Managing up as a newbie product manager

Nick Gray
Nick Gray
May 31, 2018 · 8 min read

I’ve been Roadmunk’s newest product manager for 120 days (give-or-take). And while it’s been a career-changing gig full of growth, it’s also been… peculiar. I say peculiar for a couple of reasons:

  1. I joined a product organization as a product manager for a tool for other product managers. Feels like some weird Inception shit sometimes.
  2. Roadmunk is a small product organization, so every day I report to and work with our CEO, Latif Nanji. It’s to the point where I feel like my notebooks are filled with more of his “notes” than mine. Take this lovely uh, diagram for example.

Working directly with Latif has been one of the most intriguing (and challenging) parts of my first 120 days at Roadmunk. The reason: I have to manage up A LOT. Latif was a PM before he founded Roadmunk, so he’s still a PM at heart. It’s intimidating to step into a new PM role and report not only to a CEO, but an experienced PM-turned-CEO. I’ve had to prove to Latif he doesn’t have to own product decisions; I can. I can take his learnings and insights and turn them into actionable results for the product team.

To be at the CEO’s level of decision-making, I had to see eye-to-eye with him.

I won’t say I’ve managed up 100% in four months, but I recently had a breakthrough when pitching Latif a new user onboarding initiative. Research, competitive analysis, options, reasons why, a proposed solution — the whole package. The conversation ended with him stating, “Why are you talking to me about this? You have all the answers. Go ahead!” Huh? What the hell just happened?

This interaction got me wondering what I did right. So I collected my own thoughts on how I got to the point of Latif finally trusting me to own product decisions. These are some practical steps I’ve taken to manage up in my first 4 months here at Roadmunk.

1. Staying n’sync

Don’t judge me for the boy band reference. To be at the CEO’s level of decision-making, I had to see eye-to-eye with him. That meant frequent communication. We (Product and Latif) have a weekly sync every Monday on product strategy. Each sync I define a weekly goal for the product team to align on and achieve. Also walk-and-talks. It’s refreshing to grab Latif, step outside for fresh air and sync up on strategic initiatives and product vision.

A great part about working every day, all day with the CEO is I get the latest information. I get a true reflection of how our company operates at every level. From new hires to departments to even the board level. These syncs show Latif I’ve extracted insights from what he regularly shares with meand I can distill that information to our product team. I can turn his jumble of input (and believe me, it can be a jumble) into actionable output for us to move forward with.

2. Sharing the workload

Another way I’ve managed up is by putting things on my table that I know are big time sinks for Latif. He’s a very hands-on CEO; he likes to meet with customers and be roped into customer inquiries of larger accounts. But I know that’s a huge time sink for him. So what I’ve done in the background is I started joining more of those customer conversations so that I can take that load off of him.

Taking away some of that responsibility (and making it explicitly clear) shows Latif that I can do what he can do. That stamp of approval doesn’t always need to come from you Latif, I can create that stamp instead bud.

3. Just say no

There are like a million posts on saying no. “Learn how to say no as a PM.” “Saying no is important for PMs.” “Why saying no will make you the best PM EVER!” The sheer number of them can make someone jaded to this insight. But honestly, learning to say no (and confidently) is a key component of how I gained Latif’s trust.

For example, Latif and I had a meeting with our marketing team about an upcoming promotional event. Latif jumped the gun in terms of what could be achieved on product’s side before the event. Had I been too scared to say anything — and say no, that’s not possible — our marketing team would have a very different perspective of our product vision.

As PMs, we should be a wealth of product knowledge — especially at startups.

My job as the product manager is to align everyone, INCLUDING our CEO. Being able to say, “No, that’s not happening,” and explain why, is part of how I show Latif that I can speak to product vision and ensure alignment no matter who I’m speaking with.

4. Pushing the needle forward (i.e. extra initiative)

To be blunt with you, my plate is full everyday at Roadmunk. Like brimming to the rim full. If my plate can only contain 100%, I’ll still put 150% on my plate. If I get 90% of that done, I’m not a happy camper. Hit about 120% or more, then you may see some pearly whites.

I’ve built a cadence of work that I share daily with Latif. I’ll put more than I can chew off on my plate and during our daily standups, I’ll voice exactly what I did yesterday and what I plan on tackling today. Even when it seems like a shit show, this process shows Latif I can get shit done. No excuses.

5. Earning my fellow Roadmunkers’ trust

I think the biggest way I’ve gained Latif’s trust is by showing him that I can communicate with other Roadmunk departments. I firmly believe PMs should be THE main point of contact for each department regarding anything product-related. As PMs, we should be a wealth of product knowledge — especially at startups.

I made it a point to build inter-departmental relationships. I established myself as a trustworthy (and reliable) repository of product info for my fellow Roadmunkers. (Having a clear roadmap definitely helped here; try a template out.) Proving myself to other departments gave me more ammo when working with Latif because it provided him with a better consensus of me. Sure, he has his opinions about me, but how did everyone else feel? Affirmation from others gives Latif confidence to offload more stuff onto me.

Opinions straight from the squirrel (a.k.a. Latif)

I can go on about how I think I managed up to Latif, but I thought opinions straight from the squirrel’s mouth would probably be valuable. (Context: I’ve fondly nicknamed him the squirrel because this man connects idea to idea like a really energetic squirrel.) Bugging him a few times, I got him to divulge his real opinions about how I’ve developed our working relationship so far.

For more context’s sake, Latif has 3 things he looks for in a new PM:

  1. Emotional intelligence
  2. An inherent capability to hold a ton of information and dispense it accordingly
  3. An ability to sell the product you’re making

So it seems like I was able to hit those three points for Latif, but when exactly did he realize that?

Alright, so he technically had an answer. My ‘journey’ to prove myself was (and still is) an ongoing process. And while Latif’s attributed my path to several different factors, I had to find out if he was influenced by my inter-departmental relationships from these past few months.

I feel like this is the point I should be swelling with pride, but it can’t be all praise. There must be something I could have done to better gain Latif’s trust. On my end I think I definitely could have started talking to customers sooner. A lot of the time I’m able to influence Latif when I have customer information to back up my decisions.

While I was taking correct steps to prove myself to Latif, it would have definitely helped to have dove head first into the product management space before starting my gig. Learn the ins & outs of the space and see what product managers really do, beforehand.

The key to managing up: manage in all directions

As Latif mentioned, being a PM not only means managing up to eager, energetic (and squirrelish) upper management, but it also means managing horizontally. Managing one damn direction is hard enough, why we gotta deal with both? Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. But managing horizontally is one of the best ways to show upper management that you can grasp those difficult product decisions.

To newbie PMs learning to manage up, I say: ask me over LinkedIn ;). But in all seriousness, prepare to do extra legwork. I haven’t gotten there completely (duh — it’s been just over 4 months), but I’m getting there. Just take a deep plunge into as many business aspects as you can because that’s your job. Understand every aspect between metrics, customers, blockers, departments, markets and strategies. Use this information to make those damn decisions and earn that trust.

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