My product mindset always leads me to make hypotheses and assumptions, and now is no exception. I’m assuming that you’re reading this article because you are about to start a new and exciting product management role at an interesting company. If my assumption is incorrect, we’re still good — this knowledge is useful for all product people. But if I’m correct in my assumption, let me first congratulate you on securing the offer! You must have gone through an intensive recruitment process, conducted thorough company research, and completed several rounds of interviews. This is indeed an exciting moment and you should be proud of yourself. However, it’s only the beginning of your journey in this new environment.
Regardless of your level of experience or the title you are given in your contract, a product management position is a leadership role even if you are in the early stages of your career. In this case, “leadership” doesn’t refer to an impressive title or direct reports. Instead, it signifies leading by influence rather than by authority. You need to earn people’s respect and become the go-to person in your organization. Your influence will be the natural outcome of your level of knowledge, wisdom, manner, and empathy — plus how well you can strategize and execute.
So, the immediate mission you have from day one is to set the foundation for effective leadership-by-influence at your new workplace. And that requires a carefully thought-out entrance strategy.
Creating an entrance strategy
The overall plan for your first month should be to observe, listen, ask questions, and learn. And considering the key responsibilities of the PM role, this strategy can be applied to the following five areas:
- Empathy and communication
- Company dynamics
- Domain knowledge
- Product artifacts
- Tech stack and processes
Let’s go through each of these in turn.
Build empathy through effective communication
First, let me remind you where your role sits by showing you the famous product management diagram.
As depicted above, product management sits at the intersection of business, user experience, and technology. That means, as a product person, you must be able to communicate cross-functionally. In other words, you need to speak three languages fluently: business, design, and technology.
And when we talk about “speaking their language” that really means you have to be able to think like them and appreciate the world from their perspective. A very powerful approach that can help you execute this strategy is to build empathy with each discipline. By speaking their language, you are fostering both empathy and trust, which eventually will earn you respect across all disciplines and help you to become an influencer at work.
And part of the strategy is to identify key people and decision-makers on each team that you will potentially interface with. Learn their names and make sure they get to know you, too. Then you can proactively initiate friendly conversations with them and find common interests (even if they’re not work-related). Gradually, you’ll learn more about their team and mainly the challenges they face at work. Simply by appreciating their perspectives and challenges, you are establishing strong relationships. You don’t need to agree or disagree with all their points — you just need to be a good listener.
Understand the company dynamics
The majority of product people do some in-depth research about companies prior to joining there. But there is really no way to properly appreciate a company’s unique dynamic before you actually start working there. And that includes learning about all parts of the business and how they interact. More importantly, it means uncovering the internal politics.
Internal politics within organizations is a complex matter which naturally develops over the years. And although some companies claim they don’t accept or tolerate politics, they do exist in most organizations. Now, your strategy here is to sense these dynamics early on. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not encouraging you to then play into those politics. Quite the opposite, in fact. And if you do, you will be adapting to a damaging culture, which is in direct conflict with the principle of leading by influence. The point here is to understand existing dynamics so you can adjust your approach, strategy, and communication to be as effective and efficient as possible. In the end, this will benefit the work, your product, and most importantly, the end-user whose voice is supposed to be echoed by you, the product people.
In addition, it will help you make sense of all the potential nonsense that you may face down the road. Let’s put it this way: it will help you see the big picture.
Build up your domain knowledge
This starts with being 100% clear about the company’s mission and the vision they have for their products. Your organization’s overall mission is what you, as a product person, need to think about whenever you make big product decisions. So don’t let it take longer than your first month to grasp it. And if you have any doubts about the mission, just ask people and get clarity.
The majority of product people stay in one domain or industry for a while, if not their entire career. At the same time, it’s not terribly uncommon to switch from one industry to a very different one. In that case, it could potentially take more than 30 days to build up the minimum level of domain knowledge. During that first month, try to learn the key concepts of that domain and most importantly, the user personas, their jobs, needs, wants, and pain points, even if only at a high level. After all, product management should always start with finding the right problem to solve.
Master the product artifacts
The product roadmap, backlog, release plans, and the working product(s) or their prototypes are your babies. Your daily work in the first month should be mostly focused on understanding and mastering these artifacts so, at the end of the 30 days, you can claim you truly own the product and become the go-to person for anything related to that product.
Also, get yourself familiar with at least the upcoming two or three sprints and their priorities.
Understand the tech stack
Understanding the company’s technology stack will always help in your conversations with the development team. This is how you speak their language and build empathy as emphasized in Point One. So, spend some time in your first month finding out what key technologies and tools are being used in the company to build products and manage processes and pipelines. And if there is any that you don’t know about, just ask or do your own research. You don’t need to learn these technologies inside and out. However, you do need to know what they’re used for and be able to have meaningful conversations with your engineers.
Things to avoid in your first month
To reiterate, your strategy for the first month is mainly to learn enough about the company, products, people, and processes to establish the foundation of your leadership and influence there. Any activity or conduct that is not in line with that strategy can potentially have a negative impact on the first impression your coworkers will have of you.
Engaging in self-promotion
Some product people let the love for the products they successfully defined and managed in the past drive them into the trap of self-promotion when they join a new company. Being overly self-congratulatory can cause insecurity in your new coworkers and they may even start to see you as a threat to their position. The worst-case scenario would be when your own manager feels this way. Your knowledge, wisdom, and manner are the best representatives of you. So leave all your past achievements for LinkedIn. If anyone is interested, they will have a look. After all, a true leader can manage their ego and demonstrate selflessness.
Making changes too soon
As the “new person,” you are seeing everything at the company with fresh eyes — and zero context or history. This is actually a positive thing and can be very useful for both you and the company. However, it can be problematic if you push too hard to change the current processes or the direction of the product shortly after you join. Right or wrong, people are used to the existing ways of doing or thinking and may be resistant to change. With the influence that you are gradually building, you will earn their trust and get their buy-in. That said, it shouldn’t take too long either to implement some much-needed improvements.
Clashes or arguments with your cross-functional team.
This one might be obvious, but it’s worth repeating — don’t damage any interdepartmental relationships, especially not during your first month!
Make an impact in your first 30 days
Although your strategy for your first month should mostly be to observe and learn, it’s also helpful to find an area where even small improvements can make a large impact. Then, make that improvement and impress your new team.
At the end of your first 30 days, you will hopefully have learned a lot and set the foundation for long-term success. All of your observations and learnings will become inputs in your ongoing strategy to lead through influence and make a real impact on the company, your product, and the lives of your users.
Best of luck in your new position.