Ask Women in Product: What’s a good way to find a mentor?

There isn’t really a great step by step guide on how to go about asking people to be your mentors, specifically those you are not connected to via work or network. How would you suggest getting mentorship from such people, and what can we offer in return if we are not advanced enough in our careers?

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This week, Mariyah Janjua and Vidya Venkatesh tackle tough questions about mentorship: how to prepare to be mentored, how to find a mentor, and when to move on and give back yourself.

Answer from Mariyah Janjua, Product Manager at Daimler AG

Mentorship differs from an apprenticeship in that your mentor does not tell you exactly what you must do. They give you a variety of ideas with differing amounts of feedback, and it’s your job to figure out what to do. I believe that you should have several mentors for different aspects of your career and life. Having a diversity of thoughts and mindsets will broaden your horizons, give you more options to choose from and bring a fresh, invaluable perspective to how you look at your products.

In this article, I share some guidelines that can help you find a mentor.

Know what you want to get from the relationship

It’s important to know what you want from the encounter/relationship. Be as specific as possible. And be open to not getting exactly what you thought you’d get. Most of your opening conversations with a prospective mentor are a start for exploring what you want, so be prepared.

For example, asking “What are some of the steps I should take to accelerate my career growth?” is far too generic. It tells a prospective mentor that you want to get ahead, but it doesn’t say in what way you want to get ahead or why you want to do so either. Are you looking to advance in your craft? Or are you looking to move to a management position? Or make more money? Instead, if you were to say, “I want to drive change in this organisation because I care about our customer’s needs. What can I do to make that happen?” then your question will allow a mentor to explore the obstacles you’re facing and help you overcome them. Try using the 7 Whys Technique to get to the root of what you want, and use your conclusion as the foundation for finding the kind of mentors you need.

Don’t be afraid to start online

Geography is irrelevant — the people you want to learn from or have as your mentors may not be based anywhere near you. Thanks to the rise of social media and the internet, you can start conversations with people online (yes, people you’ve never physically met can become your mentors). If you get a chance to bring those conversations offline (e.g., if you’re travelling to their city), you can further strengthen that relationship. And even if you don’t get a chance to meet them, you’re still expanding your network while getting the mentors you want.

Here are some online tactics that work:

  • LinkedIn’s Career Advice. This LinkedIn feature is a great way of striking up conversations with people both inside and outside your network that are willing to lend their advice and experience. Avoid making a generic request — tailor it specifically to the person and what you’d like from them. To be mindful of your mentor’s time, avoid discussing anything (especially mutual connections) other than the topic at hand. Dive straight into what you want feedback on. As the relationship grows, you can broaden the scope of your discussions.
  • Twitter conversations. On Twitter, follow the people you want as mentors and start interacting with them. PMs tend to post their reflections on Twitter, so if you found a particular insight valuable, reply to the author directly. Try not to be vague or leave a “That’s cool”-style response. Instead, tell them exactly what you found valuable (e.g., “Great insight! I had a similar situation but decided against raising the issue in our team discussion and instead brought it up in a one-on-one. Glad this worked for you — will be sure to try it out next time!”)
  • Product-specific forums. Forums (e.g., r/productmanagement or Quora) are great places to get feedback on the craft that is product management. Contribute to existing discussions as much as you can, or share relevant articles to the forum before asking for feedback — you’ll be a known user, and the quality of feedback you receive will be significantly better as a result. When a discussion turns very in-depth, forum users generally switch to DM discussions. Use that as an opportunity to get to know the person and their struggles.

Tap into and expand your real-world network

In-person mentors are invaluable. They help you see the small nuances that you’re not aware of and are acting as obstacles for you. And the face-to-face interactions you have with your mentor allow for the tone of voice, body language, etc. to be conveyed and factored into the feedback you get.

