Mark Bailes, Technical Product Manager shares practical tips on building credibility as a product manager based on his previous experience of working in product roles.
Having joined GE HealthCare as part of the rotational Digital Technology Leadership Program, I learned how to go both broad and deep very quickly to deliver outcomes within a 6-month assignment.
For six years, I’ve been in Product Management roles, working across Supply Chain and Cybersecurity, on Custom Software Applications, Data and Analytics Products and Managed and Professional Services. I started each of those roles with little to no knowledge of the respective domain or tech stacks, and built “hard” Product Management skills and knowledge through a combination of training and experience.
Success in these roles wouldn’t have been possible without these hard skills and experiences, however, I believe the outcomes delivered in these positions were amplified as a result of the soft skills developed in the Leadership Program. These soft skills help to quickly build credibility and therefore my ability to influence accelerating the time I add value. For Product Managers already in, or considering, a new role – some of this may sound familiar:
You believe your product management principles and skills are consistent, relevant and transferable – and, you’re absolutely right! You want to continue learning while testing your abilities in a new environment. The appeal of a new role with a change of industry, domain or technology can be an exciting one.
You’re fortunate enough to have landed a new role. You’re excited to dive into defining problem statements, value propositions and targeted customer segments and magnifying the focus on outcomes over outputs. You’re enthusiastic and motivated to build deep domain and Product (if / where it already exists) knowledge, although this can take time, and you’re very self-aware that you’re not at your best without this domain knowledge. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re lacking credibility with your new team…
There are any number of reasons for this but you can take comfort from knowing this will not be the case for the long term – but how do you accelerate the time to being a credible value-add team member? Here are a few practical tips I’ve found particularly useful throughout my career:
Acknowledge the Team’s priorities as well as your own
Building domain knowledge and credibility is your priority, and will require time and collaboration with the team – understand the impact that your onboarding and ramp-up has on the team’s other priorities.
If your role is critical to the Products’ long-term success or a business outcome, it is easy to reserve hours and hours of meeting with your new teammates to help get the lay of the land. Be self-aware that this is purely for your benefit in the short-term, even though it will help everyone in the medium to long-term. Significantly disrupting the team can make you appear like you’re only interested in your own interests and not a team player. This perspective is magnified if you’re asking them to prioritise your onboarding over a critical deliverable with a short-term deadline. Sometimes it is better to be less disruptive and demonstrate your willingness to be a team player in the short term until the priorities conflicting with your onboarding soften.
Be honest and vulnerable
Candidly share that you know what you don’t know, and there may be additional things beyond that – you may need their help in order to provide the help they need. Do not lead with knowledge gaps too frequently, but do not hide them either.
The “fake it til you make it” approach is the alternative here. I prefer the authentic and humble approach personally. Authenticity and humility is frankly easier – it’s you being you. This will never let you down, and will help you build long-term trust (trust being a huge part of credibility) without running the risk of being found out in that “faking it” stage.
Then speak. You are the newest to this domain – be comfortable with that, and respect that others will likely have a far deeper understanding of certain subjects. As my Grandma told me, repeatedly – you were born with 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason.
Joining the Analytics Team, I found myself sitting with the Engineering Team and observed them working without Agile OpMechs and on numerous different initiatives. I instantly wanted to implement Agile OpMechs as a first step and reduce work-in-progress (WIP) to accelerate time to release – it seemed an obvious thing to do and I had seen the benefits of Agile Product Development in my previous assignment. There were frequent escalations from functional business partners about time to deliver analytic solutions (reports mainly at that time), which was far longer than it had taken contractors previously involved.
I asked the Engineering Team about the history here: Contractors built new reports for each request, incentivised by the model where they were paid “per line of code” or “number of reports produced”. Often these were sub-optimal in terms of performance, difficult to maintain, and inconsistent despite leveraging consistent data sets. They were tasked with providing analytic solutions through validated data sets that would be consistent, maintainable and improve performance – but this required longer delivery times.
By listening first, I was able to communicate the additional incremental value of the output from the Engineering team to the Functional Stakeholders, focussing on how this would better address their needs and use this to influence them to support in the development of a prioritised backlog that would enable the implementation of Agile Ceremonies – which would then accelerate the time to value. Listening first built my credibility and trust with Engineering and Functional Stakeholders – it showed them I wanted to address their specific problems and challenges, and not just impose my own ideas onto them blindly.
Share and utilise relatable experiences and success
Without bragging, share how you have approached or solved a similar problem previously. Effective storytelling helps accelerate credibility through this action further.
