In recognizing one of our Product Managers had failed to establish credibility with his peers and colleagues, I decided to refactor the Product team
The Product Manager role is a precarious one. What makes it particularly challenging is that to be successful, you must find ways of influencing other teams in the organization without having any direct authority over them. This is most critical of course when working with software developers or engineers who are the ones building your product.
Credibility is everything. In my experience, you must look to establish credibility quickly after joining a team and then continue to reinforce that with every new initiative. While there are many measures you can use to evaluate a Product Manager's performance, without a solid reputation, there is no foundation for success.
What drove this decision
I had been monitoring my team's progress for several months and was noticing that one of the Product Managers was struggling with their assignments. I had been supporting the PM privately through one-on-one coaching and also more conspicuously with peers and colleagues. I was looking for evidence that this person could turn things around. The PM needed to build rapport with other Product team members and more importantly, with the Engineers that were taking their direction from the PM.
After many weeks, it was very clear to me that the situation was not going to improve, that the Engineers had run out of patience and that this person was damaging the integrity of the Product team itself.
The decision: Remove the ineffective Product Manager and use the new vacancy to update the entire Product operation
Firing an employee is never easy. I don't like the stress it brings although I have learned some effective techniques that can make the whole exercise less painful for both parties. We do not have a large Product Team so losing even one resource would have a significant negative impact on productivity in the short term. In particular, the other PMs would be taking on additional work to keep our product plans moving forward.
In the past when I have had to make these personnel decisions, I have always struggled with immediate risks to the current project(s). There is a voice in my head asking, "How can we afford to lose a team member now?" But I have found it helpful to stay focused on the long term benefits and how an upgraded team would more than compensate for any short term momentum loss.
Plan of attack
Knowing about an impending personnel change ahead of time gives you an opportunity to better plan for the disruption. I don't know of any textbook method for tackling this but there are a few best practices I can share with others facing this same situation.
Communicate First to Stakeholders
As I mentioned previously, the Product Manager is a very visible role within the organization. Because the PM must make frequent rounds with Sales, Customer Support, Operations, and Marketing to stay up to date and also to communicate ongoing progress, they are often treated as honorary team members.
So the sudden absence of a team member, even an unofficial one can be unsettling for some groups. Removing the Product Manager from a Sales, Marketing or Support team can mean severing an important link to the products themselves. The PM often serves to bridge informational gaps throughout the organization. It was important to me to keep those connections open and productive during the period while we looked for a replacement.
To minimize disruption, I spoke with all the respective team leads prior to letting the PM go and those gestures were well received. I promised that my team and I would do our best to cover for any deficits and was pleased to hear corresponding messages from the other side of the table.
SHORE UP IN-PROGRESS TASKS
There never seems to be a good time for orchestrating a smooth handoff, especially if the exiting party is unaware of the upcoming transition. I wanted to keep the in-motion product initiatives moving forward and that meant digging a little deeper into this PM's stories and tasks than I would normally have to.
And because this particular PM had been struggling over the past few months, I had even more to do to assess the deficiencies of the latest rounds of work. It took a few days to get a good feel for the situation and what I would need to do to redistribute the work during the interim while we were recruiting a replacement PM.
HEad Off Office Gossip
In most offices above a certain size, there is inevitably going to be some water cooler chatter about personnel changes. This is especially true when an employee is asked to leave versus choosing to make that decision on his or her own.
I prefer to handle the former with very little fanfare and save the goodbye lunches for the latter. To keep the whispers and rumors to a minimum, I spoke briefly to each department about the exiting PM and focused the conversation on our plans to bring on and ramp up a new, stronger resource to reinforce our commitment to the company.
You may have recently come across some prevailing advice that recommends young, fast moving companies fire fast and hire slow (see here and here for example). And while there is room for healthy debate about the idea of taking your time to find the right next employee, there seems to be near universal agreement about getting rid of dead weight as soon as possible.
I knew I had made the right decision but the lack of any real surprise from the rest of the organization made me wonder if I had acted soon enough. Nevertheless, there is general consensus that the company is now better off and we collectively looking forward to a new PM to strengthen the team and help move the product forward.