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How to Leverage your Product Management Style

29 March 2020 • Jennifer McDermott • Product

No two product managers create value in exactly the same way. Each has a preferred way of working, set of principles and experiences. That's OK, because there is no "one size fits all" in product.

I spoke about finding your product management style in January, at DigitalXchange in Berlin. I immensely enjoyed it, and wanted to elaborate on the talk - grab a cuppa and settle in! Slides below.

So how do you set yourself apart, particularly if you’re new or mid-level?

Whilst there are frameworks-a-plenty to follow, what is also important is gaining self awareness on your value offering. Know your strengths, be okay with your weaknesses and leverage your unique style to create value for an organization.

This is powerful because it allows you to differentiate yourself in a competitive market.

Product management fundamentals are, of course, important. There is a plethora of literature out there in the product world. But product management is more than reading a book and following frameworks. It’s also about your application.

Combining the know-how with self-awareness is where we begin to set ourselves apart and create more value.

Product Management is about CREATING THE RIGHT CONDITIONS for GOOD DECISION MAKING.Eli Montgomery (@INTENTIONAUT)

Product management requires an authentic, human approach. Which requires self-awareness.

Product management is people leading people to achieve results.

Why is this important? Essentially, product management = personalities leading other personalities to create value. Personalities lead organisations.

People have different styles.

You will work and network with likeminded people, but in order to be a successful product manager, you can not assume that everyone thinks the same way you do, reasons the same way you do, or has the same experiences as you. I really need to stress this point, because it sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget.

Just as we try to avoid bias in our user research, we must watch out for bias in working with others.

In your quest for self-awareness, watch out for bias. In doing so you unleash the glorious power of diversity by acknowledging it, understanding it and encouraging it to create excellent things like:

Product managers (and owners) are in positions of leadership. What's harder (but super rewarding) is that it’s a matrix-style leadership. You have no position of authority over your team, so taking the time to become self-aware is more likely to lead to that golden chalice we are all chasing – positive impact.

Look through the eyes of others, as well as your own.

What does a good product manager look like?

A good PM operates beyond just the core competencies, such as roadmapping, metric definition or backlog maintenance.

Original: Harvard Business Review

They also have high emotional intelligence: they are good at building empathy for users and stakeholders. They have great communication skills (remember, you have two ears and one mouth), and high self-awareness.

Thirdly, they have a high awareness of and adaptability to their org fit.

Just like people, organisations also have a style. They may be tech, design, or business focused. They may value individual focused leadership – or a less hierarchical approach. It’s important you take the time to gain awareness on this. Shop for the org style that you can be most successful in. This will be one that aligns with your principles and values.

So what the heck is a product management style, anyway?

Think of it as your collection of tried and adapted recipes for success. It is made up of your experiences, preferences, and values.

1. Experiences

This is your intrinsic knowledge gained from your personal and professional experiences.

Your path into product will influence the lens through which you work. For example, marketing, engineering, or design. This doesn’t mean you can tell someone how to do their job, or try to be some kind of PM unicorn (stop with the unicorn thing), but it could drive meaningful conversations.

2. Personality preferences

I’m talking about psychometrics here.

We each have preferences for thought and action. We may be introverted, and need a little time alone to process. We may be extroverted, and seek to understand through conversation.

We may begin with the conceptual big picture, or start with the detailed facts. We may value logic, or seek team harmony.

It's not a science, but it can give you a good idea of why and how your brain works - where it goes first. Inevitably, this will help you better understand other preferences too. 

To be clear, it does not make each preference mutually exclusive. It can be incredibly useful in communication, knowing your strengths, and any potential blind spots.

There are plenty of tests that allow you to find this out. It was a bit of a gamechanger for me, personally (Myers Briggs INFJ, here!) 16 Personalities is a free test you can do which gives similar results to Myers Briggs. 

3. Values

This is your belief system. What’s important to you, and how will it influence your work? Personally, I value genuineness, shared understanding, alignment and transparency, which inevitably influences my leadership, teamwork and stakeholder engagement style.

OK, so how can I find my style?

Let's frame this in seven steps to get some awareness. The great news is, as a PM, the tools are already in your arsenal.

Think of yourself as a Product: How do YOU create value?

1. Start with your goal

It always begins with a goal. Why are you doing this? What do you want to achieve?

    1. Be more productive?
    2. Learn how to improve communication with a particular group?
    3. Find your org fit?
    4. Be happier?

2. Do a good old SWOT analysis

This classic works well to start to map out your style. Remember, it’s not about getting it right – you’re not getting marked on this, it’s the process that’s important.

Just as you would a product, think;

Your strengths and weaknesses then form your opportunities and threats.

3. Do a retrospective on yourself!

Take a good look at your behaviours and actions. What can you start, stop, continue? You can adapt your style, and "unlearn" the behaviours that aren't serving your purpose.

This also helps you to turn your thinking into something you can begin to measure and experiment with.

4. Define your "core value proposition"

Once you have an understanding of the problems you solve, why, for whom, consider:

Abstract photo created by freepik

There is no right or wrong here.

