How mentoring sharpens your core leadership skills

Welcome to 2021! I wish you a happy, healthy & successful year ahead.

2020 got a lot of bad rap. But rarely do we acknowledge how far it pushed us. In just 12 months, we adopted more technology than ever, made scientific breakthroughs like the vaccine, and stood together for social liberties like never before. Not to forget, The Mentoring Club is also a product of this time. 

As I was reflecting on the bright side of 2020, I couldn’t help appreciate how mentoring has personally benefited me in my role as product director, and brought joy through giving whatever little I've learned. So 30 sessions later, I wanted to share how mentoring helped me become a stronger product leader.

 1. Mentoring amplified my analytical and critical thinking ability.

Every conversation brings new perspectives, situations and challenges to the table. What worked (or didn’t) for me, in my context, is valuable but can’t be applied as is to the mentee's. Take a look below at some of the topics & takeaways from my sessions and you'll see the breadth.

Leading 4 cross-functional teams — each focused on its mission — and collaborating across a 600 person org, means having to solve unique challenges around teams, individuals & business problems on a daily basis. On multiple occasions, generating options for mentees actually made me reflect on my own toolkit, challenged to generate new options, and often, sent me back to first principles. Overall, strengthening my own foundation of product & people management concepts.

2. Mentoring leveled-up my coaching skills.

Mentoring and coaching are 2 different approaches to help someone succeed. Succeeding in my own role as a product leader requires helping my tribal members — way beyond direct reports — perform at potential and succeed. It could be a designer or data scientist, engineer or marketeer who specializes way deeper than my knowledge of their craft. My role as coach then, is to help them measure performance, reflect on blind spots, give honest feedback, and prioritize development in areas they'll gain most.

While mentoring is less hands-on, not everyone is looking for wisdom. Sometimes mentees benefit more from reflection: is their idea generating enough value for someone to adopt it? are they chasing the right metric? at work and in life? what could they do differently? Being non-directive and facilitating that discovery is more empowering than just throwing solutions. Doing both at the same time, increased my appreciation of the differences and, eventually, practice both methods more consciously and better over time.

On this topic, I'd highly recommend David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around 🚢 — a true story of turning around a dysfunctional ship through empowering leadership. The ‘Ship. Shipmate. Self.' metaphor he uses is far more civilian than you'd imagine, and one I've used in many contexts. When mentoring, you're helping the self (mentee) succeed, that needs working on themselves, influencing shipmates, and rarely jumping ship. When coaching, especially as the ship's captain, you're help the self (coachee) learn and grow through stellar performance that fuels the ship (delivering company outcomes) while working alongside shipmates (collaboration).

3. Mentoring strengthened my ability to empathize, inspire & network.

After 5 months, a mentee from the first month cohort reached out with their updated situation and asked if they could schedule a second session. I soon saw the pattern repeat with ageing cohorts, and I had 3 hypotheses. Mentees had found a desirable/viable plan/vision; all/some of the guidance was feasible/usable; or they simply valued trust. Even if only one was true, they all require — starting with good listening — a healthy mix of empathy, analysis and inspiration — all of which are core skills when leading a product development tribe. 

It also convinced me that a mentoring relation is indeed long-term; or even an ongoing loop, with growing trust, personal context and confidence making it stronger and continuous over time. I like to call it the Mentoring Loop. As a product leader, these relationships also help spot talent, especially latent potential, you can leverage when scaling your own team.

Whether these match your own development plan, or you're aspiring a leadership role, these should be good reasons to give mentoring a try. We often belittle our experience and privilege of experiencing something; not realizing that someone out there could benefit from your successes & failures. So whenever you feel ready, please take the first opportunity to mentor someone. I've thoroughly enjoyed this experience and is definitely something I'll keep doing. 
And if you, yourself, haven’t found a mentor with whom you can plan your next career step, or soundboard an idea, please do yourself the favor and find one right away.
About the author
Prasad Gupte is a product leader, coach and mentor, who has positively impacted millions of humans by building  products and teams at scale. As Product Director at Babbel, he leads the acquisition & monetization tribe. For 12 years, he's practiced hands-on product management across B2B / consumer-tech, and multiple industry domains ranging from manufacturing to customer loyalty, and e-commerce to e-learning. Off work, he loves to spend time with family, cook, travel, mentor, or learn something new. Schedule a session with him or connect via LinkedIn & Twitter.