Guest Post by: Kennan Murphy-Sierra (Mentee, Session 6, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Jordan Bergtraum]
This article highlights a few ways to increase clarity and provide better role definition between a manager and a direct report as it pertains to daily situations involving escalations, blockers, and air cover. You will encounter numerous escalation, blocker, and air cover situations throughout the course of working on projects in product management, especially when a manager is accountable for the end result and the direct report is doing much of the heavy lifting and nitty-gritty work. Given the split responsibility between manager and direct report, alignment and effective communication in these situations is key. This article will define, provide advice, and cover a few specific situations with a goal of helping to improve your working relationship, especially when it comes to seeking help from a superior.
First let’s go through some quick definitions to make sure we’re speaking the same language
- Escalation: Raising issues (usually to your manager or a superior)
- Blocker: There is a person or issue that is preventing something (like a project) from moving forward
- Air Cover: “The use of aircraft to protect ground or naval military operations.” Essentially, providing shielding for ground troops that are involved in a task
“Seek wisdom, not labor” – Jordan Bergtraum
Seek guidance instead of asking your manager to solve the problem for you. When seeking guidance from a superior, make an effort to present your solution or describe how you are thinking of approaching the situation. If the escalation requires manager intervention, as the requestor, make your escalation as concise and specific as possible. If your request to your superior is a dependency to other initiatives with deadlines, be sure to let her or him know. One recommended approach for dealing with time sensitive requests from your superior is to ask if the request can be fulfilled by a certain date / time and ensuring their buy-in that your request can indeed be completed by that time.
As you become more established and comfortable navigating in your position, consider trying out your solution to problems that arise. If you fail at your attempt to move a blocker, have a retro with your manager.
Consider using the following approach when an escalation or blocker arises:
- Understand the problem you are facing enough to articulate it
- Identify at least one solution to solve the problem
- Are the stakes reasonable enough where you can move forward and tackle the problem yourself?
- Yes – Try out your solution and evaluate the result
- If successful – save the information and discuss with your manager during your next 1:1
- If unsuccessful – escalate the issue to your manager. When the time is appropriate (potentially a Friday afternoon recap) have a retro with your manager to play out the scenarios and understand what was missing or what prevented your attempt from succeeding
- Maybe – The stakes are medium level, so consider syncing up with your superior to obtain feedback on your proposed solution prior to trying it out yourself. You will most likely obtain some valuable feedback on how to increase the probability that it succeeds or you will gain peace of mind that your solution was pretty sound to begin with
- No – Your escalation will most likely require superior action. Present the context and be specific on your needs and agree on an expected timeline. Proactively follow up with your superior, don’t assume the request will be top of mind for her or him as it is for you
- Yes – Try out your solution and evaluate the result
- Rinse and repeat – these situations will arise frequently especially in product management, be sure that you treat each one as a learning opportunity
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” – Anonymous Wise Person
I have yet to be a people manager, so please take this section with a grain of salt. Focus on empowering your reports with the context and even provide feedback on recommended phrasing so the contributor on your team can successfully influence and navigate solutions. Be cautious about intervening and taking control of each escalation and blocker. The goal for your report is to eventually navigate these situations by himself or herself and grow into the next generation of people managers, mentors, and leaders for your organization. Treat interactions on escalations and blockers not just as tasks to complete but as mentorship opportunities. In some cases intervention could lead to undermining the report’s authority if not performed conscientiously. One effective strategy to boost your confidence in your report managing these situations is to spend time roleplaying certain scenarios and provide immediate and constructive feedback. These exercises with your report on handling situations and identifying phrasing that will be well-received will pay large dividends in the development of your report and save you time in the long run.
Here are a few examples related to escalations, blockers, and air cover in product management.