The Cyber Commercial Product Team had a growing opportunity funnel that wasn’t getting the required time and effort dedicated to opportunity discovery activities. Previously, I’d led Quarterly Planning Activities for our Supply Chain Analytics Teams in which we reviewed large high-level product backlogs, and set a commitment of delivery for the upcoming quarter. This commitment was reviewed in the next quarterly planning session where we were held accountable for delivering on that commitment – increasing accountability across the Engineering, Product and Functional Teams. Although not exactly the same problem statement, we needed to increase the accountability of the Product Managers (myself included!) in the Cyber Team when it came to reviewing the opportunity funnel. So I implemented a Bi-Monthly cycle which loosely followed the same format as Quarterly Planning: a commitment to work towards a defined expectation over the 8 week period.
The outcome: our innovation funnel looked very different after six months of these cycles: 50% of our innovation funnel had been reviewed – some opportunities removed from the funnel and others prioritised. I was able to recognise that in both situations, it was a case of increasing accountability by setting expectations and measuring. I’m a strong believer that “What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done.”
Be the one to find answers to long-standing questions that others have not been able to answer. This is one of the quickest ways to add incremental value.
In my new Cyber Role, I led the development of a Cyber Lab in India to allow us to assess and test new technologies and prototypes. Our team had been working with two vendors to ship their products over to India. These products had arrived but remained stuck in customs for (literally) months. I joined the team from Supply Chain, bringing with me a broad network including intra-company transfers within our logistics team with a local presence in India. When I myself worked with another vendor to ship and assess their product, I consulted with the individuals in my network from the previous role, and completed the whole process from shipment to installation in Cyber Lab took ~4 weeks. To amplify the impact, I documented the steps taken and defined a standard process for other team members to follow in future.
As product manager, you represent the product (including the product team) to the Customer, and the Customer to the Business. Interface with product peers, engineering, marketing, sales, account teams, leadership, customers, and industry experts – gain and share as many perspectives as possible. This improves your ability to see the big picture very quickly, which helps you with domain knowledge. Although name-dropping is not always a good thing, it’s very interesting to see the difference in reactions when you can share an opinion or approach backed by a large strategic customer or a well-renowned industry expert.
Working through account and marketing teams, I was speaking with a large strategic customer, sharing our prototype and asking them to share feedback that validated our hypothesis and value proposition. I was told “You have no idea how much credibility you’ve built in the way you’ve defined the nuance in our Problem Statement”. On another occasion, following an industry wide-webinar, I arranged a 30 min call via LinkedIn with a leading industry expert, where I was told the prototype “was head and shoulders above alternatives currently available on the market, and this would be a catalyst for the change needed in the industry”.
The networking accelerated the credibility I was able to build with the immediate Product Team. The feedback itself definitely helped, and was the most valuable part of the interaction – but this specific account and industry expert carried so much weight within our team that I could visibly see the impression I’d made on the team when I shared the feedback with them. The additional bonus for me on this occasion was that the credibility gained was broad due to the feedback and interest shown with Marketing and Account Teams who were witnessing the interaction too.
Share your fresh perspective
Being “new” is a strength – you don’t have the battle scars from deep history in the team, org or industry which can often restrict or limit thinking. Respectfully challenge the norm.
I identified an emerging technology solution that I believed would be a game-changer in the world of Medical Device Cybersecurity for Hospitals, when included as part of a Managed Service. I was pitching my analysis of the customers unmet needs and technology evaluation – although impressed, my team felt this would not be accepted in the industry as it would require significant network re-architecture at the customer site. Many of these individuals had done these heavy lift long-term projects before, and, understandably based on their experience, saw this as a large barrier to market. I respectfully asked a different set of questions: Forgetting the install challenges … would this solve the Customer unmet need? – Yes. Better than many other solutions or alternatives available to them? – Yes. Ok – So let’s validate these hypotheses with customers, and in the meantime, how might we lower the barrier to adoption?
Naive? Some may say so – but I prefer to think of this as a new, fresh perspective with a customer-focused mindset.
Actively seek feedback.
Demonstrate a willingness to learn from your team and your peers, and in doing so, you’ll create a safe space where teams are comfortable giving you feedback on a regular basis – the foundation for continuous improvement.
Remember – you have a unique and valuable skill set.
Even if others can not see it or do not appreciate it just yet. This can be tough mentally, but do not doubt your abilities or skills.
I hope you find value in these practical tips that I’ve found have helped me in my career to date. Product Managers: I’d love to hear other practical tips based on your experience – what have you found to be an effective way of building credibility? Product Teams: How have new teammates impressed you in their first weeks and months on the team?
Please get in touch and let me know!