As I write this, I’m thinking about leading two upcoming discussions on how to move into product management leadership. I’ve promoted dozens of people into senior management roles, and I’ve been thinking about what made them standout as potential managers, and what made them successful. The good news is that being a great product manager trains you already with so many of the skills to move into a management role – being the face of the team, working with many groups, influencing to get the job done etc. So, what does it take to standout from a bunch of standouts? I want to share some interesting patterns of behavior that we implicitly look for when we have those closed room discussions with HR about who’s going to get that precious manager role. I’m going to assume all the basics are already in place: right tenure, consistent high performer, track record of delivery. If you’ve got all that, then there are some intangible ingredients that I want to shed some light on:
- Communicating like you’re already a manager. Often, being a great product manager means that you can communicate really clearly to your teams, and to your customers. This is table stakes. You have to be able to break down a vision into a clear roadmap, and then into workable chunks, and then into specific user stories. Product managers have this down – they know how to communicate what they want their teams to build. They’re also great at talking to customers – listening well, asking great questions, translating what they hear into needs. But being a people manager, and working with other senior leaders, entails taking all those skills and creating a different picture. Often PMs go into a ton of detail, they want to explain the work they’ve done, after all it was a ton of effort. But leaders don’t want to hear those – they want someone who can connect the business goals to the work being done in a way that makes sense. To be promotable, you have to be able to do this – it’s not a skill that execs are patient to see you grow into. If you can’t succinctly explain what you do and why it’s important for the business, you can’t get the right resources for your teams, and you can’t succeed. So spend less time explaining all the details, and more about telling a story, and connecting the dots.
- Working the strategy Say/Do. This shows up as how you make decisions, and how much time you spend talking strategy and actually backing up what you do with the bigger picture in mind. Product managers are expected to understand the big picture – it should reflect in their roadmaps and customer documents. But how much do you actually follow this? Someone who has “leader” written all over them is the person who asks great questions about prioritization based on strategy. Who constantly starts backlog meetings (yes, backlog!) with the bigger picture in mind. It’s not just a question of knowing the company strategy & goals, it’s how you bring them to life in the way that you work every-day. Knowing that the person you’re about to promote already “gets it” goes a long way in setting them up for a manager role.
- Feedback loops. People who are going to be good managers ask for feedback. A lot. They ask after meetings, they follow-up with senior leaders, they make a point of understanding how they show up. And then they take that feedback, try something new, and then ask for more feedback. You’d be surprised how little people do this. They wait passively for 1-1’s or monthly meetings – or even, worse, their annual performance reviews. When you can see someone is actively understanding how they show up, and are genuinely interested in improving themselves – you know that they will help others do the same – which is what you want in a people manager.
Do you still want to be a manager? Are you doing these things? We want to hear – write to us and share your stories of promotion, or trying to get promoted.
Now that it’s a few weeks past New Year, and we’re back heads-down hard at work – let’s sneak in a new year’s resolution that will make a real difference. Commit to talking to your customers at least once a month. That might not seem like a lot to those of you who are planning customer interviews weekly, building them into your sprints and calendars. However, for many of you, we know months can go by without reaching out. We’ve worked with a lot of company’s last year – some large and some in very early stages, and we’ve been shocked at how many don’t talk with customers regularly. It doesn’t matter how established the company, the attitude towards interacting with customers, getting their feedback and acting on what you learn is a habit that’s formed and established by the product leader. If the discipline isn’t introduced, then customer interaction doesn’t regularly happen and acting on customer feedback becomes an ad-hoc activity, usually something to consider when things go very wrong. The start of the new year is a great time to hit refresh and think about how you’d like to establish new important habits. For your product and team, there’s nothing that will make more of a difference than creating a new practice around regular customer interaction. Whether you’re testing a new idea, building a prototype, or launching a new feature – make sure that a customer test gets built in. Put it into your planning, write it into your calendar, make this a resolution that you can commit to.
Recently, we gave a talk at a big product conference. We talked about influence – how product managers need to exercise influence more than most. After all, we are usually individual contributors, accountable for a product -needing everyone to align and work together, but not directly managing anyone. This conference was in Eastern Europe so we were particularly interested in hearing the questions – was it the same situation for product managers across the seas, as we’d experienced in the US? Who were they most trying to influence? Our biggest surprise was where the majority of the questions centered – the frustration for product mangers to be “allowed” to talk with customers. The area where product managers most wanted to exercise influence was with their managers trying to getting access to customers!!
This wasn’t a one-off question, the majority of people who asked us questions during the talk, and then after at our booth – was all centered around this critical need. One that we take for granted – the ability and access to connect directly with customers. We wanted to share some of the tips & ideas that came out of these conversations because perhaps more people than we realize are in the same situation. Wanting to follow best practices in iterating and getting customer feedback, but finding themselves unable to do so. Here are a few of the ideas we discussed.
- Use a proxy. When your customer is 5,000 miles away, watching what they do is not a readily available option. For one PM, they were building a system for a library and really wanted to understand behavior and interaction with their app. Our suggestion? Find a local library and talk to the people who were working and using library services. After accounting for cultural changes – what are the main questions? What were the surprises? How could you use your findings to show the importance of understanding local behavior.
- Start with a Hypotheses: When you can’t get to customers, it’s really helpful to form a strong hypothesis – one that is very specific, measurable, has an outcome that can be tested. Rather than continuing to write user stories in a vacuum, figure out what you believe to be true – force yourself to confront the biggest unknowns you have, and then look for ways that you can quickly and cheaply test your assumptions.
- Use remote tools: While we don’t like surveys very much – it’s better than nothing. Can you put together a more comprehensive survey that gets to people’s attitudes and beliefs? Recently, we conducted a large survey that was based on earlier market segmentation. In that, we looked for people who were lapsed members. Adding a question at the end to see if they were open to a quick conversation, is an easy and cheap way to find customers who will talk with you. Then use skype to connect with them – fast, cheap!
- Get scrappy. When you can’t find your exact type of customer, in the same industry – getting any feedback is preferable to none. This is where you rely on friends & family to give you their perspective. Still go through the process of writing a learning plan & have your objectives…see what surprises come up. Don’t dismiss their feedback too fast if they don’t “get it” – this could be an indication that there’s an issue or gap in your thinking about your product.
- Seek forgiveness not permission. This isn’t an option we readily recommend, and our least favorite…but in some cases, when you are just not given time to do customer research – you may have to resort to some stealth interactions. Go outside your regular working hours to talk to customers – slowly start feeding ideas from customers into your meetings. In particular, share insights that came directly from a customer interaction to show value. Sometimes you need the proof before you get the permission.
Tell us what you’ve done when you’ve struggled with getting customer feedback. We want to hear more tips & methods – what’s worked and what’s not? Leave us a comment now.