Applying a market focused discipline is core to what Product Management is about. Product Managers should feel energised by helping organisations to find and prioritise market opportunities. Finding market challenges and then aligning their company’s products or solutions to address these challenges. As a Product Management mentor, I find that quite often the reality is a little different. Product Managers are often struggling and they don’t receive mentoring. They feel accountable for everything to do with the success of the product but they are struggling to manage the depth and breadth of the role. Most of them learn on the job and don’t really have mentors outside of the organisation to support them.
A lot of companies have attempted to establish a product management discipline in their organization. Many are struggling to make it effective.
The executive team understand that to be successful they need to:
- Create products or services that customers love.
- Ensure the organization is marching not just in the “right direction” but in the “same direction.”
- Work to a clearly defined business model.
They hire a Product Manager. They should be focused on influencing and aligning CEO, sales, marketing and engineering strategies to address market opportunities. However, they are often floundering:
- Some are solely focused on the engineering side of the house – helping to prioritise product development.
- Others get consumed with sales engagements – supporting the sales teams in closing deals.
- Many become consumed in what is effectively Product Marketing – creating content that will drive leads into the business.
So, how do you ensure that any Product Manager you have hired hits the ground running? How do you ensure they receive the right level of mentoring. What elements of the Product Management discipline are most important for your business? How can you ensure your Product Manager balances strategy, marketing, technical and tactical?
What comes up in mentoring?
In my role mentoring strategic Product Managers, I have found that most often they want to talk about how they:
- Influence at a leadership level – how can they align sales, marketing, engineering and the CEO when they don’t have accountability for those functions and they are not even on the leadership team?
- Remain strategic and influence others if they are not on the leadership team?
- Achieve the right level of visibility in the organisation?
- Create a compelling product strategy? How can they align their strategy and roadmap with organisational goals? How can they get buy-in for their product strategy across the leadership team?
- Stop the CEO or head of sales from undermining them by going directly to the engineering team to influence the product backlog?
- Build trust with engineering and keep a market focus?
- Stay engaged with the market and remain strategic when they need to balance the needs of lots of functional groups in the business?
- Work effectively with other leaders in the business – managing their own and other’s behavioural styles? How can they learn to negotiate and influence?
- Get the leadership team to be more market focused and to prioritise market opportunities using market data rather than being scattergun in their approach to revenue generation?
- Ensure they are involved in strategic decision making in the business and are not just seen as receivers of the outputs of the decisions?
- Positively influence leadership alignment around the goals of the company?
- Drive a culture of strategic rather than tactical revenue generation?
These are just some of the areas that come up in our mentoring sessions. The importance of thinking about professional development skills was the reason I did an Executive Coaching diploma and why I now spend time teaching about the benefits of working on our emotional intelligence and leadership skills. Understanding the benefits of effective collaboration for Product Managers is why I became certified as a team coach. I don’t lead with these elements in my practice but they form part of how I offer support to the clients I work with in Product Management and Strategic Marketing.
Mastering leadership development and high performing team development skills, not just functional skills, is what makes some product leaders stand out from the crowd!
When I previously worked as the head of a team of Product Managers, I had access to an external mentor – someone who had performed the role before. This person was a safe sounding board for me as I developed in the role and they felt like a trusted advisor. Giving me time to talk about what I was really finding challenging. They didn’t judge! They gave me the space to explore how I was developing as a leader and to unpack some of the challenges I was experiencing.
I did not feel safe to be this open with anyone else at a leadership level and that made things a little lonely sometimes!
I didn’t feel the psychological safety to raise issues I was having and feared exposing what I perceived as my weaknesses to the leadership team.
Finding someone to mentor and coach your Product Manager, Strategic Marketer or any key resource in the business is so important. Give them the space to explore their approach to leadership. Help them to examine their role and their challenges in a way that feels safe to them – no matter how open your organisation is. Find opportunities to get insights from people who have been in their position before and who understand them best.
Product Management can be a minefield!
It can be challenging for a Product Manager to settle into a new organisation or for an existing one to be effective. There can be many political obstacles that need to be addressed. Professional development skills are crucial to help the Product Manager to navigate interactions with other leaders. This needs to be considered when a Product Manager is hired – how well do they balance professional development and functional requirements of the role.
Consider how clearly you have defined the role and ensure it takes into account the elements of strategy, technical, tactical and marketing.
The Product Manager has the potential to lean into one specific area of their role where they feel most comfortable. They need guidance and help to take a more balanced approach.
To help with getting the balance right, you might consider pairing a strategic Product Manager with a more technical Product Owner. This is not always possible in an early stage business as funding can be a challenge to resource two roles. However, be mindful that having one person covering strategic and technical can be really challenging and they will need guidance and support to pull it off!
What can help?
Many new and established product managers exist in a state of bewilderment and despair! Even Product Managers who have been with a business for a few years can feel like this. The enormity of their role can be overwhelming.
Underlying this is a lack of clarity on what is expected of them and where they can add value.
Sometimes the leadership team sets unachievable expectations or there are no expectations at all. Everyone is scrambling to understand how the discipline of product management applies to their business. The overwhelmed Product Manager has to juggle the demands of a sales and engineering team who expect their undivided attention 24/7.
This situation can spiral and the Product Manager can become increasingly disillusioned as the leadership team begin to dismiss the product manager as ineffectual.
Things do not have to be this way! Understanding how the Product Manager can add value in your organization is a starting point. Then clearly define the role and boundaries for each organisational function. Help the Product Manager to understand how their skills and capabilities will align with the other leaders in the organisation. Help all the leaders in the business to understand how they add value and the part they play together to achieve the goals of the business. Get outside help from others who have established a discipline of Product Management before. Make sure that whatever way you apply the Product Management discipline that it aligns with your company’s stage of growth.
Don’t assume your product manager will hit the ground running – ensure they have access to mentoring
The Product Manager is an important resource in your company but don’t assume they know it all! It is not just the Product Manager who can be struggling with the discipline of product management. I often see frustration from the CEO as they try to understand how to embed the discipline in their business. Just because a product manager has previous experience, don’t assume they will hit the ground running in a new company. Sometimes it can take time and support to establish the discipline and to build the trust and respect of other leaders.
It makes sense that the new Product Manager is offered mentorship so that they can hit the ground running.
In my previous roles in Product Management, I learned quickly that applying structure and discipline ensured myself and my team could work effectively. We can all read books or attend courses. These will give us a good grounding in product management. However, the application of this discipline and the understanding of what works in reality comes with experience.
Don’t wait until either you or your product managers have reached the point of despair! Seek the support and help of those who have done this before and who have been at the coalface. It makes sense to talk to someone who understands the demands of the role.
Irrespective of whether you are new to the role of Product Management or have been doing the job for years, look to get as much insight as you can from those around you. Product Management is a continuous learning path.
Contact me @ firstname.lastname@example.org for more details on how I can support Product Managers or Strategic Marketers in their role!