Managing Product Teams: Overcoming Challenges & Steps to Finding Leadership Equilibrium

A good manager balances being involved in the details and giving their people more freedom. As a product team lead, are you mastering this?
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

E. was the first product manager I ever hired. A brilliant guy, with many years of tech leadership experience, but none in product management. Still, he was one of the best hires I made in this area and he turned out to be a product star.

When I hired him I already had a lot of experience in people management. I used to manage large development teams — all smart and independent people — but I hadn’t managed product managers before.

Over the years I learned that this is a major difference. More on that below.

Regardless of my experience, before E. joined I owned the product end-to-end and managed it all myself. And now I had to split the work and the responsibility between us.

Loyal to my belief that a product manager should have a complete domain of responsibility, I gave him full ownership of a certain part of the product which was mostly separate from other parts.

So E. had his own domain to lead. It was a relatively technical and tactical area, which was a safe zone for him to acquire and practice his product management skills.

Honestly, it was an area which I was already tired of managing myself because of the exact same reasons mentioned above — it was tactical and involved a lot of grunt work — so it was easy for me to let go, and I was able to still feel in control and maintain my overall product ownership by just overseeing it (of course the fact that E. was awesome at his job made me feel better too).

One day, E. asked to talk to me, his face showing that he was unhappy with something. One of these conversations… He told me very clearly that he wants to do more and feels that he is ready for more responsibility.

I listened carefully. Despite the fact that I was a little surprised by the conversation since I didn’t feel anything was wrong until that moment, I immediately realized he was right. He was ready to grow further in his role.

But even though it was as clear as day that it needed to happen, it wasn’t as easy for me to let go this time. Understanding and doing are very different things — ask anyone who wants to lose weight.

So why was it so hard for me, despite the fact that I managed smart and independent people in the past?

What are the Unique Challenges of Managing Product Managers

It starts with my guiding principle that every product manager needs to think about strategy. The cliche of being the product CEO holds here — one needs to see their product area end-to-end and fully own it.

But how can you fully own something when your manager is also in charge of the strategy? And how can you let someone from your team lead parts of the strategy which you own yourself?

This is especially true in smaller teams where the Head of Product takes some of the hands-on work themselves and the boundaries become even more blurry. It is sometimes much easier to split a large team between peer product managers than it is to split between a manager and one or two additional product managers.

Bottom line is that leading a product management team is more similar to managing managers than to managing individual contributors. And while in most areas (think development, support, marketing, operations) managing managers comes after you have plenty of experience in managing individual contributors, in the product domain there are many leaders whose first people management experience is actually managing product managers.

This often leads to one of two extremes on the manager’s side: I see product executives who either micro-manage the people in their team to be able to feel in control or don’t manage them at all in the attempt to let go and allow the individual product managers to own and lead.

Both options are bad, and leaving one of the sides unhappy and lacking in power.

So whether the people you manage are ready for their next level of responsibility, or your team is growing and you can no longer be involved in the details as much as you used to, if it’s time give more responsibility to the product managers reporting to you, how can you do it and still own the end-to-end product yourself?

The 4 Steps to Finding Management Equilibrium

1. Define your boundaries

I often think about my role as a manager like the bumper rails on the sides of a bowling lane. They define the lane boundaries and make sure no ball rolls outside of these boundaries. But the boundaries are relatively wide — some balls will strike, while others will only hit a single pin.

Photo by Karla Rivera on Unsplash

As a manager, you need to define your boundaries. What are the things that you must not take your eyes off of?

These are typically things like the problem definition, problem validation, alignment of the overall strategy or between product areas, and strategic planning.

Defining what you can’t take your eyes off of also means defining what you shouldn’t be too involved in. Make an informed decision on where it is fine to give the product manager a wider playground for them to lead in.

Note that not all product managers need the same level of guidance and monitoring — you can let the more experienced ones move more freely and consult with you as needed, while you monitor the more junior product managers’ work more closely.

It is important that you are aware of your natural tendency and try to challenge your comfort zone. And at the same time, you need to do it smartly and not let everything fall apart. Baby steps are a great way to make progress. For example, you can initially move from defining the strategy alone into leading a thinking effort with a product manager who is ready. Or you can move from providing answers, to asking questions and letting the product managers come to you with the answers. Both, by the way, are good management practices in general, not only when you need to challenge yourself.

Another thing that helped me overcome my tendency for micro-management is to ask myself what is the worst-case scenario in monitoring something less closely. I changed the paradigm from control to risk management, and knowing what to expect went a long way for me.

2. Define processes and checkpoints

Now that you know where your boundaries are, you can define processes and checkpoints that will help you enforce them.

Processes are a natural part of the company and team growth.

If you worry about being too rigid, you can start with defining high-level processes (which would give each team member the flexibility to implement them as they see fit). For example, you can define that each product/epic/feature should start with a high-level document explaining why we are doing it, what would be considered a good solution, and how will you measure success — but you don’t have to define the template of the document itself. Each product manager would be able to work in the format that is convenient for them, as long as the questions above are answered clearly.

Make sure the processes you define include the relevant checkpoints according to the boundaries you defined in step #1. The document mentioned above is a good checkpoint for strategy and problem definition, for example.

3. Think at a higher level

As a team manager, you see the bigger picture more closely or widely than your team does. Seeing the bigger picture is always one of the hardest things to do alone (much of what I do with my customers is exactly around that), and a good manager can add a lot of value in always taking the team to a level higher than they tend to think in.

The beauty in all of this is that now that you are removing yourself from some of the details, you actually have more time to think about the bigger picture and make yourself more valuable in this area. This is something that will benefit everyone — you, the team and the company as a whole.

Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

4. Make yourself comfortable in the manager’s seat

One of the questions I keep hearing is ”how legitimate is it for me (as the manager) to review my product manager’s decisions?

Well, the answer has to be “very legitimate.” You are their manager. You need to feel comfortable sitting in the manager’s seat. And you are there for a reason — you have complete product ownership towards your manager (the CEO for example) and the entire company.

There are things YOU need as a manager, to be able to do your job right.

You are not supposed to be invisible. It’s okay to “interfere” if you know why you are doing it and how it adds value to the process.

Don’t be afraid to manage your team. Don’t fall into the passive-aggressiveness of doing either micro-management or no management at all.

There is a whole area in the middle, and both you and your team can only grow from finding it.

P.S. Everything I said above holds for your other leadership relationships as well. Think about your relationship with R&D for example, and read the above advice again from that perspective. I’m sure you’ll find it useful.

P.S.S. If you are not a product team lead yourself, forward this article to the relevant person in your organization. I’m sure you’ll benefit from it as well.

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