Your manager in the product team

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

Let’s imagine we posed a question to a group of Product Managers – can you share the list of folks/functions on your product team?

What list would you expect?

When I’ve asked this question, I’ve received answers that I cluster into 4 groups (illustrative).

This turns out to be a helpful way to think about the product team as well… with one exception.

That exception is one that is often absent from lists that describe the product team – the PM Manager

I consider that a big miss because good PM managers play two vital roles to help IC/individual contributor PMs be effective-

A) They help provide the organizational context and feedback you need to be successful: This includes providing clear guidance on overall strategic direction that helps you align your strategy/metrics and also providing feedback on your plans based on their experience.

B) They provide air cover when you need it (and it is likely you’ll need it this week): This is the more critical role the IC PM manager plays. In cultures that hold PMs as the “DRI” or Directly Responsible Individual, the IC PM is accountable for the performance of the product without having any formal reporting authority over the product team. As a result, executing parts of the job may involve pushing folks/rubbing folks the wrong way (when the pushing is over done as you figure out the right balance) from time to time. In such times, air cover is key.

Air cover isn’t just about your manager being the voice of reason to balance your role on the team. It also helps provide the space to execute with confidence that you have the space to try things and fail. An absence of air cover almost always results in an absence in experimentation and, thus, growth – both of the product and the person.

Finally, there is no one else in the organization who is more vested in your success. So, it is a bit of a no brainer to invest in this relationship. And, I’d go as far as to say highly functional product teams rarely become that way without a strong PM <> PM Manager relationship.

Building a great relationships with your manager: As in many matrixed organizations, the PM manager <> IC PM relationship can be a weird one. Depending on the nature of your product, you may be able to get by with little to no working overlap.

And, while there are a lot of folks who attempt to get by with that low touch relationship, my recommended approach would the opposite. So, here goes:

1. Invest heavily in getting to know and understand each other upfront. In a new role, spend time in your onboarding period to get to know and understand your manager. A simple way to do this is to request an hour to do a “user manual” session. Introduce yourselves to each other, share what matters to you and ask questions to better understand what drives them, understand how best to communicate with them, and what they’d love to see in a direct report.

The more you can get to know and understand each other upfront, the quicker you’ll enable trust to follow.

2. Share and involve them as much as possible – allow them to choose how much they’d like to be involved: With their permission, share and involve them as much as possible. Share early thinking/riffs on product direction/wireframes and invite them to brainstorming meetings/team meetings. If they show up on those docs and meetings, ask for feedback and act on that feedback.

I recognize this is sometimes viewed as contrarian advice. I’ve met with a few folk over the past months who’ve all shared situations that share a common cause – the absence of an open channel of communication with their manager. And, in every one of these cases, they were told by someone to only present “the good stuff” to their manager. So, they went through great pains to curate the good stuff and left aside topics that mattered – the pressure they were feeling, the challenges they were facing, and so on.

However, when they’re in the loop, they get to understand the challenges you are facing and how you operate. The better they understand this, the more they can provide specific guidance and trust you. And, the more they can trust you, the more context, scope, and air cover they will provide for you to steepen your learning curve and be successful.

There’s also limited long term upside in an out-of-the-loop manager. If you’re making big mistakes in doing your job, it is best you course correct at the earliest with help from the person who is most invested in making you successful. And, if you are doing your job well, that’s a really good thing for your manager to see.

And, if you don’t trust that your manager is invested in making you successful, it is likely time to leave.

Bonus tip: In the absence of your manager being able to participate in your meetings, a weekly 1:1 is a great forum to keep your manager in the loop. Keep a shared 1:1 doc, populate with the agenda in advance, and keep the hairiest topics right on top of that agenda.

3. For your part, do everything you can do make their life easier. Baseball executive Theo Epstein once said – “Whoever your boss is, or your bosses are, they have 20 percent of their job that they just don’t like. So if you can ask them or figure out what that 20 percent is, and figure out a way to do it for them, you’ll make them really happy, improve their quality of life and their work experience.”

There are many variants of this advice and they’re all valid. The principles at play here are as follows –

1. Everyone has a manager whose job it is to keep them accountable. Even the CEO reports to a board who, in turn, is accountable to shareholders. Understanding how to manage these managers is important for career success and happiness.

2. Become an incredibly valuable direct report and be the sort of person who removes more problems than you create.

These principles are, of course, equally applicable to the IC PM.

Managers make or break our experience. Aside from a few extraneous situations, it is highly unlikely we get anywhere if we have a poor relationship with our manager. In these situations, it is best to leave and find a new home.

On the other hand, if you’re considering a new role, it is worth prioritizing a connection with your prospective manager as among the most important criteria. When you choose well, you work with managers who appreciate your strengths and help ensure your weaknesses don’t get in the way.

And, every once a while, thanks to the power of incredibly aligned  incentives, these relationships transcend work relationships to become deep friendships.

When that happens, it turns out to be special – both for our career growth and our happiness.