Boosting Team Performance By Building PM Capabilities
By DIANE SEXTON
Picture this: you are a Product Director, with several Product Managers reporting to you. One of your PMs comes to you for advice as they are struggling to communicate the direction and scope of work to their team, even though they are confident they know it.
Complicating this is that some members of the broader team have also made clear to you that that they’re struggling to understand the team’s direction or scope, and believe the PM hasn’t got a solid story.
The PM has started to question their ability to do their job and is visibly frustrated. You can see that this will impact the team’s outcomes, let alone the personal and professional goals of the individuals involved.
What is the root cause of the problem, and how – as their leader – will you clear a path towards solving it?
Let’s look at some common things that you might hear, and uncover what is the most likely cause.
“It’s not my job.”
Sometimes, you must go back to basics.
As a leader, you should check in on their level of alignment on Roles and Responsibilities. A coordinated, formal workshop usually will get everyone’s thoughts on paper (or Miro), but then you’ll need to provide follow-up support – either directly with your PM or indirectly through the team member’s own line managers – to make sure that the roles and responsibilities model is actually helping the team deliver on their shared outcomes.
This way, the focus is not on the individuals but on capabilities coming together to deliver customer value. There may be handoffs that naturally happen between technical capabilities, but make sure the team knows that work tends to end up where it’s most suited and that the outcomes are on track.
“The scope is unclear.”
Whether this is coming from your PM or a team member, communication is usually the root cause.
By definition, the scope is the combined objectives and requirements needed to complete a project. With stakeholder and technical consultation, it’s up to the Product Manager to determine and communicate the objectives and requirements, then communicate progress.
So, when a team member is still concerned about the scope after the PM has already communicated the objectives and requirements, the problem may lie in agreement that these are the “right” ones, or may lie in a preconception of the time or technical capability needed, without articulating it.
To better support your Product Manager,
don’t race in and redo their work or restate the scope.
Instead, guide them to understand what the team member thinks is unclear or is lacking and then how to communicate what’s needed.
“I’m not the domain expert, so they don’t trust me.”
Being a Product Manager – both in general and in the specifics – is tough.
Should you hire a domain-expert Product Manager (e.g., one who’s moved from data analytics, front-end engineering, or some other technical capability), or should you hire a generalist Product Manager who has a little bit of everything – whose mastery is more demonstrated in their ability to adapt and succeed in any domain, without being able to contribute at the technical level?
In either case, the Product Manager will likely encounter people who doubt their judgement. For example, they could doubt the PM’s decisions because the PM has no technical expertise, or they could doubt the PM’s decisions because they aren’t strategic enough. There is no way to escape that. The Product Manager needs to realise this is not about them personally. As their leader, you can support them by reminding them that they are here for the organisation’s outcomes, which might involve conflict with the team. Remind them that all the skills in a team need to be complementary, and the customers’ needs determine how each skill can contribute.
Product Managers must develop their influence within their team, and this requires them to identify what they can uniquely add beyond the skills and experience that already exist there. Instead of “fitting in” by bringing more technical skills to a team that’s already technically strong, the idea should be to add something above what is there that the team will see as useful. This requires strong observation, influence and relationship management, so look for these as strong areas for development.
How do you make a team hiring decision then? I would say hire for the team’s needs first and the organisation’s needs second. That is, does your team need a strong product thinker? Are they ready for the challenge, but technically they don’t need support? Or does your team need someone who is more “like them”, that would take your product leadership and apply it?
Then, look across the organisation and develop a balance of different types of PMs so that you always have a pool of diverse thinking. Encourage your PMs to communicate with each other about the problems they face and the solutions they have tried. Get them to share, support and safely challenge each other. This builds a strong base of culture and community that will enable your PMs to deliver value.
“How do I become a Product Leader?”
Now that you have a PM who is smoothly running in their team, how do you help them get to the next level?
While it sounds simple, coaching your PM will need some structure and time. You can start by coaching them in organisational culture and structure by getting them in front of more senior stakeholders. You can also coach them in delivery efforts by involving them in technology roadmaps, architecture forums or cyber security reviews.
There are countless ways, but the critical skills needed to level up a Product Manager will centre around adaptive and relationship skills and less around the technical skills they may have had to get here.
Focus on such things as creating trusting relationships with stakeholders and partners using empathy and understanding, or setting conversations up by opening at the appropriate level and keeping things on track. If you are in a meeting with them, later on, ask the PM to analyse the motivations and context of the other people in the room, and discuss how that might change how they present information.
Keep in mind that learning new skills – or levelling-up existing ones – is a task that will take time and some repetition. We all need to do something a few times before the process and outcomes will truly sink in. Some patience from both teacher and student is required, but seeing your people thrive after struggling through a challenge is often the most rewarding aspect of being a leader.
Brainmates has been helping organisations level up their Product Managers since 2004 and can help you level up your team. Our coaching services are designed to support personal or team development across product management practices and career progression – ensuring accelerated skills development and best practices towards your objectives and goals.