Effective Product Manager Onboarding
How to set yourself up for success in the new role
So you just went through a grueling, lengthy, and challenging product manager interview process (likely with multiple companies, and lost your sleep over deciding which offer to accept). You landed the role you always wanted, and after a brief but well deserved break, you’re all pumped to get started.
Now here comes the next challenge: how to successfully onboard to this new role?
Let take you through it in this article! In 3 parts:
🚩The Anticipated Challenges
🗝️Key To Onboarding
📅The 30-60-90 Plans
Let’s dive right in.
🚩The Anticipated Challenges
You won the interviews and got the offer by passing the high product management assessment bars and winning interviewers’ hearts. You’re off a good start as many might already assume that you’re at least good enough to be here.
Nevertheless, you’re rightfully still under the pressure to perform, the demonstrate what you’ve got, and to build the credibility from scratch. Why? Because:
You’re new: people have never actually worked with you and got to know you. Yes they might assume you’re good enough to have the basics covered. It’s a different story whether they can work well with you or if you can fit in well. It’s human nature to keep a healthy dose of skepticism facing a stranger, and trust always needs to be built and never assumed.
The expectations are high: I’m sure you know by now how challenging the job of a product manager is and how high is the expectation (just look at that interview process…). People look up to you to lead, to influence without authority, remove your own blockers, to make impacts with minimum guidance. You’re a product manager after all (and a product manager should be a leader).
Almost everything is unfamiliar: If you’re lucky, you might have worked on similar products before, worked with similar agile processes and that JIRA, in similar culture etc. Still, 90% is brand new to you. The people around you, their preferences and style, the business context, the focus and goals, and 2022 is never the same as 2021. You’ve got to be starting from scratch for the most part.
Are there more challenges? Sure:
Firehose of information to process: endless onboarding materials, docs/emails/dashboards/reports to read, what people talk about, and something new that keep on happening on a daily basis
Mountain of people to meet: engineering, design, data science, marketing, legal, sales, customer support, product ops etc. etc. Oh don’t forget the leadership chain across all these functions.
Balance learning and proving yourself: you want to learn as much as you can when you’re new, but you’re anxious to prove your worth and start developing that credibility you long for.
Fight imposter syndrome: you feel everyone is smarter and more knowledgeable than you are. You feel no one gives a damn about what you think and what you say. You start to doubt why you’re even here and whether you might not be a good fit for this role after all.
Ask stupid question vs hide behind the curtain: You have infinite number of questions but you don’t know if you should raise your hand. Would you come across as stupid and slow comprehending? Or should you just stay silent so no one discovers your stupidity.
And the list goes on.
Do the above sound familiar to you? Great, I felt the same way going through product manager onboarding plenty of times in my career. So please read on.
🗝️Key To Onboarding
I want to start with several principles I believe are keys to onboarding success.
People First: connecting with people starting from who you’ll be working with closely is always the first priority you want to start from and spend a shitload of time on. I find 1:1s highly effective in introductions and learning high level context from specific roles. I’ve seen some product managers start from jumping in with product vision and strategy to prove their worth and lead the teams into a clear direction. That’s important. But reminder, if you want people to buy into your strategy and follow your lead, they need to trust you first. You build trust by building connections, not by forcing down a vision.
Curiosity: whether or not you think you know a topic, always start from assuming you don’t know and be ready to unlearn/relearn. :What worked in another company might not work here. What got you here won’t get you there. Curious about everything you’re exposed to, and ask a ton of questions.
Breadth Before Depth: When going through docs and materials or learn about topics, you might have the urge to go deeper and deeper into one topic because you feel it’s too high level. Hold on that attempt. You might quickly find yourself in a rabbit hole, and when you come back up you feel more lost than before. Try to first get broad by learning the lay of the lands, develop an initial sense of the relative importance of each topic, and selectively dive deeper. One level at a time.
Always Be Synthesizing: When the knowledge is new, it’s hard to keep it in your brain where you can easily find it. The counter this effect and make your learning ever more effective, you want to internalize and synthesize what you’ve learnt frequently. At the end of the day quickly summarize what you’ve learnt today. At the end of the week summarize more thoroughly. As you continue to learn more and more, continue to re-synthesize and keep your organized information up to date. You will find that picture in your brain clearer and clearer over time, because you constantly manage to organize the information intake.
Quick Wins: Yes demonstrating your value is still a key part of building trust. But keep in mind, it does not have to be anything major. Approach the teams with humility and discover any gaps and how you might be able to help. Throw away any preconception of “what a product manager should vs shouldn’t do”. See a small gap, step in to help, deliver on your promise, repeat. That’s one of the fastest way to build that initial trust.
