From People Manager to Product Manager

My Path to Product Management: Part 3

Product Management: the intersection of User Experience, Business, and Technology. Every product manager has a different story to tell about how they got here, and I’ve decided to share my own tale as a multi-part series.

In Part 1 of my journey, I compared Software Testing to Product Management, and shared my thoughts on the ease of transitioning between the two roles. In Part 2, I touched on my Software Engineering background, and how it’s been both helpful, yet sometimes detrimental, to being an effective Product Manager. In Part 3, I’ll focus on my experience as an Engineering Manager, and some commonalities between managing people and managing a product.

Product Management is not People Management

As a Product Manager, your role is to ensure your team is building the right product. But, mind the language — it’s not your team in the sense that you own it. You are a member of a team that builds software together. You manage a product, not people, which means that Product Management is often a trial of influencing others without authority.

Influencing your team requires communication and trust.

You need to trust that each member of the team is doing what they do best, be it engineering, design, marketing, or testing. In return, they need to trust your product vision, priorities, and user-centered insights. Check out Jim Thomson’s post for more information on Trust and Balanced Teams.

You also need to communicate your product vision and insights to the rest of the team. If you’re able to articulate the value of a given feature and the impact it will have on the customers and the business, then the rest of the team will make decisions based on this crucial information. As the Product Manager, you can’t (and shouldn’t) ask the team to work beyond a sustainable pace or make any sacrifices. But, sharing information about project goals and timelines may help influence how the team splits up work or when they choose to pay down technical debt instead of working on the next feature.

Even though Product Management is not people management, there are a few skills that I’ve used frequently in both roles:

Deflect Praise, Absorb Blame

Product Managers and people managers alike should make a habit of proclaiming their teams’ many achievements. Shout it from the rooftops to all who will listen. Make your team look good, because they are.

Likewise, you need to help shield your team from blame when things go sideways. Be accountable for the team’s failures, and be the driving force that helps your team improve.

Lead

Product Management is not, by definition, a leadership role. However, I’ve found that leadership skills, when applied appropriately, can be extremely beneficial to a balanced team. This may come in the form of inspiring others, building relationships, or facilitating conversations. As a Product Manager, I frequently lean on the leadership experience I had gained while working as a people manager.

Unblock

As both a people manager and a Product Manager, you need to keep your team moving by clearing any obstacles in their way. As a people manager, this might include making sure each person has an efficient workspace and the feedback that they need to improve. As a Product Manager, this involves having a backlog of stories ready to go and being available to answer any questions. In either case, the focus is on enabling each member of the team to do whatever it is that they do best.

Until next time…

Stay tuned for Part 4 of My Path to Product Management: From Technical Product Manager to Product Manager.