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Developing STRONG Product People — The 5 Main Ingredients for Being the Best Coach Your Product Managers Have Ever Had

This was initially published on my blog January 24th 2021

In case you haven’t heard the big news yet, my book, STRONG is now published. In this post, I’ll be sharing some of the concepts from the book. If you find yourself wanting to explore any of these topics in more detail, be sure to check out the book. You can order your copy here.

Let’s talk about developing product managers — and not just any product managers, but strong product managers. We all know that product management is a super hard business to be in and we expect a lot from our product people. We want them to be good at understanding and finding solutions for challenging customer and business problems. We want them to be able to create plans to come up with an actual product. We want them to build products working with a cross-functional team, and we want them to optimize these products based on customer feedback they’re (hopefully) listening to. And in most companies, we want them to do all this and more in an agile way.

“While many professions only require a T-shaped employee profile, in product we are looking more for an 8-legged creature. It’s something which I would call an ‘octopus-shaped’ product manager.” Tweet This

While many professions only require a T-shaped employee profile (where the vertical bar on the letter T represents the expertise in a single field, and the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas) we are looking more for an eight-legged creature, something which I would call an “octopus-shaped product manager.”

T-shaped employee profile vs. the octopus

Based on my many years of observations of all sorts of product organizations, heads of product usually don’t play an active role coaching the product people in their team. When it comes to professional and personal development, they just hope that their product managers will magically become this kind of octopus.

For more than seven years, I have been coaching product teams and helping PMs become better at what they do, helping them become this eight-legged creature. And over the years, I discovered some patterns of what can help PMs on their self-progression journey. Here are the five main ingredients to help you up your people development game.

Ingredient #1: A solid definition of what you think it takes to be a competent PM

This is hard work, but once you’ve done it, you can use this for many years with minor adjustments.

To come up with your definition of a good PM, reflect on the personality traits you think a great PM should have. Create a list of the skills, the know-how, and the competencies they should have or develop. Consider the general responsibilities of a PM. And finally, list the values they should share with the rest of the company and/or team. If you are having a hard time doing this, you might want to check out my PMwheel framework. It’s a great place to start but it’s easy to adapt it to your specific needs.

The “Definition of good”

Ingredient #2: A clear idea of where each PM is today and what their next step should be

Once you have created your definition of a good PM, use your framework to assess every PM on your team to see where they stand.

Next, you can switch gears and focus on their future. You want to have a clear vision for each of the PMs on your team. What can they achieve in their professional career under the best circumstances? Don’t just focus on their current role and company… this needs to be a long-term vision.

After you have created this vision for the PM, the next question is: What is the next bigger challenge you can assign them to move them closer to that long-term goal?

It could, for example, be to take over a larger team. You might have a junior PM running a small, two-person team, and you think they are ready to take the next step and start leading a larger team.

And once you’ve decided this next bigger challenge, ask yourself: How can I help them get ready for this? Your answer has to be calibrated to the individual PM’s capabilities and gaps. For one PM, it might be taking an online training or reading a product development book. For another PM, it might involve connecting them to a learning buddy with similar development goals.

next bigger challenge

Ingredient #3: A shared vision of how they’ll take the next step

Once you have a vision for your PM, you need to make sure you’re on the same page and they agree with your idea for their next step. Sometimes this only requires a quick conversation to reach agreement.

But sometimes, especially when you think the PM is far from where they need to be, it’s a much harder conversation. It requires providing your PMs with open and honest feedback about their current role.

But as a product leader, it is your responsibility to help your product managers get better at what they do. And this won’t magically happen if you are not providing them with the necessary feedback. Some people call it “tough love.” And while it may be tough for you to have these conversations, it is the right thing to do.

“As a product leader, it is your responsibility to help your product managers get better at what they do. And this won’t magically happen if you are not providing them with the necessary feedback.” Tweet this

If you’re uncomfortable having difficult conversations with your people, be sure to check out my book STRONG Product People . There is a whole chapter on how to give feedback to your peers.

No matter how hard it is to discuss the gaps in their skill set, make sure you are helping them to see where this journey might end if they are up for learning new things. Share your vision with them. Inspire them. Help them to picture a bright future.