By way of example, here's what I have come up with:

"I want to make the lives of users and colleagues better. I create value by reducing noise and connecting dots. I build relationships, have a genuine care for the user and focus in on the problem - then ask why that's important for our strategy."

5. Define your "core feature set"

Now you have an idea of your unique differentiator, let's distill this into a core feature set, to help you communicate your core value. What are your three core, unique problem-solvers? We can not be all things to all people, just as products can not.

Think of it as elevator pitch for you as a product - describe your approach in three words.

I asked this question to my product community, here are a few examples:

Collaborative over-communicatorJanna Bastow (CEO @ ProdPad)

.

Empathetic change enthusiastSophie Swindles (Product Lead @ TUI)

.

Direction, trust, empowermentNuno Veiga (Product & Marketing Consultant)

.

And here’s mine:

Big-picture, genuine connectionsJen McDermott

(I cheated, I used four words - but three features!)

 

6. Seek User Feedback

Start with people you work with the most, though remember as a PM that you conduct different activities with different groups, so you will want to reflect that. It's also useful to then compare and contrast if your style changes, and if you notice any patterns for different facets of the role. You may be surprised at what comes back!

 

Party vector created by pch.vector

As with any user research, watch out for confirmation bias or flattery. Don’t ask leading questions, e.g. “I struggle to explain complexity, because I'm conceptual rather than detail-orientated, right?”. Start open, pull at the thread.

Here is a starter for ten:

"I’m reflecting on my product management style, so I can gain some awareness and ultimately be more successful in creating value. I want this to be helpful, so please be honest. If you have the time, I’d love to understand:

Press for examples, “can you explain what you mean?”.

You might also find it useful to seek feedback outside of your professional life. This can help you to better understand what makes you, you, and how you bring your authenticity to work.

7. Reflect and evolve

We know how important it is as PMs to iterate. Build, measure, learn. Evolve your style. Keep learning to really benefit from your self-awareness.

Make sure you consider the Job to be Done

Though we should stay authentic and consistent, sometimes we must adapt. The beauty (or bane) of product management is that no two days are the same, it's messy, and you will face uncertain and difficult situations with no manual. Consider the needs of the situation at hand, this will allow you to enhance your style, challenge yourself, and grow. You won't always get it right first time, so stay reflective.

Background vector created by rawpixel.com

What did you struggle with, or enjoy the most? I enjoy democratic leadership, but I recognise that this can turn into design by committee, and meetings can string along. Learning to be more directive when needed is a branch of my style I’ve had to grow.

A note on authenticity

Adapting may feel jarring. While it is a great way to play with and grow your style – in my view, it only bends so far. Applying the styles of other people is all well and good, but it can expose you to acting in ways that are inconsistent to your nature. Let your values guide you (just as a set of product principles would).

What does your personal roadmap look like?

Janna Bastow (Co-Founder of Mind the Product, and CEO of ProdPad, an absolutely fantastic product tool that I would urge you to check out, no affiliation, I just love it!) says on roadmaps, “your roadmap is your prototype for your strategy”.

So then – might your personal roadmap be the prototype for your career?

The cool thing about this is once you have an understanding of your style, problems to be solved and organization fit, you can begin to map out some opportunities for now, next and later.

Are you being challenged enough, are you still solving problems, are you still a fit – is it time to move on before you reach complacency?  Or should you double down on a good fit, with minor tweaks?

What experiments could you try short term? For example, where are you enlisting help with your weaknesses? If, say, you are more conceptual, could you experiment with your analyst partner to talk through quantitative data in presentations – so you can focus on telling the visionary story. That’s just an example and of course ideally your team should be involved anyway – but we can’t – and shouldn’t - try to be unicorns. Hey, burnout!

The roadmap is a great way to start leveraging your style through problems you want to solve.

As with any roadmap – remember it’s subject to change. Evolve it. Test your assumptions, reflect.

My (really) quick and dirty personal roadmap guide.

 

In summary

1. Start with a goal

2. List your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

3. Get retrospective on your behaviours

4. Define your core value proposition

5. Define your core feature set

6. Seek feedback

7. Reflect and evolve

The only requirement here is that you start with a goal.

This is a lot. Move from A to B. Like with any product process, even if you follow a step-by-step framework, it will, and should, at times feel messy.

In these moments, return to your goal. Why are you doing this exercise? What’s the next quickest action you can take? Do you have a load of assumptions, and no actions? How could you test them?

I’ll tell you a secret. I wrote my core value statement at the top of this article after a lot of reflection. Start with a sentence. Get something on paper. It will not be perfect; perfection is a horizon never underfoot.  

Stay true to your values, whilst you’re learning, measuring, and building on that product management style.

Books/resources:

Unlearn by Barry O'Reilly

Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers

HBR Leadership Quiz.

For the introverts out there:

Quiet by Susan Cain

 

 

Header photo by Joshua Chun on Unsplash

 

 

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Jennifer McDermott

About Jennifer McDermott:

I'm a UK-based Northerner living in London. I work in Product Management, with a background in digital marketing. In my work, I enjoy building relationships and strategy. I'm also a bit of a nerd for social history, I play video games, and my favourite TV show will always be Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My happy places are Berlin (specifically) and Japan (generally).
Tweet me jenniferlucymcd