Starting as a manager of product managers

Inspired by a former colleague’s blogpost about things to do as a new product manager joining a team (which has now become a Trello board) and because I have just started a new role, I thought to add to Steve’s piece by reflecting on what to do when you start as a manager of product managers. 

I started nearly 3 months ago and while this period is often referred to as ‘onboarding’, it’s been much more a ‘fact finding mission’.

I’ve always been convinced that Product Management is 50% story-telling, and therefore it’s probably no surprise that the classic ‘What, Why, When, Where, Who, How and How much?’ helped me structure my thinking as to what questions to ask. 

  • What: the product(s)
  • Why: the strategy
  • When: natural lifecycles
  • Where: the company
  • Who: your team and your stakeholders
  • How: product craft and agile working
  • How much: the budget

What: the product(s)

Getting to know the products your team manages is the pretty obvious thing to do. You may already be familiar with the product, or you at least played around with it during the recruitment process. Though, if like me, you’re working on tools that aren’t customer-facing, this might be your first real interaction with the products. 

The over-arching questions I had about the products were: 

  • Who are the users?
  • What user needs does it meet? 
  • What is the vision?
  • What are the main metrics?
  • Who are your key stakeholders?
  • What is the technology?
  • How well do we understand the product usage (data and user research?)
  • What is its adoption?

Why: the strategy

Here I worked my way down from understanding the company strategy overall, then understand how my department fed into the overall strategy and what our strategy was.

I also tried to understand the rate at which these change. Looking at previous strategies will give you the historical context as to why things are the way they are and an idea of how often things change.

When: natural lifecycles

All places of work have their natural rhythms. They are in part imposed by financial and fiscal policies but also show up in the rate by which organisational change happens and how often people move roles. Beyond looking at budgeting cycles, trying to get a sense of the rhythm isn’t always straightforward.

Some of the questions I had were:

  • For what period do objectives , strategies and budget get defined? What ceremonies mark these periods?
  • What is the time someone typically spends on the team or in the department? How long have my colleagues been here? Have they always had the same roles? What is the rate of change here?
  • How long has the department existed in the shape it does now? 

View the autosave

Where: the company

Beyond its strategy, there’s many things that you need to know about the company, and the higher you are in seniority the more important it is.

Depending on the size and age of a company, this can take quite a long time. In a big organisation you’ll probably never get to the end of this before something changes.

My questions at the beginning were about:

  • The industry we operate in (as it was new to me)
    • how does my company/organisation compare to others?
    • what are the main challenges and trends in the market?
  • Company culture
    • What behaviours get rewarded?
    • How do new initiatives get put forward?
    • How candid are people in their approach?
  • Company structure
    • How does my department fit in?
    • What other parts of the organisation do we work with?
    • How is power distributed?

Who: your team and your stakeholders

Of course, a huge part of the first few months is getting to know the people you work with. Starting with the product managers and the people who make up the product teams (design, dev, research, QA etc).

I asked the people I directly managed about:

  • Their background: How did they arrive to product?
  • What are their strengths and points of growth?
  • What are their biggest challenges?
  • What do they love/hate about the work?
  • How do they rate the collaboration with others?

And I try to get them to know personally as well. This can depend a lot on each person, as we all have a different level of comfort when it comes to talking about personal stuff at work. I won’t force a conversation about their personal lives, but when it feels good, I don’t hesitate to engage in conversations about things like family, hobbies etc.

I had very similar conversations with the people who are in our product teams as I had with the product managers, especially if I will work with them directly. I won’t have the same intentions, as I don’t have managerial responsibilities here. But understanding how they want to develop is important so that I can find opportunities to help them grow.

Then there’s the stakeholders. This is a whole subject in itself of course, but you’ve got to start somewhere. First I tried to understand from my team who the major stakeholders were, how they were impacting the products. Where they had stakeholder maps, this was really useful.

Next step is meeting them. This can take a while, so I had to do this strategically. I asked both my team and manager for advice on the order in which I should meet people. Of course they didn’t quite match up, but based on their recommendations I was able to put together a plan.

Indeed, some stakeholders were perfectly happy to meet with me when I had very little knowledge about our team, products, company etc. They were very patient to help me understand how they fit in and would answer any questions I had. Others were best to leave for a bit further down the line. They wanted to gauge your approach, suss you out, and it was better to come somewhat prepared.

How: product craft and agile working

Like for many other managers of product managers, I also have a responsibility over the overall product discipline in my area. So understanding how we worked was crucial to see how I can bring about improvements.

The main questions I had at the beginning:

  • How and where do we communicate about our products?
  • Where and how do we gather evidence to inform our decisions?
  • How do we collaborate with other disciplines?
  • How often do we release code?
  • What expertise is key for our product managers (technical, market, users, all of them?)

How much: the budget

This is not something you want to leave for last, because it’s the thing that can really hinder you if you don’t pay attention. As a manager of product managers, you’re much more likely to be involved in defining budgets or at least getting a say in where money gets spend. 

It’s crucial to understand when the budget gets decided and by who, and understand:

  • When do you need to start making your case for money? 
  • How much flex is there in the current budget?
  • How does it get adjusted?
  • Where are we now in terms of spending?

In conclusion

This was me at the end of every meeting

Above is probably only a fraction of the questions that I asked and will continue to ask. Treating the start on a job as a quest or a discovery really helped me frame my thinking and being ok with not knowing. The free pass you get when you start a job to spend all your breath on questions, is a huge opportunity.

Also… I sometimes fell into the trap of saying ‘I have a stupid question’ which made me instantly cringe inside. No question is stupid, there’s no need to belittle myself. I therefore created a ‘stupid question jar’ with a euro for every time I said that out loud. I’m happy to report that at the time of writing there were only 2 euros in the jar!


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