The Overnight Product Manager

Whilst it has been around for decades, product management has grown rapidly over the last few years.

Executives have been watching the success of product-led scale-ups and are kicking off transformation projects to rapidly establish or scale their product management capability.

In 2021, Product Managers are in high demand and the talent war is rife. COVID hasn’t helped things with International border closures limiting the immigration of experienced Product Managers.

Companies are getting creative. The short supply of experienced Product Managers is forcing companies to think differently and look internally.

In some respects, this is great, as it means there is a renewed focus on career progression plans and identifying potential Product Managers from within. It also means that a larger, more diverse pool of candidates are being considered for roles.

Unfortunately, internal promotion isn’t always positive

A quick disclaimer: I’m a huge advocate of career development and internal promotion. The current talent shortage makes this a critical component of any recruitment and retention strategy. Moving someone into a Product Manager role for the first time requires careful consideration, a steep learning curve, plenty of time and ongoing support.

After a quick entrée from the foodservice industry, we’ll explore the overnight Product Manager trend which can result in a negative transition into product management.

The journey from apprentice to master

Even in the age of MasterChef and reality TV, one does not become a Michelin Starred Chef without substantial experience. This experience takes many forms and is learned over years, not weeks.

Let’s explore how the product management world can learn from the foodservice industry as we look at people starting out in their careers.

Apprentices start small

An Apprentice Chef has basic duties and does the grunt work in a busy kitchen. They might chop onions, fetch ingredients, or wipe down benchtops. They do not set the menu, cook the food or plate it up for customers.

Product Management is a leadership role which is difficult to ‘start small’.

What does an Apprentice Chef need to succeed?

A delicate balance of ingredients makes for a successful apprenticeship:

  • Exposure — spend time in the kitchen soaking up everything that is happening. What are the experienced chefs doing, and how does the kitchen work as a team?
  • Size and scope – how big is the kitchen? What tasks can an apprentice take on with limited risk? How can the size and complexity of tasks be increased over time?
  • Practice, practice, practice — whether you are removing pin bones from Atlantic Salmon fillets or achieving uniformly chopped Julienne carrots, most skills can only be perfected through practice and repetition.
  • Failure — observing others fail and failing yourself is critical for personal growth.
  • Coaching — an apprentice must learn from more experienced chefs.
  • Customer feedback — what do customers like? What do they dislike? What makes them visit again?

Aspiring Product Managers need exposure, appropriate scope, lots of practice, failure, coaching and customer feedback to be successful.

How many times have you seen someone given the title of Product Manager overnight?

Companies don’t tap a Business Analyst on the shoulder, give them access to GitHub, and say congrats you’re an Engineer now!

Companies don’t take a Customer Service Representative and give them a $2M marketing budget to manage overnight.

Restauranteurs don’t wake up one day and decide to put the Apprentice Chef in charge of cooking a 3 course meal for 50 VIP guests.

Why? Because Engineering is a profession that must be learned over time and code in the wrong hands can have material consequences. Aspiring Marketers become Marketing Coordinators before they have any budget accountability. And chefs start out as apprentices.

Restauranteurs don’t wake up one day and decide to put the Apprentice Chef in charge. Yet companies frequently assign the ‘Product Manager’ title to someone without any product experience or support, and expect that everything will be fine…?

Whilst this is often done with the best of intentions it is dangerous and is not healthy for the individual, the business or product management as a whole.

Three roles need to come together to increase the likelihood of a successful transition into product management.

A checklist for Restauranteurs

Companies have a massive role to play and it starts with the most senior product leader in the company e.g. Chief Product Officer or equivalent. Key considerations to build product capability within an organisational include:

  • What is the team topology?
  • What job titles do you use? Are the expectations of each role and seniority level clearly documented?
  • What career progression plans are in place and how frequently are they reviewed?
  • Do you have an Associate Product Manager program?
  • Is mentorship encouraged and do you have a strong focus on coaching?
  • What is the culture like? Is experimentation normal? Is it safe to fail?
  • Is a percentage of time allocated to honing the craft? The best companies allocate 20% of time and protect this when capacity planning.
  • What is your professional education budget? Is your team encouraged to attend conferences, take training courses or join a community like the Association of Product Professionals?

Things to consider before appointing a new Product Manager

There are a few key ingredients to mix before moving someone into a Product Manager role:

  • Exposure – have they spent sufficient time in the kitchen? Do they understand what product, engineering and design is, and how these disciplines work together?
  • Size and scope – How big is the kitchen and who are they cooking for? Where is the product in its lifecycle? How experienced is the team that they are stepping into? There’s a massive difference between managing a simple product that 2% of customers use with no P&L responsibility; compared to a complex product with a $12M P&L, that 90% of customers rely on.
  • Practice, practice, practice – do they know what a Product Manager does? Have they got experience leading smaller pieces of work? Have they started to develop a few key skills?
  • Failure – how do they react to failure? Are they willing to experiment and step outside their comfort zone?
  • Coaching – who will provide coaching and how much time will they dedicate to up-skilling the new Product Manager?
  • Customer feedback – do they know how to engage customers to learn about their pain points and desires?

A call out to Experienced Chefs

Even if an experienced chef does not have line management responsibilities, do they take time to share their knowledge with others?

As an experienced person, how do you give back and be the person you wish you’d met when you were just starting out?

Be generous with your time, explain what product is all about and encourage aspiring Product Managers to learn. Point them at reading material, take them along to a conference. Help them find training opportunities (internal or external). Give feedback often, seek out teachable moments, provide support and help uplift others. Pay it forward!

Advice for Apprentices

Aspiring Product Managers must be curious and proactive. Take accountability for your own development and read up on product management.

Aspiring Product Managers must be curious, proactive and ask lots of questions. Always ask, don’t assume!

Immerse yourself in the product world. Read books and blogs, attend conferences and meetups. Consider signing up to the Association of Product Professionals. Seek out a mentor. Try new things, be prepared to fail and learn.

Spend time with customers. Understand what they do, how they think, and what problems they are trying to solve. If they use your product, why do they use it and when do they use it? If they don’t use your product, what do they do instead? Remember your goal is to listen and find problems to solve or opportunities to unlock.

Spend time with Engineering and Design. Learn about what they do. Seek to understand their strengths and weaknesses and partner with them to divide and conquer. Remember product management is a team sport. You either win together, or you fail together.

In conclusion

The shortage of experienced Product Managers, and the desire to become product-led is forcing companies to think differently. This has resulted in the rise of the overnight Product Manager, which may sound like a simple quick fix but it is unlikely to lead to becoming a successful product-led business.

Executives are strategic long-term thinkers, yet somehow we’ve managed to fall into the trap of seeking overnight success with product management. We need to stop appointing overnight Product Managers and instead play the long game.

We must set up aspiring Product Managers for success by giving them ample time in a supportive kitchen to learn the craft from seasoned product professionals. Otherwise we will lose great people and compound the shortage of Product Managers. In turn, there will be less Michelin Starred Chefs in the world and nobody wants that!

Learn how you can attract and retain quality talent. Read Who Stole My Product Manager.

The Overnight Product Manager

About the Author​

David Webb
David is a proud husband, father and amateur author who has been helping companies delight customers and embrace technology since 2005. David currently works in product at WooliesX and is passionate about people, product, and technology.

Why I Joined APP

I joined APP as it aligns with my vision of nurturing the next generation of product leaders and scaling businesses. APP is a place where I can be part of something bigger, where I can learn from others and contribute to the wonderful product community.

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