Becoming a Product Management Mentor: Inspire the Next Generation

What Is a Product Management Mentor?

A mentor is someone who has valuable professional advice to share, usually learned through many years of experience. They may have a few mentees, or just one, who they coach through key milestones in their careers such as job hunting, breaking into a new industry, asking for a promotion, and everything in between.

In Product Management, mentors have always been key to the success of the next generation of Product People, as no formal PM education existed in the early days of the role.

Mentor-mentee relationships may happen organically, as you can be a mentor to your direct reports in your team, or through mutual acquaintances. Once you’ve intentionally decided that you’re ready to become a mentor, you can also reach out to people you’ve never connected with and offer mentorship.

Benefits of Becoming a Mentor

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  • Giving back to your community: If you’re keen to make Product Management more accessible to your community (eg women, POC/WOC, LGBT+) mentorship is a great way to break down entry barriers.
  • Sharing what you’ve learned: Mentorship and teaching can help you to contribute to the craft of Product Management, and expand the industry’s knowledge base.
  • Building your personal brand: Show off your PM prowess and establish yourself as a thought leader.
  • Having fun! Most mentors find the experience gratifying, fulfilling, and plenty of fun.

Things to Consider Before Becoming a Mentor

Before you dive into becoming a mentor, you need to figure out whether you’re ready or not. Bad mentors can be more damaging to a person’s career than no mentor at al. Here are some things to be mindful of:

What are your motivations?

There are a lot of benefits to becoming a mentor in Product Management, as we’ve already mentioned. And it’s OK to want to become a mentor in order to build your personal brand, or to benefit your own professional development. But great mentors approach mentorship primarily through altruism. You have to really care about your mentees in order to make the time for them and that’s hard to do if you only care about yourself.

There are other ways to establish yourself as a thought leader or to build your personal brand (such as starting a side hustle), but you should only embark on mentorship if you have a genuine interest in helping others and forming mutually beneficial mentorship relationships.

Do you have the time?

Mentorship doesn’t have to take over your whole life (and it shouldn’t if you set expectations early-on), but it is a time commitment.

It’s not the same as writing a blog full of good advice, hitting publish, and occasionally replying to comments. A mentoring relationship involves a certain level of 1-1 interaction. Just how much and what form that comes in will be up to you and your mentee. But if you’re currently struggling to find a good work/life balance, you’ll either drive yourself crazy by adding another commitment to your plate or you’ll end up letting your mentee down.

Examine your schedule and see how much time you would have available for mentorship. If you comfortably have an hour a week as a minimum that you could spare, you’re good to go!

Do you have enough experience?

Years of experience aren’t as important as the quality of your experience. Someone who has transitioned from UX to Product, succeeded as a woman in FinTech, or scaled successful products within a small startup, will have particularly valuable advice for those looking to do the same. If you’ve successfully achieved your career goals, then you have everything you need to be an effective mentor. It shouldn’t matter that you didn’t spend twenty years doing it. 

That being said, if you’ve been working in Product Management/the tech industry for only a few months, you may find your mentees asking you questions that you don’t have the answers to. From a personal branding perspective, it can come across as arrogant to leap into mentorship when you’re only two months into your first PM role!

You should probably focus on being a good PM in the first place before going out of your way to help others. The last thing an entry-level PM needs is another meeting in their calendar.

Do you want to specialize or generalize?

If you have a wide variety of Product Management experience, you can cast a relatively wide net when choosing your mentee. But you may have overcome a particular challenge that you’d like to focus on. It all depends on your area of expertise or your background.

We’ve briefly touched on this already, but if you’ve made an unusual transition (say from journalism to Technical PM), then you have insider knowledge that’s pretty unique. You may also have faced barriers and bias, and you’d like to help the next generation of Product Leaders overcome them more easily.

Reach out to the online communities that serve your niche, or find them in the wider Product Management community. Connecting with people that you already have something in common with, or finding a mentee who has the same goals, interests, and values as you, sets you up to be a good Product mentor right off the bat.

Finding Your Mentee

If you’re lucky, your mentee will come to you! They may be someone you’re vaguely aware of or familiar with who reaches out to you on LinkedIn, or someone in your company who approaches you at the next employee mixer.

Those working in larger organizations may benefit from official mentoring programs run by your company. Organizations of all verticals and sizes are starting to seriously invest in Product-Led Growth, and understand the need for Product Thinking in their businesses. There may be room for you to recommend starting one of these mentorship programs within your company if there isn’t one already.

If you can’t find a mentoring program, or if it’s just not your style, you can also find your mentees through networking. If you’re able to get out of the house/office and meet someone face to face, that can help to form a stronger mentoring partnership.

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Keys to A Successful Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Setting Expectations

When you start out on your mentor-mentee relationship, you need to set expectations of how available you’re going to be.

What many people forget is that this works both ways. You need to show up for your mentee, but they also need to show up for you. If you make yourself available to them for a one/two hour catchup once a month, as well as a few text messages back and forth in between, they also need to commit to that.

Equally, they need to know that you’re not going to be endlessly available to them. It’s important to set boundaries, so that your mentoring doesn’t intrude in your work life or your personal life.

But it’s not just about time management. You should also set expectations of the help that you’re going to offer them, and what they’re hoping to achieve through your mentorship. When you’re aligned on your goals, you’re set up to be a good mentor and they’re set up for success!

When to End a Mentor-Mentee Relationship

There are two types of reasons for mentor-mentee relationships to endl; good and bad.

Good: your mentee has achieved their goals, you mutually agree that your goals no longer align, one or both of you no longer have the time to commit to the relationship, etc.

Like all relationships, sometimes things just don’t work out. And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with mutually agreeing to part ways when circumstances change. You can still keep in touch and keep tabs on their progress.

But the formal relationship can also end when a mentorship relationship works, and you’ve helped them land the job of their dreams or negotiate a big promotion. Dating app Product Managers would call this ‘positive churn’, when your service has solved the problem or filled the need, and is no longer required.

Bad: they’re not taking all of your advice, they’re not moving as fast as you want them to, you’ve gotten bored of mentoring, mentoring isn’t boosting your own career the way you’d hoped, etc.

Being dropped by a mentor for no good reason can be very damaging to a new professional’s self-esteem, and can actually negatively impact their career progression. Once you’ve made a commitment to someone to be their mentor, try to see it through to the end if you’ve got no valid reason for dropping out.

Celebrating Your Mentee’s Wins

Something Product Managers in particular are very skilled at, is celebrating the wins of others. Product Management is a collaborative endeavor, and so you understand better than anyone the power of shared wins.

When your mentee takes your advice to heart, and uses the lessons they teach you to land big wins, celebrate that with them! And know that even by helping one fellow Product lover, you’ve had a huge impact on the craft of Product Management.

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