Onboarding a New Product Manager

Once a startup has 8-10 engineers a company often needs to bring on its first product manager. Below are some of the best practices I’ve learned over the years for ramping up a new PM.

Why is it hard to onboard a new PM?

Ramping up a new PM is challenging for two reasons:

  1. Product Context – to help a team make the right decisions, a PM has to help a team synthesize qualitative information, data, technical architecture, design decisions, go-to-market strategy, etc. This synthesis will take a long time.
  2. People Context – to ship products and features, a PM has to work with a wide variety of people inside a company, likely none of whom report to her.

How to Help: Product Context

  1. Set aside time at the end of every day for some fixed period of time (say two weeks) to answer any questions she has from that day.
  2. Give her access to all of the research, data, past product specs, presentations, sales material, blogs that she should read regularly, etc. and ask her to read as much of it as possible as quickly as possible. Let her know that she may have to read it two or three times in the first month to really understand it.
  3. Have her get as much context as quickly as possible on the other parts of the business — have her sit in on a budget meeting, go out to meet customers, sit in on sales calls. Whatever it takes to get a holistic understanding of how the business works outside of the product.
  4. Help her behind the scenes by helping her do the work without anybody knowing. For example, if the next deliverable is a spec, help her co-author it, edit it, and make it high-quality. Then when it goes to the engineering team she will establish credibility very quickly because it will come in a form that they expect and that a quality bar that they’ve come to expect from you. This will make her successful more quickly and in the long term create the least amount of pain for you because you’ll have landed her well with the team.
  5. Let her know what the ramp up will be very explicitly along with what the major milestones are for your involvement. For example a hypothetical timeline might be: for the first month you will help her edit the specs, can help her draft any emails or answer product questions for her 24/7, and will be in product team meetings. At the second month you will stop doing editing specs, she is expected to run meetings, and you will back out of those meetings. In the third month, she needs to be able to have enough context to make product decisions on her own and you will only get involved if the team is not hitting its ship dates or missing metrics targets. That way there’s no ambiguity about whether you are involved because she is not doing well, if you’re micromanaging, or if she is still in the ramp-up phase.

How to Help: People Context

  1. Let her shadow you for a few days to understand how you run meetings and what the various teams expect from a product manager. Ask other teams (engineering, design, sales, marketing, etc.) on her behalf if she can shadow them or sit in on their meetings to get up to speed.
  2. Give her a list of everyone she needs to have a great relationship with, explain what they do, what motivates them, and what they expect from her. Help her build good working relationships with everyone she needs to have good relationships with. In part this is innate, and in part it’s helping her understand who these people are, what motivates them, what they expect from their PM, what they don’t like, how best to build those relationships, etc.
  3. Help the team understand what she’s responsible for and what she’s not. They have come to expect certain things from you and she may not be able to give them all of that immediately, so they need to have expectations set appropriately up front too.
  4. Often as the former PM, new PM manager, or PM turned CEO of a startup, people will let you know in subtle ways if she is not delivering something the team expected. Help her interpret these signals and understand there is no ambiguity between what she expects and what the team expects. Reinforce this is not about micromanaging or a lack of trust between teammates. You simply have more context on the people to read subtle signals and are passing her this context based on your experience working with this team.

Be patient — often the new PM is stepping in for someone who lived and breathed the product for many years and who helped build out the team around them. These are big shoes to fill and becoming an effective PM takes an uncomfortably long time.

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