The Gift of Mentorship

A great mentor can be a huge help at any stage of your career, especially the early and mid stages.  I’ve been fortunate to have some excellent mentors throughout my career, who have helped me drive my career in the direction I wanted.  I recently agreed to be a mentor to a young product manager, and going through this process has made me think about what I want to give and receive as a mentor.  Unfortunately, most mentoring relationships are sorely lacking in structure and results, and it can be very disappointing to establish a mentoring relationship only to see it fizzle out.

Mentorship typically breaks down for the same reason people stop going to the gym: it seems like a great idea at first, but then you find out that it’s really hard!  Then, life takes over, and six months later you realize you haven’t talked to your mentor in months.  Even worse then having no mentor is having the hope of a great mentor that gets dashed due to lack of follow through.  Both the mentor and protégé should have reasonable expectations of what each side wants from the relationship, and of the time commitment involved.  First, let’s examine what a mentor and protégé should desire and expect.

Protégé

One who is protected or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence, or influence.

The motivation for a protégé to enter into mentorship is obvious: they hope to gain from the experience of their mentor.  But a protégé should not just be a passive receiver of information, their job should be to put the advice and council they are getting into practice and offer feedback to their mentor.  Every mentor-protégé relationship is unique, but there are several areas where mentors can be especially helpful in the realm of product management.  These areas include:

  • Strategic Thinking
  • Executive Relationships
  • Career Planning
  • Negotiation
  • Management Skills
  • Executive Presence

Good protégés should have a willingness to learn, be open to new ways to accomplish their goals, and have a strong desire to advance in their career.  One of the first steps to becoming a good protégé is to recognize that you could benefit from a mentor, and by recruiting your own mentor.  People are almost always flattered to be asked to be a mentor.  If they’ve never mentored before, send them this post as a how-to guide to get started.

Mentor

1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

The motivations for a mentor to enter into a relationship are less obvious than the protégé.  People become mentors for many reasons, such as a personal connection to the protégé, to help someone in need, because they see potential in a protégé they want to foster, to “pay it forward” from their time as a protégé, or simply to stroke their own ego.

Solid mentors have executive and management experience they can apply to help the protégé in various situations.  They can help the protégé understand how to interact with leadership teams and stakeholders across the business by illustrating different perspectives the protégé may have not considered.  A good mentor can even help role-play with the protégé by acting as the protégé’s executive team, preparing them for potentially stressful or high stakes meetings.

A word of caution to protégés searching for a mentor: your manager should never be your mentor.  Part of mentorship is providing neutral, disinterested feedback on a variety of topics, including how to deal more effectively with your management.  Your direct manager has a conflict of interest and cannot provide this feedback in the same way, plus it puts them in an awkward position when you ask them to mentor you.  If you have a great manager that you want as a mentor, keep them in mind for when you move to another role where they aren’t managing you directly, and they will be honored to act as your mentor in that capacity.

Mentors can also help their protégé with their experiences in hiring and building teams to inform career planning and advancement.  Mentors can advise on when to stand pat versus when to seek a job or company change, how hard to press during salary and benefits negotiation, and helping them map their desired titles and responsibilities in their next several roles.

Finally, mentors should also supply their protégé with access and introductions to the mentor’s wider set of contacts.  The mentor by definition will typically have a more expansive network, that they should allow the protégé to use.  In addition, the mentor should also make proactive introductions to people from their network that the protégé would benefit from knowing.  Those contacts could become future bosses, contacts, or even additional mentors for the protégé.

The primary role of the mentor is to arm the protégé with council and contacts to make them successful.

Formats and Time Commitments

Mentoring is not free; for the mentor or the protégé.  It costs in the form of time and energy.  The amount of time and energy will vary based on the formats you choose.

Face-to-Face Meetings

Frequency: Once a month to every three months

Meeting face-to-face should be the staple of a mentorship relationship.  70% of human communications is non-verbal, and you will both miss out on that extra data if you try to do all the conversations online.  Go grab a drink, hash out your issues.  More than once per month will probably overtax the mentor, less than once every three months will allow the relationship to grow stale.

Phone Calls

Frequency: Bi-weekly to monthly

Talking by phone between face-to-face meetings is a good way to keep up-to-date and do course corrections.  It is also the way to get quick answers to questions that can’t wait for an in-person meeting.

Email/IM/Other

Frequency: As needed

Email is good for background information, homework assignments, and certain introductions.

 

Roadmap for Mentoring Success

Mentoring is hard, but it is easier with a plan.  If you are thinking about setting up a mentoring relationship, and you are willing to put in the time to make it work, use this plan as a launch pad to get started.  You will know quickly if you need to modify this outline, but at least you have a starting point.  Note: this outline is designed for a protégé product manager in an early career stage.

  • Month 1: initial meeting, mentor should probe protégé for “where do you want to be in 1/5/10 years.”
  • Month 2: chart a plan to achieve the 1/5/10 year plan, break 1-year plan into measurable goals for the year, design a plan to “sell” the goals to protégé’s management as part of objectives.
  • Month 3: assess current role, responsibilities, fit to 1-year plan, compensation and benefits (design plan to correct if under market).
  • Month 4: catalog past achievements, design plan for reviewing with current management so the protégé’s value is recognized.
  • Month 5: ensure protégé is receiving adequate executive exposure and design corrective plan if not.
  • Month 6: introduce protégé to contact from mentor network in an industry or title that aligns with his/her 5/10 year plan.
  • Month 7: mid-point check in on 1-year plan achievement versus goals, adjust as needed.
  • Month 8: identify networking and visibility opportunities to raise the protégé’s thought leadership profile inside and outside the company (e.g. presenting at a local ProductCamp), plan and execute.
  • Month 9: collect information in support of comp and benefits negotiation (e.g. Pragmatic Institute’s annual survey report), assemble BATNA.
  • Month 10: assess performance versus 1-year plan, make adjustments to suit.  Role play comp negotiation if needed.
  • Month 11: assess results of negotiation and decide what action to take.
  • Month 12:  revisit 1/5/10 year plan.  Assess need and value for continued mentorship.  Repeat!

Completing the Circle

The last step in mentorship is to “complete the circle.”  This means that the protégé should pay back the experience by becoming a mentor themselves.  This step doesn’t have to happen immediately, but it should happen if the protégé got a benefit from the original relationship.  Thank you notes to the mentor are always a great idea, but the biggest compliment to a mentor should be that they inspired you to become a mentor yourself.  Pay the ultimate compliment, and as you grow in your career, help the next generation along and remember that you could be mentoring your next great team member (or boss)!

Paul Young

Paul Young

Paul Young oversees the strategic development of Pragmatic Institute’s portfolio of products and leads the executive team in the evaluation of new product opportunities. He also manages the instructor team. Paul began his career as a software developer and has worked in startups and large companies across B2B and B2C industries, including telecommunications and networking, IT and professional services, consumer electronics and enterprise software. He has managed P&L lines for products with hundreds of millions in revenue, and faced difficult choices about which products in the portfolio to retain and which to kill. Reach him at pyoung@pragmaticmarketing.com.


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