Now the Student Becomes the Master

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 10 Issue 1Mentoring relationships typically break down for the same reason people stop going to the gym:
It seems like a great idea at first, but then you find out that it’s really hard to make it stick. Life takes
over, and six months later, you haven’t talked to your
mentor or protégé in months.

I recently agreed to mentor a young product manager, and it made me realize the mentor and
protégé both need to have reasonable expectations of what they want from the relationship and of the time commitment involved.


One who is protected or trained or whose career is furthered by a person of experience, prominence or influence.

The motivation for protégés to enter into mentorship is obvious: They hope to gain from the experience of their mentor. But protégés should not just be passive receivers of information; their job should be to put the mentor’s advice and council into practice, and offer feedback about what they need and how the mentor can be more effective. Good protégés should have a willingness to learn, be open to new ways to accomplish their goals and have a strong desire to advance in their careers.

Every mentor/protégé relationship is unique, but there are several areas where protégés can especially benefit, including:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Executive relationships
  • Career planning
  • Negotiation
  • Management skills
  • Executive presence

The first steps to becoming a good protégé are recognizing that you could benefit from a mentor and then recruiting one. People are almost always flattered to be asked to be a mentor. If they’ve never done it before, send them this article as a how-to guide to get started.

A word of caution to protégés searching for a mentor: Your manager should never be your mentor. Part of mentorship is providing neutral feedback on a variety of topics, including how to deal more effectively with your management. Your direct manager has a conflict of interest in this matter and cannot provide this feedback in the same way. Asking them to mentor you puts them in an awkward position. If you have a great manager that you want as a mentor, keep him or her in mind if you move to another role.


1. A wise and trusted counselor or teacher
2. An influential senior sponsor or supporter

 The motivations for a mentor to enter into a relationship are less obvious than the protégé. Reasons include a personal connection to the protégé, wanting to help someone in need, seeing potential that they want to foster, “paying it forward” from their time as protégés or simply stroking their own egos.

The primary role of the mentor is to arm the protégé with counsel and contacts to make them more successful. Solid mentors have executive and management experience they can apply to help the protégé in various situations. They can illustrate different perspectives the protégé may not have considered. They can also role-play as the protégés’ executive team, preparing them for potentially stressful or high-stakes meetings and negotiations.

A mentor’s experiences in hiring and building teams can also help when it comes to career planning and advancement. Mentors can advise on when to stand pat vs. change jobs or companies, how hard to press during salary and benefits negotiation, and how to map desired titles and responsibilities for the next several roles.

Finally, mentors should supply access and introductions to their wider set of contacts. Their more expansive networks could include the protégé’s future bosses, contacts or even additional mentors.

Planning is Power

Most mentoring relationships are sorely lacking in structure and results. It can be very disappointing to establish that relationship, only to see it fizzle out. 

Mentoring is hard. A plan can help make it easier. If you are thinking about setting up a mentoring relationship, and are willing to put in the time to make it work, use this plan as a launch pad to get started.

Month 1: Hold the initial meeting. Mentor should ask protégé: Where do you want to be in 1/5/10 years?

Month 2: Chart a plan to achieve the 1/5/10 year plan. Break the one-year plan into measurable goals, such as quota for market visits, and design a plan to sell the goals to the protégé’s management.

Month 3: Assess current role and responsibilities. Fit compensation and benefits to one-year plan. Design a plan to correct if under market.

Month 4: Catalog past achievements. Design a plan for reviewing with current management to ensure the protégé’s value is recognized.

Month 5: Ensure protégé is receiving adequate executive exposure. Design a corrective plan if not.

Month 6: Introduce protégé to contact from mentor network in an industry or title that aligns with his or her 5/10 year plan.

Month 7: Hold a mid-point meeting. Check in on one-year plan achievement vs. goals, adjust as needed.

Month 8: Identify networking and visibility opportunities. These should raise the protégé’s thought leadership profile inside and outside the company (e.g., presenting at a local ProductCamp).

Month 9: Collect information in support of compensation and benefits negotiation (e.g., Pragmatic Institute’s annual survey).

Month 10: Assess performance vs. one-year plan. Make adjustments to suit and role-play compensation negotiation as needed.

Month 11: Assess results of negotiation and decide what action to take.

Month 12: Revisit 1/5/10 year plan. Assess need and value for continued mentorship. Repeat!

Complete the Circle

Thank-you notes to the mentor are always a great idea, but the biggest compliment to a mentor should be that they inspired you to become a mentor yourself. Pay the ultimate compliment as you grow in your own career, and help the next generation along. This step doesn’t have to happen immediately, but it should happen. Remember, you could be mentoring your next great team member.

A Note from the Author:

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have several wonderful mentors to guide me and help me become a better leader and a better person. I would especially like to recognize: Terry Sadowski, for teaching me the art of building and leading teams; Will Scott, for teaching me how to think and present as an executive; and Melissa Mines, for teaching me that empathy, humor, and persistence are some of a leader’s most powerful tools. I carry each of you with me wherever I go. And to my current protégé (you know who you are): Keep up your hard work; there is no limit to your potential.  I’m proud of you.


Pragmatic Institute Instructor Paul Young was inspired to write this article from his post on the Product Beautiful blog. Visit for more of Paul’s insights on building product management from the ground up.


Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

Navigate to other Posts



Related Content

Training on Your Schedule

Fill out the form today and our sales team will help you schedule your private Pragmatic training today.

Never miss a thing.

From new podcasts and webinars to events and great content, make sure you’re always in-the-know by subscribing to Pragmatic Institute.

Choose your preferences below and receive only the things you care about most. We’ll keep your information confidential and never share it with third parties.

Stay up-to-date on all the latest news and products. 

Subscribe today.