7 lessons from my third year in product management

Elaine Chao
Sep 14 · 7 min read

Three years in. It sounds like forever, and yet I feel like I would have missed the entire thing had I sneezed. This year was a lot of really hard work; I’ve been hip-deep in some of the deepest technical and organizational challenges I’ve experienced in my entire software career. And yet, while reflecting on my life this past year, I was surprised with both the lessons I’ve learned and how comfortable I’ve been in the role of product management. If my first year was transitional and my second year settling in, the third year was all about executing and scaling.

So with that, here are the seven lessons from my third year in this challenging role:

#1: You are more than your job

I learned this lesson early on in my career after being laid off for the first time. As a result, every time I am even remotely successful in a role, I have to remind myself that I am much more than the job role. I’m not a product manager on my off hours; I make music and talk with friends and invest in the community around me. Product management is a role that I fulfill at work, and if I walk around with pride instead of a curious humility, I lose out on what could be an opportunity to learn from those around me.

By clinging to the fact that my identity is not wrapped up my position, I’m able to more fully bring myself to the role in an authentic way.

#2: Make it all about the customer, but not at the expense of the team

I spend a lot of time advocating for our customers, but at the end of the day, I am also a leader in the organization. As a result, it’s part of my responsibility to take a pulse of my teams to ensure that they are okay. In stressful moments, when things aren’t working as we expected, I have an opportunity to serve the team. And in those pivotal moments, what I say is highly influential to how they perceive a particular situation. Do I call out a challenge? Do I praise what has already been done? Do I force the team to look back at what they’ve already been able to accomplish, the 10,000 feet they’ve climbed, even as we stare up the mountain together? Do I remind them that they are working on a team and are working on something valuable? How do I address situations where a team hears something discouraging?

Unsurprisingly, the team already wants the best for the customer. If I sacrifice the team’s well-being for the customer, I don’t gain anything except the resentment of each team member. As a leader, I have the opportunity to feed into the culture of an organization, and I can craft messages to reflect what I value and reinforce the fact that I do care for every member of my team.

Taking time for connection is critical in the PM role.

#3: Respond to people in a way that is meaningful

With many human interactions, there’s what they say (text), and what they mean (subtext). And then, underlying that is what the person truly wants. Is it encouragement? Is it a reality check? Is it respect? Is it something different? As a product manager, I’ve been most effective when I address the underlying motivations to their query or question.

Sometimes, this is as easy as a high-five in the hallway or a few moments’ laughter while refilling my teacup, and sometimes it’s stopping what I’m doing to have a heart-to-heart where I put aside whatever I’m doing, set aside the PM role, and just be another human being walking alongside someone grappling with something profound. And sometimes, it’s a frank conversation about current challenges and recognition that it’s difficult.

Being an effective leader is much more than just showing up and lending my judgment and perspective to any conversation; it’s about meeting people where they are and engaging with them to be effective members of the team.

#4: Self-care and boundaries are critical

This has been a theme over the past two years; you can only take care of others if you take care of yourself. Some people have pointed out it’s like the safety spiel on airlines: you have to put on your oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. I try to make sure my basics are taken care of every day: sufficient sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, and significant relationships. To make this happen, I have to ensure that I stop and disconnect from work.

I also advocate for my teams to have the same kind of self-care and time boundaries, and encourage them (sometimes by example) to take their weekends and to spend time with friends and family. By advocating for rest, I help shift the tone of the team to one of sustainability. In an industry that values overwork, we have to try twice as hard to set and enforce healthy boundaries with work.

#5: Communicate your priorities to your teams

A couple of years ago, my colleague Dan Tuhoarca shared how he worked with his teams: he wrote down his week’s priorities on the whiteboard behind his desk, often with his engineering leadership partners in the room. It helped all of them set expectations on what would be accomplished that week, as well as help them to understand the other forces at play. Anyone who stopped by his office or peeked through his window could see those top priorities written down.

I began this practice this year as I scaled from supporting one scrum team to two. In addition to the work I do for each of the teams, I’ve also been working on a couple of separate initiatives, and exposing those to my teams has helped them understand my availability and when I have to prioritize other meetings over meetings with the team. Since both teams have distributed members, I take a photo of the white board at the beginning of the week and send it out via Slack.

Sometimes, this kicks off valuable conversation with team members, and it opens an opportunity to give feedback on my priorities. I’ve definitely updated or changed my priorities based on new information. My schedule and my next expected out of office are clearly spelled out and easily referenced via a simple photo.

(And then there was the time a very helpful engineer added another 7 items to my list when I was out on holiday, including an item to teach my cats how to high-five.)

#6: Praise your partners’ unique strengths

As a leader, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Whether it’s a process or a relationship dynamic, I constantly reflect on how the team works together and how things can be better. But I also have to make the space to think about what goes well as a result of my partnership with the variety of people I interact with, from those in engineering to program management to product marketing to social support.

This year, I tried to be more intentional about how I responded to the successes of the team members, from ensuring their managers were aware of their value to the team, to ensuring they themselves knew how much I appreciated them.

As my colleague paultrani quoted, “What other people say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.” As a result, I’ve been telling everyone around me about what unique value each business partner brings to the team. No one is perfect, but each one of them has strengths that I rely on regularly.

#7: Be consistent in your investments

I posted my first Adobe XD protip in March of 2016, the first day that we launched it as a Preview. Three and a half years later, I’m still posting pro tips every weekday, which has served as a valuable resource for both new and existing customers alike. At the same time, I’ve also reserved time to respond to our customers on a regular basis, and have built it into my daily work routine.

As a result of this consistent investment of time and energy, I’ve grown a reputation within Adobe as being a PM who actively and successfully engages with our customers via social media. Separating out the whole topic of customer listening, this reputation only came because of a consistency of action. I can draw a straight line between this regular investment to the opportunities I’ve had to help others to also be authentically engaged with their customer base.

As I enter into my fourth year of being a PM, I’m beginning to feel a heady combination of feeling challenged, yet still feeling competent. This is a great place to be career-wise, and I consider myself profoundly blessed to be in this position, on this team, and at this time.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Elaine is a product manager at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

Elaine Chao

Written by

I work for Adobe on Adobe XD. Also a martial arts instructor, musician, writer, volunteerism advocate. Opinions mine.

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