Mentorship and managers

Recently, I was watching this brilliant interview of Tyler Cowen on The Good Time Show (one of my favorite podcasts!). There was a brief bit on mentorship (jump to 34:55) that reminded me of some of the conversations I’ve had around mentorship with PMs I’ve worked with. That reminder was a good prompt for this post.

Many people, especially those earlier in their career, expect their managers to be their foremost professional mentor. In fact, one of the main frustrations I hear from PMs is about their manager not being a great mentor resulting in them having a stymied learning curve.** My response to that always has been to not expect your manager to be a mentor. They are two separate roles.** If the same person can play both roles, that is wonderful, but also rare. It is important to proactively seek out mentors rather than overlay a mentorship relationship on another totally different one.

Let’s see what Tyler Cowen has to say about mentorship in the video above:

Be very open-minded about who your mentors can be. You should have multiple mentors. Some should be older and more senior than you, others should be younger because people younger than you are going to know all kinds of things that you don’t, no matter what their station in life. So don’t approach mentorship too cynically like, “oh, who’s the well-established person who can make me rich or, you know, get me whatever”. Think of it in terms of a relationship where you ought to be worth of it. And that it’s a friendship and some kind of bond over substance.

He goes on to talk about being selective in picking mentors and reaching out to people whose work you admire, even sending them cold emails — they will respond if you have something interesting to say.

There are a few reasons why you should not expect your manager to be your foremost mentor at work:

  1. They are different roles. What makes a good manager is different from what makes a good mentor. Managers are more focussed on the job they are expected to do — manage. However, both require an understanding of people so really great managers tend to also be great mentors, but such people are hard to find.

  2. They may not be good at the specific thing you need help with. There is no such thing as a “full stack mentor”: someone who can guide you in ‘All The Things’. Typically mentoring is best if focussed on a particular area. There is no guarantee that your manager is going to be in the top 5% of people in your desired focus area. In fact, odds are, they will not be in that 5%. If you are early in your career, your managers will also tend to be people who are early in their (managerial) career. If you have built experience and expertise, chances are you’ve been hired for that expertise and no one else on the team knows more than you in your area. If you would like mentorship in an area, it makes sense to find the best person to learn from.

  3. Managers change frequently. This is more true in recent years. Mentorship is works best when you can develop a deep bond and understanding with your mentor, which can only happen over time. It is hard for someone who barely knows you to risk offending you or know how to point you in the right direction. Conversely, it is also hard to be completely open and appear vulnerable to people you don’t know too well. Strong relationships mitigate both those risks and decry judgement from either side.

Here’s what you should do instead:

Do what Tyler says. Seek out people to learn from. Try to find the best people in the area you want to learn. Build a long-term relationship with them. Don’t be shy about cold-emailing them or asking questions, but being relevant and talking about things that are also interesting to them will give you better odds at a response and their willingness to be a mentor to you.

I will add: have mentors outside of your immediate periphery at work. Earlier in your career, if you are at a large company, reach out to other senior folks in the company outside your management chain or organization. Such companies are large and easily accessible networks of great talent. You can shoot an email or slack to anyone on the internal domain and be guaranteed of a response back. Don’t be shy in engaging with even very senior people one-on-one. Outside of your company, identify people who are really good at something you’d like to get good at, and try to get in their orbit — whether through warm introductions or cold emails, the key is be proactive and interesting and putting yourself out there.