I’d be surprised if you haven’t at least heard about the coaching technique known as the “one on one” (aka “1:1”). And you’ve probably experienced some version yourself. But judging from my discussions with literally thousands of product managers and product leaders, you may have never experienced this technique done well.  Yet this is the foundation of coaching.

Several others have written about the benefits of this technique, but usually the context is an engineering manager meeting with an engineer.  In this article, I’d like to share how I do these sessions when I am coaching product managers.

As I wrote this I was trying to remember where I learned these points, and the key people that influenced my views. After so many years, it’s tough to say, but it represents the best of more than a dozen managers that helped me during my own development, either directly as my manager, or indirectly as a colleague that I learned from.  Ben Horowitz is an example of the latter, and he certainly made a big impression on me regarding this technique. This article also incorporates lessons learned by my SVPG partners Chris and Lea that each have literally decades of experience coaching PM’s.

This article is written for the manager of individual contributor product managers. The person responsible for hiring and developing product managers, especially new product managers. Normally these people have the title Group Product Manager (GPM) or Director of Product Management.  The advice would necessarily be adjusted when coaching a designer or an engineer, or especially when coaching a new people manager.

KEYS TO EFFECTIVE ONE ON ONES

1. The Purpose

The primary purpose of the 1:1 is to help the product manager develop and improve.  Yes, you will get an update. Yes, you will be able to discuss work. But this is first and foremost about helping the PM to first reach competence, and then to reach his or her potential.  If you lose sight of the purpose, the real value of this session is quickly lost.

2. The Relationship

This is a relationship that depends on trust.  The PM must understand and believe that you as the manager are genuinely and sincerely committed to helping him or her reach their potential.  That is your primary job as the manager. If the PM is effective and gets promoted, you did your job. Likewise, if the PM is not able to reach competence, you have failed.  And the PM needs to understand that for your both to succeed, you’ll need to be able to trust and depend on each other, and most importantly, be able to speak honestly and frankly.

3. The Onboarding

With most new product managers, there is a necessary and critical onboarding period where the person acquires the skills and knowledge required to get up to speed (reach competence).  

Every person is different, bringing different experience and knowledge to the job.  In an upcoming article I’ll discuss a tool I use to quickly assess a new PM to determine which areas to focus on, but until the PM is strong enough to be considered competent, it is your responsibility to ensure the PM is not doing harm to their team, and is making reasonable decisions.  Normally this period of close oversight lasts on the order of 2-3 months, and it is a much more intense coaching relationship than the ongoing coaching that happens once the PM is deemed capable.

4. The Frequency

This is one of those areas where there’s a range of opinions out there, but I feel strongly that the 1:1 should be no less than 30 minutes, once per week, and that this session is sacred and not to be another one of those “you okay with skipping this week?”  You may need to occasionally reschedule, but don’t cancel. Please consider the message this sends.

For new PM’s in the onboarding period that are not yet competent, it may be 2-3 times per week, or even daily. I’m also a big believer that whenever possible, this coaching should be done in person.  If you can, try moving out of the office – taking a walk or going for a coffee – just getting to an environment conducive to developing the relationship and having honest, constructive discussions.

5. Sharing Context

If you are to empower your product manager to solve problems in the best way their team sees fit, as a leader and manager you must provide the product manager with context (sometimes referred to as “intent”).  

This means making sure the product manager understands the company’s mission and objectives for the year, the product vision and strategy for the broader product, and the objectives for his or her particular product team.  The bulk of this discussion happens during the onboarding, but each quarter you’ll need to discuss the upcoming quarter’s specific objectives, and sometimes those are fairly complicated discussions.

6. Homework

There’s simply no substitute for the PM doing their homework.  It is the foundation for competence, and it’s the main activity during the onboarding period.  You can guide the PM to the right resources, and answer questions about the material, but it’s on the PM to spend the time and effort to do their homework and gain this knowledge.  

What does homework really mean?  Learning the product inside and out.  Learning about the users and customers.  Learning the data. Learning the capabilities of the enabling technologies.  Learning the industry. Learning the various dimensions of the business, especially financial, sales, go-to-market, service and legal.

7. Thinking and Acting Like a PM

Beyond doing homework, coaching is mainly about helping the PM to learn to think and act like a strong PM.

What does it mean to think like a PM?  It means focusing on outcome.  Considering all of the risks – value, usability, feasibility and business viability. Thinking holistically about all dimensions of the business and the product.  Anticipating ethical considerations or impacts. Creative problem solving. Persistence in the face of obstacles. Leveraging engineering and the art of the possible.  Leveraging design and the power of user experience. Leveraging data to learn and to make a compelling argument.

What does it mean to act like a PM?  Listening. Collaborating.  Shared learning. Evangelizing.  Inspiring. Giving credit and accepting blame.  Taking responsibility. Knowing what you can’t know, and admitting what you don’t know.  Demonstrating humility. Building relationships across the company. Getting to know customers on a personal level.  Leading.

8. Holistic View

Also known as “connecting the dots.”  You can’t expect every product manager to be able to stay on top of what all the other product teams are doing.  One of the important benefits of the 1:1 is that you are aware of what activities and issues are occurring in the various teams, and you may very likely be the first one to see an issue brewing or duplication occurring.  It is your job to point out these potential areas of conflict or impact, and encourage the product manager to collaborate with the relevant colleagues to resolve, and then, if necessary, for you to make a decision to remove the conflict.

