It is not uncommon for a product manager to move on to a new position, another product manager or product marketing role.  I certainly have at a few times in my career.  When you are ready for a new challenge, you take recruiter call, and you follow through.  What is it like to walk into a new position?  What will you find?

The Courtship

After the second round of screening, it is usually pretty clear that you are in the running.  Perhaps it is just a feeling, or perhaps the recruiter has a good read from their past work with this company.  Anyway, you are beginning to think you will be successful in the process. Your confidence is rising, and you are getting pumped up. Naturally, the company you are interviewing with is selling themselves, and that increases.  You might not hear them talk about the wonders of working there, how there is BBQ unicorn on Thursdays, or that you will likely be serenaded by sirens as you walk into the building, but they are certainly trying to sell you as well as their company.

This is normal. But you should start opening your eyes, and asking different questions in subsequent interviews (I will assume that you have done a lot of research, read Edgar filings, done Googling of their businesses, looked up their leadership team on LinkedIn etc). Time to ask why the position is open.  What was the situation around his/her exit?  How long has the position been unfilled? Ask about their ERP system. Is it one you are familiar with (you will be interacting with it intimately)? How about their Business Intelligence implementation? What do they use for a CRM?  How is their customer support team structured? It may sound banal, but I also ask about their corporate travel agency. I have had really bad experiences with one, and will NEVER take a job with a company who uses that agency.

If they are cagey, or feel like they are hiding something when you ask about these things, that is a big red flag. Dig deeper and harder. I have learned that all these factors are quite important to your ability to get the job done. Having some foreknowledge or lay of the land is essential to your hitting the ground running. But this isn’t enough…

The Situation Rep

Depending on the size of the company you are joining, there will be some onboarding items.  Small organization, it will likely be an HR person sitting with you for a few hours going over policies and procedures, Fortune 500 company? You can count on a week of training on things like expenses, corporate ethics, the HR management system, and other sundry items.  Keep a cheerful face, and power through it.

The ideal situation is that you have an enlightened manager who has a 30/60/90 day plan to allow you to climb the learning curve. Count your blessings if this happens. But don’t bet on it.

What about the Product Manager role? This will have a large variety as well. First, you should note that you are walking into a position that is vacant, and has likely been vacant for some time.  Could be a few months (you are lucky, and the backlog isn’t a Tsunami), or up to a couple of years. Product Manager roles are hard positions to fill.  Perhaps an engineer or a program manager was moonlighting in the role (a trial by fire, or just trying to “get it done” temporary assignment), but most likely it has been well and truly vacant.

That means that key communications with Sales, Support, Engineering, Marketing and Sr. Management is probably broken or limping along.  You will need to begin to build bridges.  This is the perfect time to do this.  You are new, you can ask questions that sound dumb with impunity.  Begin to build a strong relationship with Engineering, Sales and Marketing ASAP.  The others can be built (and will automatically be strengthened) when you demonstrate a strong relationship with these three functions.

Second, what is currently in the pipeline.  Odds are good that a new product effort is underway. Either an evolution of an existing product or a brand new direction for the company. This is probably the hardest part. I have universally found several of the following true:

  • The definition up front is incomplete, and not clear in what is needed.
  • The market assumptions that the original definition are inaccurate, obsolete, or incomplete
  • The Engineering team is filling a void and building what they think is needed (read: what they want)
  • Or, any combination of the above

How to deal with these items vary, but you will be expected, no required, to navigate these less-than-desirable scenarios.

The Incomplete Definition

This is without a doubt the most common case.  A product development cycle is in the prototype phase, development is working towards a goal, but the original product definition is weak.  If you find a spreadsheet with a list of features, and 1 paragraph descriptions of each, you know that this is the scenario. Tough spot to be in. You could go back and revisit the definition process, re-processing the market input, and generate a true Marketing Requirements Document (MRD), but you still will be building the same product.

Best case is to dive in, and make the best of what you have. Get really close to the developers and begin to influence their path. The real hazard here, and the mess that you walked into is that development has been ongoing in a less than directed manner for some time, and thus progress will be all over the map.

Market Assumptions are Inadequate

This is a more difficult situation.  In the last scenario, at least you are building something that will meet the market needs, even if it is unfocused. However, if a company has gone a long time without a guiding hand in the product management role, that void will be filled with the squeakiest wheel. And that is almost universally Sales.  A set of requirements “direct from the customers” was blended together in the Cuisinart, and a spec document was generated.

The problem here is that the input was never properly validated. True Voice of the Customer (VOC) activities were not executed. Sales input is often just a list of features, without thought given to what value the customer is looking for.  You are not supplying 4″ round holes, but you are building a Makita Power Drill.

The hazard here is not that the sales perspective is wrong, it is that there was never a proper prioritization of the features and functionality. You will end up with alphabet soup, a data sheet with a lot of items on it, but a product that fails to delight the customer.

You will need to walk in and gain immediate market authority. If you are lucky, your background will be in a similar market, with similar solutions. You will need to prioritize the efforts, and try to steer the ship back to the proper course. You will probably not be able to completely right this ship, depending on how long it had been adrift, but you can prevent a Titanic sized disaster.

Engineering is going it alone

This is probably the worst case. Often this happens when a small to medium company has never had a real product manager.  You are probably their first real PM. The organization is likely engineering lead (the business leader probably came up through the engineering team, and did a quickie Executive MBA and is now the General Manager). They have bet that their superior knowledge of the technology will guide them to building the killer product.  Terms are tossed around like: “Fastest”, Best resolution, Ultimate repeatability. These are red flags. Customers do care about things like performance, and the like, but they rarely decide to buy solely on such criteria. Supportability, Usability (where engineering consistently falls down), reducing costs, improving productivity, and many more are the reasons customers buy products. Engineering “pet products” often gloss over such things, and except in rare cases, this causes disaster on launch.

This is difficult to fix.  Walking in, you will find a unified front from engineering against the soft features that are tangible and provide value to customers. If the GM is from the engineering fold, you will have double the trouble.  In this case, work closer with sales and marketing to build a strong case.  You will need to explain (and explain again) the concept of value. Dig out what you know about the Whole Product, and the ecosystem that you know you need to build. Engineers are almost always about point products, and dismiss the broader solution that you should be developing and selling.

It might be beyond repair, the project underway.  You might need to do your best, and let it fail (quickly if possible, engineering lead orgs are notorious for adding one more feature, and never quite being ready to launch), but follow it up with a quick project where you have done the market validation, and the values analysis. Success breeds success.

Summary

This is a lot longer than I intended, and I am certain that it will spawn a few more posts, but it does highlight the types of situations you will find yourself in when you start at a new job.  You can also be assured that you will have to quickly publish a price sheet, fix part number conflicts in the ERP, and work to get valuable reports created for the BI system.  It will be daunting, but after your second time of walking into a mess, you will understand where to start.

Good Luck!

Executive Summary

  • A new role is exciting and challenging, but come in aware
  • There will be many clues you can ascertain during the interview cycle, use your “why” questions to dig deep
  • If you come in strong you will win converts and gain credibility quickly

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