Product Management Chris Jones

From Managing Products To Managing Product Managers

NOTE: This article was written by SVPG partner Chris Jones.

SVPG has written about the critical task of managing product managers and specifically on evaluating and developing strong product managers. In this article, I talk about the transition of a product manager from an individual contributor to a manager of PM’s.

One of my first managers, Steve Roop, gave me one of the single most impactful bits of advice in my career.  At the time, I was recognized as a very effective individual contributor PM, and was just making the jump to hiring and managing my first direct report. Steve told me that there were two very important things I needed to communicate to this person in the first week:

  1. The new team member must understand that it is their job to know more than anyone in the company about their product area and its customers. Specifically, he pointed out that this person needed to know more about these things than I did, and he knew that I knew a lot.
  2. The new team member should have a publicly visible “win” sometime in the first 90 days from their start date.

This advice was deceptively simple, but it worked on me at a very deep level. It has guided me through onboarding new PM’s and transitioning new PM managers ever since.

New managers can be fragile. Before becoming a manager their value was clear and directly tied to their work product. For a product manager, becoming a people manager usually means they were successful as an individual contributor, so their sense of their individual value is high. Now the PM must share the stage with someone they’re managing. For many new managers, this is a threatening situation as they leave behind their old area of contribution, without really understanding what will replace it.

Steve’s advice is a guidepost through this tricky emotional transition. On the surface, it seems to put the focus on what is expected of the new team member. In fact, the advice is actually intended to show the new manager what they need to do.

For the new hire to know more than the new manager about the product and customers, the manager must simultaneously train the new hire and step out of the way. The advice tells that manager that it is their job to help the new hire grow larger than themselves.

Public wins for new PM’s can take many forms, but business result wins are always the best: e.g. solving a problem for the customer in ways that meet the needs of the business, improving key business metrics, etc.   

For the new hire to score a public win, the new manager needs do everything possible to make the new hire successful. This often means the manager is working quietly in the background and downplaying their own contribution. It is difficult for the new manager, but they must strive to empower the new hire be the public face of the win, even to their own managers. (I’m assuming that our new hire is competent and that our new manager is not masking a failing new hire.)

It’s a leap of faith for the new manager, but this tool provided me a tangible starting place. I experienced the power of truly enabling and empowering a great team of people, and that my success was measured by their success. Steve’s advice provided a path to letting go of what made me successful before I became a manager. From that point on, I’ve given this same advice to every new manager I’ve ever advised.