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Accelerate Your Product Marketing Career by Building Your Career Team

Welcome to my newsletter! And Happy International Women’s Day! 🦸

You should have four different types of people in your career: mentors, sponsors, coaches, and thought partners. No one is just self-made. We all stand on the shoulders of people who came before us and propped us up along the way. And if you’re strategic about the different kinds of support you seek, you’ll be more successful. Mentorship, sponsorship, partnership, and coaching are greater together than the sum of their parts.

I’ll explain what I mean. Let’s dive in.

When I started my journey in product marketing, I was completely new to the industry. Feeling isolated, I contacted a VP at my new company who went to the same school as me for a coffee chat.

She didn’t respond for several weeks, and I gave up on the idea that she might. But one day, she approached me at my desk, apologized for not reaching out sooner, and we went for lunch that day. Over lunch, I learned about her journey from non-profit to tech and then her rise from manager to VP of Sales in just a few years.

Her story inspired me, and I told her I would love to assist her team on sales deals. Surprisingly, she took me up on my offer. Over the next six months, I helped the team on several special enterprise deals by providing collateral and research support (in addition to performing my core duties).

Through consistently providing reliable and quality support, I started getting more opportunities at work to enable larger and larger deals, including jumping on planes to fly cross-country with Sales leaders. Then, the Sales team nominated me for a company award, which gave me great visibility and helped me secure a promotion within one year.

I think back to this story often because if I had not sent that initial email to the VP, I don’t believe I would have had the same opportunity or success.

My product marketing career was accelerated because someone advocated for me.

This is an example of a career sponsor. The VP of Sales gave me a chance to work on something I didn’t have easy access to, which opened the door for future opportunities, promotions, etc. (Note: I did have to work hard to earn a lot of the things that resulted, but that wouldn’t have been possible had she not taken a chance on me).

But I certainly didn’t start my career there. When I first came to the US, I had no relatives, family, or friends to support me. As someone who came from a traditional Asian culture, I grew up with the belief instilled in me that “you have to do things by yourself; otherwise, you’re a failure.”

It was only through hard lessons that I realized I could not succeed alone and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but strength.

No One Succeeds Alone: Build a Career Team to Accelerate you Product Marketing Career

My personal story is one proof point, but research supports what I’ve experienced to be true. Our success is positively correlated with the number of people who want to help us succeed.

Recently, I learned about the concept of a career team, a term from my friend ​Al Dea​ (check him out!). A career team is comprised of four main types of people:

1️⃣ Thought partners

These are peers to bounce ideas off of. Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet awesome peers who challenged my thinking in all the right ways. They can also advise you on sensitive matters and act as confidants—they are right alongside you in their careers and know what you’re going through.

2️⃣ Sponsors

It’s nice to have many people who are your peers, but you need people in positions of power, too. Sponsors are generally senior to you and have the power to give you more opportunities. These could be the head of sales, the head of product, your boss, or more. My VP was my sponsor.

3️⃣ Mentors

Mentors are people who are more senior to you and can give you advice and inspire you. You generally have to proactively manage the mentor relationship. Most of my mentors are outside of the companies I worked for, and they helped me think through sticky situations, provided insights, and helped me see around corners.

4️⃣ Coaches

Coaches are dedicated professionals who help you reach your goals in a structured fashion. They provide you with frameworks, structure, and accountability to a higher degree than mentors. I benefited significantly from the coaches. My coaches taught me how to advocate for myself, earn trust, and be a better leader. Their advice fundamentally changed my mindset. This is the reason why I became a coach to others.

Mentors vs. Sponsors

The line between mentors and sponsors can be blurry. But they are decidedly not the same thing.

According to Deb Liu, author of Take Back Your Power, a mentor supports you by giving advice, whereas a sponsor lifts you up and opens doors. Sponsors are more powerful because they use their reputations to help you grow and create opportunities in a way a mentor could not.

So, how do you build your team and specifically find more sponsors?

  • Start by identifying individuals within your company/network whom you admire and may already have a good relationship with.

  • Go to them to seek advice on something specific they can help with.

  • Take their advice, implement that, share with them how you improved based on the advice they have, and offer to help them as well.

  • Continue to do that, and you will develop a trusted relationship over time.

  • Then, ask them to advocate for you to get a new project or put in a good word for your promotion.

  • As you saw in my story, part of the deal with my sponsorship was that I also did more work outside of my core responsibilities, which unlocked doors for me.

Sponsorships can’t be forced. When you get a sponsor, you will know it. You will feel they are willing to invest the time and effort to help you.

You can use the same technique to find thought partners within your company at similar levels as you.

What about coaches? When do you need them?

While sponsors, thought partners, and mentors are essential, they cannot provide a coach's structured guidance and neutral perspective. Most people get a coach for the first time when approaching a major career milestone, like wanting to secure a promotion or managing a team for the first time.

However, having a coach earlier in your career will help you map out a career roadmap and develop the necessary skills early on to be successful in the long term. I suggest reading ​this article by HBR​ to understand when you should hire a coach.

Next steps:

So, as you finish reading this article, I suggest doing this exercise (inspired by my friend Al Dea’s work once again) to map out your career team. Specifically:

  1. Who was/were the most helpful in your career so far?

  2. What relationships do you want to invest in more in 2024 (old or new)?

Here is a table you can use to capture the information.

Table to help you determine your career team so you can accelerate your product marketing career

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Other resources

How to Choose the Right Company To Work For

The company you choose will have a HUGE impact on how you feel about your career. BUT how do you choose a company in your job search when you have been burnt by toxic work environments, suddenly laid off with zero warning, ghosted multiple times, or have generally lost faith in the system?

I know how awful this can be and feel. So here is a 3-step process to make an informed choice on selecting the right company on your job search journey. It includes:

How to vet the company

  1. How to vet the team

  2. How to vet the role

Choosing the right company to work for

Related… 23 Reverse Interview Questions (Things To Ask Your Future Boss)

Sometimes, your direct manager can have a bigger impact on your mental health than the company you work for.

Even though we all know it’s important to find the right manager, most people don't know how to determine the quality of the hiring manager during the interview process.

From Layoff to Job Offer: Navigating Product Marketing Job Transitions

I was recently featured on an episode of Product Marketing Maestros: Tales From the Front Lines. Nitin and I discussed a time when I helped a client land a job in product marketing within two months during a challenging job market.

Find Coaching and Thought Partners Here:

If you want to make a career move, my ​Job Search Membership Program​ is a budget-friendly way to dip your toes into coaching and thought partnership. It combines group coaching and a supportive community of peers you need in this critical juncture.

Membership gives you access to:

  • Up to 4 live monthly group coaching calls and workshops, including interview prep, resume review, guest speakers, and more! We’ve had some heavy-weight guest speakers lately, from Emma Stratton, to Anthony Pierri, to Julien Sauvage. Recordings are included in the community as well.

  • My full Job Search Resources Hub has 20+ templates and guides on every stage of the job search journey.

  • The private Slack community with 100+ members and alumni to ask questions, participate in the discussion, connect with others, and access exclusive job opportunities

Special offer available now. ​Check out the Membership Program here.

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