There will be two opinions when I talk about people management with product management functions. One will say when did product managers bother about people issues. Are they not superhumans to resolve all people management issues? The second will say, yes! It is a critical function, but have we not got a director who has extensive people management experience to address all these scenarios. Unfortunately, the answer is neither or somewhere in between or ignored and pushed under the carpet. As the numbers are in percentage terms so low, it will not affect the attrition numbers. Hence, organizations ignore it. Here is a study by McKinsey on the Software Product Management function and its talent management. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-product-management-talent-dilemma
I leave people to review the study for themselves but let me talk about how much organizations understand product managers working with them.
Know Your Product Manager (KYPM)
The most varied PM team I had, had a six to eight people team who were corporate technology trainers, sales engineers, consultants, technology architects, engineering managers; all these combined experiences in just one group. As people moved around, the same team had a documentation expert, a customer support executive, and an ex-customer as part of the team. Let’s look at a typical engineering organization. Engineers join the organization right after their education; they work on varying engineering tasks. They move into technical and managerial ladders and finally get on to leading one such organization. A standardized process to manage talent in a focused manner. Probably, such does not exist in product management. What you think obvious for one class of PM background does not work for the other.
Unity in Diversity
There are no fixed rules to an outcome-driven role like a product manager. Good product managers discover their work assignments. A well-oiled product management organization works as if there are no issues at all. In the case of emerging situations, a diverse-skilled organization does wonders. However, there are some things that product managers collectively must understand, for example, user stories. If you are PM from a few years earlier, you would appreciate the detailed use case writing. While use cases had the details, the user stories are simple and flexible. PMs with varying levels of technical knowledge can manage them effectively. As the PM team was focusing on user stories, they got a new leader. The new leader had a sales background and had no respect for the user stories or any such tools. Such unnecessary shocks create instability in PM operations in the long run.
The PM Leader
The ideal PM leader does not exist. But, what can be the closest is a leader who understands diversity well and communicates a clear vision across the group to establish a cohesive force. With so little study on PM functions in organizations, I feel like looking at PMs from a transactional analysis perspective. If you have not read I’m OK, You’re OK, it may help a quick read through the first two chapters. In some sense, PMs are emotionally more like adults. They understand their world with their own perceptions and not by the parental guidance of others. It is not that they do not have a child or parent-like behavioral needs, but they pretty much affirm with their own observations. So hand-holding, day-to-day monitoring, sending to days of training sessions, etc. will only create dissonance. One downside of people with an adult mindset is they do not ask for help or ignore it when they need it. As a PM leader, you need to identify such phases with your team members. One of the best PM leaders I had, will ask every PM in the team, what is holding each in achieving their goals and objectives in every status meeting, eliciting and capturing the need for additional help; rather than focusing on what tasks each PM accomplished each week.
PMs should be judged by reasonable goal setting and meeting the targets. Most PMs work and defend themselves with facts and data even when the sheer mass opinions are against them. So, PM leaders who try to push their agenda or opinion merely by position or rank may find resistance from the PMs. And, most likely with silent or passive aggression. Remember, most PMs are generally quite experienced in walking through the complexity of matrix structures and they can very easily manage conflicts, yet may look for opportunities elsewhere. The ideal framework in such cases is to use a RACI (responsible, accountable, contributing, and informed) framework. While this provides a procedural justice of being heard to the PMs, it also gives the authority with the responsible PM to take decisions. More than financial rewards, most PMs find their jobs rewarding due to ownership of their contributions. When that is not available, they will seldom contribute to their fullest potential.
Pure supervisory roles do not exist in product management. A PM leader is responsible for multiple products of a product line. He interacts with analysts, presents the product line vision to the executive management, and maybe representing the organization in various industry forums. It is well beyond the role of managing his team in a well-oiled manner so that they deliver. Unlike product managers, the PM leaders are held responsible for meeting revenue numbers. So, they are equally responsible for ensuring the product meets all the checkboxes in making a great sale. Many PM leaders are engaged with significant customers to make deals go through. So it is interesting when people ask this question if a PM role is an individual contributor or a supervisory role. All PMs are individual contributors, and some have the additional function of coaching and mentoring a few other PMs.
Lastly, most PMs spend time engaging with various kinds of people within and outside organizations. Most such interactions are transactional. There is always some form of negotiation. Yet, few organizations explain or train PMs on the art of negotiation. PMs face a tough negotiation ground as they are advocating for someone who is not in the room. They are defending the customer in front of the engineering organization. They are vouching for the engineers in front of the sales team, etc. Almost every time, they are numerically in the receiving end. A principled negotiation technique is valuable learning for all product managers. At least, every PM should read the book, Getting to Yes.
As the PM processes develop, there may be standardization of the roles. PMs will have further clarity to their career progressions in organizations etc. However, today as the function stands, there are elements of frustration. Unless someone is ready to take ownership, it is not ideal to jump into such a role. Fearlessness and the ability to deal with all eventualities is the core building block in a PM’s mindset. The buck stops here is the attitude that PMs need to build up. That is better assessed during the interview process. Many candidates do not cut as they do not show that trait as much it is needed. What do you say?