How product managers can avoid false beliefs and revive their careers
In this episode, instead of me interviewing a guest, I’m being interviewed. Mike Belsito, co-organizer of the INDUSTRY conference for software product managers, interviewed me a few weeks ago for an INDUSTRY webinar. We both found the discussion very valuable and I’m sharing it with you on this podcast as well.
The topic is: Are your misconceptions about product management holding your career back?
Product management has a longer history than many people realize, dating formally back to the 1930s. The first professional association for product managers that is still in existence, PDMA, began in 1976. While the discipline is not new, several misconceptions exist about what product management is and what product managers do. In this discussion, I’ll help you find the best place for you to contribute to creating products and services customers love so your career will take off.
Check out the Virtual INDUSTRY conference coming up on April 20 and 21 by going to industryconference.com. I’m not receiving any commission from INDUSTRY, just recommending it because it is good.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[4:45] Tell us about the misconception that product management is a brand-new discipline.
Recently, product management has grown in popularity and visibility, but the discipline has been around for a long time. People have been building products for a very, very long time, and product management as a discipline originated around the 1930s at P&G, where product managers were originally called brand managers and were responsible for developing a product, growing a brand, and getting customers to adopt the new product. The Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), the first professional organization for product managers, began in 1976. I found out about product management through PDMA and found their resources and body of knowledge really helpful. As product managers, we have access to a solid foundation of knowledge.
[8:00] What are some other common product management misconceptions?
Many people think that because they don’t have the job title of product manager, they’re not doing product management. Actually, many people involved in product innovation, product development, or product marketing are doing product management. I use the IDEA framework to describe the full spectrum of product work:
- Ideate—coming up with ideas and putting together a concept to pursue
- Develop—making the concept real, e.g., writing software or manufacturing
- Evolve—continuing to make the product better after launch
- Accelerate—practices that improve product work
At some organizations, product managers are all about Ideate; at others they focus on Develop or Evolve. Understanding the full breadth of product work helps us find the aspects that are a good fit for us and bring us joy.
[13:15] What’s an example of someone reframing their work as product management?
A listener of my podcast was a product marketer responsible for growing the product’s position in the marketplace. He reached out and said he really wanted to get into product management, which he believed was all about coming up with new ideas. After talking, he realized that he could easily call his work product management. He was learning what customers want and improving existing products. He ended up continuing to work in product marketing and loved it. All he had to do was think about his work differently and it became a good fit for him.
I hear many people say they love the work they’re doing but despise the environment they’re in. If they reframe their work, look for the aspects they really enjoy, and try to find work that aligns with that, they may be happier.
[15:53] What misconceptions about product management are holding people back in their careers?
One thing holding people back is not having good alignment between their role in product and where they find joy. This might be because they don’t have a broad enough picture of what product work entails. Someone might think product management is all about customers but find that their organization thinks it’s all about data. With a broad perspective on product work, they may be able to help their organization think differently, because their organization is limiting itself if it doesn’t let product managers gain customer insights. One listener emailed me and said he had had his first interview for a product manager position, but he was disappointed because the organization didn’t talk about product management in at all the same way as I do on my podcast. It’s important to remember there are different perspectives on product management, and understanding the full breadth of product management can help us recognize we might be focused on different areas but we’re all working together on product.
[19:01] What can we do if we’re in an organization where product managers don’t get to talk to customers?
First, examine yourself and get feedback from others. If your organization doesn’t let product managers talk to customers, it’s probably a trust issue. At some point, a salesperson felt a product person jeopardized their relationship with a customer. To get the chance to talk with customers, you need to build trust, so don’t go behind the backs of the sales or marketing teams. Consider building relationships with non-customers first. For example, product managers from an exhaust fan company went to Home Depot and asked Home Depot’s customers how they chose which fan to buy. After you gain some insights, take your salespeople out to lunch and share what you’ve learned. Build relationships so they might invite you to come along when they talk to customers.
[22:50] What are common missteps product managers take and what can they do to revive their career?
Set a cadence of predictably getting feedback from those around you. Ask for feedback from people you can trust to give honest feedback, even if it feels like a gut punch.
Recognize that product managers have a great deal of responsibility but no authority. When I ask people why they got involved in product management, I get two common responses: Some people do it because they want more influence; product managers have no real authority but have to learn to wield influence. Others want to contribute strategically to the big picture of the organization; product managers should be becoming senior leaders because they interface with more of the organization than almost any C-suite role. If your career is stalled, reflect on why you got into product management in the first place.
[26:29] How should product managers navigate customer interviews when they aren’t trained as behavioral scientists or their organization has a dedicated research team?
Don’t approach the interview to confirm what you already want to do. That’s a total waste of time. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Care deeply about the problem and be curious. Ask your customers questions about their problem. You can check out interview guides like Ash Maurya’s guide in Running Lean, but basically your job is to understand the problem deeply and not talk much about your solution.
Action Guide: Put the information Chad shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Check out the INDUSTRY 2021 Virtual Conference, April 20-21
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.