Why Every VP Product Needs a Mentor

Women approach me for mentoring much more frequently than men. Is it a problem or something to learn from? I believe it's the latter, and International Women's Day is a great opportunity to acknowledge it and explain why.
Image by HB Mertz for rawpixel.com

In the two-plus years since I started my business, many more women approached me for mentoring than men.

I use the term mentoring very broadly since what I am usually doing with my customers is a combination of consulting, mentoring and coaching. But using all three in the same sentence doesn’t make a very good title ;-).

The fact that I get many more requests from women than men is pretty amazing, especially considering that women are still a minority among my target audience (senior product leaders – which lies in the intersection between the low percentage of women in senior positions and that in tech in general).

You can talk a lot about the reasons for this gap, and also about lower self-confidence and imposter syndrome which might lead women to ask for mentoring more frequently than men.

But I choose to see it differently. My very subjective point of view is that every VP Product (or head of product, or CPO – the top product person in the organization) needs a mentor (in its broader definition above).

Knowing how to find one, and getting the proper funding for them, is a testimony of these women’s resourcefulness and evidence of them doing the right thing.

So this year, in honor of the international women’s day, I want to put the spotlight on mentoring and why it is important. I want to give a shout-out to all the amazing women who are naturally doing the right thing, out of their commitment to their professional growth as well as to their company’s.

Here are 4 reasons why every VP Product needs a mentor:

Reason #1: Keep an eye on reality

When we start a new leadership role – especially the first role in a new company, we see things very objectively. We make sure we are rooted in reality and not in the company’s own perception, and see all the problems very clearly. It comes with the promise that we are the ones who are going to fix all of them (and not the ones who created them), so it’s easier for us to acknowledge them.

But very quickly, this perspective is lost. Soon enough we will find ourselves convinced – knowingly or not, most likely not – that the reality that is seen from within the company is indeed the reality.

It’s very natural. A major part of your onboarding is learning a new domain, and specifically learning from the people who are already working on it for a while. But when most of your learning is from the people inside the company, soon enough you adopt the same beliefs and perspective that the people you learn from are having.

It happens much sooner than you think, and even when you are fully aware, and potentially a domain expert yourself (like I was at Twiggle for example), this is unavoidable.

The real problems start when you stop seeing reality as it is (even partially), and specifically when you stop seeing the gaps and issues in your own new perspective. Seeing the problems is a prerequisite for fixing them, and not acknowledging them won’t make them go away.

When you lost the external perspective, you might feel something is not going very well, but you don’t know exactly what. If you wear your optimistic hat, it might even seem like things are actually not so bad.

An external consultant who is working with you keeps you honest and helps you maintain a fresh look at the problem even after a long time.

Reason #2: Sharpen your product thinking

A major part of the product work, especially at the executive level, is thinking. As much as thinking sounds like something anyone can do, product thinking – and especially strategic product thinking – is a skill that requires years of practice to master.

Another aspect of product thinking is that it tries to solve multiple dilemmas in often very complex worlds. It requires starting with something which is usually very vague, identifying patterns, making reasonable, distinct assumptions, and laying down a detailed thesis that makes sense for anyone who is reading it.

This form of thinking is so complex, that sometimes it feels like you are lost in your own head. That is one of the reasons that I am a big believer in writing documents as a form of organizing your thoughts.

Another very helpful mechanism to it right and to do it fast, is talking to someone. When you need to explain your thoughts and communicate them, your brain works differently than when you are just thinking to yourself.

The person you want to talk to is best to be someone who knows and understands product – not necessarily yours – at the strategic level. In order for it to be a productive discussion, you need the other person to be able to serve as a sounding board and help you sharpen your thoughts. You want someone who is both sharp and very experienced in this kind of thinking.

But guess what? Since you are the top product person in your organization, most likely you have no-one else at that level of product experience to debate with.

If you are lucky, your direct reports might be able to give you some support in this if they happen to have done this before (you should involve them regardless, by the way, but that’s a topic for a separate post).

In most cases, this won’t be enough, and then you really have only your own thoughts to rely on.

Having an experienced product person to run this thinking ping-pong with can make a huge difference. This entire effort would become much more effective, and yield better results faster.

Reason #3: Someone on your side, for a change

Being the top product person in the company is extremely hard. It sometimes feels like you are always fighting other people and their agendas. It’s not because there is a specific problem, it’s simply part of the job.

You constantly need to explain yourself. By definition the people you work with are not product people, so the way you are thinking is not natural to them. On the other hand, you are trying to get them to move in a certain direction you believe is right, but you have no authority to do that, so it all relies on your ability to convince them.

Constantly convincing others is hard, and exhausting, and still, that’s what you need to do. It comes with the job. It actually is the job.

Someone who is on your side is an important asset to have. It needs to be someone who on one hand can remind you that you are doing the right thing, and on the other hand help you think how it is best to navigate through certain situations. Even simply understanding you goes a long way in your ability to perform well over time.

Some of my customers call me their product shrink. A short conversation with someone who has done this before, can make a huge difference between irrational decision making and doing the right thing (especially when it’s hard). Someone who understands you can make the difference between quick burnout and the ability to contain and lead this journey for a long time.

Reason #4: Grow with minimum growing pains

The product role, especially in an executive function, is one of the most diverse roles out there. To succeed you need to master a huge variety of skills. There is always room for growth, and if we are honest with ourselves – there is a constant call for growth.

One of my favorite bosses used to say that “it’s a leadership opportunity” whenever he was facing a challenge that felt too big to handle. As a product leader, the world gives you infinite such “leadership opportunities”. To be more explicit, you are constantly challenged with things you haven’t done before and new levels of complexity that you need to solve.

It comes in multiple fronts – strategy, organization, process, people, you name it – and as soon as you solved one issue, two more are waiting around the corner.

Within this madness, who has time to think about growth. You are most likely going through the motions to get things done. But if you don’t invest in growing and developing new skills as you do so, you will soon hit the limit of what you can achieve. This is not only a problem for your career, but it is also a problem for your company and their ability to get what they need from you in your current role.

A coach is someone who is committed to your growth at least as you are, and most likely as much as you need to be but can’t.

A good coach, who is with you in the trenches of your job, knows how to help you get out of your comfort zone in a way that feels almost natural. They help you grow at the level that is right for you – that requires just the right amount of effort and unease so that it’s not trivial but also doable. Soon enough, you will realize that your new comfort zone is much bigger, and you are ready for even larger challenges.

Shouldn’t my manager be doing this?

Throughout your career journey, most likely your manager did some if not all of these. You probably are seeing yourself as doing all of these for the people you manage.

But as the top product person, your manager is no longer able to help you with the above challenges. They are able to do other things for you, and your relationship with them is super important, but their ability to be there for you is not what you were used to in less senior roles.

Forget about the fact that they are extremely busy. That’s only one part of the problem. The more problematic part is that they are not product people. It means that they most likely can’t help you with product thinking, because it’s not their discipline. Add to that that the conflicts you are facing are often with their other direct reports (unlike in previous roles where you typically needed your manager’s help outside of their own org), and you can understand why your role feels so lonely.

Assess yourself: how deeply do you feel the gap in each of the four areas I mentioned above? Do you have anyone who can help you with each?

I strongly recommend that you find someone as soon as possible. Think of it as your little international women’s day celebration. Women in the audience – do it because this is your day to invest in yourself and realize your full leadership potential in the company and for the company. Men in the audience – on behalf of women I am allowing you to invest in yourself (and your company) today too.

As you do so, thank and acknowledge the smart women around you that you are learning from every day. We usually don’t hear it enough.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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