I’d like to share why every Product Manager needs to be Mentor Sandwich Meat. My greatest career learnings have come as a result of doing Product Management under the guidance of both mentors and mentees. Why is that? For me, it holds me accountable no both not for the product I’m actively working on, but for the practices that make us all better at what we do.
There are some great books and resources out there that will give you the do’s and don’ts of mentoring. For instance I recommend the One Minute Mentor.
Let’s walk through best practices for each of these avenues for potential mentorship.
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 she isn’t a product manager herself.
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 her on how you want to grow, so that she 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 meet regularly with my CEO or my VP of Product.
Since she’s one layer removed from my work, she 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!
Also, don’t forget to ask 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.
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. She’s 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 does she want to learn about? Why does she find you interesting? What value are you supposed to bring into the conversation? How much time does she 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 speaker 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, she may still be in transit or have other personal commitments to attend to.
Another way of making new connections is to connect with product mentors on a dedicated mentoring platform.
For example, Plato is a powerful platform for mentorship. Plato takes care of all the logistics when it comes to finding a mentor, and it connects you with experienced mentors in the same field who have navigated through similar challenges. You receive practical guidance and new perspectives on your work and ideas.
Note that many mentorship platforms require paid memberships to access.