Are you a ‘product pioneer’ in your company?
Ok, fair enough - let me provide some background -
Sometimes you may consider an opportunity where you’ll be the first official product role in the company or in your business unit (if it’s a big company).
It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the CPO or the VP Product. The company which hired you may not be ready for granting such titles just yet, or they may believe that you’ll need to earn it. But anyway - whatever the title you are being granted - the lack of any official product function in the company may very well mean you’ll be wearing (non-officially) more than one product hat.
You see - the product responsibilities can be roughly divided to two:
The ‘hands on’ aspects - writing specs, attending dailys, planning sprints, quarterly planning and orchestrating the product delivery process.
The ‘leadership’ aspects - working on the product vision, product strategy, KPIs, OKRs and roadmap
So - back to the original question - are you considering becoming a product pioneer in a company?
Because if so - I have good news and bad news for you.
The bad news is that you are going to work much harder, you’ll have double the responsibility and double the accountability.
The good news is that you’ll have much more impact, you’ll gain double the experience and if you’ll do a good job you’ll become a great asset to your company.
So, should I take it or not?
I don’t know, but I can provide you with some hints as for the decision points you need to consider.
The first decision point relates to your past experience:
Is it your first product role?
If it is, and unless your previous role was a CEO or a co-founder - then I think you might be stepping into shoes that are too big for your size (for the time being, at least). Remember to be humble and honest with yourself and with the company which offers you the job.
Get some mileage first as a product manager (a couple of years at least would be great). Make all the junior mistakes while there is someone around to help you recover from them and guide you to success.
Do you have plenty of experience with the ‘hands on’ aspects of the job?
If not - then I urge you to reconsider. I know it’s fun to draw clouds in the sky and talk about KPIs and strategy all day long. However, at the end of the day - someone needs to execute on this. Someone needs to work very closely with the R&D and the product delivery chain and orchestrate all of this or features won’t get out of the door. Since you are a pioneer - that ‘someone’ is …. you.
I’d argue that if there is only a single product function in the company - then the execution and the ‘hands on’ aspects are more important than the ‘leadership’ aspects of the product functions. Why? Because the company’s management and the CEO can partially cover you for the ‘leadership’ aspects, but they can’t do that for the ‘hands on’ part. Hence, this part is totally on you and you will need to do at least this part very well.
So if you don’t have enough runway with the ‘hands on’ aspects of product management - I’d recommend getting more experience on that before considering such a position.
Impact & Responsibility
Impact & responsibility, or maybe I should better say - impact & accountability (we’ll discuss in the future the important distinction between the two) usually go hand in hand, unless the scope of the role is ‘badly designed’ by the company. So, most likely you can’t escape taking full ownership of your decisions.
Does the thought of having so much responsibility on your shoulders scares you? For some this may be terrifying, or at least intimidating.
How do you weigh that against the impact that you’ll have?
If you believe the potential of the impact you may have is big enough, but the responsibility angle makes you feel uncomfortable - you may not be ready yet, and that’s ok.
On the other hand - when are we ever ready, truly?
It’s a state of mind.
When I was offered such a role for the first time - I was super excited! Yes, I had some personal doubts if I could make it or not, but it was a brief moment. I committed to myself to bridge all the gaps through constant learning and getting the advice of people who are more experienced than me (and that’s what I did). The potential impact I could make made this decision quite easy for me, at the end of the day.
So, if you take a few moments to reflect on that, and if the excitement still doesn’t take over your fears and doubts - then indeed you are probably not ready yet. And again - that’s fine. It’s better to have this moment of self awareness now than to be constantly mentally stressed later on after you take the job.
As always - whatever the role is - you must always consider the company behind it and specifically your boss and your direct peers. You're going to ‘play with the big guns’ - so make sure to meet with these guys before you take the job and see if there is a connection and a good vibe.
Do you feel your potential boss will back you up if things go south? Do you feel s/he’ll give you enough freedom to experiment?
What does the product function mean to him/her and what is the scope of your responsibility?
Ask your future boss explicitly what it is expected of you if you decide to take the job.
As for your peers - do they make you feel comfortable? Are they open to make some changes in the current processes they employ? This is an important question, because from my experience, there is quite a big difference from before and after a company hires its first product function. Processes will change if you’ll do your job properly.
