How to be a great early career Product Manager?

The roles and responsibilities of a Product Manager (PM) are quite malleable. It varies across organisations, levels and geographies. This makes it hard for people entering the role to find their feet even when there is a lot of content out there on preparing for the role.

I was in this position a couple of years back when I was transitioning from being a Product/Business Analyst to an Associate Product Manager. I did a lot of things to navigate through the challenges of the role—some wrong and some right. But I think I did figure out what works to a certain extent and that made me do a good job (I was fast-tracked to PM after six months).

This post summarises what I learned about excelling as an early career PM (typically 1-2 years into the role). I would like to mention though that it should not be construed as advice to be blindly followed. Following prescriptions won't take you far. Learning to be a great PM is a constant discovery process where you formulate your hypotheses and test whether they work or not. This post should help you in expanding the hypotheses bucket.

I'll cover three things broadly. Following is the list along with why they are important —

  1. Balancing strategy & execution - because that is what consumes most of an early career PM's time
  2. Influencing without authority - because this is something all PMs struggle with but it is especially tough for young PMs because they don't have years of experience behind them to gain some de facto respect due to seniority
  3. The elevation stack - skills that can help PMs graduate to the next level

Balancing strategy & execution

As an early career product manager, you are mostly involved in running the show on the ground while you receive guidance on product strategy from the top. The strategy is the intersection of what the customer wants and what'll bring the most amount of value to the business. The people devising the same usually take a top view of problems and their recommendations can be idealistic to a certain degree.

Execution, on the other hand, is about overcoming time and resource constraints to deliver a product that best aligns with the product strategy. The execution folks—the developers and the designers are pragmatists. For them, solving the problem in the quickest and most convenient way matters the most.

The PM is the connection between the strategy and execution. It is a very challenging job because they are responsible for finding the balance between strategy's idealism and execution's pragmatism.

How can one improve their ability to strike this balance?

I feel one needs to primarily do three things to achieve this:

  1. Improve at the core skills
  2. Develop and transmit empathy
  3. Write

Improving at the core skills

This is a very famous Venn diagram describing how the PM exists at the intersection of Tech, Design and Business. And it is largely true.



Improving at the core skills is about learning the fundamental concepts of tech, design and business that affect your role. The common advice is that if you have a rough idea of how things function it'll suffice. It probably does for the good PMs but I believe that it is only a starting point for the great PMs. If you are completely lost, this is a great resource for beginners to understand how much of what they should know. Couple it with some more exploratory reading, watching good content and learning from the experts on your team and you have built a strong foundation. To be honest, this is what I had done when I had just gotten into the job.

But I have realised over time that this approach has a minor flaw—it leaves gaps in your understanding of how things work. True competitive advantage as an early career PM comes from having the experience of actually building and shipping things. There is a possibility that your previous background has exposed you to it. If not, you should try gaining this experience through side-projects. You can build a simple application or a design prototype or monetise some skill to gain business insights.

Why is doing this important?

It is important because it helps you accomplish the following:

Circling back to the point about creating the balance between strategy and execution, knowing the core skills well will help you improve the feasibility of the strategy when it is being formulated. As the voice of the executionists to the top management, you'll be better able to incorporate the feature and time/resource trade-off in the decision-making process.

Developing and transmitting empathy

Empathy has multiple facets in the product development process. Championing the causes of the developers and designers is one aspect where you are empathising with them and their challenges. Another, and probably a more important aspect is empathising with your users. Ultimately, you aim to build a great experience for your users and it can't be built till the time you deeply understand their needs.

Just having this understanding is not sufficient though. Transmitting it to the team at large is critical. You need everyone to care about the users. You may be naturally good at having a sense of what users want because it is your primary job. But it is not that obvious to others. They don't get time to think about it. They are busy writing code or designing icons for a new screen. You need to make them understand why building a particular feature is important. You need to help them connect their work to something larger than themselves. If you can successfully do that, they'll produce a better version of their work by pushing their limits and ensuring that they deliver the best experience possible. This way more of the idealistic plan can be realised.

Writing

The efficiency of the product development process is highly dependent on how the PM conducts the processes. The key to effective management is having highly detailed documents for everything and ensuring that most of the discussion happens asynchronously through comments on them.

As a PM, you need to develop the ability to write clear and elaborate documents. It starts with developing structured thinking and then putting those thoughts on the document. It is a gradual process of improvement but it surely can be developed with practice.

How this helps in striking the balance is that it brings the strategists and the executionists to the same platform. They can understand each other's viewpoints better. It also allows people to be better prepared with their thoughts and prevents time from getting wasted in stretched meetings.

Influencing without authority

This is a trait that needs to be mastered if you aim to excel as a PM. In most cases, PMs don't have designers, developers and analysts reporting to them. Getting them to prioritise your work over a million other things that they might be doing is incredibly hard.

This influence also needs to be used on people above you so that you can get more resources allocated to your project or lobby for an unpopular change.

Over time, I have realised that influencing without authority is about simultaneously getting better at the hard competencies and soft skills.

Hard competencies

Hard competencies are skills that make you a great PM—product sense, analytical thinking and efficient execution. In addition to that, if you master the core skills (tech, business, design) to a respectable level, you'll start exhibiting confidence that'll compel people to automatically start taking you seriously.

This needs to be topped by preparedness. You need to be prepared with questions, data, insights and recommendations for every conversation that you have. You need to know your product inside out.

This combination of being great at what you do and being prepared will ensure that half of the influencing job is done.

Soft skills

What I mean by soft skills is adding a degree of personal trust and friendship to all relationships that you have at work. Treat the other people on your team as humans. As time passes, you should try and talk to them about things outside of work. Try to know them better through the water-cooler conversations.

If you only approach people when you want something from them, then the relationship becomes transactional and that is not good for you because you then compete with all their other transactional relationships at work. But if you make genuine efforts to be someone they like hanging out with, respect and trust, you'll always enjoy preference over others. Being nice pays off.

You should also try to make their lives easier. Try taking things that they don't enjoy doing off their plates. For instance, a UI/UX designer needs to write use cases before they start the actual design process. While they still might do it, you can take the first pass at it and ensure that they have something to build upon. Similarly, you can help developers in debugging by cleaning up the data in the logs.

Apart from that, you should live by the principle—'Take the blame and pass on the credit'. Everyone likes recognition. Make it a point to highlight the contributions of every member. Take them out for dinner and drinks when you deliver a project or hit a milestone. Show that you care.

Similarly, shield them when they make some errors. But be affirmative when you talk to them in private. That way they'll owe you.

All these things are easier said than done. And they are long-term games that might seem like a lot of effort at the beginning with not many results. But trust me, the returns here follow an exponential curve. Over time, your influence will build up.

The elevation stack

A major part of your success will also involve you exhibiting that you're growing. No one talks about it but this is always an expectation. So, I would like to touch upon some skills that form the foundation of the next PM role that you'll take.

Early career PMs should start understanding psychological biases and the fundamentals of negotiation as they grow into the role. As the years pass, you will often find yourself at crossroads where you have to take tough product calls. Having a firm grasp on these two things will help you in becoming a clear thinker and in extracting what you want from others—skills that hold the key to your advancement.

Then there is the ability to look beyond data. Being analytical is a basic requirement of being a PM but the problem with metrics is that they can often blindsight you. It is important to understand the implications of Goodhart's law:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Your judgement regarding what to measure and how to measure it should improve.

Lastly, you should start thinking about the outcomes from the organisational perspective. You need to start seeing the big picture of how various systems are connected, how they interact with each other and what it leads to.


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