Prioritize: Acknowledge that your bandwidth is limited and there’s almost infinite things you can learn and do as a newbie. As you get the lay of the land, start to form thoughts about how you prioritize information and your time. Also known as, decide what to dive deeper, which meetings to go to, who to spend time with, vs everything else you could spend time on. Like how you would eventually prioritize product roadmap for your team. Think about not just relative importance in a given context, but what would be the best sequence among them strategically.
📅The 30-60-90 Plans
With the principles in mind, let’s break it down into milestones: 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days into the job, what should be your expectations, goals and focuses?
This is your first month at work. Your company, team, and your manager might prepare some orientation and onboarding sessions for you to welcome you and get you familiar with:
Company’s background, vision, business, culture, and value
All the HR stuff: your profile, paycheck, RSU, benefits
Tech: computer set up, account, permissions, apps, tools
Key roles and cross functional teams
Your role specific: your scope, responsibility, projects, get started guides, and high level expectations
The length depends on the company/team, but make sure you inquire your recruiting point of contact / hiring manager for what to expect, and definitely be ready to spend a good portion of your first 30 days on those things (the “logistics”).
The rest of your time during the first 30 days, make sure you focus on people and reading, and almost nothing else.
For people, meet as many colleagues as you can in 1:1s and optionally shadow group meetings (if invited). The goal is to connect and to learn. Start the conversation with proper introductions, and then turn on your attentive listening mode and start learning from each and everyone you talk to. Put down what you learn from each conversation in notes immediately following every meeting. Trust me you wouldn’t remember if you don’t do so.
For reading, diligently consume information prepared for you (in onboarding guides etc.) as well as what’s coming out of your 1:1 conversations (i.e. someone sharing you more docs to read). Internalize what you read about, summarize in your own words in notes, and record questions to ask your manager or people in 1:1s. Sometimes it might not be a bad idea to validate your understanding with who you meet, and be ready/happy to be corrected.
The first 30 days is all about logistics, connections, and learning.
You should continue with connections and learning, assuming you’re all set up in logistics. Depending on the size of your company, team, and scope, it might take much longer than 30 days to meet all the people you want to meet, not to mention building the actual relationship. I bet you definitely won’t complete all the learning by 30 days (in fact, the learning never ends however long you stay).
But in addition, you should find yourself asking more and better questions, chiming in with opinions, and striving for quick wins. That’s because you should’ve gotten the high levels and lay of the lands, met with the core team, and started form some targeted thoughts on selected topics. You should also have observed some problems and challenges your teams are facing, and realized that there might be things you could already to do help.
It’s also a common expectation that you should start taking ownership of your product space and projects, with the aids of your manager and colleagues. People usually wouldn’t expect you to know everything or act like you’ve been here for a long time. But they should rightfully expect you to be willing to take initiatives and just do it even before you’re fully ready.
By 60 days it’s about deeper learning/connections, quick wins, and take initiatives.
90 day into your job is the typical milestone you should expect to primarily and fully own your product space and run independently. You still have lots to learn (again as you always will), but it’s your show now.
You should have developed good initial relationship and trust with your core team (and some adjacent / cross functional team). And you should already make yourself somewhat visible in front of leadership.
You most likely won’t have accomplished a lot, but that initial trust and quick wins you invested in should set you up to start really showing your value as a product manager going forward.
You should always have received early feedback from your manager and colleagues about how they think you operate and collaborate. You should be happy to hear any compliment. You should also be happy (if not happier) to hear any constructive feedback to help you course correct and improve. Remember, there’s no better time than being new to receive these feedback. People expect you to be imperfect and to make mistake. When you’re tenured, it’s going to be the opposite expectation. Also, you should reflect on your own and calibrate your day 1 expectation with reality you learned over the last 3 months. Make a plan how you would operate from this point onward.
By 90 days, it’s about assuming full ownership, course correct, and lifting your “I’m new” tag officially.
The above “playbook” is based on my own new PM onboarding experiences. If you’ve seen my profile, you would know that I had a lot of such experience (by moving to a new role every few years) and it should have some reference value to you. But keep in mind that each of your onboarding experience will be different at least slightly. The best way to cope?
Be open minded
Be always unlearning and relearning
The principles I’ve always preached regardless of the stage of your PM journey.
I’ll also leave you with the last reminder: Try to carry that same beginner’s mindset throughout your tenure beyond 90 days. That’s the single best way to stay the top of your game no matter how long you’ve been in a place and how fast things change. (Will talk more in some later article!)
This is a great article, very well thought thanks Johnny. My own experience about onboarding is startup (<100ppl) moves very quickly and there isn’t too much room for proper onboarding. Would you have any advice for PM onboarding in a fast paced environment like this? Thanks.