Developing Product Managers – Talk

I gave a talk at this years MTP Engage Leadership Forum about „Developing Product Managers“. This page summarizes all the content coming with it: a video of my talk, the slides and the transcript of the talk. Enjoy!

The Video

You can find the talk on vimeo.
(It´s a private link, so I can´t embedd the video here)


The Slides


The Transcript

Let’s talk about developing product managers. So hello, it’s nice that you’re still with us, I know it’s a long day. So a lot of content. And as you do, here to listen to my thoughts here.

So let me start with my thoughts on why this matters. We all know that product management is a super hard business to be in and we are expecting a lot from our product people. So we start from the top here. We want them to be good in understanding customer and business problems, finding solution to those. We want them to create plans to come up with an actual product. We want them to build it with a cross functional team, that’s the red section here. We want to optimize it on customer feedback they’re just listening to hopefully. We want them to do all of this with a team and we want them to know how to motivate this team, and we want them to know how they can pick up new things or how they can grow. And in most of the companies, we want them to do it in an agile way.

So it’s not that we’re looking for T-shaped profile here, we are looking more for an eight-legged creature, which I would call an octopus. And based on my observation, Head of Products, usually just hope that our product managers are or magically become this kind of octopus’s. And to put it in other words, when it comes to professional and personal development, and I think both of it is important, in many cases the head of products are not playing an active role in coaching the product people in the team.

So my goal for today: I will be sharing some of my knowledge. I’m doing this coaching product teams and helping PMs to become better at what they do, as since six years now. And as all of us, I’m running many, many experiments on my customers. It doesn’t sound so nice but I actually try to experiment a bit what helps them. So, and that’s something I want to share here. And what is important when talking about what is making a difference, is that you look into the development of each individual product manager. Because if every single product manager in a team gets stronger, the whole product team performance improves a lot because they start to learn from each other. So then you as the Head of Product can get yourself a bit more out of the picture maybe, because there’s some peer coaching going on. And they obviously want to pick up with the groups speed of learning new things. So that’s a good thing here.

So let me share some thoughts, really like practical thoughts, that was my goal for today on how this can be achieved. So let’s start with some demystification, unleashing the potential of product managers is not a super hard thing. If you’re investing in continuous coaching sessions and continuous is the important word here, I would say. And the word coach in this case, and the metaphor was around here today already, I think more about a football coach in this case, and not so much about this: „I am only asking questions to you“-personal coach. Because that’s usually not a super helpful thing here.

Let me add some remarks on why football coaches are a nice metaphor. So they precisely are planning their lineup and who is playing on which position and with which teammates they’re playing best with. So that’s an important thing. Is everybody in the right place to be? They watch the match closely and then they shout this actionable tips from the sidelines while the match is going on. And they know which of their tips are something that the players immediately can react on. And they adjust the player’s performance in the many training sessions following each match. So that’s more the mid or long term development.

And they know the players well and they know when to apply some pressure and when to just back off to get the best out of them. And finally they have a really clear picture about how their future development can be. So even if they might be playing for a different club in the future, they’re investing a lot into their development. I think that sounds like something worth aiming for. So somebody that is taking care of the individual player and of the team as a whole thing. So that’s actually an important metaphor here.

Let’s bring this back to product management and your role as Head of Products. That’s just a term I’m using here, I know you are having a variety of titles. So let me talk about four things which I found helpful when looking into this kind of becoming a football coach. And ingredient #1 one is, come up with an idea for each PM. What could be their next development step? It can be taking over a bigger team. So maybe there is a junior PM, they have just a two people team and maybe you just picture them taking over a bigger team. Or maybe it’s a more complex product you want to asign them to or maybe it’s just a more strategic topic so that they learn more on how to talk to upper management better or something like this. Or you just know that they need to become better at time management. Then that’s maybe their next bigger topic here. But you have to have a clear vision for each one of the PMs on your team.

And if you created this vision for the PM, the next question is how can I make them ready or be sure that they are ready for this next bigger challenge. Is it the training or is it just reading books or watching talks, or do you want to try them new things or do you want to run them experiments and just learn on the job, or do you know that they’re learning a lot when they’re teaching others? So maybe that’s a good idea to just let them coach some peers or some junior product people. Because some people, for example, I’m learned a lot when I put up a talk or create some training material and because then I have to be more precise about what I’ve learned here.

And please, what is helpful here is to really think about what’s the learning type of each one of your PMs, so how are they picking up new things? That’s just something you can look up and then find different models about how people learn. And I think it’s helpful to just discussed it with your product managers so that they are aware of, „Okay, there’s so many different ways in how I can learn things and maybe I should reflect on what’s the best one for actually for me learning.“

Ingredient #2 of developing your PMs, is your capability of talking to them in a way that they can picture themselves taking this next biggest step. Because you have this visionit for them and now you need them to believe in this vision and that they actually can take this next biggest step. And that includes usually open and honest feedback because there’s always some this hard conversations involved. Some people call it tough love, so that’s a term that is used here a lot. Because maybe you’re not happy with their performance or Andrew was saying, if he is seeing they’re not doing well in a meeting, he obviously would mention this to them maybe later on. So that’s kind of the things you want to do here. There is a book, it’s a lovely book if you didn’t read it, Kim Scott wrote about Radical Candor and it’s actually just explaining how you get better in this kind of conversations.

And just let me add one side note. If I’m talking about coming up with a vision for each PM, I think it’s an important thing to do but be super flexible if they want to negotiate because maybe this stuff you have imagined for them is not so in line with the stuff they imagined for them in the future. So be flexible in these kind of conversations, but at least you’re the football coach, so you have to have an idea if they can be a goalkeeper or maybe not because they’re as short as I am.

