.

Product coaching compared with common alternatives

Why is a product management mentor important?

As product managers, we're always surrounded by people. We work with developers, designers, researchers, customers, and internal stakeholders every day. In fact, we probably work with a wider variety of people than any other role in the company. But unless you work in an established product-led company, it's unlikely that you'll have more experienced product people in your organization that you can talk to about how to further your career.

And even if there is someone with enough experience to give you good career advice, you might be reluctant to talk to them if the next career moves you want to make involve leaving your current company.

That means that product management can be a lonely place when it comes to talking about your career options.

A product management mentor is important because they can listen to you explain your goals without bias, and advise you on how you might achieve them. With years of experience in product, they are likely to know more about what product leaders are looking for in new recruits than someone with the same level of experience as you would. And they can use that knowledge to help you understand what you need to do to secure the next steps in your career.

Working with an experienced product leader as a mentor has other benefits, too. As well as helping with your longer term goals, their experience in working on successful products can be a valuable tool for solving your day-to-day product challenges. Even if they've not worked on exactly the same type of product as you, their broad experience and product intuition is likely to help you get a step ahead.

How can a product management mentor further my career?

There are four main ways a product mentor can help you further your career. Let's explore them now.

Expose you to new tools and approaches

With their broad experience, a product management mentor is likely to know many ways you could solve the problems you face at work. One of the benefits of working with a mentor is that you can draw on that experience and be exposed to different tools and frameworks that you might not have otherwise discovered.

Boost your confidence and feel less alone

Confidence in your product management abilities (not arrogance) can help you further your career when it comes to interviews and talking about what you do. Working with a product management mentor can help you feel less alone, validate what you are doing, and give you confidence that you're on the right track.

Highlight what product leaders care about

As you are trying to further your career, you'll need to be able to explain your skills and experience, and how they relate to new roles you are applying for. Because of their experience in senior roles, and probably hiring many product managers themselves, they are likely to be in a good position to help you articulate your skills and achievements in a way that resonates with the people vetting your applications.

Not being able to explain how your work contributes to the business reaching its goals is one of the things that stops people from making the jump to a product leadership role, so having a mentor help you here will put you at an advantage.

Help you connect with the right people

One of the benefits of years of experience is the connections you form along the way. You can't expect a mentor to line up a dream job for you, however they can introduce you to people who can help you further your career, whether that's an expert who can help you fill a product management knowledge gap or someone who help you secure an internship and gain valuable product experience.

Help you do your job better!

It might sound simple, but one of the most important foundations for building a successful career in product management is making sure you do your job really well, right now. If you find the right mentor, they can help you with that. You can bounce ideas off them or simply ask for their opinion on whether you are doing things in the most effective way possible.

Where can I find a product management mentor?

If you've decided you want a product management mentor, it can be a challenge to know where to look. Here are four places you could start your search.

Your product heroes

If there's someone you particularly admire in the product world, it's worth asking if they will mentor you. Even if they don't take people on as mentees, they may well take paid coaching clients on and using your professional development budget on a few sessions could be money well spent. Just remember to be respectful when you reach out to them and don't be upset if they say no.

Your extended network

You might already know someone who could mentor you. If so, that's great. If not, try telling people in your network what you are looking for and seeing if they can help. You could also try asking your connections if they know anyone who fits the bill. For example, if you're in a small startup, your board members or investors might be able to connect you with more experienced product folks in other companies they are involved with.

Matching websites

Some websites offer to match you with a mentor and can be a good way to connect with people who you wouldn't normally be able to speak to. Bear in mind, though, that these are often paid services and where this is the case it might be better value simply to hire a great product coach.

Product management communities

Joining a product community will help you understand the broad spectrum of things you could aim for with your product career and give you valuable insight into what it's like working in product in different industries. And those communities might be good places to find a mentor.

How do I get the most out of my product management mentoring?

Remember, most mentors aren't trained teachers or coaches, and they are generally really busy people who will fit your sessions in around their day job. So if you want to get the most out of your relationship with them, you need to take responsibility for it. Here are some simple things you can do to make the most of your mentoring relationship.

Make sure you both understand each other's motivation

People engage in mentoring for a range of different reasons. Make sure you are clear on what you want to achieve from the outset and take the time to find out what your mentor wants to get from it. They might just be doing it out of a sense of altruism, but they might also have a specific goal themselves. For example, practicing their coaching skills or just getting a fresh perspective on how more junior people are approaching product challenges right now.

Whatever your motivations, if they are clear at the beginning, you can both tailor how you approach the sessions to make sure they are productive and rewarding for the mentor and the mentee.

Make sessions as easy as possible for them to attend

When you're hiring a coach, you can expect them to schedule sessions at a convenient time for you. When working with a mentor, you'll need to work around their schedule. Find out what times work best for them and shift your schedule to make the most of them.

If you're meeting face to face, offer to come to a location that fits their schedule, maybe their office, or near wherever their meetings are for that day. If things are remote, use a conferencing software they already know they can use (nothing that requires them to create a new account), or do it by phone, if that's what they prefer.

Prepare as well as possible before the session

It might sound obvious, but with limited time in the session, you need to make sure you're well prepared. That means:

  1. Knowing what you want to work on
  2. Doing your research beforehand (there's no point in using the session to find out things you could have learned yourself with a bit of searching the internet)
  3. Preparing key questions in advance (and writing them down to make sure you don't forget to cover them)

Get what you need during the session

This is related to the previous point, but it's also useful to remember. Don't expect your mentor to put in work outside the sessions. They are doing you a favor and they are likely to be really busy. Take care to make sure you get complete answers to your questions during the session, even if it means you don't get through everything on your list.

For example, if you'd like your mentor to look through your CV with you, either send it before the session (if they ask you to) or bring it to the session with you. Don't ask them to look through it for homework afterwards.

Closing the mentorship relationship

Mentorships don't last forever. There's no hard and fast rule on how long a mentor-mentee relationship should last but there will likely come a point of diminishing returns when the sessions no longer have the impact they had initially.

When this happens, at a minimum, make sure you thank your mentor and let them know how exactly their help has been valuable to you. You might decide you want to keep in touch as friends, and even if you don't get the chance to meet often, your mentor will no doubt appreciate an update from you from time to time.

To sum up...

If you want advice from someone more experienced, need to know where to improve and are ready to manage a mentorship relationship, getting a product management mentor can do wonders to help you further your career. Working with a mentor can be a rewarding experience for both parties, but only when you put in the effort to make it so.

If you want to achieve the same benefits of mentoring but with the added flexibility and expertise of a coach, you can book a coaching consultation and one of our coaches will be happy to help you explore options for furthering your career.

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