The main thing you want to check here is how everyone is envisioning the product function once it is occupied. I’ve personally met several companies which had no idea how to properly frame the product functions. Some companies just view the product managers as the people who need to translate the customers requirements to working documents for the R&D and the product leaders are there for simply managing the guys ‘who are writing these documents’. I’m not kidding you, I’ve seen it myself and I’m talking about big companies with hundreds of employees.
On other occasions, the leadership doesn’t have any true intention to work with you on the vision and the strategy. They say they will, and they may actually mean it when they say it - but on the money time - the CEO simply tells you what he wants, and your ‘leadership’ aspect of your job would be narrowed down to put this vision & strategy into a nice presentation.
You don’t have a crystal ball and you have a very limited number of opportunities to evaluate a future workplace - so you won’t be able to avoid all these cases. However, you can, and you should meet these people before taking the job and ask some tough questions, especially on the day-2-day routine, as they envision it.
Use your intuition when they talk and feel how honest their answers are.
Of course - if you know some insiders - ask them about the culture and the CEO.
Ok. I took the job. Now what? Where do I start?
Ha! We could fill several posts by trying to address this question.
Anyway - congrats! And here are some hints:
Since you are the single product function in this company (or business unit) - you will need to work effectively on two fronts. You will need to promote both the product strategy and roadmap, while making sure the R&D always has something to work on.
Here are some tips as for how to start:
Meet everyone. Get to know them. Go to lunch each day with another peer. Set up weeklys with your main peers. Hear their pains and how they hope your presence can ease their pains. Write everything down.
Set up expectations and buy yourself some time. You are not going to solve all the problems on day one. Not on day two, and probably not on day 10 as well. Ask each peer to give you some buffer of time. You need a grace period to understand how things work now and how they can improve. In the meantime they should continue to work as if you are not here. You should join all the meetings, though, even just to be a ‘fly on the wall’ and learn quietly.
If you get to the point that you have some confidence on what would you like to change in the processes, start ‘testing the waters’ carefully by checking what each of the stakeholders feel about that. Don’t come with a ready-made plan and tell everyone this is how it’s going to work from now on. This is an almost certain way to put everyone into defensive positions and hurt your name. Get the buy-in for your plan from each individual separately before introducing it and introduce it to the team only after everyone has agreed. This is very much like politics. You don’t bring a bill to a vote before you know for sure that the bill will pass.
Start small. Take a small feature end-2-end. See how it goes. How painful was it? What can be improved?
Make sure you know the business and where the leadership wants to take it to. I talked about it in the past. You can read about it on ‘The Basics of Product Strategy’ here.
Start a dialog with the leadership about the vision and what they think should be the strategy. Ask questions. Even if you have a solid opinion - don’t be quick to share it. Again, if shared too soon, without data to back it up - it will get people to a defensive position and it’ll take much more effort to get their buy-in later on.
If pressed to come up with a strategy - put a date in the calendar around a couple of months from your point of hiring and tell the leadership that you’ll have a draft by then. It will show you are serious and they will probably put the pressure off for the time being because you gave them a commitment.
Of course you’ll need to meet this deadline so make sure you’re comfortable with the date you picked.
So the first few weeks will be about learning the business, the company, the people you’re going to work with, the culture and mainly understanding why you are here and where you can contribute.
For the first few weeks you can give yourself some slack. For example, make sure the R&D always has something to work on, but it’s ok if those things are not necessarily things that will move the needle for now. You first need to make sure you understand how the company measures success (the company’s KPIs) and how you can build a ‘priorities key’ according to that. In the meantime - just make sure the R&D produces some value.
It’s been a few weeks, and I'm feeling more confident. Now what?
At this point there are many options on where you should focus your energy. There is no way for me to address it now, as it varies deeply depending on:
How (un)healthy were the processes before you came
How the company embraces you and the two roles that you fill
The company’s culture, people and ego involved in the day 2 day
The business challenges your company is facing and your part in challenging them
However, here are some guidelines:
As always - focus on the value and the things that move the needle
Manage your time wisely! I encourage you to read my advice on time management here as wearing two hats will be quite challenging in that regard.
Make sure the processes you build are efficient and serve the organization rather than some arbitrary methodology. If you are unsure what a healthy process looks like - feel free to read my series about the product delivery process, starting here.
Plan your future together with the company’s growth. Consider carefully when would be the time to increase your team so you won’t be a one-man-show, as this doesn’t sustain long term. Set expectations about it with your superior.
That concludes the post for today. Again, if you found it useful - feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think others can benefit from it - feel free to share it with them.
Thank you, and until next time :-)