Guest Post by: Jen Hau (Mentee, Session 5, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Ladislav Bartos]
Setting Yourself Up For Success
Product managers tend to be maximizers – always looking for the best possible choices and outcomes for their product. It’s no wonder then that product managers also tend to apply the same outlook to their own careers, often wondering whether there is another company or role that would be more optimal than the current. Whether it’s the promise of more responsibilities, a higher salary, a riveting mission statement, or just simply a break from the same faces and routines of your current role, taking that new job is a step towards an unknown path. Despite the fluidity of the industry – especially in New York, where it seems PMs have an average shelf life of about a year – there are surprisingly few resources dedicated to ensuring the success of an incoming product manager. Having just recently relived the experience of joining as a PM at a new company, I am living through this state myself and am seizing upon this opportunity to document my takeaways.
Give yourself a break: you won’t really “get it” for a while.
If you’re anything like me, you will be impatient to prove yourself. No matter what your prior accomplishments, your first day at a new company comes with a blank slate of achievements and some giant question marks. “Was this hire worth their salary? Will she meet our expectations? What will be the first thing she ships?” These are questions – oftentimes imaginary – that can hang over your head, applying increasing pressure until you rush to make moves to demonstrate your worth.
I am fortunate enough to have access to Jeff Patton, the product thought leader, for periodic product coaching sessions. During my first call, he didn’t mince words on this topic: “Give yourself a break. You’ll be pretty useless for at least 3 months.” And no – that’s not to say that you can’t start immediately providing value. After all, there is a reason that they hired you. It just means that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and to not feel everything “click” for a while, and that expecting more from yourself can lead you to make ill-informed decisions.
Instead of rushing yourself into action, relish this time when you can view the industry, problem space, customers, or the product itself with a fresh set of eyes, as there will be plenty of time for you to get into the weeds later. If you seize this opportunity, your newness can be an advantage, rather than a handicap.
Clarify expectations with your manager.
It’s all well and good to take the requisite amount of time to onboard, but if this is not in line with what your manager expects, you need to address that right away. Depending on what you’re walking into, your manager may be impatient for you to start doing x, y, and z immediately. This isn’t malicious; it is human nature to forget what it was like to be a blank slate. (I can almost guarantee that in a year’s time, you yourself will likely forget what it was like before everything “clicked” into place.)
I would encourage you to have an open conversation with your manager during your first week to go over the timeline of your onboarding. This timeline should be a week by week rundown of goals and objectives, and the types of activities that you will undertake to achieve those. If you do this exercise successfully, it will not only give you the room to onboard properly, but it will also demonstrate that you are thoughtful and proactive in setting yourself up for success. Brownie points already earned!
Be shamelessly hungry. You’ll need the information.
It would be nice if every company had an extensive onboarding program or bootcamp for their incoming PMs, supplemented with an impeccably organized company wiki and a series of check-ins so that you could ask any “dumb” question you will undoubtedly have. Those places may exist, but if your experience is anything like mine – especially if you’re all about that startup life – that rosy picture remains in the realm of fantasy.
Even if your onboarding isn’t well thought-through, that is no excuse to sit around and be complacent. The truth is that you will have to get yourself up to speed somehow so use what you have at your disposal. Look around you – there is a treasure trove of information if you look hard enough, whether it is in shared folders, hung on the walls, or in people’s heads. Spend those hours hungrily digging through any shared Google Drive folders, and I guarantee you’ll learn something. Establish a relationship with the veteran customer service team and I promise that you’ll gain a deeper perspective about your users and how they feel about not just your product but also about the company. Hack your way to knowledge when it’s not presented to you on a silver platter; it’ll pay off for you in the long run.
Coffee chats are your friend. It pays to know everyone.
As I mentioned above, getting to know people, regardless of their role or tenure at the company, is crucial for gaining knowledge when you start as a PM. But there is also a bigger, overarching reason to establish these reasons, and that is simply because being known is better than being unknown. Call it political if you want, but the reality is that our jobs as PMs is inherently political in that we have to weigh multiple interests, make tough decisions, and get people to believe in us (sometimes on nothing more than faith). It may not be the only way to do it, but I’ve found in my experience that it helps if people genuinely like you as a person.
I’ve been around enough tech companies to know that PMs – and more broadly, the product team – are almost always perceived by the rest of the company as being surrounded by an aura of mystique surrounding them. Remember – the role of Product Manager is still a relatively new one in the grand scheme of things, and even more unfamiliar to those who are new to the tech industry. This lack of understanding and separation between PMs and the rest of the company can often lead to scapegoating when times get tough, as they’re bound to get at any startup. When sales plateau, it must be because the “product team isn’t really doing anything.” Or, when we turn down customer requests, it must be because the PMs are too lazy to pull off those “no-brainer quick wins.” This is why I am a huge believer in breaking down those walls by getting to know as many people across the company as I can, especially early on in my tenure. It’s much harder to point fingers when you empathize and understand the rigors of each person’s role, no matter what department they’re in.
Gain the trust and respect of your team.
The old joke about PMs is that we must move mountains to do the impossible, all while hiding the fact that we don’t actually hold any true power since none of the people we often work with report to us. The joke is true – and you should never forget it! To that end, you should seek to gain the respect of your team, and this is especially salient when you first join. And while it’s true that you will need some more time before leading the team through your first launch (see point one about gaining context before making key decisions), you can gain respect in other ways. How you choose to do so is discretionary and, in my opinion, highly contingent on understanding how your team currently works. I would recommend having one-on-ones with every member of your team in the first week and make it clear that you are keen to listen to whatever they want to throw your way, inclusive of what is going well on the team and “what keeps them up at night.” Just by listening, you can immediately prove that you are a team-player and that you’re there with the intention of making your team and product successful.
The thrills of joining a new team are numerous, but the experience is not without its challenges. There is no silver bullet for navigating your way through these challenges and these takeaways are far from all-encompassing. Be open-minded and hungry – and you’ll be on the path to success in no time at all.
About Jen Hau
Jen is a product person who parachuted to safety from a career as an attorney. After wearing a number of hats at fast-growing, lean startups, operations to data, she now leads a product team at Hightower, a commercial real estate tech company. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and is always up for a strong cold brew.
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