I’ve worked as a product manager since 2005. My first role was part of the core product team at BSkyB in strategic product development. We were product owners of the concept through to delivery to market of all the new set-top boxes and in-home consumer devices such as routers and wireless bridges, as well as the electronic program guide software for the set-top boxes.
At Sky I was fortunate to really learn my trade well as product manager, working as I did with the best of the best across the organisation in finance, supply chain, procurement, strategy, marketing, research, technology and innovation. This gave me the skills to move into the small-to-medium enterprise environment and work autonomously without the huge teams and inevitable support a matrix organisation brings.
As a ‘doer’ for several years before I moved into a leadership role I knew I might struggle to completely let go of the day-to-day product owner tasks to entirely focus on line management and all that brings with it. This includes training, skillset building, KPI setting, championing the team across the organisation, representing the team and their work upwards, as well, of course, as being ultimately responsible for the entire output of the department.
In the end this transition happened organically as, initially I still had to be a product owner, as well as manage the team, as there were not enough product managers to cover the product suite. For me ‘managing’ as well as ‘doing’ worked well in the following ways:
- I was able to lead by example. Day to day I showed the best practice approach to the task-oriented side of product management, as well as the communication elements of the role, taking them along to some of my internal and supplier meetings so they could see how best to lead the teams and be a product owner.
- I could understand the challenges the team encountered, where the current bottlenecks were and who best to approach first if trying to affect change in the business.
- Working on the overall product strategy alongside the CEO and board I was able to speak with the additional authority ground-level experience brings, rather than regurgitating what my team relayed to me.
- I knew what skillsets and abilities existed across the organisation from first-hand experience and could liaise with contemporaries who headed up sales, support and technology to ensure future planning was based on realistic expectations.
“I found current ground level knowledge in an organisation was crucial to the role of a product director”
Of course there are also negatives to this approach, but I truly believe that to ‘do’ and ‘manage’ is the nirvana of a product manager, as you get to continue to develop the skillset you’ve nurtured, whilst also getting to be a part of the management team and if you are really lucky, get to define the overall business strategy, as well as the product strategy.
If you want to ‘have it all’ I recommend you focus on:
Time management is absolutely crucial to the success of this approach. As well as managing your team’s expectations on how much time you can spend with them on their products, you need to consider your board’s expectations on the evolution of the product strategy, how much time and how often you will be able to present back to them and most importantly your own expectations on how often you will make the time to lift yourself up and out of the day-to-day grind. This is the only way you will get the full perspective you need to ensure your vision for your product suite evolves to plan, while assuring you are an effective leader.
Make sure to organise your day precisely, booking time in your calendar to do your line management admin, as well as your own product documentation and, whatever you do, please don’t be afraid to book ten or 15 minute meetings. I know that sounds unreasonable, but even if your office does not have a stand-up meeting area it’s worth creating one (standing by the printer or the drinks cooler). These are so incredibly effective and simple, you will find that people won’t chat and hang about if they have to stand throughout a meeting.
Lists, lists and more lists
- Write everything down, or even use a software as a service (SaaS) tool to help. I found Atlassian’s tool Jira a great way to log the KPIs and tasks I had assigned to my team. These tools also enable you to keep a track of your teams’ work load and report on their productivity.
- Make daily priority lists. Take five minutes every morning (or at the end of the day before) to list out your ‘to dos’, giving them a priority rating. For example have number ones (must do today) number twos (do if there’s time) and number threes (only consider if everything else is done, or can stay late).
- Be uber-organised in your note taking. Have a different note pad for your one-to-one meetings with your team, so you can refer back to these at each subsequent meeting if needs be, to track improvement. Have a different notepad for board/stakeholder meetings, product by product meetings and where necessary write up your notes, either as meeting minutes, or for your own use and reference.
Being a day-to-day doer meant that I really knew what each of the teams in the organisation were capable of and what challenges existed operationally, as well being immersed in the day to day with clients/customers/end users. I found that this was invaluable as I continued to build a product strategy and roadmap, as well as my team strategy. So if you are able to balance this out and manage your time well, your team as well as your product’s innovation will benefit as a result.