Product Management

4 min read

How to Onboard Junior Product Managers for Success

As your product management team grows, you will inevitably bring on some more junior product managers. Some may have a couple of years under their belt, while others may be fresh out of school or recent converts from engineering, design, analysis, or project management.It would be easy to view these new product managers as a distraction from your own daily grind, or even as competition, but this short-sighted view doesn’t do anyone any favors and overlooks all of the good stuff a junior product manager can offer you and your team. For your organization to fully reap the benefits of adding junior product managers into the mix, it falls on the shoulders of more senior product managers to position them for success.Not sure where to start? Here’s a checklist of 12 things you can do to make sure your junior product management colleague is onboarded for success:

1. Who’s Who? Identify Key Players

Navigating a new organization can be overwhelming, but a good product manager needs to know who does what to get things done. Start by sharing your organizational chart, explaining how each team is structured and what they’re responsible for. They should know things like reporting structures, job roles, locations, etc.Once that’s covered, you can get into the personality dynamics of key individuals. This doesn’t mean slandering the people that annoy you and poisoning your newbie with bias before they’ve met everyone, so leave your baggage at the door. Point out who are the key stakeholders, who are the unofficial gatekeepers, who needs a little more cajoling, who requires reams of data to back up any argument and which managers need to be looped in. It’s also a great opportunity to point out where knowledge sits in the organization, such as which customer support person is a goldmine for real-world user feedback and which developer won’t give you the time of day until you’ve got a wireframe mocked up, who’s better over email vs. Slack vs. in-person.It’s also a great opportunity to point out the rest of the ecosystem that the product manager will interact with or leverage, from distributors and sales agents to suppliers, vendors, and contractors.

2. Set Up One-On-Ones

Introducing new product manager to key stakeholders

Lots of new hires are told to have meetings with key people—or even everyone in the company—when they first get started. While it would be great for every new product manager to meet and chat with all of your coworkers, some folks are going to be far more valuable to get to know than others.Since you already know who they are, list out the most important people the new product manager should meet with. Whether you hand them a list of names or schedule the meetings on their behalf, don’t just leave it at a “getting-to-know-you” meeting; give them a list of three or four distinct topics they should be sure to cover with each person. Make sure they talk to a wide range of folks, from executives to sales to support to engineering. A half-hour with an account manager or sales engineer is going to be far more valuable for understanding the business than a deep-dive into the architecture with a database guru.

3. Time Management: Help them Plan and Prioritize their Day

After you’ve been a product manager for a while, you know that every day is pretty different from the last as you ping-pong between writing requirements to customer visits to design reviews to pitching to your executive team. Unlike many other jobs, there’s no playbook for what you’re supposed to do after you get your coffee and check your email, which can be pretty overwhelming for someone who’s never had this much freedom before.Help your new product manager manage their time wisely. To prevent them from squandering their time on less critical items or getting sucked into rabbit holes, it’s helpful to provide a little guidance. You can let them shadow you to see how you spend your time, or just give them some pointers on how much time they should spend on each area of their job. You can even provide a cheat sheet to make sure they’re touching on all of the key parts of the job every day or week.

4. Get Them in Front of a Customer

There’s nothing like face time with a customer to help a new product manager understand the target market and how the product is being used in the real world. don’t want to send them into the wild alone until they’re ready. That’s where you come in.Get a customer meeting scheduled within the new product management hire’s first month and have them tag along. Make it very clear that they’re there to listen and learn. Introduce them as new and explain that they are observing at the start of the meeting. It’s OK if they ask a few questions, but if they start getting too chatty or asking questions you already know the answers to, pump the brakes and pull them aside.You don’t want to ruin their reputation with sales or account management before they’ve even warmed up, and you definitely don’t want them to compromise a client relationship.

