One of the most common questions I get from product managers, usually working at large companies, is how to manage their managers? They are frustrated with their manager. Not that they don’t like their manager, but that they feel like the sands keep shifting, their manager gives them different and conflicting direction each week, and it’s always two steps forward and one step back. Especially in big companies, there are so many influencers and stakeholders that getting a company to move in a single direction long enough to get a product out can be a true challenge.
Even in small companies and startups these challenges exist, but I think it’s true that in large companies it is especially difficult. I have worked in product organizations large and small, at every level, and I’ve collected a list of techniques that I have found can help with this problem. But I will say up front that the challenges are real and you shouldn’t expect them to go away; these are merely techniques to mitigate the issues.
There are many reasons for the constant change in directions. It’s not just you and your manager that need to be on the same page. Your manager’s manager, and on up the chain, all bring their own initiatives to the table. And there are outside influences as well, such as competitive pressures, changing technologies, mergers and acquisitions, business development deals, budget and staffing constraints, and more, and each of these can have a direct or indirect impact on your product plans. That’s part of the cost of working at a large firm. The benefit, however, is that if you can find a way to leverage the resources of your large company you can have a dramatic impact on the marketplace on a scale that’s hard to match at a small firm.
So here’s my list of ten techniques for managing up:
1. Measure and Plan for Churn – “Churn” is the term I use to represent the cost of the various drills, rework, and changes in plans that cause the frustration in the first place. While you shouldn’t expect churn to go down to zero, you can constantly strive to reduce churn, and this starts by increasing awareness of churn, and that begins with measuring it. There are lots of ways to do this, but in one form or another, try to track how much of your week/month/quarter is spent on forward progress. Now that you’re more aware of the level of churn, it helps a great deal to plan for some level of churn. When you’re scheduling your projects, know that there will be a percentage of your time that will need to respond to these changes and adjust accordingly, and that some amount of your efforts will end up sitting on the shelf. It will help manage your stress level, and make your schedules more accurate.
2. Communication Style and Frequency – Just like product managers are not the same, managers are not the same. Some managers prefer to be kept apprised of every little detail on a continual basis. Others don’t want you to bother them unless there’s an escalation or serious issue that needs your manager’s help. Some prefer updates in writing with detailed supporting material, and others prefer a quick chat in the hall. You need to determine the style that your manager prefers and do your best to meet that need, even if it’s not your preferred style.
3. Pre-Meeting Work – Most product companies have lots of meetings. Too many in my view, but the more influencers and stakeholders there are, the more you’ll be asked to have checkpoint and review meetings to keep everyone on track and informed. There are many techniques for running good meetings, but the main point here is to actually have the real meetings before your official meeting. This means going individually to the key influencers and stakeholders prior to the actual meeting and giving them a preview of your points, listening to their issues, and ensuring that they are already on board by the time the group meeting happens. If you do this well, the meeting should be quick with no surprises. The formal meeting still has an important purpose however, which is for everyone at the table to see that everyone else is on board.
4. Recommendations Not Issues – Most managers prefer to see your recommendations on how to solve problems you encounter rather than just a statement of the problem. Ideally, depending on the size of the problem, an analysis of several alternatives along with your recommendation and rationale.
5. Use Your Manager – Your manager can often be a very useful tool that most employees underutilize. As an example, suppose there’s a problem you’re working to solve, and you have an analysis and recommendation, but some of the key influencers are not anxious to make the time available you need to pre-brief them as described in the pre-meeting work above. Your manager can often get that access you can’t. So provide your manager with the tools and request that she hold this private session for you. Your manager will want to be prepared but is often happy to help in this way.
6. Do Your Homework – One of the biggest mistakes that product managers often make is in not doing their homework. Managers are often smart and can quickly identify holes in thinking and in plans. That’s their job. The best way for you to prepare for this is by doing your homework. You need to understand the issues thoroughly and be prepared.
7. Short E-Mails – Another common mistake is that product managers like to write long detailed e-mails to their managers, but then get frustrated when they’re not read or responded to. You need to realize that your manager is probably getting hundreds of e-mails a day, and is looking for short, to the point communications. The more senior the person you’re sending to, the shorter you’ll want the e-mail. Offer additional material but don’t make the manager read more than a few lines.
8. Use Data and Facts and Not Opinions – When dealing with managers, especially senior managers, it’s essential to remember that your job is to provide the data and facts. Jim Barksdale used to have a great line he explained to us when he was confronted with difficult decisions. He said “if we’re going to make this decision based on opinions, we’re going to use my opinion.” If you do your homework, and have collected and laid out the data, your recommendation should be clear and based on the facts and not opinion.
9. Evangelize – A big part of a product manager’s job is to evangelize the product across the organization. But few product managers seem to take this as seriously as I think they should. If you evangelize effectively, everything will become easier – especially working with other groups in the company. If they know what you’re doing and are excited about what your product will do for the company, they’ll be much more likely to find ways to help.
10. Low-maintenance Employees – One of the secrets that nearly every manager thinks but few will admit is that what they’re really looking for in an employee is someone that is low-maintenance. High-maintenance employees consume a disproportionate amount of the manager’s time and attention, and while it’s your manager’s job to ensure that her team is productive, there is only so much time in the day, and this type of hand-holding is not usually what your manager is anxious to spend her day doing. Don’t try to use your manager as a mentor – find another mentor from outside of your management chain. And be thoughtful of your use of your manager’s time. I can promise you that your manager will appreciate it.
Many product managers get frustrated, especially in large companies. If this is your situation, give these techniques a try. You won’t eliminate the issues, but hopefully you’ll see a real improvement.