Onboarding a new PM
How to accelerate the osmosis of context and help them infer the subterranean maps they will need
After a good hiring decision, the second most impactful thing a PM manager can do is set up the new PM hire for success, i.e. onboard them right. Despite my strong opinions on the matter, this post is turning out to be a series of drab bullet points upon bullet points. So let me implore you upfront to put up with the absence of spice in this one.
Onboarding programs are among the first people processes companies institute after the those mandated by law and security policies. Odds are, by the time you have a new PM starting, there already is an onboarding program for the entire company, and perhaps more programs at a function-level — there will be engineers and designers who will happily walk a new PM on their team through their material. You also have the advantage of PMs generally being good at PM-ing their own first 30-60-90 days (most have even read that book).
However, neither company-wide information sessions nor team-level cross-functional deep-dives can get at the subterranean world that a new PM needs to quickly build a map for. I cannot understate the importance of having your own plan in addition to these so your new hire can quickly don the leadership mantle you need them to.
Subscribe to go down the rabbithole of building product organizations:
Some time ago, when thinking about PM onboarding, I tried looking up initiation ceremonies across history and cultures. And quickly backed off. History is rife with initiation rites that range from the problematic to the dangerous to the dangerously problematic. However, it is hard to ignore just how prevalent these are, including in fiction — from Fight Club to Dune. We seem to be programmed at a primal level that performing certain ceremonial acts is what makes someone worthy of being “one of us”.
Perhaps the only spicy take I will have in this post is that a successful PM onboarding program needs to break through the “one of us” barrier for the teams this PM is going to lead. And break through that barrier fast.
For Product Managers, onboarding should have two goals:
Prove they are worthy
For leadership roles, particularly product management that leans heavily on the amorphous form of power that is influence, this is by far the most important thing in the early days. It is why nearly every piece of PM advice for ramping up in a new job highlights the need to get an early win. All eyes are on you and winning the confidence of a broad, multi-functional group of people determines your ability to lead and hence to execute. It is not only about having a product or business win, but also about getting a handle on the decision-making and execution machinery. Which brings me to the second goal.
Build situational awareness
Product management is often considered a “glue” role, existing in the empty spaces in between other functions bringing them together. To make or facilitate decisions in a high-dimensional information space, to play moderator for conversations among people that don’t often come together requires an understanding of both the product context and organization dynamics. Whether a new PM is seen to get a handle on delicate situations, understand motivations of people and teams around them, pick up the parlance and navigate various conversations plays a critical role in building confidence with their team.
Inferring the complex and subterranean map of the product and the organization usually only happens through osmosis and you, as their manager, need to accelerate that. Components of my own playbook (relevant to a growth-stage company) are:
A State of the Union
An Early Win
While written for product management, some of it should be extensible to any manager role on the ‘build’ side of things.
State of the Union
There is nothing quite so powerful as being able to see everything all together at once. Getting your new hire to write a “State of the Union” doc as they onboard is a great way to have them build this view for themselves. Make this their first onboarding project.
The contents of a “State of the Union” are not ground-breaking; rather, the act of collecting this information is an accelerated crash course on their team’s bearings. It consists of:
The basics: the team’s mission, goals, strategy and roadmap to achieve said goals. This is usually the shortest section, often just with links to relevant information, and serves as grounding.
Recent wins and failures: It is natural to stick to shiny, happy things when talking to new people on the team. A quick way to break the surface ice is to talk about the failures. Taking stock of recent wins and failures is good product accounting to understand speed of execution, maturity of the team (e.g. is shipping a feature considered a win or its impact? are there hardened metrics to objectively determine what is a win? etc.), and scale of ambition.
Recent learning: Any new, empirical knowledge the team has gather either product iteration or research of some sort. Having to collate this will not only bring a new PM up to speed with everyone else, but also accords them the chance, as the one with fresh eyes, to ask ‘dumb questions’ and probe at what everyone else may be taking for granted.
Ecosystem: What surrounds the team and the product, in space and time. It is natural for teams to fall into an inside-out view of their world, but they rarely keep in mind the outside-in view. This is that.
Externally: important customers and any feedback from them, how the industry looks, competitive landscape and product differentiation.
