Notes on “Mentorship is Product Management”

The focus of the Mentorship is Product Management podcast episode is on how to form valuable mentorship relationships between a product manager and a mentor. The guest is Ben Foster, author of Most Product Managers Suck.

Throughout my life, I have sought out different ways of empowering people through knowledge sharing. Among other things, I founded a Technology Mentor Program at CARFAX  So, this podcast was of particular interest to me.

The rest of this blog post contains pretty much raw notes. The notes contain a mixture of direct quotes from the podcast, my own thoughts, and sometimes ideas that came to mind while listening.

Notes

Ben had a statistics degree. He got a job doing QA, filed bugs, and got some enhancement requests. The product managers at his company invited him to become a product manager. That was in 1998 in San Francisco.

He joined eBay in 2001. The company grew fast. Ben rose in the ranks of Product Management. (How did he do that?) At eBay, he was in charge of merchandising which is all about “Would you like fries with that?”

He later became VP of product management at CoPower, an energy efficiency company for about four years. They took the company public in 2014.

Now, Ben helps founders and product managers. Every product manager can benefit from having a mentor. Decision making is what a product manager does. They have backlogs.They have strategies. They have to decide how far out to communicate a roadmap. They need good judgement and wisdom. Mentors help with the wisdom part. Mentors have:

  • Prior experience
  • Functional know how
  • Domain expertise

What’s Better, a Formal or Informal Relationship?

There are many different types of relationships. Paid vs. not-paid. Where the mentor is extremely senior or a peer. It depends on the needs of the mentee and the needs of the mentor. What are they trying to get from the relationship?

For the mentee, are they looking to do a current job better or take that next step in the career? Do they want formal or informal? Do they want a really good peer or someone more senior? Do they want someone in the same organization or outside of the company?

If you get a mentor that is inside the same company, the mentor has the context and is already familiar with what’s going on. If the mentor is outside of the company, they can offer benchmarks on what you are doing well or not based on comparisons to other companies.

Common Use Cases for Mentees:

  • Some have laser focus. They want a promotion.
  • Others are brand new. How can I do my current job better?
  • Some just want to learn from other people’s failures and their successes.

Mentors

Usually, you don’t go from not being a mentor to being one. It’s a progression. Someone asks 1, 2, or 3 questions and then the relationship evolves into a mentor / mentee relationship. Mentors can sometimes “pattern match” meaning that they can apply solutions that they have learned through other contacts. Mentors can create a general solution framework. The more the mentor can create those kinds of things the more people will want to reach out to you. It’s important to make it clear to the mentee what it is you want out of the relationship. Otherwise, it’s a one sided relationship. Both parties must understand each other’s reasons so it is win / win.

Not all mentors are the same. The good mentors will actively reach out to their mentees. It’s on the mentor to provide actionable and real world information. Theory needs to be backed up with practicality. How they communicate and how often can be dictated by what is currently going on for the mentee. The example given is around stakeholder communication. That might require frequent phone calls from the mentor. The communication should be constructive and direct.

Good mentors have a network. They proactively send out articles to the mentees that may serve them well. They can tap their network for answers they don’t know.

Best Mentor / Mentees Matches And Linking Up

An ideal mentor has worked with many employees that went from career spot A to career spot B just like the mentee wants to do. So, how can a product manager connect to a mentor?

Can start small. LinkedIn and other sources of groups. (User groups in town or online groups?) If you are seeking UX, Behance or other sources are discussed on Quora.

How To Approach The Mentor?

Say you are impressed by what they are doing. Tell them it would be helpful for you if they could advise you on this one specific problem.

People are sometimes happy to do a 20 minute phone call. Offering a free lunch can be good.

Good Questions To Ask

Good example of a specific question to ask is something tangible. Something like you are faced with a specific challenge. For example, you want to communicate the roadmap to the sales team better. Right now, there is a mismatch. What are some best practices in this specific situation?

An example of a bad question is like “What are the three most important things for a product manager”? It’s not actionable because people work with different constraints and issues.

In Ben’s career, he got mentors that helped fill gaps that he had. His “council” of people that he could go to consisted of CEOs, VPs, VCs, investors, and so on.

Stay in touch with your network. Over time, it’s amazing the value the network will provide.

If Ben Could Change Something

A mistake he made: He spent a couple of years making incremental improvements. He looked back two years later and asked himself “what did I really build?” “Where’s the innovation?” Getting leapfrogged by someone else is bad. The specific example is eBay vs Amazon. It’s like they “Won the battles and lost the war”

Ben is Reading

Summary

As you can see above, the Mentorship is Product Management podcast episode is filled with great advice when it comes to understanding, defining, and establishing mentor / mentee relationships. I highly recommend you listen to the podcast as well as the other podcasts at This is Product Management.

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