Here are some offline tactics to find a mentor:

  • Ask for introductions. Tap into your network by asking your manager or team members to make introductions to people who know the person you want as your mentor. Be sure to include who you want to be introduced to and why. For example, “Hey, could you please introduce me to John? I’d love to get his perspective on this feature I’m working on.” If you don’t know who the right person is, be specific about the why. Adapt to your own style, but here’s a sample; “I could use some advice on how to integrate this new payment processor into the product. Do you know anyone who has done this before and would be willing to help me out here?” The person you’re introduced to may not be the right person, but with a few iterations, you can get to the right person, all while growing your network.
  • Use in-house mentoring programs. If you’re working for a company that has a mentoring program, make use of it. It’s a hidden network waiting to be leveraged. Your company may have policies on what can be discussed in these sessions (e.g., project work, product specifics, coworkers, etc. ) and whether it’s acceptable to have them during office hours. In any case, be mindful of your mentor’s time and define these points in your first encounter, so that both you and your mentor are aligned with each other and company policy (if there is one). Try not to get bogged down by hierarchy and other organisational structures — choose the people that can provide you with what you need, regardless of their experience level or organisational unit.
  • Go beyond your circle of fellow PMs. Strike up conversations with people who are totally outside your sphere — talk to project managers, people in finance and accounting, engineering, research, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what they do and be curious about the challenges they face. The opportunities are boundless — the coffee machine, the canteen, subways — all you have to do is take advantage of them!

Giving back

Mentoring is a relationship, which means it’s a two-way street. You bring a lot more to the table than you think, irrespective of your experience level, your age, or role. Be present. Be human. Ask questions. Or just lend a listening ear to your mentor’s struggles. For instance, I recently took on a project at work and started spending more time explaining rather than doing. A mentee kindly pointed out that it’s not my job to train people but to get work done — an observation that really helped me settle better into my new role. Add value in whatever way you can, because it’s appreciated. And you’ll be giving back more than you think.

As someone who mentors people regularly, I can also say that seeing a mentee thrive and succeed and knowing that I helped — no matter how small my influence or input — is priceless. It’s a feeling that you can’t put a price tag on. I recently had a mentee send me a Direct Message to thank me for my advice and to share her positive experience of using what we’d discussed — that message made my day! Be appreciative and acknowledge the time and value your mentor gives you.

If you’re looking for a mentor, reflect on your goals and the specific kind of help you need. Then take advantage of the social infrastructures that exist both online and offline to expand your horizons and grow your network. When you get the mentors you want, remember that it’s a relationship, with both give and take. I hope the approach I shared will help you. Feel free to reach out if you need more guidance. Good luck!

Answer from Vidya Venkatesh, Associate Director, Product Management at Talis Biomedical Corporation

Finding, leveraging, and maintaining relationships with great mentors have been the key to help me get “unstuck” from the swamps of the professional world jungle. I’ve had great mentors who have pointed out my career blind spots and have helped me become aware of subtle behaviors and traits which would have held me back in my career.

So, how do we find the right mentor(s) and navigate that mentor-mentee relationship successfully?

1. Start with a Phase of Self-Discovery

Spend time thinking about where you are and where you want to be. Seek out trusted colleagues and friends to be observers in key meetings or presentations. Make it easy for them to help you by making your feedback requests specific to the areas that you are working on. For example: How may I have resolved conflict in that meeting more effectively? How can I improve my presentation skills while speaking to large data sets and analytics? How do I create more effective slides? Use your 1:1 discussions with your manager to outline areas of improvement and areas where you can stretch further to accelerate your career growth.

My favorite books to aid in this effort are “What color is your parachute?” and “Go Put Your Strengths to Work.”

Once you have a clear idea of your own goals for growth and advancement, you can begin the mentor hunt.

2. Decide on the Kind of Mentor(s) You Need

You don’t necessarily have to work with one single mentor; you may have a panel of mentors, each of whom can be crucial for different areas of career growth. For example, a mentor who can help you build and leverage strong relationships with your sales team may be different from the one that helps you sharpen your go-to-market skills.

While all managers are mentors and coaches to some extent, having a panel of mentors who do not directly write your performance review is immensely helpful in shaping your career. We find it easier to be completely honest and open about the help we need — especially if it leaves us feeling somewhat vulnerable — with non-manager mentors.