Internally: internal partners, upstream and downstream teams, goals of those teams and the nature of relationship with each.
Historically: what has happened in the past: old directions and shifts, reasons for those.
People: Individuals matter. Dan Luu has a brilliant post on why. We maintain the polite fiction that everyone is similar in motivation and skills and personality, but it is never true. Understanding these differentials and forming explicit opinions about how different people work allows a PM to bring out the collective best from their team.
Assessment: This is going to be the most real and raw section, and a launchpad for how the PM should think about starting to add leverage. This section is their assessment of how things are going: a reality check on where the risks are, what needs changing immediately, and where fiction has creeped in. It can range from a list of sacred cows to missing resources to missing ambition.
Phew, all this seems like a lot of work. In good news, part of this information is already being gathered at other onboarding sessions and meet-and-greet conversations. The work is in approaching these with a specific outcome in mind, asking the right questions and digging in more where warranted. In more good news, you can time box it to the ramp up period where the PM hasn’t yet had their calendar clogged up with the circadian rhythm of the organization. In still more good news, you should save them from the daunting overhead of writing something fit for public consumption, and emphasize that the doc itself should start off being private and informal and they can choose to share selectively as needed.
So what does your new hire do with this doc? For starters, let them walk you through what they’ve learnt. I guarantee you will learn a lot from this yourself. Ask them to walk their close partners through any relevant parts too. I’ll reiterate: keep in mind that they may not want to share everything — it is first and foremost an exercise in building their own view. Secondly, this doc should prompt a good conversation on where the PM should focus their efforts. Thirdly, this exercise helps them build credibility quickly — they will have formed opinions with evidence to back those up, and collect feedback around. They can start driving an agenda together with their collaborators. It is the map they’ll need as they dive in.
While the State of the Union fell largely on your new hire’s shoulders, this one will be in your court. Mind-melding is a fun concept from Star Trek, and I have a former manager / mentor to thank for introducing it in a business context to me — i.e., building a high degree of shared context and mental models with someone. There are a few best practices I’ve adopted for doing this with a new person on your team:
Your user manual: Be clear about what they can expect working with you. One of the first things any new person is trying to do is find common footing with their manager; a personal user manual can eliminate a lot of stumbling in the dark on their part and free up their mental bandwidth for other things. What’s a personal user manual, you ask? It is a “how to work with me” doc that has recently become a trend. Google or Twitter have good resources for it.
Time: There is no substitute for spending time with a new hire. I block 30 minutes at the end of each day for their first two weeks (it usually naturally tapers off on its own after enough ground has been covered), and do twice-a-week 1:1s thereafter for a month or two. One of the luxuries of being in product management is that PM teams are small, and increasing 1:1 time with people on your team can scale.
Shadowing: A challenge with product management is that while PMs spend a lot of time with people from other functions, they rarely get to observe other PMs operate. Which, IMHO, is one of the best ways to absorb the culture. Letting your new hire join some of your meetings to simply see you in action (or shadow other PMs as relevant) is an easy hack to address this challenge.
Introductions and setting up relationships: I hadn’t realized how powerful this could be until a former manager did this for me. The default mode for new PMs is to reach out to people proactively “Hi, the new PM for such-and-such team, and wanted to introduce myself.” Instead, for key relationships, especially those farther away in the org, if you as their manager could send out that introductory email with some context on how you expect the new PM will be standing in your stead going forward, it is almost like transferring your relationships and goodwill to this PM. Equally importantly, remember to help them kickstart work relationships outside the company — with important customer or partner contacts, advisors, people solving similar problems or past team members with important context, etc.
The Early Win
Aah, this is where the rubber meets the road and is no stranger to anyone already planning their ramp-up in a new job. There is a ton of great material out there on early wins, so I will point to two of my favorites rather than rehashing the topic. The rest of the post is already long enough and if you’ve reached here, you are probably at the end of your tether!
Jackie Bavaro has some great pointers in this tweet thread on how to find these wins.
Sriram Krishnan has great onboarding advice aimed at execs, (pieces of which are very extensible to PMs at all levels), and specifically talks about early wins.
Live long, and prosper 🖖