5. Assign a Little Light Reading

Introducing new product manager to tools

A new hire can easily get overwhelmed and lose days of productivity reviewing the virtual piles of documentation that may have accrued for a mature product. Instead of telling them to “read the specs,” offer them a sampler of the types of documents they will be using and producing in their role.Give them examples of product roadmaps, MRDs, PRDs, design docs, release notes, OKRs, dashboards, user guides, etc., but only one or two of each to build up their familiarity with the purpose and level of detail for each doc. Then when they want to learn more about a specific subject they’ll know where to look and which doc is valuable, as well as what others will expect when it’s their turn to create one. “Create a dictionary,” says Julie Ellis in TalentCulture, “Every organization has its own “language,” jokes, jargon, and acronyms. Make sure that your new employee has a sheet or two that explain these.”

6. Make Sure They Have all the Tools and Know How to Use Them

Look at everything you have installed on your computer and phone for work, then make sure your junior product manager has them installed as well. Then, go through each tool and make sure they know how to use it and spend time explaining how they’re used at your specific company and within the different teams.Do customer service reps put feature requests into UserVoice? Are there engineering Slack channels that every PM should be monitoring? Do your European colleagues all rely on Skype to avoid time zone issues? You already know these things, but your new colleague does not. Set them up for success.

7. Make New Product Managers Use the Product

Seems like a no-brainer, but depending on the product this may be easier said than done. If your product isn’t for consumers, give your new hire specific tasks to accomplish and any supporting materials they would need to make them happen (you can borrow a test script from QA if necessary). They should have to do everything a customer would do, from installation to getting the desired end results...and they should be taking notes along the way.They’ll undoubtedly notice something new and start building their own list of pet projects to fight for in the future.

8. Give Them a Taste of Meetings

...But don’t permanently invite them to everything.The last thing you want to do with a new hire is schedule them into so many recurring meetings that they never have time to do any actual work. However, exposure to what happens in each meeting is a helpful learning tool, so try to get them into one of each type of meeting you can during their early days at the company.Knowing what happens behind closed doors will give them a sense for which meetings and stakeholders they might need to attend at key stages of the product’s development as well as a better sense for the different company dynamics that occur in these forums. And, if they find some they really want to attend, now they’ll know what to expect.

9. Teach by Example

Product management is one of the least formulaic disciplines in business, so the best teaching moments come from real-world examples. Take a recent product decision and break it down with the new junior product manager.First, lay out the parameters of the situation. Next, ask them how they’d approach it. Then, tell them what you did and why, as well as what the results were. This step-by-step post-game analysis and the explanation of the what and the why is going to be way more helpful than generalities.“As a mentor, I try to demonstrate problem-solving approaches rather than just share templates,” says Rich Mironov of Mironov Consulting. “My goal is to grow a product manager’s decision-making toolkit so that she can tackle new situations in ways that are “somewhat like” my examples.”

10. Break Bad Habits

When a junior product manager is brought onto the product team from another discipline within the same company, it’s easy to assume they’ll transition quickly since they already know how the company works and what the products are. But, leaving behind your old way of doing things is far more difficult when you’re in the same office you used to be.Make sure your new product manager knows their prior role is old news and they need to be 100% focused on product management; stop writing code, don’t get sucked into doing favors for your old team, and create as clean a break as possible. This should be reinforced from day one and you should check in on it frequently during their first few months to make sure they’re not backsliding.

11. Make Them Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

After a few weeks, a new product manager should be able to give both a sales pitch and a product demo. Let them know right away that this is a goal for them and tell them when they should be prepared to do it in front of an audience. Then, be the first audience; provide constructive criticism, and let them try it out on someone else.

12. Be a Sounding Board

Every good product manager wants to shake things up and put their stamp on the product, but it’s usually a bit more of a slog to have a real impact. Let your junior product manager know they can always bounce ideas off of you in a “safe space” environment. You might need to crush their dreams a bit at times, but at least they won’t embarrass themselves or hurt their credibility in front of an audience of senior management or technical staff.[Tweet "Let your junior product manager know they can always bounce ideas off of you in a “safe space” environment."]As someone who’s been around the block, you can use that experience to temper expectations, point out the “been-there-done-that” resistance they’ll face and point out some low-hanging fruit where they can score an early win.As you can see, there’s no shortage of things you can do for your new colleagues that will ease their transition and make them more effective more quickly. If you’ve got a large enough team of established product managers, don’t forget to divide-and-conquer so you all still have time to do your own jobs!

Heather McCloskey