In my previous article, I spoke about one of the core skills required by product managers – product discovery (you can read it here: link). In this instalment, I want to speak to aspiring product leaders. 
I believe that as product managers, we’re confronted with different paths to take as we grow in our careers – to either carry on advancing as an individual contributor or to step into a product leadership role.

In this article, I will share insights around what helped me gain people coaching/mentoring experience, which is one of the key aspects of leadership.

Embarking on the Journey

One of the first questions I get from people is: “How do I get started when I don’t have any line management opportunities at work?”. This is a tricky one because we generally need leadership experience to get hired for a leadership role. 

The truth is that we can start being leaders today. 

As a product manager on a team, you are already in a leadership role by default. Your contributions to your cross-functional team are insights around the value and business viability of your collective work, but you are also uniquely placed to influence your team culture (irrespective of your wider company culture). Product managers in teams can nurture a culture of trust (in their teammates to do their job, reducing micromanagement), respect (of the different personalities in the team) and a sense of camaraderie (to support one another as needed to accomplish your team goals). The primary objective of any great manager should be to coach their people to competence and provide the right enabling psychologically safe environment for this to happen. You can start doing all these things immediately.

Here are some other ideas for getting started that worked for me:

  • Broadcast on your personal social media about your willingness to assist others on their journey with your experience.
  • Set up regular one-to-ones. Once you have a mentee, use this time to talk about how they are doing and not about work/project updates. Inevitably, work updates may feature but this should not be the focus of the conversation. If time is needed to discuss a particular topic in detail, then dedicated time should be created for this, apart from the regular one-to-one sessions.
  • Set the scene: The first call really is an introductory conversation, with both parties getting to know each other a bit better. Moving forward, I suggest creating an agenda before the meeting, so that your time together can be of high value to you both.
  • Explore the literature: There are a good number of blogs, forums, courses and books to support first-time  mentors. I can personally recommend TRILLION DOLLAR COACH: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell. There are many examples of great leadership within the work environment in this book.

Your Next Coaching Calls

Congratulations! You have put yourself in one of the most rewarding positions of your career so far. What next? How do you keep adding value to your mentee? Here are some tips I have found that will help you:

  • Spend time to conduct a skills assessment of your mentee. Create a list of skills that a great product manager should possess (discovery, delivery, stakeholder collaboration, financial acumen, presentation skills and so on) and dedicate your next call with your mentee to walk through them all, asking qualifying questions as you go along. Encourage your mentee to rate themself before you do; this will give you both some indication of which areas need immediate attention. Check out Petra Wille’s PM wheel here:
  • Create an outcome-based roadmap! With the work you have done above to assess skills, you now have a prioritized list of areas that need attention. Set up follow-up calls in line with this, tackling each one by one, sharing all the knowledge you can to increase your mentee’s competence. 
  • Another practical tip I will offer is to limit the number of mentees you take on. Especially since this is a new endeavor, we want to aim for quality over quantity. I recommended taking on two to three (at most) mentees as a start. 
  • You’re off to the races 🚀.

Beyond the tips above, I want to provide you with one of the most powerful ways of teaching others that I have found: shadowing. By creating an arrangement where your mentee can observe and emulate your actions while you perform your role, allows for experiential learning on the part of the mentee. Through this hands-on approach, they gain insights into not only your practical decision-making and prioritisation skills, but also the nuanced soft skills essential for success in product management – qualities that may be challenging to convey through traditional teaching methods. Emphasising product management as a craft, this apprenticeship-style learning is an exceptionally powerful coaching technique.

Feedback Loop

At this stage, you now have a structure for how to coach your mentees. The final piece of advice I will offer is to ask for feedback. In the same way we care about quantitative/qualitative  data in our product work, we want to ensure we keep the same mindset of build-measure-learn-iterate. Ask your mentee(s) for feedback and constantly look for ways to be more impactful in how you coach. 

In summary, remember that coaching isn’t just about imparting knowledge; it’s a journey of mutual growth. So, embark on this adventure with zest, and watch both you and your mentees flourish.  

From my personal experience (through observation and being mentored), I believe that one of the most profound offerings a great mentor/leader can bestow upon others, is the gift of inspiration. Spark a flame of belief in the hearts of those around you, instilling the notion that anything is possible, and you will usher in extraordinary outcomes. 

Through our client engagements at Zenitech, we are often in the position to help coach, mentor and advise on product teams and organizational structure. As an experienced product function, we are passionate about helping  others build up their knowledge in order to help grow their product and their personal skill sets. Please reach out to us to discuss how we might be able to help!