Every new product manager wants to make their mark, but before you’re viewed as a thought leader with the respect of various internal factions, you need to build a foundation of respect, collaboration, and trust. These tasks can’t be put off - gaining influence and authority is the core of your first three months on the job. How you spend your first three months in a new product management role sets the tone for your entire tenure with the company.
So what should you do? What should you avoid? What can wait until later? Below are the essential undertakings during the first, second, and third month on the job:
There are two traps product managers often fall into when they start a new position. Falling into these can put you on the wrong footing at your new PM job, leaving you to play catch-up later.
The first is getting lost in the world of paperwork, documentation and systems. This doesn’t help you really learn how the company works or help you establish your credibility. It can also give folks a negative impression of your engagement and interest, since you’re spending too much time alone at your desk.
The second trap is to “come in hot” and start making proclamations and decisions too quickly. No one likes a know-it-all, and it doesn’t show much respect for the work people put in before you got there and leads with their own subjective experience bias. That’s why your first 30 days should be non-stop meetings and conversations, with the focus on listening and asking questions.
“Showing up to your new gig and immediately bashing long established norms will backfire,” says Jarie Bolander of The Daily MBA. “Those norms are there for a reason and you must first respect them and then try to figure out how to change it. This is true even if everyone hates the policy or procedure. Go slow and build your reputation up first before challenging company norms.”
The key to avoiding this is to start talking to people, scheduling as many one-on-one meetings as possible with peers, superiors and individual contributors in each part of the organization. The more perspectives you get, the better you can help everyone succeed.
“Try to get time with anyone critical to you performing your job,” says Barron Ernst of Naspers. “You want to spend this time not criticizing people or their jobs, but instead spending the time to understand their role, the metrics they are focusing on, and the problems they are facing. The key here is to listen. If you walk in the door and try to tell a long time employee how to do their job or criticize their thinking, you’re not going to be received well.”
Now that you’ve shown you’re here to listen and help, these meetings are a chance to discover where you should focus early on for some quick wins, as well as what landmines or simmering problems may be lurking in the shadows.“Identify and surface issues percolating just below the radar that may not have been discussed during the interview process and first few days on the job,” says Vincent Huang of BetterWorks. “A good filter for this was to ask how we could do things faster, more efficiently, or better. This goal of mine included figuring out what the team needed, which was also an opportunity for me to provide additional value."
Of course, the most important meetings are going to be with your new manager, as their perception of you and your work is critical.“Learn about your boss,” says The PM in Heels. “How does she like to assign work? What’s her communication style (email, in person, phone)? What does she expect from you in the first 30-60-90 days?”
If your manager has specific things they’re looking for at these milestones, create a plan and update the status weekly so they can see how you’re progressing.Finally, your first 30 days should include meetings with people outside of your office. Start visiting customers right away so you can avoid your own cognitive biases and get direct product feedback.
“Before any biases set in, let’s them hear and evaluate external feedback. Also arms them with first hand information so they can start contributing when they return to the office,” says Saeed Khan of On Product Management, adding that “As the new PM probably can’t go alone to a lot of the meetings due to lack of product or possibly domain knowledge, provides a good excuse to get one or more other PMs out of the office as well. Helps those PMs traveling together bond as a team which is great for the PM team.”
One month in, you’ll have sponged up enough data to be dangerous, so it’s key to start asserting yourself in small doses, while continuing to prove that you’re a good listener and team player.
Demoing the product to an internal audience is a good test of what you’ve learned so far, and a great way to prove to the team that you understand how things work.“Let them know that the whole point of the exercise is to gauge where you stand in terms of knowing your product in and out and also figure out gaps which you need to fill,” says Gopal Shanoy of Software Product Manager. “This event is not because product managers will be demo jockies, but because you as a product manager must be able to demo your product in the event of a crunch.”
Product managers are rarely hired at a specific, perfect moment; engineers are coding away, QA is testing, and releases are scheduled that are past the “PM phase” of the process. But you can still add value and do some learning by offering to run a retrospective on a release that mostly pre-dates your arrival.
“This is one of my favorite things to do when I’m new to an organization or team as it gives me the advantage of being an outsider. People are generally more comfortable doing retrospectives with someone who hasn’t been around when the release took place,” says Karthik Vijayakumar of Design Your Thinking. “Retrospectives give a good sense of how things went in the release, what went wrong, and how people believe they can be improved.”
This is also a great time to immerse yourself in the technical aspects of your product, as you will soon be far too busy dealing with the market and customers to take a deep dive into the tech. Plus it’s a chance to show engineers that you’re interested in how they build your products, not just the final output.“Make a list of the most important technologies related to your product and do intensive research to make sure you understand them,” says Mira Wooten of the 280 Group. “If there are engineers on your team who are experts in particular technologies, spend some time with them and have them educate you on the technology. Play on their desire to be the expert and you’ll find that they are more than willing to share their knowledge so that you can quickly come up to speed.”
You can go even further by showing off your technical chops in the actual code base.
“I’m a firm believer in PMs being technical, and an excellent starter project is to fix a bug or launch a minuscule feature on your own,” says Ken Norton of Google Ventures. “Set up a dev environment and ask for something bite-sized that you can do. Ask for help and be considerate of your time and the team’s – you’re a PM after all, not a full-time engineer.”
Your second month on the job is really the first time you can realistically begin affecting actual products as a product manager. So start small and find an opportunity to “make a dent” in what you perceive is a need or shortcoming of the product.
“Attack something significant that can be done and achieved in 30 days,” says Ori Soen of Kampyle. “Don't try to change everything or overhaul something that will take months to complete. Just focus on a core piece of functionality that will make a good impact.”
When you get to your third month on the job, it’s time to really start making an impact on the product and get something you owned from its inception make its way into production.“Start with a reasonably small requirement with clear and easily measurable success metrics. Work with the team to get it done right,” says Rian van der Merwe of Wildbit. “Measure, and show the success of the process. Use this to build trust and continue to ship improvements (and even better products).”
You’ve also now internalized enough learning from internal folks, customers, and market research to truly claim ownership of the product. It’s time to start getting strategic and sharing your plans with the team.
Unveiling your initial product roadmap and creating product dashboards that feature the important metrics, KPIs you plan to track, and how you’re going to help sales move the needle are great outputs for Month Three. And as you begin talking about the future, it’s great to issue a long-term goal as a rallying point for the larger team.
“Communicate a product's North Star,’” says Dan Schmidt of MDsave on Quora. “To unite and inspire the team, get everyone excited about the really big vision for the product. It's a vision that cannot be immediately achieved, but serves as a greater context for how your product will change the world.”
Finally, if you’ve inherited a team of product managers, you’ve now had the chance to assess your staff. It’s time to decide who’s up to the challenge, who’s not, and then let the keepers do their job.
“Once you are convinced that the members of your team are capable of success and properly equipped to succeed, then you will need to let these people do their job,” says Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. “If you micro-manage your product managers they will not step up and take ownership the way you need them to. If you can't trust your product managers, you need to find product managers you can trust.”Let’s review what you’ll need to do in the first three months.