Offering support and guidance to others can be very rewarding — but be prepared for the unexpected…
It never occurred to me that I could be a mentor when I was first approached by a Junior Product Manager asking me to do just that, and the experience has taught me some interesting and valuable things over the years. Here are a few of the more surprising things I’ve learned along the way:
1. You will spend a lot of time talking about how to manage other humans
I recently wrote a piece about setting product teams up for success and in it I talked about my belief that being a Product Manager is primarily a human-centred role.
Part of this belief was formed from my own experiences — and then further validated by the many conversations I have had over the years with people I have mentored.
So often we would discuss questions like:
How can I be persuasive and negotiate a good outcome? How can I resolve conflict among team members? How do I motivate people? How can I build a relationship with a challenging stakeholder?
These are often the real sticking points for people who are trying to grow in their career as a Product Manager. Product discovery, strategic thinking and data analysis can all be mastered with relative ease (after enough practice!) — learning how to influence other humans can certainly be trickier.
2. Using a framework can help you provide specific guidance
Often the first conversation with your mentee is a general chat about what they would like to get out of working with you.
A big part of being a successful Product Manager is embracing self-learning, and that includes learning all about yourself. What areas are you strong in? What do you find challenging? Where do you stand to learn more?
These are the kinds of questions I would ask my mentees when I first started mentoring, however I quickly realised that many Product Managers weren’t sure what being a great PM actually looked like.
In order to focus our conversations and help them to progress in the right way, I put together a framework (which has evolved over the years, along with the PM discipline and practice).
It includes a self-assessment for mentees so that they can score themselves on how well both they and others around them believe they are doing in key areas of the discipline — everything from domain knowledge and critical thinking through to ability to build and maintain relationships and empathise with customers.
Once mentees understood what good looked like, it was much easier to pinpoint areas for improvement that we could focus on.
3. You will also grow, as part of the experience
Being a mentor isn’t for everyone, but for those who do decide to give it a go, it can help you grow in ways you never expected.
A big part of mentoring others is listening to what they have to say and figuring out how you can support what is being asked of you, often without giving away the answer and encouraging the other person to figure it out.
These experiences really helped me to develop my active listening, coaching and leadership skills — not to mention the sense of reward you feel at having enabled someone else to succeed.
4. Sometimes the outcome won’t be what you expect
Most Product Managers ask for support and guidance because they want to up-skill their capabilities and learn how to move forward in their careers.
However, moving forward in their careers doesn’t always mean becoming a more senior Product Manager — sometimes it means taking a different direction altogether.
I have mentored at least 2 Junior Product Managers over the years who, through the experience of mentoring, have come to realise that being a PM just wasn’t for them (see point number 1).
This wasn’t something I expected to happen when I first started mentoring, but I see it as a positive outcome as part of the job is helping people to find their way both as a person and in their career.