How to Manage Product Managers

“Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”

Clayton Christensen (for more great PM lessons from Clayton, read 8 lessons product managers can learn from Clayton Christensen)

Just as product management can be more ambiguous and challenging than other roles, managing a team of product managers can be even trickier than managing a team of engineers, salespeople, etc. Product managers focus on growing the business by solving user problems. They’re the ones who make sure decisions are made. 

As a product leader who is managing product managers, you’re now the leader of those who guide decision making. It’s a critical role that can sink an early-stage company if not done well. And it’s common to see product leaders who end up being product-tyrants, making all the decisions rather than relying on team collaboration. 

In this article, I’ll share a few lessons that can help you manage PMs more successfully.

On not managing

First, a warning for those who think they want to manage PMs. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) manage others just because you want a promotion.

Managing people and managing products are two very different things. Products don’t care if you care about them. People do.

In my experience managing close to a dozen teams of up to 80 people and advising leaders that managed up to 800 people, I’ve found one thing that will make or break you as a manager: How you value other people. 

How do you see your people?

Are they human beings, or objects that get you what you want?

You can get fine business results while still being a jerk. But treating people like objects has disastrous long-term impacts that do eventually impact business results. For instance, you and others around you will be miserable. Poor treatment by managers is one of the main contributors to the high rate of job dissatisfaction (and turnover) worldwide.

If you want to manage, great. But trying to manage just because that’s the next step is a big reason many people don’t like their managers. More and more companies are creating principal PM positions. If you like being on the ground floor of making things happen, there’s a lot of growth you can enjoy while staying a product manager.

Now, assuming you actually do want to manage, let’s review some ways to do it well.

On giving autonomy

The difference between a product manager and a lot of other similar positions (product owner, scrum master, business analyst, project manager, etc.) is one of scope. The other roles all have bound scope. But a product manager doesn’t have any one skill that stands out as most important. They are responsible for the entire customer experience. If it will add value to the customer and the company, then they are responsible for it.

To this end, not giving autonomy to PMs is a gut-punch to confidence. It will ultimately undermine the outcomes that you want.

The best managers identify outcomes and work with their teams to figure out how they will achieve them. Depending on a PM’s experience and aptitude, you may be able to count on them to develop a strategy.

Think through how you are delegating. Review the 5 levels of delegation and make sure you are clear about where your employee is and where you want them to be. One of the biggest mistakes managers make is not initially setting clear expectations. And of course, you need to frequently reset them as well. If you haven’t ever had a conversation about what’s expected, what’s going well, and what isn’t going well, then the first one can be excruciating. Start doing that today.

Realize that if someone is going to be a PM, it’s better for everyone if you can find ways to give them autonomy. Most of the sections that follow go into detail about how to manage with autonomy.

On coaching and advising

Most managers have no idea how to coach. They think they are coaching, but what they are actually doing is giving advice. In the over 200 interviews my company conducted to build our guided career tool, Career Conversations, the idea of telling vs. coaching consistently came up as the #1 problem that occurs during management conversations. 

You need to provide a framework instead of simply telling them, “Here’s what you’re going to do”.

This is true for almost every conversation you will have, from prototypes to design, to career, etc. Get people to understand problems instead of only expecting them to do what they are told. Then both you and your employee will experience less stress and get more of the outcomes you want.

Listening is now one of your most important skills. 

This is especially true for the first few months in a new role/company. I once had a manager who spent literally three minutes of our first meeting listening to me, only to go on a 20-minute lecture about everything we were doing wrong as a company. Over time, most of the team ended up leaving and then that manager got fired. Don’t be that guy.

Most of us are terrible listeners, but the secret is really pretty simple: shut up and listen. Spend more time asking questions. Make “tell me more” your favorite question. When you can spend more time asking questions and listening, you are far more likely to actually be coaching.

Here are some example questions you can ask the PMs you manage:

  • How would you like to be supported? 
  • When things go well, what recognition would you like?
  • What kind of feedback is most useful for you?
  • If you woke up tomorrow and we had a fantastic relationship, how would you know? What would you be doing? What would I be doing?
  • How should we communicate when we disagree about the right steps to move forward?

On giving feedback

If you’re going to be a good coach, then feedback is going to be a big part of what you do. This topic could be a whole book (and “Radical Candor” is the best book I’ve read on the subject — I highly recommend it), but one nugget from the book is that feedback is easier when it is timely and given with positive intent. 

The best way to understand this is with an example. Kim Scott (the author of “Radical Candor”) had just been hired at Google and given a well-received presentation to the founders. Things seemed to be going well. Her boss (Sheryl Sandberg) tried to tell her that it was good, but she used filler words fairly often. Kim tried to justify it until Sheryl finally said this:

“You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.”

While that seems extremely direct, because of the relationship they had before and after this comment, Kim understood that Sheryl was giving her a gift. Sheryl wanted Kim to actually get better. And Sheryl knew that Kim wasn’t stupid. Read more about the experience in their First Round article.

You have to show that you care and you have to be direct. And when managing high-performers like PMs, you have to be able to give feedback. Done poorly (which usually means not done at all), it doesn’t just impact the PM, but the entire product team and company. PMs influence a ton of things. Feedback needs to match that level of influence.

One of the most successful strategies I’ve found for setting the right cultural tone is to welcome feedback yourself. “What feedback do you have for me?” is one of my favorite questions for 1:1s. When you can assure your employees that you want to hear hard things too, it makes all feedback more welcome. 

On reviewing decisions

This is one of the best things you can do when managing PMs. Review decisions during 1:1s, in recurring product meetings, or ad-hoc when needed, whichever works best for you. The important thing is to do it. 

Here are questions you can consider when conducting a decision review:

  • What are the decisions based on? 
  • How did past decisions perform?
  • Which decisions are being made now and are we aligned on them?
  • How will we know if a decision was good or not?

Good PMs will come prepared with solid reasoning behind decisions. The best PMs will welcome feedback and challenging questions about their thoughts. It’s incredible what can happen when you don’t worry about looking bad.

Pro tip: Use a decision journal during decision reviews to track your progress.

The best product leaders find a good balance between giving input when needed vs. guiding PMs to make the decisions themselves. This balance will vary depending on the experience of the PMs, the product team(s), and the org in general. But the best leaders work to make as few decisions as possible. Decision reviews can help that actually happen.

On putting it all together

Communication is one of the hardest parts of any job. And being a product leader means that communication between you and the PMs you manage is a linchpin in your ability to drive results. There are many other articles that could be written about other challenging parts of the job (setting strategy, working with other executives, leading product-market fit discovery, championing growth), but all of those hinge on having product managers who are engaged in doing the right things.

As you find new ways to give your PMs autonomy through coaching, feedback, and decision reviews, you not only remove stress from the already incredibly stressful role of a PM, but you also set your team up to lead the company in solving complex and ever-changing challenges.