In this ProductTank London talk, Shaun Russell shares his journey into product management, sketching out the well-trodden path he took to getting started — reading, taking workshops, learning from peers, and so on. But being a product manager is really hard, and nothing can prepare you for it. There are things that nobody tells you, so Shaun explains what he’s learned along the way.
The importance of looking after yourself
Being a product manager is not easy, says Shaun, and neither is looking after yourself. Sometimes that’s challenging too! He describes some of the challenges:
- Your work is intangible: It’s hard to describe what you do, and it’s hard to grasp when things are going well
- You are forever embracing uncertainty: Don’t underestimate the toll this will take on you
- You are supposed to know less than your colleagues: You have to champion your colleagues, but that means you can’t champion yourself
- There is no finish line: Your product is never “done”
To learn about how other product people worked, and what kind of issues they wrestled with, Shaun shadowed product managers from two very different companies. He learned both that these challenges are universal, and ways of taming them.
Friendships are important
It is crucial to find people who will listen to you talk about your work, who will try to understand you, and who will learn how to ask questions about your challenges. It’s easy to avoid talking about these things, but that’s a very lonely path, and great products are built by great teams.
Find your own meaning
The solution to any existential problem! You need to create a really clear idea of where you want to go in your career, and be specific. Ask yourself questions that help you to define, with a high degree of specificity, what it is that makes you unique (now or in the future) as a product manager.
The trouble with stakeholders
The age-old challenge of product manager… managing stakeholders. There are a few things that many new product managers may not realise, but which they have to accept about their stakeholders Shauns explains:
- Your relationship is not reciprocal
- They will think they know best (and the burden is on you to prove otherwise)
- They have long and selective memories
- They will give you all the responsibility, but none of the power
The nature of stakeholders means that there are a few key things to remember when working with them.
Confront issues head-on
It’s tempting to smooth ruffled feathers and avoid conflict, but if you don’t confront issues with your stakeholders, you are effectively incurring “stakeholder debt” – they will become used to getting their way! It’s essential to establish a clear relationship early on and make it clear that you serve the customer first and foremost.
Make use of external validation
You have to work twice as hard to convince people of your point of view, and that often means coming at issues from different angles and using different communication tools. Shaun suggests using external sources of validation to help sway people to your point of view, such as perspectives from product leaders that your team respects and which back up your argument.
Occasionally, remember to go with your gut
Sometimes (just sometimes!) gut instinct trumps or at least informs, data so Shaun recommends that we make space for it.
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