When you hit a certain level in your product career, a big part of your job becomes managing your team(s) rather than actually doing the work. It’s rare that this shift is ever formally ushered in, and it’s very rare that managers of product managers are ever given formal training.
Managers of product managers or product leaders usually end up in those roles because they are great product managers, but great product managers, perhaps counter-intuitively, do not always make great people managers. Great people managers need to be really intentional and transparent about how they manage their direct reports and what is expected from them.
Product management was a pretty young discipline when I started, and I wasn’t really managed through much of my career. There were a few reasons for this, one of my managers was across an ocean, another was completely overstretched across 20 reports, a third didn’t come from a product background. Whatever the reason, what I absorbed from this was that my work wasn’t that important to my manager, how I did it even less so, and finally, whatever problems I encountered, I was on my own.
This sense of isolation, of the quality of my work being cloaked in mystery, of never “really” knowing how I was performing, had serious consequences for my stress and anxiety levels. Like most product managers, I cared passionately about my work, and I wanted to do well. Without any guidance or insight about how I was evaluated, or where I should focus, I could only infer that I was doing well. I kept being handed important clients, or projects, stakeholders trusted my reports, the products that I delivered performed well with customers. A strong sense of anxiety never left me, and it more often than not led to burn-out and leaving roles because I was exhausted from the guessing game and feeling undervalued.
Without a positive example to emulate when I first started to manage people, I reflected on the management characteristics I didn’t want to emulate. One of my worst managers turned up to roughly two one-to-ones for every 10 we should have had, and that was where I wanted to start. Of any of my meetings during a week, my one-to-ones with my direct reports are not allowed to slip. They are your best chance of a temperature check on project health, team health, and an individual’s wellbeing. Consistency with one-to-ones is your tool for building trust with your reports and hence your teams.
From that foundation, I thought about where else I had craved direction from my managers, and it boiled down to a few simple thoughts;
- I didn’t understand what “good” looked like
- I didn’t know where I was on the “good” scale
- I was never told what my manager/leadership needed from me
With these things in mind, I knew I wanted to create a feedback framework that would help my direct reports answer these questions.
A word on feedback cycles: I think deeper feedback should be done quarterly, or at least a few times per year. I’ve never felt like I learned that much from a yearly 360. Extracting feedback at such a high-level meant that the same headlines surfaced again and again, and it was difficult to pinpoint where or how progress had been made.
A Framework for Skills Development
As I worked on developing my product feedback framework, I focused on two buckets of skills, Strategic and Tactical:
- Strategic skills: often referred to as “soft” skills, these skills are the most difficult to execute. They deal with communication, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and organisational alignment. They help to ensure that work moves forwards efficiently and is aligned to organisational goals.
- Tactical skills: applied skills common for the facilitation and implementation of product work. These skills can and are used by any member of any team, but are crucial to the success of products and services, hence they are top priority for us.
Here are the lists of Strategic and Tactical skills that I expect product folks on my team to learn, implement and eventually master. In my framework, I provide definitions of each, but because they can be so different in different organisations, I’ve left them out here.
|Process thinker||Designing solutions|
I present this list and their definitions to my direct reports about two weeks before we have a discussion and ask them to evaluate themselves for each skill. In my past evaluations, I was told to rate myself from 1-5 in terms of each skill, but people are not numbers and it felt really cold and calculating to rate someone. Also, what do numbers really mean when it comes to development and progression? So I decided to use a reflection system that felt more humane and positive. Being a learner is not a negative, and being a teacher doesn’t mean that you are ever done. Prior to the session, you ask your report to think about where they think they are the following spectrum:
During the feedback sessions, which take about an hour and a half, my direct reports walk me through where they place themselves, and I give my feedback on where I see them, and brainstorm stretch projects or reflection questions for as many as feel relevant. Finally, we chat through three questions:
- Which skills are most applicable to your work for the next quarter?
- What feels risky right now?
- How can you be supported in that?
The purpose of these three questions is to help my direct reports understand that they are not expected to improve across all skills by the next quarter. Rather, I want them to be strategic and intentional about their development. I encourage them to focus on the top three skills that will help them most with their current work. The rest can be thought through as situations come up. The last two questions are an opportunity for me to understand where they are worried about the work, so that I can position myself to support them better.
Generally, my philosophy as a manager is pretty simple. I want my direct reports to know that I have their backs, that I care about their work, and I care about their mental wellbeing too, Finally, I don’t want to be the thing that anyone goes home and complains about.
I would love to hear your thoughts on how other managers help their direct reports set intentions around growth and development. What’s worked and what hasn’t? And please let me know if you apply any of the above framework. I’d love to know how it went.