The Missing Habit Separating Good and Great Product Managers

There are many skills that go into being a great product manager, and one of the most underrated is communication, as these Silicon Valley product leaders emphasize:

“As a product manager, it is imperative that you understand the company’s overall goals and objectives and exactly how your team fits in to the broader vision.Josh Elman

“We lead by example. We succeed by making others successful. We listen first and make certain that others feel that they’ve been heard. We pursue diverse opinions. We rally our teams behind a vision that yields passion and commitment. We value and foster strong team relationships.” – Satya Patel

“Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. Good product managers don’t give direction informally. Good product managers gather information informally.”Ben Horowitz

You can be the best former engineer or designer, but if you can’t communicate, not only with your product team, but the broader company, you’ll struggle.

Great Product Managers communicate beyond their teams.

While it’s important to develop great written communication skills, informal, verbal communication skills are just as valuable.

When you are working with other departments to either gather customer insights or share with them a new feature launch, you’re exercising crucial communication skills.

Now, you could just blast off an email, internal survey, or update a wiki page and consider your work done. However, you’re missing out on crucial relationship building and major learning opportunities. Every moment of contact with another team in your company is a leadership and learning opportunity for product managers.

The Secret, Winning Habit of Great PMs

When you’re a product manager you have to influence people, because you have limited power on your own. You need to get buy in to accomplish anything.

And to be a product manager people enjoy working with instead of loathe, you want to be a trusted, respected colleague, not a politician or Machiavellian monster.

And the best way to build that trust and respect? Peer 1 on 1s.

What’s a Peer 1 on 1?

Peer 1 on 1s are a secret weapon for many great companies. They help fellow managers commiserate and support one another, and teams that interact regularly work together better. Usually, these meetings happen every 4-12 weeks, depending on what the two people involved feel is the best frequency.

As a product manager, having semi-regular check-ins with key members of teams you work or interact with can be priceless. It gives you a chance to give and receive feedback, hear new perspectives, gather customer data from new sources, answer product questions, and build rapport with them.

It can also ensure that people understand how you approach product decisions. You may be crushing it as a PM, but that doesn’t mean everyone else sees it that way. Product people have some of the greatest visibility across an organization, which can make it easy to forget that not everyone knows everything you do.

Who should product managers have peer 1 on 1s with?

The culture of your company and the nature of your product can make this vary, so use your best judgment when you apply this to your job.  For me, I was leading product at a 20-30 person SaaS startup, and so I will share what I found worked there based on the advice I received.

1) Your Product Team

Your engineers have an entire engineering org that decides their compensation, job title, and work. All you can do is influence what is worked on next and collaborate with them on making the best (not just good enough) solution. The same goes for designers.

When your team is small, meeting once every month or two with everyone can help ensure you stay on the same page and fix problems. Identifying a bottleneck, something frustrating, or a blind spot can save your team hours, days, or even weeks of lost time from infighting, inefficiency, or poor decisions.

You may also find opportunities to help them understand how you make decisions. This can reduce resistance to changes you propose and open up constructive feedback to communicating with them and their colleagues.

Everyone?!? At first, yes.

When you’re small (7 or fewer designers + engineers), meeting with each person can ensure your processes are working well and ensure everyone feels heard.

As you grow, focusing on the team leads who you work with most can help you scale. They can be a voice for their team. Assuming the design and engineering team leads have one on ones with their teams, they can raise with you any concerns they hear from their teams. (Note: it can help to remind the lead in advance to ask their team before you meet.)

Peer one on ones are a great way to take the temperature of your product team. If when you meet with them, they clam up, refuse the meeting, or seem combative, that’s a major signal you have work to do to improve your teamwork.

Having a good relationship with the product teams you work with is table stakes as a Product Manager. Yet, many PMs mess this up. Good peer one on ones are a good option to improve the relationships no matter your situation with your team.

2) Customer Facing Departments

As a PM, one of your most important jobs is to understand your customer better than anyone. There are only so many hours in the day, so even if you’re awesome and talk to multiple customers every day, you should still look for ways to get additional perspectives. And the best place to get those are others at your company.

Ask yourself: who else regularly interacts with customers?

  1. Customer Success / Support
  2. Sales
  3. Account management

In many orgs those three departments are off in a different area of the company reporting to a different C Level leader than you. They may literally be on a different floor or in an entirely different office. Because of this, it’s easy for sales and product to develop different cultures and even some animosity.