Now ingredient #3 is obviously a development plan. And you have agreed on a vision, so it’s your shared vision and you thought about what could be the next challenge that they could tackle to actually work on their development. And now you need to create a development plan, and ideally it’s containing small and actionable steps towards something I call the future self. I will explain this a bit more in a minute. For these kind of development conversations it’s helpful to use one framework for all of your PMs because you will be having this hard conversations not in a coffee corner, more in a meeting room and then it’s helpful if you just … have one framework and everybody has the idea of „we’re getting the same treat“ – so everybody has this one-on-ones or development talks or these kind of things.

There is as already mentioned, one option from Marty Cagan, it’s on his blog. And it’s a nice starting point. If you want the think about what could be a development plan or how can I assess my product team and my product people. Or you can just fill in the blanks here. So I came with some examples, but I strongly believe that every company needs to reflect on, „okay, what’s the important part for us?“ It depends a bit… it depends … I said it depends Martin (reference to Martin Erikssons quote earlier that day) … It depends a bit in which field you are in and what the company is actually doing.

So that’s maybe something you want to do. Or as I already mentioned, the future self is something nice. So I usually sit together and ask the product manager if they do would fancy to do this and they need to describe the current situation when what they think they are capable of right now. And that’s the AS-IS’s and then they write about the TO-BE. So how would others or how would I see myself after, let’s say ,the course over the next four months. So what has changed and the actions is something like small things they can improve on, it’s maybe reading a book and then coming back with cool quotes and what they learned about these cool quotes. So that’s a nice thing to do and there is a timeframe here. So that’s a nice exercise what you can do to create a development plan.

Ingredient #4 is follow ups. After creating a development plan, you want to make sure that this plan obviously becomes reality. And so you as Head of Product want to invest time in regular reviews to track the progress together with your PM. And with progress it’s not so much that you’re tying bonuses to this kind of development plan, that’s not something I would recommend you to do. It’s more like really see if there is any progress on the action steps that you decided on. So that’s another thing to do.

And from my experience and with coaching PMs, I strongly recommend to do this in your one-on-ones. There was already a topic today and I loved it, that the portfolio and roadmapping chat came to coaching so that’s a nice thing to hear. So it’s a really important I think. And you really need to check back with the PMs once a week or every two weeks and see if there is at least small things moving or just refocusing them that that’s still on their menu to work on some of those steps. And a 360 degrees feedback that you are having annually is not the thing which I’m talking about here, so that’s not something helpful.

Now some of you might say, „How should I do this? I have so many direct reports. I would be only doing one-on-ones if I actually following this advice.“ So let me be honest here. I think if you can’t make some time for people development on a regular basis, you’re leaving the burden of growing into the octopus’s completely up to the product managers, and it takes them just much more time to improve. Because I think your experience and just your outside perspective can bring so much more to the table and is helping them. Even if you are not the one with a solid product management background, you still can invest some time and thinking about, „Okay, if I’m that football coach, how can I help these guys?“ And if they recognize that you actually care of making them a good product manager, that makes them focusing on this and making up some time in their calenders because usually our product managers are super busy as well, so focusing on them on their own growth is not an easy thing to do.

But if you do all of this, I’m pretty sure positive things will happen. Four of them are

  • your product managers will feel really valued and welcome and at home and the team and the company they are in,
  • and they will learn and therefore they tend to stay in the company because mastery, autonomy and purpose was here today a lot. So that’s the mastery part here, so they can become better and better product managers over time and everybody loves a new challenge, as long as it fits their skill level and their overall goal in life or the next career step. So that’s the part you can be adjusting with them.
  • I think the product is evolving a lot because if the product manager is getting better, the product will get better over time because you’re coaching them to do so. So there is even customer impact in here.
  • And hiring gets a lot easier because usually people are drawn to the companies where they know, „Okay, if I go there, it’s so easy for me to pick up the art of product management in a nice way.“ So hiring gets easier, your pipelines get bigger and you would save a lot of time because I see many of you are super busy with hiring new people.

So sounds good, doesn’t it? I would say coaching PMs is a nice thing to do. So I sum it up for you and how to get there.

  • Think of yourself more as of this football coach metaphor. So get to know every player, talk to them. Sometimes I’m coaching companies where the Head of Product doesn’t even know if the people are married or having kids or they actually never chat or having beers. I would recommend the beer thing. It’s maybe a good thing.
  • You need to observe their overall performance. Think about what they could improve or how could you help them, and then call them out for training. I think that’s an important thing.
  • Think about what can they become and what’s their next bigger challenge and learn how to talk to them and really be honest and open in your feedback sessions.
  • And then help them grow by using one framework, so your framework and your company’s framework with the personal developments in the regular one-on-ones.

And if I could only leave you with one thing, which you hopefully start with tomorrow, if you’re not attending any of the workshops, then it’s maybe this one: start with this, „what is the vision for every PM?“ Because as soon as you are having this inner picture, so many things are changing the way you see them and the way you treat them is changing immediately. And for example, if there is somebody that is lacking some time management skills and then you just pick her and being so much better in four months from now and then you buy in and you just want to help this person actually getting better with it. So if you don’t do all of the other things then that might be one thing that is worth looking into.

So let’s close with to the quote by Seth Golden. I’ve slightly adapted it and it’s, „Paint a picture of their future. Go there and the people who follow. Thank you.