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You and your management team

Watch Alex Cowan discuss the relationship between a product manager and the management team.
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In this video we’re going to show you how to create a strong productive interface with your management team. By management team I mean, your manager and then any other kind of contact or material you need to provide to the rest of management. Now, your input from the management team should be an understanding of the company’s strategy, business model and key objectives that they want you to focus on. And then as best as possible you want to understand that through the lens of your particular product or area. And you may need to help your management through that with you. And your output back to them is, of course, your results from managing the product.
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And what you want to make sure of is that you have a nice, clear, actionable understanding of what’s on their A list. But one that gives you the freedom of action to pursue creative solutions around your product. Now if this doesn’t work, there’s a lot of failure modes. You may feel like this place, I’m just not bought in. It seems like a lot of things they do are stupid. And this can happen, and hey, I’m not saying you’re never not going to be right. But this reminds me of a story that Donald Norman told to my class here at Darden a couple of years ago when he was speaking to us.
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Donald Norman is the author of The Design of Everyday Things, a very influential designer through the last several decades. And so he said, designers will come to me and say, Professor Norman, I could be successful if only my company would let me build the product that the customer really wants. And He would say to them, well look. if you think they’re not letting you do that why don’t you use your design skills and have a little empathy for why aren’t they letting you do that. Because there’s a lot of things that a business needs to do that may not be apparent to you. They need to sell stuff.
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They need to put stuff through some kind of a channel, and it has to be perhaps consistent with the rest of their stuff. So make sure you understand those things. And that’s kind of my take on this. You’ll do the best for yourself if you make an effort to make sure you understand what’s on management’s A list and why. And some managers, we want our managers to be perfect, they’re not. I’m certainly not. And some of them are really good at certain things and not others. And you may need to kind of help them help you understand those things a little bit better.
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The other failure mode is that you’re up doing stuff and they’re telling you, what you did is really neat. But actually there really are these other things that are really what are on my A list. Now, I’m not telling you to just get a to do list and stick to that, because that’s not what a good project manager does. They get this envelope but they operate within that. I’m also not saying don’t ever go outside the envelope and pursue something you just think is incredibly cool. because it might be a good idea. But, you just want to balance that with your understanding of what’s really on the business’s A list.
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Because they’re depending on a whole portfolio of people to execute around the core business for the business itself to make sense. And then finally If you dump a lot of hard problems on your manager, if they’re good, they’re going to do their best to help you. But I can tell you it’s almost certainly their least favorite part of the job. And product managers are notoriously effective at dealing with this problem where they have a lot of responsibility and relatively little formal authority. And honestly, I’ll be totally frank, that could be very frustrating and really challenging. So if you think that you’re going to have trouble with that then product management might not be the quite the right role for you.
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Or maybe that’s just a spot that you need to put special emphasis on kind of practicing and thinking about how you can persuade and influence people. And kind of sell them on your point of view, rather than just giving them directions. So that’s my advice about managing your management team. Managing upwards is about understanding what’s important to them, and translating that into a set of things that you’re going to do, where you have on the one hand freedom of action. But you also have some very specific results. So you can show them how well you’re doing, or if you’re having a problem, you can kind of narrow it down with them.
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And talk about why we’re not able to move the needle on this thing. Do you need more resources? Do you need a different charter? And that is the stuff that I think is most important for creating a successful interface with your management.
In this video, Alex talks about how to have a strong, productive interface with the management team. The input from the management team is the company’s strategy, business model, and objectives to focus on. The product manager’s output to the team is the results of managing a product. A product manager must find the balance between a company’s priority list and freedom of action. As a product manager, how would you handle the challenges of working within the priorities of the management team?
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