Best Practices

Finding a Mentor at Every Stage of Your Product Career

When’s the last time you had a mentor in your product career? A mentor can help you get to that next step of your career in the ever-changing and evolving product management industry. Seventy-one percent of Fortune 500 companies have mentorship programs in place to help ensure individuals are building up their professional skills. 

I’ve recently transitioned to a product operations role at Sprout Social, a social media product company. With this move, I’ve taken a new approach to finding the mentors that make the most sense for my career. 

Fill the Skill Gaps

You may think mentoring is finding someone who is a step or two above your current role; however, this might not always be the case. For me, the best mentors I’ve found have been people who excel in those areas that I need to work on. 

Start by writing out the skills you are hoping to improve upon. Remember, specificity is important, which is why using the S.M.A.R.T. goal system is recommended. Some examples of skills that I am working on include being more direct, fostering a culture of collaboration on my team, and finding experts in the product operations field. 

Once you determine the skills you are looking to improve upon, you need to find the right person to help you do so. If you are looking for a mentor inside your organization, start by tapping into your personal network to see if they know anyone who can help you fill the gaps. 

There are also plenty of options for looking for mentors if you want to look outside your network. Groups including Product Coalition, Women in Product, and even ProductCraft itself provide a wide range of product experts who you can reach out to for career advice. Be open and willing to put yourself out there to someone who you think will help you keep moving ahead. 

Commit to an Experiment

Once you find the right person, commit to a low-fidelity experiment. This could be something as simple as deciding which upcoming project you want your mentor’s support on. As you would with a product build, go for an MVP experiment with your mentor. If you are looking to build a skill, what is the minimum viable product version of calling it a success? Write out exactly what you are hoping to solve, what you need to get there, and what success looks like. Just like when building a product, if the success metrics are unclear, you might both have very different definitions of what “done” is. Your mentor may be looking at how you felt after you completed the task, while you may want to be looking at success metrics for the work itself. Be clear upfront with what metrics make the most sense for the work you are doing. 

If your first experiment is a success, commit to another. Continue to test and agree upon what the working relationship should be like for both sides. This will ensure that there is never a question any step of the way about what mentorship looks like. 

Give as Much as You Take

The best mentorship relationships are two-way streets. There may be growth areas for the person helping you, too. If not, you can pitch yourself as an asset to someone they may know. The best types of relationships in mentorship happen when you engage regularly. If you only reach out to people in your network when you are in need of something, you may have a harder time finding people who want to help you. A willingness to be proactive in helping others as much as you are helped is a key part of mentorship. 

Make Sure You Can’t Solve It on Your own

Oftentimes, people label “mentorship” as the answer to a problem. But sometimes, there is beauty in solving problems on your own as well. I love this recent tweet from Jason Fried about advice that also rings true for mentorship.

Yes, mentors can help guide you along the way. As the old expression goes, “Bring me solutions, not problems.” You can give problem-solving a shot! This approach allows you to show a potential mentor that you tried to solve it on your own before going to them. 

Mentorship Is Ever-Evolving

Just like your career as you continue to grow and learn, your needs for support will change. Be patient with yourself and be willing to think outside the box when it comes to finding a mentor. You may not find the right mentor on the first, second, or third try. It’s natural to feel discouraged or frustrated. Sometimes finding the wrong mentor can help you recalibrate the type of mentor relationship that is most conducive to you. For example, I work best with mentors that offer both suggestions for me to try as well as ideas for me to take on fully. Practice putting yourself and your ideas out there — the more you do it, the easier it becomes.