Break down the silos with communication.

Product managers are the perfect people to break down those barriers. You’re probably already working with them more than you realize.

Product people often get pulled into sales calls on the biggest deals, and help launch new features that success teams must document and support. They’re also driving the roadmap that ambitious sales people may use to excite prospects.

When I was running product at KISSmetrics I met with all those groups. And in each case I had two goals:

  1. Find out any lessons I should take back to the product team about customers.
  2. Answer their questions and concerns they have about product today and in the future.

So I set up regular peer 1 on 1s with people from sales, customers success, and account management.

Here’s some of the kinds of questions I’d ask to make the most of the meetings:

Customer Success / Support:

  • What are you sick of answering over and over for customers?
  • What bugs do you find you have to help users work around most often?
  • How can I make your life easier when we launch new features or make changes in the product?

These questions help improve our process around launching new features, updating FAQs, and identifying existing problems in the product we should fix. Few things make success team members stuck on the hamster wheel of never ending tickets feel better than having things that drive them crazy in the product fixed.

Sales:

  • What are common product-related issues that are causing us to lose deals?
  • What features get leads most excited about our product?
  • Are there any areas of the product that are unclear to you that I can help you understand better or fall flat in your demos?

These questions often required me to do a little 5 why’s to dig deeper to really understand and get them out of their sales mindset. Yet, with a little effort, I often found gold when I did. It also helped me better understand how my conversations with customers compared to those by sales. There’s a lot of great customer problem knowledge trapped in your head as a PM. Transferring it to sales team members can drive revenue for your company.

Account Management:

  • What features do you find you have to explain to customers the most? What’s most confusing?
  • Where in onboarding do users tend to get stuck most? How do you help them?
  • What could product do to make your job easier/better?

The people that help customers get activated will know many of the pain points that are affecting your onboarding funnel. Much like Customer Success team members, removing friction they deal with every day can really make their day, and help your customers.

Peer 1 on 1s are a privilege, not a right.

I worked hard to ask lots of questions and be helpful in these meetings. After the first meeting, I expected they would be prepared as well. I only continued meeting with people that truly brought good data, ideas, and/or concrete feedback. Otherwise the 30-60 minutes we would meet could be better spent elsewhere.

This was a challenge, especially in sales. Not all sales people really get to know their customers, but the best ones did. The best could coherently explain why we lost a deal versus just trying to ask me for every feature a competitor had.

The same was sometimes true in success; I didn’t want to know what happened that they remembered today. I wanted numbers so I knew how big a problem it was.

This then helped me make the business case when trying to decide between building something new we could sell and fixing what we had. When you can prove someone that costs $35 per hour is wasting 10 hours a week on something and it affects customers X, Y, and Z, it’s much easier to justify a change.

Build a Customer Driven Culture

When I set out to have these meetings, I was just trying to get more data and feedback to do my job as a PM better. A great byproduct of the meetings ended up being that everyone in the company became more customer driven.

As I met with people more regularly, and they saw me take action on their feedback, it created a positive feedback loop. The more I listened and demonstrated I heard them, the more they wanted to provide more valuable insights and contribute. That led to more discussions about approaches they could use in their job to get me better data and good questions to ask customers.

Patterns converge

What was particularly fascinating to me was that quite often, I would hear similar things from the majority of people I would talk to; often an issue in product would impact everyone in different ways, whether it made a sale harder, increased support tickets, or changed how account managers taught our product.

By empowering all of them to share with me what they were experiencing and teaching them how to best do so, they helped me better triangulate customer needs and calculate fully their impact. With everything else on everyone’s plates, this would never have happened without regularly scheduled meetings to talk about it.

There’s always more work to be done than time for a product manager. Taking the time to have peer 1 on 1s with key members of teams you work with can be an invaluable part of your processes as a product leader.

Want to work with a product person that lives this customer driven approach every day?

If you’re an engineer in San Francisco interested in joining a fast growing, early stage startup, I’d love to talk to you about how my startup, Lighthouse, can be a great opportunity for you. Send me an email at jason at getlighthouse dot com and tell me a bit about yourself.

5 thoughts on “The Missing Habit Separating Good and Great Product Managers

  1. Pingback: Links: 9-25-2015 | Aaron Johnson

  2. getting clients feedback from sales team is not as easy at times….as mentioned, not every sales person get to know their clients!

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