9. Providing Feedback

Also known as “radical candor” or “tough love,” honest, constructive feedback is the main source of value you provide as manager. Feedback should be frequent, and as timely as possible (at the first opportunity to discuss privately).  Remember to praise publicly, but criticize privately.

Many managers mistakenly believe that the only time they collect feedback is at an annual performance review, but in truth there are opportunities every day to collect feedback both directly and indirectly.  There is usually no shortage of meetings with the opportunity to observe the product manager’s interactions directly, and then as the manager you are always seeking constructive feedback on the PM – asking engineers or designers about their interactions, asking senior managers, stakeholders and business owners about their impressions and suggestions.

After a while giving constructive feedback moves from awkward to second nature, but until then, force yourself to come up with some helpful constructive feedback every week.

10. Continuous Improvement

Hopefully it’s clear to you that this job is very hard.  It is a journey not a destination. You can have 25 years of hands-on PM experience and you will still be learning and improving.  Every product effort has its own risk profile. New enabling technologies constantly emerge. Today’s services are tomorrow’s platforms.  Markets develop. Companies grow. Expectations rise.

The best managers of product managers measure their success in how many people they’ve helped earn promotions, or have moved on to serve as PM of increasingly impactful products, or to become leaders of the company, or even to start their own companies.

ANTI-PATTERNS

I could end the article here but I have seen so many managers that think they understand and do all this, yet fail to develop their people.  In my experience, here are the most common reasons for that:

Manager Just Doesn’t Care

By far the biggest reason I see that PM’s don’t develop and reach competence is because so many managers either don’t like developing people, or they don’t view it as their primary responsibility.  So it’s pushed off as a secondary task, if that, and the message to the employee is clear. They’re on their own.

Manager Reverts to Micro-Managing

It’s actually easier for you to simply issue specific instructions and micro-manage; to just give the PM a list of tasks to do, and if any real decisions need to be made, to bring them to your attention and you’ll make the call.  It’s beyond the scope of this article for me to list all the reasons why this results in weak results, but in any case it won’t develop the people we need and it’s not a scalable solution.

Manager Spends Time Talking and Not Listening

While there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the session by jotting down some notes of items to discuss, it’s critical to keep in mind that this session is primarily for the product manager and not for you.  It’s all too easy for you to talk for 30 minutes straight and now you’re out of time.  Moreover, it’s important to recognize that people learn in different ways, and you’ll learn that by listening not talking.

Manager Doesn’t Provide Difficult Feedback

It’s true that learning to give frank, honest, constructive feedback is hard for many people.  But if it’s not done, the person doesn’t grow and improve at the pace we need. This usually becomes very clear at the next performance review, where the employee is surprised at the negative feedback.  

Just to be perfectly clear here, at the performance review, nothing should be a surprise; everything should have already been discussed in depth, likely for months.   The performance review is another big topic I’ll be writing about in the future, as it’s the source of lots of grief and angst on all parties, but for now the important thing to keep in mind here is that it is never the key tool for developing people; the weekly 1:1 is.

Manager is Insecure and/or Incompetent

This technique is predicated on you as manager being competent yourself (otherwise how would you be able to coach others to competence?), and are secure enough in your own contributions and value that you are happy to shine a light on others when they do well, and you don’t feel threatened by their success.  But sadly we all know of managers where, for whatever reason, this is not the case. The person responsible for ensuring strong people managers is the head of product in a larger company, and the CEO in a startup.

Manager Doesn’t Cut Losses

I hesitate to include this one, because to me this is the last resort, but sometimes we have a manager that has been working sincerely, tirelessly and capably for several months to coach the PM, yet they can’t seem to get the product manager to competence.

It’s important to realize that not everyone is cut out to be a PM.  When I find this case, it’s usually because the PM was simply re-assigned from a different role at the company, maybe because this person used to be a customer and knew the product or the domain, or knew the CEO, or whatever, but they simply don’t have the core foundation to succeed in the role.

Moreover, hopefully it’s clear that the PM role is not a “junior” role.  Someone that needs to be told what to do every day is not cut out for the PM job.  And this is also not scalable. You need people that can be developed into capable and competent PM’s; that can be given an objective and then counted on to find a way to get it done.

My view in this case is that you are responsible for getting the new PM to competence, and if you’re not able to accomplish this in a reasonable period of time (usually 3-6 months), then you need to take responsibility to help that employee find a more suitable job where they can be successful.

SUMMARY

If you’re a manager of product managers, and you have not been focused on coaching, I hope you come to realize that this is what your job is really all about, and you’ll use this as a framework for giving coaching an honest effort.  For managers, the PM is our product, and this is how we develop a great product.

If you’re a PM, and you have not been receiving this type of ongoing, intense coaching, then I hope you’ll bring this note to your manager, and see if he or she would be willing to invest the time to help you reach your potential.

If you’re entering a career as a PM and evaluating companies and positions, then the single most important thing you can do in the interview process (once you’ve convinced the company that you have the potential and are worth investing in), is to try to determine if the hiring manager is willing and able to provide you this level of coaching.

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