The role of product manager often calls for us to fulfill different purposes for different people. That’s what draws some (myself included) to the role of product manager in the first place.
In a picture-perfect scenario, when we’re part of an established product team, we might have a vision for what we’d expect to occupy our workday. But if you’ve been around a product manager in reality, you’d know that this isn’t always the case, and sometimes our product teams are not complete. Which means that a product manager might be wearing more than just a product manager’s hat—they become responsible for picking up where a team needs support in addition to their own role.
So how can we help ourselves help others when we’re on an incomplete product team? In some of the professional development, you’ll go through, you’ll see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when you take on being a product manager.
In this article, you’ll learn the importance of wearing many hats, how to navigate your assigned responsibilities while taking on non-assigned responsibilities, how to avoid burnout when wearing many hats, and how to make the most of the experience.
Product managers are primarily responsible for the overall success of a product. While shepherding a product along from start to finish, they work with individuals internally and externally. As I mentioned earlier, not all product teams are alike though. And with an incomplete team, the product manager might take on roles on their product teams that their unique skills can supplement in lieu of another individual to fill that need.
At this point you might be asking “why is this important? Can’t I just do my job?”. Well, yes, but the role of product manager means that we take on whatever we can to support the overall success of the product. Our goal is to have an aligned team that has each others’ backs, even if it is only a team that consists of a product manager, project manager, and visual and learning designers.
By wearing many hats we are fulfilling a part of our product manager duties. We also are creating more spaces for us to learn what happens, or even what we want to happen, at different stages in the product life cycle.
Wearing many hats gives us the opportunity to experience a context that we might not have had the opportunity to participate in if we were in more complete team circumstances.
Building Rapport With Existing Team Members
One important point that can help you become comfortable wearing many hats on a team is creating a strong relationship with existing team members.
Being able to openly and clearly communicate with the limited team members you have will enable you to be more effective at completing tasks with integrity. It will also allow you and your team to be more confident communicating any roadblocks to completing a project or task. When we empower the people around us we in turn gain empowerment.
Think of the way you communicate with people who know you really well as opposed to people who you just met. People we know are typically people we are comfortable letting our guard down with. By creating a strong working relationship with teammates you’ll be able to break the ice and start feeling comfortable having an open and honest line of communication with them and eventually you can delegate parts of the different tasks you’re working on to those who you best fit that type of task.
Communication is the basis of success especially on smaller teams, and when that is strong we can leverage the skills that our teammates have while also encouraging them to build new skills and level up in their own career.
How To Manage Priorities When Wearing Many Hats
Ask first, then you’ll know
Pretty simple, it is just as the title of this tip describes. I am a proponent that communication is the foundation of any successful partnership, friendship, or relationship of any kind. It takes away room for assumptions that can lead to issues.
My favorite two questions are to ask when something needs to be completed, and who needs to be involved (if anyone). It really is as simple as that. If you come across the challenge of people not knowing when and who need to be involved, that is when it takes a bit more creativity.
Manage up, leverage the process of elimination and your relationship with your limited teammates to find out what works best for your team. If you don’t have a timeline, set deadlines for yourself. Gauge how long you need and use tasks with hard deadlines to pace your work. Ultimately, communicating with those around you will tell you what requires your attention first and from there you can determine why and how you need to complete that first.
“Plan your work, work your plan”
This was drilled into my brain a while ago during a personal and professional development course. As product managers we create and manage roadmaps, if something isn’t on the roadmap with a “by when” and a list of the individuals responsible, we can’t guarantee that something will get done and poof, there goes our timeline. The same goes when we’re managing a heavy workload with tasks that may not be in our assigned job description. If you don’t keep track of it in some way, your work will get ahead of you and then you might find yourself playing catch up.
I personally opt for color-coding and blocking time on my calendar to work on specific items. For the time that I block, I only allow myself to work on one thing at a time. This eliminates the overwhelm that comes with doing many jobs at once. Below are screenshots of my personal and work calendars. You’ll see that every type of task has its own corresponding color. If items overlap on my calendar I try to be sure that both calendars match (this is because I choose not to automatically sync my work and personal calendars, but I make up for it by setting two to three reminders on both calendars so I never miss anything).
Incorporate product management in your personal life
Take care of yourself. This goes back to pausing when you feel stressed while doing all of the work for all of the hats. If our life outside of work is not the most nurturing, it can make it more exhausting to get our bums to work in the morning. Adding that to wearing all the hats at work is a recipe for burnout. It happens, it isn’t fun and it is truly exhausting on a mental and emotional level.
Make plans for what you’re going to do outside of work, create your own personal roadmap to learn and discover for yourself that fulfillment does not come from completing work tasks. What are you doing outside of work that is enriching your life? Think about what lights your fire and why then dedicate time to that without compromising.
When I notice myself taking a turn for the worst, it’s usually because I’ve compromised my wellbeing by neglecting fun or not planning something to look forward to. Use product management best practices to create the life you want. Work is only a part of your life, it isn’t the only thing going on in your world. Product manage your life, use it as a place to practice product management by applying it to ways you want to improve, iterate or build different things in your world.
Leveraging The Experience Of Fulfilling Multiple Roles
Find the hidden opportunity
When you’re neck-deep in doing many tasks at once, it might seem like you are endlessly tasked with work and there is no opportunity in the work you’re doing. Take a step back and look at the big picture. There is always something there for you, you just need to find it.
I go through this more than I’d care to admit, but I would get frustrated any time I was doing something that was “not my job.” Realistically, that still happens, but if I tell myself I’m on a dead-end road, there is no chance that I would be anywhere else. At the end of the day you’re doing A LOT of work, and with that means you’re gaining experience in different areas of work.
Opportunity is all around, it’s just how you frame it. The same goes for any of the product work you’re doing, if you limit yourself to seeing things in only one way, from only one perspective, you could be limiting your product’s growth. The same is true for your own professional development. Doing many things is stressful, and having responsibilities above your pay grade is frustrating, but find the opportunity (no matter how small), nurture it, and see what grows from that.
Know when it’s time to step back
Eventually, the hats you’re wearing will go away. Whether you acquire new teammates or a project gets sunsetted, you will not be attached to that forever. Keep that in mind and use that to drive your motivation.
Learning is a constant in our lives, especially as product managers. It is a foundational mindset, we use it to drive our work. It goes back to all the hats kind of being our responsibility in the first place. Take on what you can and use it to your advantage. Put it in your portfolio or work diary and track your progress. At some point, you might pass on that hat to someone else and at that point, you might be missing the work that you did. Be present to what is, and understand that nothing is permanent.
Growth mindsets enable you to see that if you are able to nurture a task from one of your many hats, you can understand what needs to be done once it’s passed on and use that to inform the direction your product ultimately needs to go. Everything flows into each other and as you grow your repertoire as a product manager you will see that stepping back from wearing many hats was ultimately useful insight into how your product was developed and the potential that it holds for the future.
Now that you have some options for what to do if you find yourself with an incomplete team, you might be exploring other avenues of product management that have been sparked within your product manager soul. Ride that wave and learn what you can. Remember that you are never quite an expert and that being able to wear many hats on a team is a tremendous opportunity for you to grow as a product manager. Use the experiences you gain to create new opportunities for yourself and to explore what is out there.
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