I’m about to complete my first month on my new jobs at Sears Israel. It’s my first time as a new product group manager in a company where I didn’t grow into the role. The internet is full of onboarding plans for product managers. I used to look at them and wonder whether there are indeed work places with the patience for a 90 days onboarding plan. But I don’t recall seeing an onboarding plan for a new product group manager. So I thought of dedicating this post to my own experience – what I did, why and how it went.
As I see it, there are several elements which are essential to succeed as a product group manager:
- Own the vision – understand the current product/portfolio vision and if needed, push for adjustments to make it a vision you feel comfortable owning. Remember, you are the lead for the product/portfolio. The vision has to reflect your view of how to win
- Lead the team – you have a team for a reason – the team is here to help you realize the vision. The team should be the one focusing on the day-to-day execution, giving you the bandwidth to think further ahead
- Manage stakeholders – any organization has stakeholders. Stakeholders can help your product move forward and they can block you from progress. You need to be able to map your stakeholders and build the right relationships with them
With that in mind, joining a new company as a product group manager becomes a complex problem for several reasons:
1. The vision is already there for a reason. If you disagree with it, you need to persuade many people that some of the thinking that was done so far was insufficient and there is room for changes
2. Your team is already an expert of their domain. You need to build a reputation that will make them want to listen to your feedback and not just continuing to do things as they were used to. Recall the ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ book – it’s not a natural human behavior to immediately change, especially if things were working so far
3. Stakeholders sometimes look for the opportunity that a manager has changed in order to gain more power over the product
Luckily for me, most of it wasn’t the case in Sears, and so I managed to focus on the first month on fitting into the role as I vision it, rather than deal with unnecessary politics;
- Vision – I started with understanding the vision and strategy of the product. The #1 thing you need to do is to get familiarized with the product. If the product is already up and running, become a user. Start reading feedback from users about the product. Go over latest status reports – what were the most urgent things that were reported. You can’t really create a vacuum. You have to ensure as smooth continuity as possible while still driving to a change. In our case, I joined at a time of attempting a pivot to the product. This is a great timing to join since it means that the vision is currently being shaped and not already dictated. In that sense, I suggested to facilitate the discussions around the vision. It’s a win-win situation since nearly always the management group lacks a bandwidth. That’s where you as a new guy with lots of bandwidth can fit in. And it has to be done now, otherwise you won’t have this bandwidth in a few months from now
- Team – luckily, I got a great team and I only need to think about evolving and preserving them. As I mentioned earlier, the #1 challenge is building productive relationships with them. Your goal is to find their WIFM at this point. Leadership isn’t something that can be dictated, it’s something that you need to earn. The biggest source of power that you used to have, which is domain knowledge, is no longer there to help you in a new place. So which other sources you can use?
- Vision – if you managed to make a good progress with vision, go ahead and use it. If you have a more compelling vision than the current one, people will want to follow you
- Professionalism – most likely, you’re a more experienced product manager. Try to use that for your advantage. For example, if you spot something that they challenge with, suggest an approach
- Listen – use your interpersonal skill set and be a great listener. There is always something which is not perfect. Hear them out and try to suggest concrete ideas. It will be even better if you could suggest to take care of some of these if it’s part of your role. For example, help out in building a strategy on how to expand the number of developers working on a specific product. In the process of listening, try to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions can help the other side to think a bit more about the situation. If you can cause your team, through powerful questions, to re-think their approach, they will probably continue to reach out to you for advise
- Show interest – make sure that they feel appreciated and that everything they do is important to you. Praise them when necessary. Remember, this is the team that should provide you with bandwidth in the future. Use the power of feedback in order to make adjustments in how they operate so you can become an effective team
- Identify uncharted areas and deep dive into those – there are always areas, especially in small companies, which are currently not taken care of. In my previous company, a new QA manager deep dived into the domain of applicative monitoring and set up eventually a team that raised the bar on quality and monitoring of outcomes. Similarly, you should be looking for such areas in your new company. Currently, I’m looking into the support process to see how we can improve the experience there
- Stakeholders – our team is split between the US and Israel. I’m currently focusing on improving the relationships with our US partners. One of the common questions I started asking is ‘how can I be of help’. The second thing I keep on doing is giving direct opinion – if I sense that something isn’t working properly, it’s a good opportunity to state it and make the other side involved. As I recently labeled it, I’m trying to make them ‘pigs’ instead of ‘chickens’.
- Get to know the data – I’m a data driven product manager. Data is king. I need to be familiar with it in order to make educated decisions rather than gut feeling. It’s a long process, so I didn’t put it as #1 priority to understand all dimensions of the data, but gradually I’m taking upon myself more and more tasks to get familiar with the data
One notable thing which I’m intentionally minimizing is understanding the domains in-depth. At this point, I’m assuming my team can take care of it and I can gradually deep dive.
There is a lot to learn and it’s important to know where to put your focus on. I don’t believe in holding for 90 days before showing results. Results of course will be better later on, but this is your opportunity to reflect your personality into the new role.
The good news – so far I’m loving every minute of it 🙂