Product Management

Managing Product Managers

Supermen Product Managers

Managing product managers is a tricky art. I am going to share learnings that I had out of practicing it.

Being a product manager is no less tricky in itself. We have superhero like requirements out of them. We want them to be enterprising, go-getter, curious, passionate, tech-savvy, business driven, having user empathy and so on and so forth (More about these in the next post).

When you get those supermen or superwomen though, they come with their own personality peculiarities. Apart from the usual challenges that one has while managing teams, there are a few specific ones that are faced with Product Managers. When you have not one, but a few of those strong willed, strong headed diversified souls in one team you have to really get your act right, otherwise it would fall apart quite quickly. And that makes it really challenging and interesting to work with them.

Some tricky characteristics of product manager species:

  • They have opinion on everything and stick very strongly to them
  • They would not do a task until they get really convinced about it
  • They are enterprising. So, every now and then they think about starting their own
  • Full of ideas and they want to get those implemented asap
  • They are quite smart and intelligent, so you have to have really up your game
  • They find faults in the processes/systems often
  • They have lot of questions. You need to be the one with all the answers or be able to discuss to arrive at the answers.

I am sharing some of my thoughts that I think can be helpful in managing product managers. Not that I was very successful in implementing all of these myself though 🙂

Make them realise and feel that they are in control and responsible

You have to make them feel that they are in charge. Nudge them towards feeling that rather than hammering it down. Some ways of doing so:

  • Make them come up with answers and next steps. When there is an output, ask them what was it that they expected, how would they interpret the results, what can be improved, what should be done etc. and they would give answers themselves mostly. You guide them where they miss something. And they would automatically march to the next steps themselves.
  • Ask them how would they prioritise and build
  • Make them be the face of everything. E.g. Announcing launch of feature, Sharing impact numbers etc.
  • Just slightly nudge them towards the right answers and direction. Make them feel they have come up with that answer rather than you.
  • Let them prepare the roadmap. You just ask right questions and provide your inputs on strategy and high level plans.

There will be times when you would know that either they are wrong or clueless. But key thing is that they have right raw material. That’s why you have them in your team. Make them feel that they are driving the ship, guide them towards right path and they would do wonders.

Show big picture often

  • You need to do this so that they are not discouraged by numerous odds that they need to face every day.
  • Also, have a regular check of direction/priorities etc. That will make them comfortable with what’s going on. Otherwise one day (or regularly) they would out of frustration complain that nothing is being done right, top management doesn’t have a clue etc.

Make sure they don’t have any fear in their minds

  • You would sometimes need to protect them against tough stakeholders for this
  • You would have to let them fail sometimes and protect them when those failures turn out to be big
  • Let them speak their mind when with you, and don’t pass judgement on any opinions/thoughts without rationally talking it over.
  • Don’t act as if you are superior. Communicate and believe that they are smarter and more capable. Make them understand that you are holding the position as at the moment you are suitable for that role and you have challenged yourself with more responsibility and are going to use your experience to make sure less errors are made. They should understand that you are grooming them to take your position (which is what you should be doing as well).

Be a good mentor/manager/leader. Build the team.

  • Have regular one on one discussions
  • Show them a career path and tell how can they achieve it. Make sure it is in line with what they want as well.
  • Cultivate their strengths. Give regular feedback and suggest alteration in career if required.
  • They like challenges. Keep enough of those, or they would wither away.
  • Give feedback as often as possible. Don’t wait for one-on-one or appraisals.
  • Assure them that there is enough headroom to grow and you are not going to be a blocker in that (Your actions and not just words should speak this, and you should mean it as well)
  • Make them learn to embrace failures
  • Have rational and data driven discussions with them.
  • Reward good performance.

Help them get better at their game

  • Teach them how to get right balance of structure and lack of it
  • Challenge them with themselves. Make them set targets and let them achieve those. Most of the times, we all set aggressive targets. Practical issues prevent us from achieving those. If they achieve those, they would be happy, otherwise they would just push themselves to get them.
  • Make them adept at handling stakeholders and how should they walk without support in front of toughest of them and how should they make friends with them so that they tell them their problems, and not solutions.
  • Keep high standards and bar and let them know of your expectations. They themselves would ask you to not lower the standards.
  • Teach them to be humble, responsible, aggressive and curious.
  • Make them learn how to hold responsibility without authority

Working with fellow team members

Not many product managers are good team players as well. They have territorial issues, style mismatch, competition, etc as the issues that prevent them from being good team player. Here are a few things that help in such situations:

  • Let them determine their territories after discussing with each other
  • Promote open communication
  • Take them out often
  • Let them understand why the work division is important and how one person can handle only certain amount while maintaining best output
  • Make them feel confident that only performance and results matter
  • Make them feel confident that they can increase their canvass down the line with the performance
  • Make them empathise with the organisation and the need of structure
  • Let them feel that they need to throw their egos out of the window and focus on getting things done. They should realise that in doing so they might need to do some adjustments in their personalities and expectations to make sure things get done, and that they would largely be judged on the results.

After so much of empowerment there would be times where you would feel helpless due to them not taking the charge. Become the manager then. Take charge and let them know that things are not going right and how to improve them. Do bit of micromanagement if required. They would be smart enough to soon course correct themselves as being micro-managed is no fun. If this also doesn’t help, do the much dreaded hard talk and let them find more suitable role for themselves. Delaying this would only cause much agony to you and the organisation.

In this write-up I have assumed that you already have a good team in place. It is very important to get that right as well. I’d be writing about that in subsequent posts.

Hope this helps.

Would love to hear your thoughts/experiences.

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