Coach, Mentor, and Circle
relationship and resource to help grow your PM careers
As PMs or aspiring PMs, we constantly look to improve our skills, gain valuable experiences, and grow our product careers. We look up and read books and resources, we work hard in projects and learn from the hands on experiences, and we take the time to think, plan, and reflect. We’re the owners of our own careers.
But we also know, that it’s best that we don’t do it alone. We all need help along the way in the long, continuous, and challenging journey of becoming and growing as a PM. Likewise, as we become and grow as PMs, we would then offer help to those who are just getting started or earlier in the same journey. Getting help and giving back are also what makes this journey rewarding.
This is where different relationships come in. We often heard coaches, mentors, and circles as good resources to find. But what are those exactly and how you go about finding the best for you?
In this article, I will provide my own perspectives and share my own experiences, in hope to bring a bit more clarity to you, if this has been a question you have. So in two parts:
🔎 How to Find the Right Ones?
Again, this is only my perspective. You might get different definitions from different people.
A coach is someone who has the specialized skills or experiences you need to help you accomplish a specific (relatively near term) goal. In product management, you could hire a coach to help you prepare interviews, navigate toward a promotion goal, or to sharpen your public speaking for a keynote you’re going to give in a conference. There are plenty of examples outside of product management as well. You hire a basketball shooting coach to perfect your shooting skills, a fitness coach to help you reach certain physique before summer, or a relationship coach to improve or save your marriage.
A mentor is someone you develop long term relationship with, and who can provide you broader perspectives on a longer time horizon in life. Your conversations with a mentor are usually beyond a very specific topic or a near term goal you’re looking to hit, but rather any topic that interests both of you that can guide you in the right directions. By developing a long term relationship, it also implies a bidirectional relationship. Not only do you take from this relationship, you always on the look out to give, wherever you can.
A circle would be a group of people who might share the same interests and goals with you, that you can discuss and exchange topics with. If you’re an aspiring PM, you might be a part of aspiring PMs circle in which you can share the lesson learns and struggles with each other. If you’re a PM in a specific industry, you might belong to a circle in which you can discuss the trend, how to grow, and career opportunities with one another.
Obviously these roles won’t be entirely mutually exclusive. A coach you initially hired can be developed into a long term mentor if you stay in touch and mutually share values. You can meet someone in your circle who can actually coach or mentor you in something she’s really good at. Etc.
For me? I’ve had and provided all 3.
I’ve hired a job seeking coach, a presentation coach, and a relationship coach. I honestly wish I hired a PM coach (if one was easily available at the time of my transition), so it wouldn’t have taken me so many years. I also wish I hired a basketball coach at some point so I can enjoy more (and win) those games (when I was younger and playing a lot). 🏀
I’ve been lucky to have met a number of mentors in my career so far, mostly from who I worked with in my jobs (as a PM and a non-PM). They include my direct managers, more senior peers (PMs and non-PMs), and leadership I worked with.
And I’ve been in a number of PM circles. Some of which were organically formed through external events like conferences or even on Linkedin. I’m also lucky that my recent companies have deliberately facilitated PM circles to allow us to meet PMs in other organizations we might not work with day to day.
I couldn’t have been where I am without them. And I continue to develop these relationships today which I’m sure will continue to positively impact my career and life.
Of course, like mentioned above, I also started giving back. I’m now a coach, a mentor, and I lead and contribute in circle conversations.
🔎 How to Find the Right Ones?
There’s no such thing as a universally best coach, mentor, or circle. There’s only what’s best for you. Before you start searching, take a good moment and be clear about the following about yourself:
Your Goals: what are your immediate goals or long term goals? This helps you think about what “resource” you might need to help achieve these goals.
Your Strengths and Gaps: before anyone can help you, you need good self awareness. You have to be brutally honestly with yourself what you’re good at and importantly, not so good at. Only when you know your gap, can you share with your coach, mentor, or circle peers and then they can help you.
Your Personality: the best coach, mentor, or circle is not always those who are the most publicly successful. The best would be what fits your personality the best. Just like your friends or your significant others.
Your Investment: how much are you willing to invest in these relationship to help you accomplish what you want? Here, it’s not just monetary investment. It’s also about the time, effort, and commitment. Remember, it’s still a relationship so you will have to give your part and your best. After all, you still own your goals and destinies.
I’ve seen too many who came to me when they still knew too little about their goals and themselves, and were unwilling to invest and commit their parts. I wouldn’t proceed just because I didn’t think I’d be helpful and the outcome of this relationship wouldn’t be great (for both of us).
Now how do you find them? In my experience: on the job, events, online.
On The Job
On the job is the easiest and most straightforward. At work, have you worked with who you admire a lot or who walked the paths you want before you? Find opportunities to work more closely with them, proactively help and bring values, and manage to stay in touch even after one or both of you part way with the company. Also, it might not have to be officially with the mentor vs mentee “titles”. As long as you both value the relationship, nurture it, and find values in the long term.
If you have a specific short term goal in mind, you might also be able to turn one of who you work with into a coach, to help you accomplish it within a certain timely. In this case, the relationship needs to be more explicitly agreed and defined. Tell those who you trust (usually including your own managers) about your specific goals, either they can be your immediate coach, or they might connect you with someone else.
Lastly, if you’re lucky like I am in the recent years that the companies do facilitate some of these programs (mentor/mentee matching, circles etc.), take good advantage of it! If not, well, why don’t you look for opportunity to organize yourself? :)
Both in person events or online events (with the latter being much more frequent now in the era of COVID) are where you can build connections and potentially find your coach, mentor, or circle. You might have attended or planned to attend some product management conferences, talks, AMAs, or meet ups. Chances are among other attendees you will find like minded or those who can help you (and who you can help too!). Of course, the speakers of the events could be good coaches or mentors should you find good match. So do invest time to participate events you believe you’ll benefit, not only to receive useful information, but also build meaningful connections.
As mentioned, many events are already “online”. In addition, we live in the world where there’s abundance of online access to information and people. We have blogs and newsletters (like this one you’re reading), we have community forums (like Reddit, Quora, even Blind), and we have social networking sites (like Linkedin). You might organically go to these places to look for information and develop your knowledge, skills, and careers anyway. Besides information, pay extra attention to people around these information. Who usually share the information that resonates with and is the most helpful to you? Who participated in the discussion that you find interesting to build connections with?
You can also explicitly search for the people you desire to connect with, and Linkedin is still a good tool for it. Product managers from specific companies you aspire to join, people from specific education backgrounds, or people who offer coaching/mentoring (which they might include in their profiles).
Lastly, you can also broadcast your intention to find these connections, by creating a post. Even if you don’t know someone directly, leverage your network to recommend good ones for you.
The PM journey will be fun and rewarding, but long and challenging at the same time. You don’t have to go alone.
Be clear about yourself and what you want. Find what suits your personality as well as short term and long term goals. Leverage your current job, as well as in person and online channels and tools.
When you reach out, be genuine, be explicit about why you reach out and how you think they can help, and be fully committed to investing in the relationship.
Nurture the relationship for the long term, by always be helping and providing values, not just extracting values.
What is your experience with coaches, mentors, and circles? How have they been impacting your careers and lives? I’d really love to hear about them!