Are you managing or being managed?

Sending notes and action items soon after a meeting ends.
Telling your CEO what she needs to do for a successful product release.
Getting engineering leaders in a room to commit a new product plan.
Drafting a customer presentation when no one is sure how to articulate product value.
Documenting what a successful sales engagement looks like before first customer contact.

Do these actions describe the kind of things you do each day? Or do you feel more like:

Everyone is telling me what to do and nothing ever seems to get done.
My CEO gives rapid-fire orders that change by the day.
Engineering does what it wants and tells me about it later.
We go in circles trying to figure out our marketing message.
I’m always fighting fires with the sales team.

Product managers are hired to be leaders. Across numerous groups that make a business function, someone needs to be accountable for product strategy and ensure the market is properly served. While exciting to masochists, the diversity of responsibilities can spread the product manager thin and lead to a sense of overwhelming futility.

Giving Direction

I’ve seen product managers who are always on their game. They know when to take action items and when to give them. Channeling the customer, they dispense recommendations to senior executives who don’t report to them, yet who gladly follow because there’s a clear path to success.

I’ve also seen product managers who always seem to be catching up, unsure of how to move out of crisis. Like an overburdened waiter runs to and from the kitchen, they are serving many masters and often show frustration. Managers and peers consider them ineffective despite their hard work.

No one reports to you

Product managers don’t get to boss people around because no one reports to them. Good managers don’t boss their people around, of course. Yet I’ve heard embattled product managers explain their problems with,

“If only these people reported to me, I could make them do what we need!”

Ouch. That’s a clear sign of being unable to lead through influence – a critical skill for success in product management.

Managing requires a vision to accomplish something, discipline to build an actionable plan, and commitment to ensure it gets done. People who don’t report to the product manager willingly follow her when they come to share her vision, believe her plan is viable, and share success in the execution.

The product manager begins to lose credibility when she doesn’t offer sufficient vision for the situation at hand. I’m not necessarily talking about something as grand as rebooting the product strategy. If, for example, several important sales engagements aren’t going well and there is no product response, uncertainty takes root as everyone develops their own opinion and there is no clear path to recovery.

Her credibility declines further when a defacto vision takes hold and planning becomes murky. No one is sanity checking the facts, validating action items, and keeping the conversation focused. At this point, execution is almost irrelevant to the product manager’s success. She is, at best, following someone else’s strategy and, more likely, struggling to deliver on a flood of half-baked directives. In other words, the product manager is being micromanaged by everyone around her – the exact opposite of what she was hired for.

Lead from the front

If you don’t already have a type-A personality, you’ve got to channel some of those characteristics. Consider the major issues facing your business and the practical path you and those around you can take for the best outcome. Be your own worst critic: what is the best you can do?

Some product managers fall into a fallacy of extremes, either trying to do other people’s jobs or retreating into “that’s not my job.” Leading by example is a powerful way to crystalize your vision for those around you and build consensus around an actionable plan.

Sit with engineering to work jointly on tradeoffs that improve the product position. Draft strawman marketing materials in concert with your peers to jumpstart demand generation activities. Meet customers with the sales team to find out what works. Tell the CEO what her business requires and back it up with hard data – the changes you’re advocating require broad, ongoing buy-in.

Being your own worst critic also means that your proposals must be practical for the situation. A typical startup can’t fund a $20 million marketing campaign. A Fortune 500 company isn’t going to retrain the entire sales team in a week. Your CEO doesn’t have a magic wand to make everyone exceptional collaborators, instantly aligning to your vision with a smile.

As in other aspects of life, the product manager can get big value from small things that show her personal investment in shared success. Taking responsibility for decisions, guiding meetings with clear outcomes, and spending time to understand thorny tradeoffs show that she is working on solutions in the trenches, not giving orders.

Overall, the product manager must take time to regularly maintain her own vision for the business, identify gaps over the horizon, and propose the next set of actions to those around her. This is managing versus being managed.

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