I recently read a write-up of what looked like a very interesting roundtable discussion with product leaders in London. The last of the four topics particularly caught my eye: “how do you increase the commercial acumen of product managers?”.
The article suggested that “product people (especially those in Europe) are weak commercially”, which “can lead to bad assumptions, particularly in more complex environments”. Two of the suggested solutions were to allow product managers to rotate through different departments around the business, or to always hire at least one product manager with an MBA or with more of a business than a tech background, and let the team learn from each other. Thinking about this challenge, I started to wonder whether the real problem is how we ensure that product managers are more well-rounded?
In theory, product managers sit at the intersection of UX, tech, and business. In practice, it’s rare for anyone to be equally well-versed in each of these disciplines.
Past Experience Makes a Difference
Which aspect the product manager is stronger in is often determined by their career prior to product management. If there is a perception that European product managers tend to be less commercially aware, perhaps this reflects the most common routes into product management? (though is this just speculation).
The question of how to help product managers to become more well-rounded made me reflect on my own career. When I first got into product management, I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable or experienced in any of the above disciplines so I really had to learn it all in one go. I didn’t have a Computer Science degree or an MBA and I didn’t have any experience with any part of the software development process. I held university degrees in linguistics and communications, I’d done lots of different jobs, ranging from admin to teaching, before and during my time at university and I was a second-year graduate trainee when I started a placement as a “product executive” (somewhere between an analyst and a product owner). I loved it from day one and soon realised this was what I should be doing. I started reading as much as I could to increase my understanding what it takes to be a good product manager.
Not long into that first job, the company hosted a hack day with the theme “give us an idea for a business we could invest in”. I was on the winning team that came up with Startup Startup, a platform aimed at connecting tech talent with early-stage startup ideas (you can find out what happened to Startup Startup here). Just six months into my product management career, after figuring out how to write and pitch a business case, I found myself in a startup office with a small, focused and cross-functional team, a small amount of funding and the challenge of turning our idea into an actual business.
Although I was lucky to have access to experienced mentors in and outside the company, it was still a sink-or-swim situation. I had to figure out how to apply all this Lean startup stuff I’d been reading about, how to manage my team’s P&L, work out if the idea could generate enough value to be sustainable, and build an MVP without running out of cash, while trying to keep up when the incredibly clever people on my team were explaining the choices we had to make from a tech point of view. It was an incredibly steep learning curve but probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
To frame this in a slightly different way, any cross-functional team needs to be well-rounded enough to cover the skills required to determine customer appetite, financial viability and technical feasibility when exploring new ideas or improvements. In the context of startup teams, this is sometimes described using archetypes like “Hacker”, “Hustler”, “Creative” and “Visionary” (this article explores this in more detail) but I would argue that most of it holds for any cross-functional team, regardless of what stage the business is at. The key here is that the archetypes don’t all have to be different people. Becoming more well-rounded could be defined as being able to wear more of the hats or take on more of the archetypes in a cross-functional team.
It’s Sink or Swim
Recruitment giant Indeed buys into the value of making its staff more well-rounded (stretching it beyond product management) and applying this at a more industrial scale. Indeed University is a 12-week programme that gives new hires the opportunity to come up with and test new ideas. Worst-case scenario, the new recruit joins the team they were hired to join with a better understanding of the business and of the process of testing and developing a new idea. Best-case scenario? They get to keep working on the idea they came up with.
As someone who really benefited from this kind of opportunity (and I like to think my employer got something out of it as well), I’m really pleased to see more organisations push employees in at the deep end. If we want to develop more commercially-minded product managers, more tech-savvy salespeople or more user-centric developers, presenting them with a chance to pursue an idea they believe in could be exactly what they need. It might be hard and it might not be for everyone, but when we encourage the right people to sink or swim I do believe we end up with more motivated and well-rounded teams and individuals.