How to Avoid Career-Damaging Mistakes as a Product Manager [+Webinar]

You landed that great new gig…

You are the Product Manager of this great new “thing.” Or maybe you stepped into a management position and you are managing a couple of Product Managers (who manage the great new “thing”). You made it through the interviews. You like your new boss. The company and the people are great. You are in the right place and this time, you want to avoid every “newbie ” mistake that you have observed during your career.

Now is the time to maximize this opportunity and be incredibly effective in this new position. Let’s go over the notes you made at previous jobs, documenting the common mistakes you observed people making (or that you’ve made yourself). Get those notes out because it is time to use them to make a plan!

Mistake #1: Skipping Discovery

You want to get smart fast, right? So, remember to ask lots of questions but don’t be judgmental – be open and curious. As a Product person, every interaction with your fellow employees can make you smarter. How does product pricing get set? What features do clients like the most? Why do customers buy our product? What is in the next product release — and why is the release the way it is?

Set up meetings

Set up 1:1 calls/meetings/Zoom meetings with your peers in Marketing, Development, Sales, Support, Finance, etc. Ask open-ended questions about why things are the way they are.
Make it a point to talk to a customer or channel partner during your first couple of weeks on the job so you can reach beyond the organization and speak to an honest-to-goodness, paying customer about what “job” they “hired” your company to perform for them. Ask about their favorite and least favorite things about your product and company. Get them talking and learn so you can show everyone at the company that you will soon be qualified to represent the “Voice of the Customer.”
In setting up these meetings, you will quickly learn who has influence and how decisions are being made.

Learn their nuances

Your new company might have a different way to forecast, plan, roadmap, or even do marketing different than anything you have ever seen before. It might seem wrong, or even dumb. Keep your opinions to yourself and learn.

What did the previous PM do?

And lastly, ask about previous Product Managers – what did each of them do especially well, and what challenges did they face? Try to be perceived as a person who is curious and open-minded.

Mistake #2: Being the person who has “an agenda”

You’ve seen that over-aggressive “newbie” on the job – the one who has “an agenda.” This new person is immediately associated with some “big change,” which most employees see as unnecessary. You don’t need to fight this uphill battle during your honeymoon period – you can slowly become more assertive as the days go by — but don’t make your first impression with co-workers a bad one.

Even if you were hired to help make this change, don’t let it dominate your initial meetings and 1:1’s. If someone asks you if you were brought onboard to accomplish the big new thing, consider broadening your answer into something like, “the company does wish to move in that direction, why do you think they want to do that? What do you think I need to know as I research that issue?”

Mistake #3: Ignoring the company’s annual goals

Almost every CEO that I have ever worked with starts out the new year with a list of things they want to see done. These goals are signals from leadership which are meant to be accomplished by the company, but the Product team is usually responsible for turning these goals into action. Do yourself a favor and find out what the leaders want to accomplish ASAP.

Use these goals to decide if the product line needs to reach “new” customers or make existing customers more satisfied. Use the goals to steer the product line to address new markets or justify new price increases. Look for cues from the top of the organization and use the roadmap to achieve the desired results.

Mistake #4: Don’t forget to make personal goals for 30, 60, and 100 days

Don’t get sucked into the system and forget what you were brought in to do. Look at the job description that you just signed up for. Highlight the goals that are listed in there and tag them with “30,” “60,” or “100.” Maybe you need a new roadmap. That sounds like 60 days to me. Maybe you were hired to bring the voice of the customer into the product definition process – you may want to make progress on that in 30 days.

Tag your goals with dates and share your goals with your manager. We all get sucked into things that seem urgent in our new jobs like pricing meetings, operational updates, daily stand-ups, and backlog grooming. These are all things your new employer wants you to affect – but she will think the world of you if you can do the “urgent” while also accomplishing the “important.”

Mistake #5: Don’t forget to accomplish some “early wins”

Make it a point to accomplish some “early wins” in the first 30, 60, or 100 days. Look to your job description and conversations with your manager for things that you can tackle and complete. Maybe you are expected to build a forecast, prioritize the backlog, or publish a roadmap. Or maybe you are being asked to do a Go to Market plan for a key new product. Don’t just engage with the project, finish it and announce that it is complete. Do good work – and try to make it visible to your peers.

Check out the slide deck from our recent webinar on this topic:

Go deeper

After your first 100 days on the job, fill out the Product Manager Career Planning template to help you set the direction for your longer-term career growth at the company.


About the Author

Ken Feehan is a Principal Consultant and Trainer for 280 Group.
Ken has deep experience in both the product development and Go-To-Market phases of the product cycle. He has worked/consulted to hardware, software, cloud, infrastructure and services companies and understands the business needs of each.

He has 20+ years of Product Management and Product Marketing experience at top companies like Apple, Intuit, Dolby, Elo Touch and many start-up and small tech companies. Ken has a BS in International Business Management from Notre Dame de Namur University. Ken has a passion for exciting and delighting customers with outstanding products.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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