Written by Darrin Johnson Sept. 5, 2022
Why did you decide to become a mentor?
When I started my time at university my goal was to become a high school Physics teacher. I had spent time in high school as a teacher’s aide and really enjoyed helping people understand things that they might have been struggling with. I never finished with my education certification however, but that desire to help others learn and grow has stayed with me throughout my career. Prior to having formal leadership roles, I would often find ways to make a positive impact in the careers of others…partly because I knew how valuable it had been for me to have people share their knowledge with me. Now that I find myself in a formal leadership role I am always looking for opportunities to mentor and grow others achieve something that might be difficult. I certainly don’t have all the answers to all the things, but spending the time with people in this way allows us both to explore and discover and that is why I became a mentor.
How did you get your career start?
After I graduated I stumbled into the tech world starting in a technical support role for a growing startup. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this space as the pace and normal startup chaos gave me the opportunity to try out many different things…including training our customers on how to use the product. Unfortunately this company did not make it through a tough time in the market and I found myself as a project manager working to represent the needs of operations in the development process. This role had me working very closely with the product manager who often gave me opportunities to extend beyond my role to help him out. A few months into this role, he had the chance to move up and asked me whether I wanted to take his place as product manager; I said “yes!”.
I had a very limited idea of what being a product manager meant, but I was surrounded by the prior product manager and a really great product team that was always there to guide me and challenge me as I started this path. Once I was in product management I knew it was for me! As a product manager you sit in this spot in the organization that has you being the caretaker of, sometimes complicated, products. You are often responsible for explaining what the product is, advocating for it, and challenging the core assumptions across an audience that ranges from engineering to business to sales.
How do you usually set up mentorships?
I don’t believe that mentorship is a one-size fits all model and so approach a mentorship request in much the same way I might perform discovery for a new product. Before accepting a new mentorship request it’s important to take a little time with the mentee to understand what their goals are in making the request. Secondly, it is important to understand if there are any timeframes that are important to them. Sometimes there is an upcoming interview or an evaluation for which they want to put their best foot forward. Understanding this will help me know how to structure our time together.
As a concluding step of this discovery process, I ask for a short 15 minute call to go over what I have learned from them, confirm that I understand the need, and give them an opportunity to get an idea of my personality and approach. I will also use this time to address any concerns they may including timezone challenges or sensitivity around availability that they may have.
What are you getting out of being a mentor?
After a number of years in product management, I am not as driven by achieving all the awards, attention, etc for myself and instead I want to give back. Giving back is leveraging my experiences to encourage others and helping them do great things; and that brings me joy. What most mentees probably don’t know is how much I learn from them as well. It takes courage to reach out and ask for help. It takes an open mind to learn something new. Both of these are incredibly valuable reminders for me in my own journey as a leader and a manager.
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