How to Manage Product Managers: Herding The Cat Herders

Tzvika BarenholzTzvika BarenholzLast updated

When I first joined Google as a young PM and flew to Mountain View for my brainwashing orientation, the legendary engineer Joseph Smarr welcomed me with: “Hi, new cat herder!” I wasn’t familiar with the idiom back then, but I’ve learned over the years just how right he was! Being a PM in a tech company really is like herding cats, or trying to lead a bunch of animals genetically indisposed to being led.

Managing a team of product managers is even more challenging–it’s like herding a bunch of cat herders. You can’t do it the same way other functions such as engineers and designers are managed. That will only lead to failure.

Why? Because PMs are selected for certain qualities that they possess by nature or nurture: They have an owners’ mindset.  They’re proactive. They’re self-aware and self-reflective. They come to work every day to challenge the status quo. They ask “Should I be doing this?” before taking on the next task from their todo list.  You wouldn’t want them on your product team if they didn’t score well on these criteria. But along with these positive attributes comes the fact that product managers are simply hard to manage, even for experienced people managers.

There is an art to managing PMs and the secret lies in getting the following right:

1. Be a multiplier, not a diminisher

Be the kind of manager that poses grand challenges, but thinks the genius of solving them is with the employee, not with you. Get comfortable with ideas you did not come up with yourself. This can be hard for first-time Group PMs. Recognize that the answers don’t lie with you. You are paid to ask the right questions, coach, and encourage. (if you are not familiar with the Multiplier framework, I highly recommend the book).

2. Provide massive air cover

Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

Every PM will run into escalations and hand wrestling eventually. You will be needed then. Don’t f it up! There is nothing more useless than a Director of Product who will boss around their own team, but not speak up for them in the bigger meeting with business leaders and engineering. Don’t be that person. Be the manager that accelerates your team's effort and uses escalations as a mechanism for pushing product forward.

3. Foster mobility

One of the most impactful acts you can have leading PMs, especially junior ones, is to help them fall in love with problems, not solutions. Product managers will not always work on the same product they own now. They might lead the company in sunsetting the product or pivoting its direction. Help them see that. Autonomy is helpful in any job and essential to PMs. It’s your job to create an atmosphere where they can speak up if they have such far-ranging thoughts. If it means they move to other teams and leave your nest, that’s still a win for you. Remember–your relationship will outlive the role.

4. Push for Growth, PM-style!

PMs come from varying backgrounds. Some of them were engineers, some came from vertical expertise or even spent their time aspiring to be consultants invested in getting an MBA. Almost every PM I worked with had natural strengths and massive holes in their skill set, depending on how they came to be a product manager. This is true in every role, but typically the growth of engineers, designers or marketers is to improve skills they already have. PMs sometimes need whole new skills.

So, encourage your Bachelor of Arts PM to learn to code. Send your former engineer to IDEO for some design instruction. Even better, have them teach each other.

You can review Shreyas Doshi’s framework on becoming a product management lead for more on skill-set building as a product manager.  

To bring it all together: PMs should be managed, but at a different level and using different techniques that will help them shine. By the same token, this is also how the Group/Director of Product should be measured. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog post to discuss this and more.

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