TBM 18/52: Product Manager to People Manager (and My Big Mistake)

After a 15 year hiatus, I recently made the shift from product manager to people manager. I made a big mistake that impacted people I care about. I’ll share it here for other IC product managers turned people managers.

The mistake? I didn’t ask the individuals on the team “What does clarity really look and feel like?” early and often. And then meet those needs and resolve differences.

The reality is that people crave different types of clarity. There are overlaps, of course, but there are differences. Sometimes the differences are very subtle. If you don’t really listen, you might assume people have the same needs (especially if they use the same words). Or you might assume they have different needs because they use different words.

Words like role clarity, strategy, plan, purpose, career plan, and direction are slippery. Ask five people to define strategy, and you’ll get five, very different answers. Ask what having “a plan” feels like, and you might get more useful answers:

  • I know exactly what I’ll be working on for the next couple weeks

  • A clear idea of Who we are trying to serve

  • A rough idea of the impact we’re trying to create…”plans will change, of course”

  • A sense of our big risks, and how we’ll try to address those

  • How what we’re working on will impact my career progression

OK! We’re done! No. You’re just getting started. Take each of those statements and dig further. “Can you tell me more about that? What does it look and feel like?”

  • A list of tasks and to-dos with clear roles and responsibilities

  • A persona that looks like this [shows persona]

  • A metric. I need a North Star Metric like this [describes metric]

  • I need to know there’s a risk of not failing in the eyes of the executive team

  • Point by point, how the next year’s projects will set me up for [Role X]

We’re three levels deep, and not done yet! There are more conversations to be had. Those conversations will end with core human needs around safety, acceptance, and purpose. You have to go there. 

On a cross-functional team people always have conflicting needs. One person’s need for clarity involving X (and that looks like this) is in direct opposition to another person’s need for clarity involving Y (that looks like that). Meeting one person’s needs may completely invalidate another person’s needs. Function X tends to approach things differently than Function Y. The team may be able to work it out in the open. But that can be very difficult. 

This is your first priority, otherwise things will be much harder to fix later.

Product managers (my background) toil in white space all the time. The work is hard, and takes continuous tweaking to get right (until it goes wrong, again). But product managers aren’t people managers. Their scope of clarity is narrow in the grand scheme of things. Important but narrow.

PMs don’t hire and fire. PMs don’t attend to people’s career trajectories. Product managers don’t mentor functions on their craft unless they manage other product managers. PMs don’t tell people how to do their jobs (or at least they shouldn’t). Product managers don’t pick tools. Product managers smooth over interpersonal conflicts, but leave certain things to team members and their managers. 

But if you are switching to people management—especially to managing a cross-functional team—you will need to unlearn this approach FAST.

In retrospect, I made a couple big mistakes:

  • Not realizing it would be a problem early on (despite it making sense in retrospect)

  • Not digging deep enough on an individual level first

  • Hoping that working together would be enough to smooth things over. Delaying taking decisive (but uncomfortable) action where it would be impactful and feasible

  • Paradoxically, my comfort level grappling with the white space of the product and the market, biased me against creating clarity for the team. It felt artificial

  • Assuming the care and concern I have as a product manager translates to care and concern in a management setting. Some of it does. Some of it doesn’t

  • Not quickly unlearning only having informal authority and influence. Formal authority is a different game, and one that carries a different burden

I’ve written “product management is not people management” hundreds of times over the years. But it took me getting back in the fray, in a complex situation with a cross-functional team (where I had/have depth in some areas but not others), for the message to hit home. 

For those considering the return after a long hiatus, I’d recommend holding as many things in this list constant as possible. Try to…

  • Stick to a functional team where you have all the skills required

  • Stick to more certain problem area (not something emergent and weird)

  • Stick to something with more stable career paths/patterns

  • Stick to something that is in motion already with momentum (no cold start)

  • If you need a cross-functional team, consider a different model (different functions reporting to different managers) and managing one of the functions

Hope this helps.