Many of my discussions with product leaders (CPOs, VPs and others who manage teams of product folks) are about the substance of product management: portfolios, competing stakeholders, pricing & packaging, tarot cards as a revenue forecasting model. Last week, though, in my product leadership workshop, we had an extended discussion about the core people-and-organizational obligations we have toward those who work for us.
(If you’re running some other department, these should sound familiar.)
1. Be Umbrellas, Not Funnels
Companies, especially executive teams, can generate a lot of chaos: “small” interrupts, sudden shifts, cross-functional blame, budget jousting. In the colorful MBA vernacular, we’re either poop umbrellas or poop funnels: buffering our teams from the noise and confusion as best we can, or letting it all fall on their heads.
Umbrella-wielding is a skill: anticipating politics; de-escalating drama; being ready with in-the-moment analysis and insights about whether a problem is actually important; articulating which department is best equipped to handle today’s small crisis; practicing organizational jiu jitsu.
- A Fortune 50 financial company light-years away from our core manufacturing market expresses interest. Sales (inevitably) wants to expand our European SMB tech manufacturing ICP to include US-based global banks. Product fit will probably be catastrophic. This requires a quick-but-urgent review of the opportunity with Product and Engineering before it’s committed to the revenue pipeline.
- Our CEO thinks that a new product manager is doing a poor job because her product has falling revenue and poor customer feedback. But she’s newly assigned to a decrepit old widget that’s in a shrinking segment and hasn’t been maintained for years. In your opinion, she’s very talented and just inherited a mess. Best to walk back the CEO’s misimpression quickly, before the discussion turns to firings.
- A competitor announces ChatGPT-based retirement investment advice. (Probably doesn't work yet, or gives generically bad advice 100x faster than humans.) With generative AI at the very top of its hype cycle, the Board wants a 90-day meet-the-competition development plan, and says they are willing to sacrifice everything on the roadmap to staff it. You’ll need to spend some political capital to slow this down just a little – then sell the idea of a prototype, so we can find out whether it makes any sense.
Also, when there’s a hot issue with unclear ownership, we don’t throw our subordinates under the bus. So pronouns matter: “I think this tax calculation issue crosses products and departments: give me a day to chase down which group can fix it” is much better than “Sandeep screwed up again – let me pull him into the meeting” or “those losers in BizOps were supposed to keep the pricing database 100% accurate.”
2. Merchandize Good Work
People who are invisible – or whose work is invisible – miss out on raises and promotions and invitations to do cool stuff. And most of the good things our product (and engineering and design and research and documentation and test automation and support) teams do isn’t very visible. So it’s incumbent on us as leaders to gently – but relentlessly – merchandize our teams’ good work and accomplishments and business-relevant wins.
- If we’ve fixed some poor UX in our sign-up funnel, consider a 90-second video where the product manager introduces the problem, the designer who fixed it shows a brief before-and-after, and the product manager recaps with outcome/impact. (“1.1% higher top-of-funnel conversion means $3-4M more per quarter in top-line revenue.”)
- Shortening onboarding time/effort lets us add more customers faster, at lower cost. Maybe in our monthly All-Hands we call out the Customer Success person who suggested the fix, the content creator whose “onboard yourself faster” checklist sped up onboarding by 11%, and the product manager overseeing new customer tools.
- I love having my teams identify unappreciated heroes in other departments, so I can send their VPs a thank-you note on behalf of Product. Recognizing good work can be habit-forming.
BTW, there’s a reverse halo effect here. If my extended team is seen as successful and hardworking and smart, I get some of the reflected glow. Other leaders give us the benefit of the doubt, and talented folks want to move into our group.
3. Provide Honest Career Pathing
At scale, product managers might be 2-3% of a company’s employees. The role is vaguely defined, challenging, and demands an unusual mix of skills. People come in all shapes, sizes, styles, and talents – that mostly fit other roles. So we owe our team gentle-but-clear-and-frequent communication about how they are doing and where we see them going next. (When I’ve parachuted into companies as interim CPO, my first order of business has been to quickly evaluate the team I’ve inherited.) Examples:
- Someone green but smart, humble, curious, and coachable... we might map out 4-6 areas for intense mentoring through the year. Talk through the theory of thumbnail business cases, work the first 3 or 4 together with lots of coaching, then move down the skills list.
- A deeply opinionated subject expert with visible disdain for average users will focus on rarely used expert features and tend to ignore opinions from the bottom 95% of customers. Maybe an evangelist or implementation architect role is a better match: worth a frank talk about fit and attitudes and where to make the biggest contributions to the company.
- A product veteran who is effortlessly juggling a maker team, represents product management on a strategy task force, and coaches the newbies may need a bigger challenge. Are there open slots for directors? Can we create one? Is there a juicy assignment coming up? A win for the company even if they move out of my team.
4. Play the Long Game
The half-life of any particular job is short, and most companies don’t last. So the great people we nurture will eventually be somewhere else. In the long game, we’re investing in the larger product community and relationships that span years and organizations. Ideally, you have a portfolio of trusted peers (for moral support, shared challenges) and a few mentors (for career advice, realistic POV) and up-and-comers (paying it forward). As we move up through organizations, our informal external networks get more and more valuable.
Which raises a “what do we owe them” quandary: what if your best player signals that she wants to leave? I see competing obligations to my company (keep the best talent) and myself (run a strong department) and to her (support new opportunities and challenges). It might go this way:
- First, an honest closed-door conversation about her real concerns or goals. Is she unhappy with the company? Frustrated by my management style? Needing flexibility or some recharge/refresh time? Bored and ready to move onto greener pastures? Different issues, different answers. (As product folks, we should never offer solutions until we’re clear on the underlying problem.)
- If there are some reasonable solutions or accommodations, explore and sell them – but don’t oversell or promise something you can’t deliver. Product folks have pretty good BS detectors. I’d rather have her be my peer or lead a peer organization in my company than lose her.
- But if not, I usually feel the obligation to help her reach/find her next adventure. To play the long game. To continue being a coach/mentor outside the company. To value the person, not just the work. That might include talking about outside opportunities, exit timelines and career implications; being a (quiet, careful) job reference; voicing honest opinions about trends or industries; sharing contacts at a few non-competing companies; offering to be a sounding board for her inevitable next challenges.
If we cherish our people as much as our products and end users, we should be supporting their goals and dreams as much as our own.
Leading an organization and managing people carries a substantial responsibility to those who work for us. We need to support and protect them so that they can do their best work; build recognition for them; and help them look ahead to what’s next. Not that different from building a product or raising a child.