The first step is to find how what expectations are for the role. Product management itself is a discipline that covers a broad spectrum of roles. In a small organization you are likely to wear many hats. Make sure your expectations and those of your manager’s are aligned. Ask what your manager’s expectations are for the role but also find out what other’s expectations of the role are, particularly other key stakeholders such as the development team, sales, marketing and operations. Make sure you meet with your stakeholders within the first few weeks of the job and ask them what their vision for the role is. Ask them what you can do to help. This quickly establishes you as a team player.
Define Your Role
Many product managers enjoy creating their own role (myself included), particularly if they will have the power to build up a product team from the ground up. Expect your role to be ambiguous at first as your earn your place within the organization. Newly minted product managers within organizations starting to build up the product management function are often be tasked with fixing everything (including the proverbial kitchen sink!) You will likely have to be proactive in defining your role and in setting boundaries as your role evolves.
Find out who currently holds some or all of the product management responsibilities. Who was in favor of a new product manager hire? Who sees this change as a gain or loss for themselves or their department? Your potential manager should have a good idea of at least some of the challenges you as their new hire might face. You’ll need their support. It was probably a good idea to have evaluated your potential boss’s skills in change management during the interview process. Strong sponsorship is often the difference between success or failure.
Gather Financial Data
Ask yourself how will your role improve your company’s success, sales and profitability? Gather any financial data available on your products. How are they doing against revenue goals? As the first product manager, you will likely have to create P & Ls for your products. This cannot be done without the aid of finance. Your mastery of the numbers will also aid your credibility.
Learn Your Products
It goes without saying that you must learn your products and your customer base. Even if sales training is not scheduled for you, read through all the existing sales training tools and support materials on your products. Review all documentation, files, and development roadmaps relating to your products. If you are the first product manager, there may be a surprising absence of documentation. Change that. Start writing product documentation immediately.
As soon as reasonably possible schedule some customer site visits or interviews. It could be said that product management has one job only—and that is to be the “voice of the customer” within the organization.
Learning about the target market is a crucial aspect of product management. Who are the target customers? What are their needs and how do the products service those needs? Does the end product have certain qualities that make it difficult to sell? Are there unnecessary features that add to the cost of producing and distributing it that do not really click with the target market? Will your products survive the next 2 years without substantial changes to it? Or will changes have to be implemented on the product for it to retain its marketability?
Get Out in the Field
Talk to people in sales and customer support. Accompany sales staff on sales calls. Sit in when the support team installs and test-runs the product because that will reveal firsthand any flaws. Also review any logs kept by customer service on the products.
Finally, what is the prevailing organization culture? How does your company rank in the industry? How are the company and its products perceived? How does the company see itself? The best way to gather this information is of course by interviewing as many people in the organization as possible. Brainstorm with them. Begin by interviewing finance, design, engineering, marketing, and the management team. Then ask customers about their perception of the organization and review any customer surveys done by marketing.
Develop road maps for all of your products in alignment with your stakeholders and the company vision. However, don’t be afraid to set forth your informed opinion. As Malcom Gladwell has said “If you worry about hurting people’s feelings and disturbing the social structure, you’re not going to put your ideas forward.”
Keep Defining Your Role
Finally, don’t expect to be a miracle worker. Keep stress in check. Your role is not to fix the entire organization even if the organization thinks it is. Most new roles with an organization are endowed with a magical aura that creates the illusion that they will change everything. Because product management touches so many areas, it is very likely to assume that mantle. Keep defining your role and responsibilities and selling the specific role of product management. Accept accountability for and ownership of the strategic direction of the products.
Don’t forget about your own professional development goals. Do you need to refresh yourself on certain aspects of your skill? Think about how to update yourself on the latest trends that may affect your productivity and output. One of the best ways to do that is to network with other product managers inside and outside of your industry.
Thoughts? What have your experiences been as the first product manager in an organization? What worked for you and didn’t work?