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Paul McAvinchey
Co-founder of Product Collective
Asked a question 9 months ago

I want to become a product leader. How should I prepare to manage product managers as opposed to managing products?

Where am I?

In Product Collective Answers you can ask and answer questions and share your experience with others!

Ant Murphy
Product Coach and Consultant | Occasional Cat Herder 🐈

Great question and one which I've written a longer answer as a guest blog93 on Department of Product.

But before I break any of this down the best thing you can do for you career to make the next step is to get yourself a mentor (or if that fails consider paid product coaching). Having an experienced person who can coach, mentor, support and guide you will do more than any course or self-paced learning every will. 

Ideally secure someone in your current org as they can become your biggest advocate and put you in the right places to not only get the exposure and experience but to also help get you that promotion (if that's what you ultimately wanted).

However without someone guiding you here are some suggestions/pointers to get you heading in the right direction on your own. 

For the purpose of framing my response, I like to break the role of people leadership into 3 C's47

  • Coach
  • Clarity
  • Culture

Coach: 

First and foremost as a product leader you are a coach. Your duty is to grow the people you are responsible for. 

Ways in which you can help flex this muscle are:

  • Find opportunities internally to present and teach others. These could be regular Product Community of Practice meetings that you have or Product-Jams. If you don't have existing forums, why not create some!?
  • If your company is large enough you may have an Associate Product Manager (APM) Program. Mentoring an APM is the most common way that Senior Product Managers start to develop these skills and also test to see if product leadership is a path they want to take over remaining an 'individual contributor'. 
  • Speaking at meetups, running community workshops, or just generally volunteering in the community. 
  • Offering free mentorship for junior PMs or those looking to get into product in the community is another great opportunity to both help others but also to get good coaching experience.
  • Take a professional coaching course.

Clarity:

A crucial role of a leader is to help cultivate organizational clarity. When I talk about organizational clarity I’m referring to how much people across the organization have clarity on — their role, the expectations of them, why their work is important, why processes exist, how decisions are made, why certain decisions were taken, and so forth.

As Product Managers (and ultimately leaders in the organization) you already play a crucial role in cultivating organizational clarity around the direction of the product and connecting day-to-day work to a higher goal. However, a part of clarity that you've likely had little exposure to is the side around how the organization operates. This includes career paths, how people get promoted, roles and responsibilities, who makes what decisions, etc.

Ways in which you can increase your exposure to these areas as a Product Manager are:

  • Perhaps introduce a Product Management competence framework to your organization if they don't already have one. Here's a great example48.
  • Look for opportunities where R&Rs need clarifying. Perhaps facilitate exercises like Role Expectation Matrix57, DACI64, Delegation Poker62, etc
  • Look for opportunities to delegate and what have been some of the lessons you learned from that? Did people clearly understand what was expected from them when you delegate it to them? Did others in the team/org know and understand that that responsibility was delegated to that person? What ways did you help increase this clarity and what opportunities are there to increase it more in the future?
  • Are there other opportunities in your team/organisation where you can introduce more process and rigor? Perhaps illustrating and communicating the process of how opportunities are discovered and then end up in customer hands resulting in a measurable impact? Is that process clear to all in your org? Could you make it clearer? Help other teams adopt something similar?

Culture:

Easily the most ambiguous and difficult, but arguably the most important of the 3 C's. Culture underpins everything you do. As I often tell product leaders - "people can copy your product but they cannot copy the way you do product."

Culture is something that you should already be cultivating in your bubble that is your product team - and I'm sure you've already seen the impact a happy, healthy team can have. 

For us Product People, what we really want to be doing here is cultivating a 'product-friendly' culture. One that is focused on outcomes not outputs, that embraces failure as a learning exercise and experimentation. A culture that empowers teams to solve real problems and not just take orders from executives. 

For those looking to take this skill to the next level you could begin by:

  • Looking for opportunities to coach your peers on what good product culture looks like - why we want to focus on outcomes not output. Further finding opporutnities to coach and educate your stakeholders as well.
  • Find ways to lead by example and role model the right behaviours - like celebrating learnings from failure or talking about outcomes44. Even adding a 'Measure' column52 to your workflow can help shift the dial here.
  • Look to find and create other product-culture champions within your org who also advocate for more product-friendly ways of working.
  • If you're in a 'not-so-product-friendly' environment you could look for ways to ring-fence your team from the rest of the org and create a culture bubble (leadership support here can help a lot). 
  • Share lots of articles, talks, etc within your organization can help shift the dial.
  • Seems silly but the small things go the furthest. Regular feedback/appreciation, buying cakes and coffees, and being the biggest advocate for what you're team is doing all adds up.
  • Lastly if you're really struggling to find any opportunities within your organisation, perhaps consider taking up a side project, or volunteer on a project where you can display these behaviours more.