The myth of the ‘superhero’ product manager

Published Jun 29, 2021

The role of product management in tech is an often coveted job position. It’s  a unique opportunity to be at an exciting intersection of so many functions in a company and to shape the organization’s future vision. 

Product managers are required to be multifaceted individuals. We can dive deep into the technical details of a product while simultaneously demonstrating great design intuition and comfort with prototyping. We work in close collaboration with marketing, engineering, UX design, research, sales, legal, and so many other parts of the company. We act as the voice of the customer in our core working groups on the one hand, but serve as the internal advocates for a feature or a product on the other. We balance prioritizing short-term execution with long-term product vision and strategy that moves the right needles for the company at large. 

In short: if you’re someone who never wants each day of work to feel the same, product management is a good bet for a career that will keep you excited. 

With this excitement, however, comes an elephant in the room: For many, the role can be emotionally exhausting. 

It’s hard to be an effective PM if you don’t bring a healthy dose of optimism to your work. When there are so many ways things can go wrong, a PM’s top priority is to be a problem solver for their team or organization. At the end of the day, they are responsible for finding ways to move forward and bring results (e.g. shipping products that solve real user problems). But how does one recognize the difference between aspiring to be an effective PM versus burning out after trying to be  a superhero? 

Being an effective PM requires constantly navigating between and around different failure modes. In every product or feature, there are difficulties or risks that a PM keeps a careful eye on. These are the things that can go wrong, which are critically important to track and mitigate. But not all problems can be solved or should be solved solely by the PM. It’s important to recognize when you’re falling short as a PM rather than being asked to do something beyond the realm of possibility. 

Here are a few signs that you may be operating in the unsustainable role of the product manager as a superhero: 

    • Lone wolf: You are operating on your own, often without the support of a strong cross-functional partnership or triad (UX and Eng leads). Your work is what you accomplish through others. If you do not have the support of key core stakeholders (within your immediate team), you may find that even the smallest things like prioritizing bug fixes or negotiating timelines feel like a constant uphill battle. Building and embracing strong partnerships is so key to a sustainable PM role.
    • Lack of mentorship/management: Though the day-to-day of PMing is rather hands-off from a manager’s perspective, it’s still super critical to have the support of a manager or mentor who can guide you and give timely advice. For a PM to succeed, they need to strike the right balance of having a manager who they can learn from while having the autonomy to make mistakes on their own. Ideally, this feedback loop creates an environment where a PM can learn what works and what doesn’t in their practice and specific context of PMing. Without this, you could spend months and years just shipping and executing without much insight into the deliberate practices/general habits that make you an effective PM. While this may work in your specific PM role, you may find it challenging to transition to a new PM role later. 
    • Lack of cross-functional alignment: One of the hardest things PMs are asked to do is drive cross-functional alignment. Let’s face it: Playing nicely with others can be hard. PMs have to be able to build good-faith relationships and earn trust and credibility with those who do not report to them or even work directly with them. With the can-do attitude of PMs, we like to think that we can build a successful relationship with any person out there. But at the end of the day,  getting others to align to your/company goals takes very deliberate and concentrated effort. It’s tough and time-consuming to move a rocky partnership into a good, high-trust state. So when you find yourself frustrated or exhausted from trying to get people to like you, you may have to acknowledge that it isn’t you and it may be beyond you to fix that specific relationship. Accepting this does not mean that you are less of a PM, it just means that you can recognize how to play to your strengths in specific situations. And fixing every broken relationship, even if not extremely critical, is not one of those strengths. 
    • Lack of engineering resources: Simply put, products get built through the work of engineering teams. If you are a PM on a team that’s constantly lacking engineering support, you’ll find it difficult to ship features and get things done. You may be hearing very clear pain points from your user base, have a very sharp vision of what needs to get built, and detailed requirements/UX specs— but without engineering support, you won’t be able to execute. This can be a frustrating spot to be in, even temporarily, because PMs will largely feel as effective as the experiences they are able to bring to their users. 
    • Lack of substantive progress: This last one is often very related to a lack of engineering resources, but not always a direct result of it. PMs sometimes suffer from the “barber pole illusion.”. That’s the feeling that you are making significant progress in your work but in reality, you’re not really moving any meaningful needles. The constant work and execution makes you feel busy and productive because you are simply getting things done, but when you take a step back and survey the impact of that work, you realize it’s not truly landing because it’s not solving the larger business or user problems at hand. What’s especially tricky about these situations is that it’s not obvious at all, and it’s extremely difficult to intentionally take a step back and see if you’ve made progress or not. PMs may have structural check-ins like OKR reviews, business reviews, and strategy reviews that are designed to provoke these types of conversations. But these may not be a catch-all and still, PMs can feel like they’re doing everything humanly possible to be the best PM ever but the numbers simply don’t reflect that work. This can feel incredibly exhausting or demoralizing over the long term. 

To some, what I’ve described may seem like a list of excuses for why a PM is not successful. It’s true that PMs share the responsibility of owning and fixing many of the failure modes described above. After all, PMs have to possess an innate sense of optimism and “can-do” attitude. 

Otherwise, they wouldn’t last on the job very long at all.

Next time on ProductCraft, I’ll discuss four indispensable qualities that successful PMs cannot do without.