3. Identify Your Prospective Mentor(s)

So, where can we find mentors? If you look around, you’ll see potential mentors in many different venues. At networking events, think about the interesting people you’ve had engaging conversations with. Consider the panelists at career development events who have shared their own impressive career tracks. Look at well-respected leaders within your organization. In companies that have employee resource groups (such as those targeted for women in the workplace, etc ) you have an opportunity to network and meet leaders who are otherwise hard to gain access to.

A caveat: just because someone is an expert in a field doesn’t mean they’ll make great mentors. Do your research by exploring what they share online or in public forums where they have been speakers. Get feedback from colleagues or friends that you may have in common. Many senior leaders openly offer mentoring and guidance as part of their effort to pay it forward and nurture promising and talented individuals.

The key traits of a great mentor are:

  • the desire to pay it forward and help others in their career journey;
  • the empathy to put themselves in your situation and understand your needs well;
  • the ability to give you direct feedback, so you have specific next steps; and
  • the willingness to challenge you and encourage you to take the big risks and flex your skills and abilities in areas where they can see you being successful.

You may find it helpful to have a mix of mentors from within your organization, as well as outside. They can offer diverse perspectives on how to advance your career, and the combination will help you map your own path.

4. Reach Out to Your Prospective Mentor(s) and Make the Ask

Approach potential mentors and share the results of your self-assessment, introspection, and specific reasons for approaching them. Don’t fear being turned down; after all, you miss 100% of the chances you don’t take.

I have successfully gained mentors by being sincere in my request, being respectful of their time, and keeping my requests clear and succinct. Additionally, my female mentors have appreciated my pledge to pay it forward and help fellow women professionals as I grew in my career.

Some pitfalls to avoid: Do not seek out a mentor because of their position or title, or ask them for a job on their team, or expect them to do your job tasks for you. A mentor will guide you on how to excel in your job, but no, they are not likely to outright hire you for their team, nor will they map out your product roadmap, or make that compelling sales training deck that is on your task list.

Finally, don’t forget to ask for how you might be able to return the favor.

5. Do Your Part to Be a Good Mentee

Once you have found your mentor(s), keep these tips in mind to maximize the impact of that relationship:

  • Go with a coachable mindset. Keep an open mind that’s eager to learn, and even if the feedback shared is not in line with how you see yourself, stay curious. Being defensive is likely to shut down that channel of communication and limit the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship.
  • Respect their time. In the first couple of meetings, outline key areas that you will be working on and agree on a clear action plan. Subsequently, prepare an agenda for each session and have specific requests lined up. Be proactive in setting up a regular cadence of meetings; I have found it effective to have bi-weekly 45 to 60-minute sessions that taper off to a monthly check-in.
  • Show gratitude. Be appreciative and be humble. These traits will go a long way to ensure the success of your relationship. Your mentors will take pride and joy in knowing that they have had a positive influence on your career.

6. Know When It’s Time to Move On

Inevitably, you’ll reach the point where it’s time to move on from a mentor-mentee relationship. When you have grown enough in the area that a mentor is an expert in, or when your needs are no longer met by the mentor, it is perfectly acceptable to let them know, express your sincere gratitude, and move on in your career journey. Leave with a promise to stay in touch, and follow up with regular updates on your career progress.

When I have mentored others, I have appreciated it when my mentees have kept me informed of their career progression and shared specific instances when our discussions have benefited them. More importantly, I have appreciated feedback on how I could be more effective as a mentor.

It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s well worth it to invest the time and effort to seek out the right mentors. The nuanced learning that you gain from them is invaluable and not one that you would get in a traditional classroom setting. Begin with a period of deep introspection to outline your needs and areas of improvement. Reach out to your potential mentors with specific requests. Make the mentoring sessions efficient by being prepared and driving a regular cadence of meetings. Always be appreciative of the time and guidance your mentor provides. When your needs evolve, and it’s time to graduate from the mentor-mentee relationship, end things on a good note by expressing your sincere gratitude, committing to stay in touch and pay it forward.

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