How To Build A Mentor Network For Your Product Management Career

by drjim on October 19, 2009

Product Managers Need Mentors To Be Successful   (c) - 2008

Product Managers Need Mentors To Be Successful (c) – 2008

I’ve got a quick question for you: what is the next step in your career? What do you want to get promoted to? In fact, as long as we are talking about that, what comes after THAT promotion? In product management the career ladder generally goes: product manager, director, executive director, VP of marketing, Sr. VP, CEO. Got a plan on how you are going to get to that next step?

The Problem With Product Manager Career Mentors

It used to be that what you needed in order to climb out of a product management position was a mentor – someone who would take you  under their wing and guide you during your career. Bad news – those days are long gone.

It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the old way, it’s just that the world started to move faster. Nowadays nobody stays in a given position long enough to act as a mentor to you for any reasonable length of time. Even if they did, they are probably too busy to spend enough time with you in order to keep your career on track.

The old way of picking a mentor and having them work with you over time to shape and guide your career is gone – things move too fast and change too often to allow this to work any more. Instead, product managers need to discover how to create networks of mentors that they can use to provide the career guidance that they will need over the years.

If you thought the old way was tough, just wait until you try to figure out how to do things using the new way!

The New Way Of Managing Your Career

Dr. Dawn Chandler (CA Polytech State University), Dr. Douglas Hall (Boston University) and Dr. Kathy Kram (Boston University) have spent some time looking into this problem with the modern product management workplace and they’ve got some ideas about how we can fix things.

Since there is really no way for you to get a single individual to agree to act as your mentor for the 40-45 years that your product management career is going to last, instead you are going to have take a different approach. You are going to have to create a network of mentors that you can use to accomplish what you need to get done.

Oh, there is one small problem with this clever solution: most of us are not all that good at creating a mentor network like this let alone trying to maintain it. It looks like you are going to need some suggestions on how best to do this.

Building And Maintaining A Mentor Network

One of the first things that you are going to have to realize about building your mentor network is that the people that you are going to ask to be a part of your network will not all be the same. This means that you are going to have develop a special set of skills in order to be able to (1) find them, and (2) create relationships with them that will make them want to mentor you.

Here is what you are going to have to do in order to create a mentoring network that will help your product management career move to the next level:

  • Talk, Talk,Talk – you are going to have to be willing to take the initiative and reach out to those people that you want to be a part of your mentoring network – they aren’t going to contact you. Once you’ve contacted them the first time, then you are going to have to work at maintaining contact with them so that they don’t forget about you.
  • Be Sensitive – Not everyone that you talk to is going to want to be your mentor. It’s going to be up to you to take the time to pick up on the message that they are sending your way. Few  people will actually come out and say “no”, so it’s up to you to detect those folks who would like to decline the opportunity.
  • It’s The Takeoff That Counts – when you’ve found someone who is willing to be a member of your mentor network, then you’ve got to be willing to make an extra effort to make sure that your initial interactions with that person go very well. They will set tone for the rest of your relationship. Show up early for meetings, follow up quickly on actions, and pay attention when they are talking.
  • Be Prepared – make sure that you get ready for every meeting with someone who is in your mentor network. Research what you want to ask them, make sure that you can show that you are making progress in your career, and come prepared to ask questions about challenges that you are currently facing.
  • Information Is The Key – you need to be willing to share information with your mentoring network. This does not mean that you have to tell them all the details about what you had for breakfast today, but rather that you be willing to lay out your current challenges and failures that you’ve had – you know, stuff that can be hard to talk about.
  • It’s A Two-Way Street – if someone agrees to be a part of your mentoring network, then you have agreed to do your best to help them out also. This means that you have a responsibility to help your mentors out whenever you have an opportunity to do so. This can be as simple as passing on information that you run across to actually doing work for them.
  • Be A Nice Person – Nobody want to work with a jerk and they certainly don’t want to mentor one. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, always be on your best behavior when you interact with a member of your mentor network.
  • Be Positive – how you choose to view the world is a key part of how others see you. If you have a positive attitude you will naturally attract people to your mentor network and you’ll be able to keep them there. If you’ve got a negative attitude, then nobody is going to want to lend you a helping hand.

Final Thoughts

As a product manager you are undoubtedly busy. However, it turns out that you have yet another job on top of your “day job” – managing your career. You can’t do this by yourself and so you’re going to need to have someone guide you – a mentor network.

Creating and maintaining a mentor network is no easy task. However, if you go about doing it in the right way it can become a powerful force that will cause your career to shoot ahead and make sure that you don’t get left behind.

Product managers who can do this will have have found yet another way that great product managers make their product(s) fantastically successful.

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Whenever I stop at a 7-11 with my kids in tow, they start instantly clambering for me to allow them to get a soda. On those occasions that they have worn me down enough that I’ll do almost anything to get them to shut-up, I’ll give in and let them. What they proceed to do next would take the breath away from any sane adult…

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