A lot of Product Managers wind up rolling into the position with little to no preparation, training, or even a real understanding of the role, and it’s common for early struggles to really hamper a newly-minted Product Manager’s success. To avoid this, it’s important to approach your job and your career just like you would any other product — by creating a vision of an intended future, and an action plan to get there. Your future vision should be focused on establish a set of relationships based on trust and respect, having a solid bank of social capital, and making important decisions that are trusted because you are trusted by others in the organization. Here’s a good framework for success that I’ve used (and advised others to use) to establish and build a successful role in nearly any organization. If it seems like a long time, don’t worry — 90 days goes by so fast in a new Product Management role that your head will spin; accelerate the plan at your own risk and to your own needs…
The First 30 – Getting to Know All About You (and Them)
It’s really tempting to think that you can drop into a new Product role and just start making changes — and it’s a mistake that you’re likely to regret for longer than three months as you try to rebuild relationships that you should have started building on Day 1. If you’re new to an organization, you really don’t have a good idea of what the landscape is — forget anything that was told to you in the interview, forget all the research that you did online, forget all the meaningless introductions that you got in your whirlwind tour when you walked in the door and were met by the HR people. Nope, this is when the real work begins, and you start digging in and finding out about the reality of the situation. You need to find out as much as you can about every aspect of the business as quickly as possible — once you start digging, you’ll wonder if you can even do this in only 30 days.
The first step is to set up meetings with all of the C-level folks, Directors, and Managers in the organization — 30 minutes, maybe over coffee. These meetings aren’t meant to be in-depth interrogations, but surface-level examinations — fact-finding missions. You’re trying to poke the bear, to prod for holes and connections that others may not see on the surface. You’re collecting names, impressions, and most importantly impediments that you or others that you may need to rely on might face. You’re starting to build your own “social graph” of the major players, figuring out who respects whom and who only believes that they’re respected.
Next, you want to set up follow-on meetings with some of the others mentioned during these initial conversations — this is where the rubber hits the road; while it’s important to know who the “power players” are, it’s more important to understand how the ground-level folks view the company, the product, and the management team. This is where you’re going to determine the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the organization as a whole — whether there’s a clear strategy and vision that the company is driving toward and what the people actually doing the work think of it. You want to find out what they think their biggest impediments are, as well as what they think the biggest impediments of others are.
The Second 30 – Establishing a Base of Influence
Once you’ve taken the time to collect all of this information and start to connect some dots, you’re going to need to focus your next efforts on building a network of people in the organization on whom you will be able to rely for moving your plans and vision forward when the time comes. You’re still primarily in data-collection mode, but now that you know who is important in the organization and what issues they’re encountering, you can start putting on your Product Manager hat and being working to determine what solutions might be possible in both the near- and long-term. But remember, you’re not solving these problems yet — rather, you’re continuing to collect information and social capital; you’re working to establish trust and respect with the people who do the real work and the people who are making decisions. You’re watching to confirm your assumptions and alter your expectations. You’re building your network and relationships slowly, by giving people opportunities to teach you and to help you better understand everything going on around you. You’re building your plan and making sure that you know precisely what you’ll need to do in order to establish clear and convincing success with your first real moves as a Product Manager.
The Third 30 – Pushing Change That Shows Success
So, now that you’ve done all the work laying your foundation and building the relationships that you’ll need, you’re finally ready to move forward and demonstrate some success. This step should be the easiest, assuming that you’ve actually waited and built your plan for success — pick one of the impediments that you’ve discovered and that you have sufficient influence to tackle, devise a solution that can be cheaply and easily implemented, and work it through to success. Then do another small one, perhaps a little bigger than last time. Then another. You should easily have three or four impediments that you can unblock for two or three teams that you’ll be working with — and by solving these problems for them, you’ll establish yourself as a trusted friend who can actually get things done. Keep in mind that by the time your first 90 days are up, you won’t be able to play the naive card anymore; your “shininess” will have worn off, and all you’ll have to rely on as you move forward is what you did to help others in this third 90 day period. If you play it right, you’ll have several teams ready and willing to stand by your side and at your back going forward; if you mess it up, you’re going to spend the next 12 months trying to recreate the “magic” that you had in these first 90 days.
And, of course…you get to do all of that while still doing everything else asked of you. Welcome to Product Management! Hope you enjoy the ride!!