- Prioritization: When report’s workload exceeds capacity
As a associate product manager, I am often involved in multiple projects with different stakeholders and other product managers in the department. These projects often have competing deadlines. When I need to discuss prioritization with my manager during our 1:1s, I bring the list of projects and tasks and attempt to sort them by priority. The goal of my discussion with my manager is to:
1) agree on priority
2) understand why certain items were prioritized high vs. low to make more informed judgment calls without involving my manager in the future
3) Identify which tasks I can push back on or request extensions in the event I have more urgent higher priority work. I then discuss with my manager best practices for effectively and politely pushing back on inbound lower priority work from stakeholders while maintaining a great relationship with them
- Alignment: Being on the same page about a project or expectations
I am working on a fairly large scale project with my manager that touches multiple tech teams. Although my manager is the one accountable for the overall project, I have taken the reigns of working with the tech teams, stakeholders, defining requirements, delivering, and launching the project. For this project I aim to keep my manager informed by proactively highlighting project progress and any issues that arise.
Throughout this project, I am working on building manager confidence, which will lead to larger projects and more responsibility. As a report, if you can take on a project and save your manager time and stress, consider it a successful building block in your career
- Continuous Learning: Leveling up your skills
Escalate to your manager when you have an interest in developing a skill or learning something about the business (ex: SQL, storyboarding, core system flow, etc). One of my goals is to gain additional experience working with our design team, and proactively escalating that information to manager will help place me on projects where I can gain that exposure
- Acknowledging good work:
Most teams have much to improve in how they recognize and acknowledge the hard work employees conduct each day and share learnings across their teams
- Managers: Refer to Dale Carnegie’s principle #6: Be “lavish in your praise.” When your report has done great work or accomplished something, he or she will definitely appreciate being recognized, especially when it comes from you.
- Reports: Consider sharing good work with the intention of informing others of what you learned (this is a great strategy of promoting yourself without seeming attention hungry or bragging). Your product division can always benefit from shared learning
- General blockers:
A blocker arises on the project – potentially a requirement clarification. Follow the steps listed above to identify the best approach. After I have attempted to remove the blocker I sync up with my manager to provide coaching to achieve the necessary outcome and put the project back on track
- Obtaining senior approval and influencing stakeholders:
Projects often require senior approval. My goal is to become independent and field these meetings on my own, but I am not quite ready to sit face-to-face with our chief executives. I work with my manager to obtain lessons and seek feedback on the work to be presented, often rehearsing the delivery together. I may begin a meeting by presenting the deck I have put together for the senior executive, and it is very helpful having my manager fielding the tougher questions.
- Structural impediments:
I raise structural blockers to my manager who can assist providing guidance and clarity and even changing how our teams run. I work closely with our sales team, which includes our partner sales channel, however the tech team that I am aligned with does not cover partner work. I find it challenging prioritizing certain partner related requests because a separate tech team handles that work. Raising this issue with my manager has led to reorganizing how we process and prioritize requests
- Escaping Unnecessary Meetings:
Junior product managers may be called into a meeting that is either outside the scope of the role or where the his or her time may not be valuable. One example is business development calling in a junior product manager for a client call. I sync up with my manager when I receive requests like these and confirm if I should attend the meeting. Situations like these often require my manager intervention to help set expectations with the business development team leads to be mindful of my time
- Obtaining extension on stakeholder requests
We’ve all been there. You’re working diligently on a high priority ask, but then you get blindsided by a request from a stakeholder. In the event that the stakeholder request is indeed lower priority, I sync with my manager to confirm and about best next steps on pushing back or requesting an extension on the request. If the request comes from a senior ranking employee from a different division, my manager can provide the air cover that I need (remember the aircraft protecting the troops analogy from the definition section)
I hope that this article has presented useful information that will help your working relationships with your superiors, reports, and peers. When we all work in harmony, the workplace transforms into an efficient, educational, and enjoyable environment.
Kennan Murphy-Sierra graduated from Stanford in 2014 with a computer science degree. He is about to complete his 1-year anniversary at OnDeck Capital working on the product management team in New York City with a focus on user experience products. During this session of The Product Mentor, Kennan enjoyed being paired with and learning from Jordan Bergtraum.
More About The Product Mentor
The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…
Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.
Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…
- Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
- Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
- Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
- Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community
Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!
The Product Guy