I was at a Tech Ladies meetup this week and there were a lot of variations of the same question:
"How do I find a mentor?"
Many product managers have heard that finding a mentor is important to advance their careers. And I will affirm - having a mentor - or multiple mentors - is important. But how does a product manager obtain one of these magical mentors?
Here are 5 steps for finding - and keeping - mentors in your life and career.
1. Scope out your workplace
If you're looking for a formal mentorship program, google your city + 'mentorship programs' to find organizations like SCORE that will match you with a mentor. Your company may also offer internal mentorship programs, and I urge you to take advantage if your company does offer such a program. This is a great way to expand your network outside of your immediate department.
However, many (dare I say 'most'...) mentor-mentee relationships start informally, usually at the workplace. I have mentors from workplaces - present and past - whom I regularly call up for advice.
Therefore, the first step in finding a mentor, is scoping out a few eligible candidates. Is there someone at work that you admire? Someone who is very good at their job, and ideally at least 1+ level above you? Make a short list of people that might be excellent givers-of-advice.
2. Do not ask "Will you be my mentor?"
There's someone at work that is really awesome at what they do, and they've been in the biz for a while. They're successful and everyone respects them. This person is prime mentor material. Now... how do you approach them?
In Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In, she talks about how weird it is when women at work asked her (flat out): "Will you be my mentor?!" Don't open with this line. Please, pretty please, do not.
Do not ask potential mentors if they will be your mentor. This is like opening up a conversation with an unknown potential partner at the bar with the line "Will you be my girlfriend/boyfriend!?" Not a great pick-up line, and coming on a little too strong.
So what SHOULD you do? Ask your potential mentor to grab a cup of coffee, and get to know them. Don't ask for advice yet. Ask them what they're working on, what their background is, etc. Just act like a normal person trying to get to know someone.
3. Take the lead
Keep a running Evernote with questions/ situations that you need help with. Continue to grab coffee... and eventually lunch... with your mentor crush, choosing a question or situation to attack each time you have their ear.
It's your job as the mentee to ask for specific pieces of advice, or set up a specific situation you need help with, so that your mentor can advise. Remember - your mentor is volunteering their time to help you out of the goodness of their heart. You need to take the initiative to take the lead and guide the conversation.
4. Give back + build the relationship
If you have an opportunity to help your mentor, take that opportunity! You can give back in professional situations, i.e. take notes during that meeting your mentor is leading, or help provide visuals for a last-minute presentation they've been tasked with. You can also give back with thoughtfulness on a personal level, i.e. buy your mentor a birthday bundt cake, or throw your mentor a baby shower (if and when appropriate).
Mentor-mentee is a relationship, and like any other relationship, you have to work at building it over time. As a mentee, you're taking valuable advice from your mentor on a regular basis, and you should consider what you can give back in return.
5. Have more than one mentor
Mentorship doesn't have to be - and shouldn't be - exclusive. It's a lot of pressure for one mentor to be the only person to solve all of your career problems! Also, just like going to the doctor (which we all know I love to talk about), it's good to get a second opinion.
Work on building relationships with two or three mentors, perhaps in varying roles and experience-levels. Don't rule out peers! They are a great source of advice.
Also, keep in touch with mentors at past jobs. If you nurture these relationships early in your career, you'll have a running list of mentors and go-tos as you move through your career in tech.
NOTE: Mentorship vs. Sponsorship
As the lovely Amy Maher, Product Lead at Vinyl Me, Please, pointed out during the Tech Ladies meeting, there is an important difference between mentorship and sponsorship. Mentors advise and sponsors advocate for you. One person can hypothetically do both (if they work with you), but make sure you have both of these bases covered.