Entrusted with managing a product manager team responsible for $50 million in revenue, the new product director bungles. The products go dark. Customers scurry to the competitor’s product. The star product manager bolts for a fast-food career. When I became a product director, this potential scenario terrified me.
The reality was that my product managers stumbled a lot, especially in cross-functional interactions. The business case presentations went awry. The requirement meetings were a disaster. Marketing complained. My boss was dismayed.
You might be worried about my career, but I discovered that all this was okay. In fact, it was desirable. I was becoming a product manager whisperer—a manager capable of creating an environment in which product ideas and individuals thrived.
Here are three easy techniques for a senior product manager or director to become a product manager whisperer:
Product managers must feel safe speaking. A product manager might worry: “What will my manager think of me? Am I wrong? Is this stupid?”
Here are the key things to know about product managers:
A product manager lives to build new products or improve existing ones.
In many corporations it is dangerous to be wrong, to doubt, and/or to take initiative.
To be creative is to risk failure. Product development demands creativity. Processes and frameworks provide a safety net, but the product manager’s job is to think about problems and solve them in new ways.
Nothing is as detrimental to creativity as a manager of PMs or a director who insists on ‘results’ or ‘accountability’ with the subtext of ‘you will be gone if you fail’. A manager like this is a sniper who picks off exploration and creativity.
Effectively managing product managers requires an environment in which ideas flourish and obstacles seem to disappear. Product managers must put aside their insecurities, take risks, and be wrong at times. Product managers do all of this in organizations that don’t tolerate mistakes well.
It is in your power as a manager to empathize and create a buffer for the product manager in this situation. To learn more about empathy and leadership, see Simon Sinek’s work—he’s a genius on this topic:
Empathetic Listening Made Simple
All of us have ways of speaking: we tell stories and then get to the point, or we get straight to the point and forget the story, or we have no point. One of my product managers complained that I didn’t listen in our weekly check-ins. She was right. As she talked in circles about customer research and possible products, I focused on the impossibility of her latest idea.
After all, who was going to be responsible if she was wrong? Me, her manager. In the middle of describing a particularly outlandish idea, she paused and said: “In your case Botox might be a justifiable business expense”. Clearly my face revealed all my opinions.
With time I learnt to refrain from acting as Ms. Fix-It, absorb what my product manager said, and ask more questions, such as: “tell me more about…” or “how come you think…?” but abstain from “this is wrong” or “you should”. What this product manager taught me was to listen. This created a safe environment for ideas—no matter how crazy—to flourish.
An added benefit of empathetic listening is that product managers will share bad news with you rather than hide it. After much customer and market research, plus prototyping and testing, we did exactly what our customers said they wanted and we launched a much trumpeted product.
Within two weeks of customers using the product, it became clear that the user experience was too complicated. Customers started to fret and then demanded refunds. A lot of revenue was at stake. The product manager told me as soon as he knew what was happening. This gave us valuable time to spin up a cross-functional SWAT team and make a plan to modify the product.
As a manager it is always preferable to know what’s going on, even if it’s bad news.
If during team or individual meetings, the manager speaks for more than 20% of the time, then the manager is speaking too much.
Be forewarned: this kind of environment stifles ideas, and the manager will never know what the problems are, much less how to help.
Tactic Two: Guide With Questions
The best product managers are driven, even stubborn, most especially about their pet product ideas. Sometimes they are wrong, and even when they are right, they often face considerable internal resistance. Product managers typically lead teams of ten to fifteen individuals from different departments with wildly different priorities.
On top of this, they must be the customer expert, constantly advocate for their product, and navigate leadership’s whims.
Managing product managers differs from managing other roles. The qualities that make product managers successful, like persistence, persuasion, and dexterity also means guiding them can be difficult.
Questions To Guide Product Managers
If you ask the right questions, then you can guide product managers towards decisions aligned with the product vision:
How does this fit with the vision?
What problem are we solving for our customers?
How does this fit with our customer/market research?
Have you thought about…?
I might suggest…
What do you think …?
How are you doing…?
A Simple Measure
An effective product manager knows what they are doing and why they are doing it. If a product manager has a clear answer to the question “what does success look like for this product/initiative/idea?”, then either they are guiding themselves just fine or the manager is.
Tactic Three: Get Out Of The Way
If the manager already listens and guides, then comes the hardest part: to get out of the way. This is the product manager’s work and their product. Having you in the middle of everything is akin to a goose pausing to groom in the middle of the road. Just because you can…
Here’s an example from my personal experience. One of my product managers met with marketing to describe the customer problem, including the research. The meeting agenda was to start crafting a marketing plan. After the meeting, marketing dropped by and excitedly described a totally different customer problem. In fact, I didn’t think it was even the same customer. Baffled, I smiled and nodded.
My first instinct was to correct and clarify—it was all wrong. As an experiment, I refrained. It wasn’t easy. Instead, I asked my product manager to meet again with marketing and to have marketing reiterate what they had understood.
He reported back that it was amazingly inaccurate. Later the product manager tells me that he learned then and there to always verify that marketing understood the customer problem and never to assume.
Product managers are always on a learning curve—resist the urge to take over. They stumbled, and I led the inevitable clean-up crew. But my product managers never again assumed that marketing understood what the product manager meant, nor that both product managers and engineers spoke the same language.
Benefits Of Getting Out Of The Way
A manager who cultivates confident, autonomous product managers will find she has time to:
Remove internal organizational roadblocks
Participate in cross-functional meetings that help the whole team
Become an authority on product management
A Simple Measure
If your product manager suggests activities for you, creates diversions, or stops telling you things, then it may be a sign you are an obstruction.
If your product managers are leaving for other jobs, then you might want to question whether you are a micromanager.
The Power Of A Whisperer
As a manager of a product management team, your job is to steer the team with confidence: this means creating an environment in which your team can make mistakes, talk about ideas, and always knows where they are heading.
Over time, I discovered that I was a much better manager than a product manager. My team became fearless and bold in developing new products. Using empathy, you too can become a product manager whisperer.