Early on in my career as a Product Manager, my peers described me as a ‘Maverick Contrarian’. Truth be told, I doubt it was meant as a compliment but I kind of liked it. I wasn’t satisfied with what I was told a product manager was supposed to do or not do. Twenty years ago (perhaps still today), PMs struggled to illustrate their importance to their organization. PMs worked to define their role and responsibilities almost to their detriment, boxing themselves into a comfort zone to do their job but limiting their ability to lead.
I’m not suggesting that adopting a methodology and establishing responsibilities is not important, but successful Product Managers must be leaders without anyone reporting to them. They must be both the sales team’s secret weapon to close a deal and the development team’s trusted captain through turbulent waters. They must both set the product vision while talking a disgruntled customer off the ledge. Not an easy job. But product managers never asked for an ‘easy’ button.
Over my 20 years in Product Management, my absolute favorite part of the job was building strong teams of PMs and helping them grow. As I transition to a career of Product Management consultancy, I thought I would pass along three of my favorite lessons learned (and these aren’t stack ranked).
Lesson 1: Be Tied To A Big Deal
I was about 10 years into my product management journey when Scott Montgomery, Head of Product Management for Secure Computing (acquired by McAfee), passed on this lesson. Scott told me “You want to get noticed, have your name tied to a seven figure deal”. While Scott was correct that when you are a key part to your company winning a big deal you get noticed, I took something different away from the lesson. SALES IS KING, NOT PRODUCT. The goal of any company is to make money. Your product will succeed if Sales succeeds. So as a Product Manager, if you aren’t out helping Sales win deals you aren’t doing your job. By being the product’s best evangelist, you are talking to prospects and learning what matters to them most. Customer Discovery is fundamental in building winning products, so get out there and be part of the sales process.
Lesson 2: Earn Respect First, Then Lead
Your title includes the word “manager” but if no one really reports to you how do you lead? You don’t need direct reports to lead, you need respect. And respect is not given, it is earned. Whenever I hire new product managers, I tell them their number one job is to learn the product inside and out and build a rapport with the Development team. Before you ever write your first user story, you best first go on deployments, perform QA, document and understand the architecture of the product, listen to the concerns of the developers, understand the technical debt, and since most developers like food, buy some lunches. Developers appreciate that you made the effort and that you are willing to roll up your sleeves. But it doesn’t stop there, now as you turn your focus to being part of the Sales process bring key developers with you. Get them exposure to the customer. Give them a seat at the table during Customer Discovery. In my experience, developers bring a scientific approach that is missed if Customer Discovery is only being lead by Sales and Marketing. Follow these steps in earnest and you will earn respect. Then when you need Development to rally around a new goal, you will be able to lead the charge.
Lesson 3: Own It, But Prioritize
Considering one of the fundamental tasks of a Product Manager is to set prioritization for development, it’s ironic that those same product managers typically struggle to prioritize their own To Do list. For me the flood of problems to solve is one of the reasons I love the job, but not each problem should have the same priority. For example, as a PM you should be involved in all 37 strategic, technical and marketing boxes outlined by Pragmatic Marketing and that can be a daunting task. However, don’t try to OWN all of them at once. Assess your organization and determine which of those 37 responsibilities is the most important to focus on, the others can wait. Trying to do them all, and in turn doing them all poorly, won’t help anyone. It will be different for each company but pick the most ‘Urgent’ and ‘Important’ areas to focus on and knock those out of the park. Once those items are in a good place, move on to the next set of blocks. Similarly, on a day to day basis it is also tough to prioritize, but I always come back the Eisenhower Matrix (a simple 2x2 matrix that lives on the upper right corner of every whiteboard I own).
- DO (Urgent | Important): Tackle these items first with zeal.
- PLAN (Not Urgent | Important): Align most of your time on these tasks and do them well. If you do, you tend to have less “DO” items pop up.
- DELEGATE (Urgent | Not Important): The hardest quadrant as you might think it will just be faster/easier to get these done yourself – but that is a fallacy. The opportunity cost of not working on “DO” or “PLAN” is too high. As a PM, you need to lead and that includes delegation.
- ELIMINATE (Not Urgent | Not Important): Don’t hesitate, eliminate and move on.