Where Product Managers should be investing for self improvement and other advice from Rich Mironov - 35 year veteran of Silicon Valley, Product Leader, and Coach
A Q&A session with a seasoned product leader and product coach
This week we have a very special guest contributor, Rich Mironov. Rich is a very seasoned Product Management thought leader. He answered some of our questions that we thought our readers might want to know more about. Read on if you want real, practical advice from someone who has seen many phases of the technology industry. If you ever wanted to know what a Head of Product does on their first 90 days and a Head of Product perspective it will help you a tonne.
A bit about Rich Mironov
Rich coaches product executives, product management teams and revenue software organisations. He has also parachuted into a dozen software companies as interim VP Products/CPO. A seasoned tech executive and serial entrepreneur, Rich was the 'product guy' at six start-ups including as CEO and VP Product Management. He is a relentless blogger, speaker, teacher and mentor on software strategy, product management, and aligning “what-we-can-build” with “what-markets-will-pay-for.”
You have been brought in as interim Head of Product or Chief Product Officer for certain companies. What do your first 90 days look like when you are an interim Head of Product?
The first week was (almost always) spent meeting people, listening carefully, and trying to figure out what fundamental problem the company is wrestling with. Companies only reach out for this kind of help when something is fundamentally broken, but the root issues may not be obvious to the executive team. This is especially true when they have little previous experience/exposure to high-functioning product management – they don’t really know what “good” looks like.
The two most frequent scenarios are having no product leader/CPO at all, or a quick-turn series of CPOs/Product VPs written off as bad hires or “poor fit.”
So the 90-day plan depends a lot on that analysis. Actions often included:
Working with the exec team to figure out what they really need in a product leader, engaging a search firm, and having me lead the interview/vetting process – so that they get the right product leader. Imagine 30 conversations about how critical it is to have previous experience as a product leader. So many companies put a sales director or engineering manager in as VP of Product, with predictably poor results. (What We Need in a VP of Product Management)
Resetting expectations about what product people do. In the absence of clear roles, PMs get hijacked by other functions: entirely consumed by sales demos, individual customer case management, manual product testing, “turn this one-liner from the CEO into a Jira ticket and get development working on it today.”. The most valuable product work is crowded out: genuine customer discovery, analysis of good/bad user behaviors and outcomes, collaborative problem-solving with developers/designers, framing tough trade-offs among the 500 things that stakeholders want.
As an interim VP who doesn’t have to be so polite, I can tell exec peers that they can’t monopolize PM time.
Slowing down departures. Even great product managers can’t succeed (or feel successful) in broken organisations, and the PM hiring market is white hot. It’s urgent to keep the remaining product team while we make improvements
Tying product work to company economics. Many of these companies were purely sales-driven: unscrubbed deal-level commitments driving out all planned product/engineering work. It takes some unpopular economic lessons (see Four Laws of Software Economics (Part 2)) to refocus on how we and our investors make money.
Takeaway: not for the faint of heart, not for first-time product leaders.
As someone who has been a Head of Product, and managed a team or teams of product managers, what did you wish PMs did more of?
We (product managers) can take a professorial attitude with other internal groups: we’re smarter, better informed, more analytical, always ready to give a lecture about agile or technical complexity or why a customer’s requirement really isn’t a requirement. (Hint: we may be right.)
But it’s much more effective (and considerate) to first understand what Marketing, Sales, Support, Finance really do and what drives them. Especially their departmental goals or metrics. Enterprise sales teams aren’t escalating over my head to the CEO because they dislike me, it’s because we pay them to do that. (See The Slippery Slope of Sales-Led Development)
My tag phrase here is that product managers need to be students of human behavior, not just prioritization algorithms.
As a Head of Product, what are some common problems PMs come to you with? And how do you help them overcome those challenges?
No shocking news here: dramatic PM under-staffing that we cover by working every night and weekend; poor role boundaries; not having 1:1 pairing of PMs and engineering teams; product decisions made elsewhere; the endless battle to re-educate companies who think that scrum’s narrow/flawed definition of Product Owner defines product management. (See Melbourne: Building and Scaling a Product Team)
You’ve been in the industry for a long time and have seen some PMs grow in their career. Where or how should PMs be investing in their career growth?
Networking and paying it forward. Product jobs don’t last very long, and you’ll be back in the market soon. So now’s the time to build a PM network outside your company, go to meetups/camps/PM events. Mentor an up-and-comer (if you can). Connect folks wanting to work at your company with the right hiring manager (if you can). Be a voice for less mono-chromatic PM teams (if you can).
Stay curious about other markets, companies, segments. Learn from your customers how their businesses work. You’ll notice that the similarities are larger than the differences, and feel more willing to switch industries/markets.
Most of your current work is coaching product executives. What is the most common advice you give to those Product Leaders you coach?
Really think about our different internal and external audiences, and how they don’t want/need the exact same presentation or roadmap detail or motivators. Finance folks care about different things than engineers or marketers or customer success consultants or paying customers.
Before you stand up in front of a group, consider what they need to know (not just what you want them to care about.) Dale Carnegie made this point in 1936.
And try not to sell “philosophy” - see Selling Problems (and Then Solutions) Instead of Philosophy.
You have had a long career in Product Management. What did you wish you knew earlier about product management?
Super-smart analysis is essential to product management, but it’s not enough. (I thought that being the smartest person in the room – and proving that in every meeting – was a win.) But we have to bring a genuine passion for understanding and solving our customers’ real problems, and then keep our teams/partners focused on real end-user outcomes/success/happiness/value. My early view of PM looked a lot like Melissa Perri’s Build Trap.
We have a lot of subscribers who are early in their Product Management careers. Looking back on your own career and your various roles, what skills or habits have been a good investment?
Spending time (quietly, humbly) learning what other departments do, and building working relationships with people who aren’t in my Myers-Briggs box
Learning how to pitch imperfect products and position bad news (without lying)
Appreciating what’s hard (and wonderful) about development and design
Not having to solve hard problems in real-time. (“That’s a tough one. Let me run it past my team and see what alternatives we have.”)
From managing, working with and coaching PMs, we’d be keen to get your perspective. What differentiates a good from an average PM?
I don’t have a list that’s useful here. Twitter is full of pithy bullets that each contradict the next.
🙏 A big thanks to Rich for your contribution. If you want to read more from Rich he has a blog and it is worth subscribing to.
He also wrote the book The Art of Product Management: Lessons from a Silicon Valley Innovator.
Follow Rich on Twitter https://twitter.com/richmironov
📚 BONUS: Our recommended blog posts by Rich
🆕 If you’re a new PM read these:
😎 If you’re a mid-level PM you should read these:
Prioritization is a Political Problem as Much as an Analytical Problem
If you’re a senior PM and above make sure you read these:
Prioritization is a Political Problem as Much as an Analytical Problem
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