Let me add one note. When coming up with a vision for each PM, be open to their feedback. They may push back on what you’re telling them. It’s quite possible that the vision you have imagined for them is not aligned with the vision they have for themselves. So be flexible in these conversations.

Ingredient #4: The development plan

Now it’s time to create a development plan that contains small and actionable steps towards something I call the “Future Self.” Your goal is to find one topic your PM wants to improve on and help them come up with some easy, actionable steps on how they could improve. Your “definition of good” framework will help the two of you to find such a topic, so use it to guide these development conversations and make sure no topics get forgotten.

Once you land on one topic, like getting better in prioritization, you can help your PM fill out the Future Self template. To learn more about using the Future Self template, check out this blog post, A Lightweight Way to Create a Development Plans for PMs — The Future Self.

When I go through the Future Self exercise with a PM, I will ask them to describe their current situation — what they think they are capable of right now. Those things go into the “As Is” category.

I then ask them to describe their “To Be” — how this person would see themselves after the next four months or so. What needs to change to get from the As Is to the To Be state, and what small things can they improve on? For example, if they’re aiming to improve their prioritization skills, perhaps they will commit to trying out a new tool or method for documenting their decision-making.

In the example below you see how simple yet effective this canvas is. It helped a PM with the vague idea of “I have to get better in prioritization” to figure out the results they want to see (“less discussions, less people complaining”), how they could tell that they have improved on this particular skill (“no more people complaining”), and what steps they could take to get there. That’s what we call a development plan.

Ingredient #5: A commitment to following up

After creating a development plan, you’ll want to make sure that this plan becomes reality. And so, as head of product you’ll need to invest time in regular reviews to track progress together with your PM. You want to check in every now and then to see if they are taking the action steps that you decided on together.

I strongly recommend to do this in your one-on-ones, once a week or at least every two weeks. You’ll want to see if your PMs are moving forward. If not, help them understand why not and then refocus them on their priorities.

Your experience and outside perspective bring so much to the table and is of tremendous help and benefit to them. Even if you don’t have a solid product management background, you still can invest some time and think in terms of, “Okay, if I’m the coach of this person, how can I help them improve and perform better?” When your PMs recognize that you actually care about making them a good product manager, that will encourage them to take the time required to focus on their development.

The positive effect of making people development a priority

If you do all of this, you can expect at least four positive things to happen:

  • Your product managers will feel really valued and welcome in your team and company.
  • They will learn and they will therefore tend to stay with the company because they will feel mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Everybody loves a new challenge, as long as it fits their skill level and their overall goal in life or the next career step. And by improving their skills, they will become better product managers over time.
  • The product will evolve a lot because, if the product manager is getting better, the product will get better, too.
  • Hiring gets a lot easier because people are drawn to companies where they know they will have opportunities to learn the art of product management in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

I bet that by now some of you are asking, “How am I supposed to do this? I have so many direct reports and I would be doing one-on-ones all day long if I followed this advice.” Let me be frank here. If you can’t make time for people development on a regular basis, you’re leaving the burden of development completely up to the product managers, and it will take them longer to improve. And your product organization will remain mediocre.

“If you can’t make time for people development on a regular basis, you’re leaving the burden of development completely up to the product managers, and it will take them longer to improve.” Tweet this

So set some time aside to focus on people development topics. Here’s a recap of how to do this:

  • Define what you think a good PM should be capable of
  • Think about every person on your team and answer these questions:
  • — Where do they stand today compared to my definition of a good PM?
  • — What could they become in the long-term future (your vision for them)?
  • — What’s the next bigger challenge I could assign them to get them closer to this vision?
  • Share your vision with your employee and agree on a common version of this vision
  • Help them to create a development plan with actionable tasks to execute
  • Support them on their self-progression journey by following up regularly

In closing, consider this quote by Seth Godin, which I have slightly adapted: “Paint a picture of their future. Go there, and the people will follow.”

I know that we’ve covered a lot here. If you’d like to dive into any of these topics in more detail (or just want a handy guide you can reference in the future), be sure to check out my book, STRONG. It’s packed full of actionable advice and templates like these to help you develop your product people.

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Petra Wille - loomista

Petra Wille - loomista

Product Leadership Coach and author of STRONG Product People based in Europe. Co-Organizer of MTP Engage Hamburg. Loves the web, music, and kitesurfing.

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