Great Product Managers

My employer posted a Senior Product Manager position for Sage 300 & CRM this week. Product Management is an area of the business that has always fascinated me. Although Product Managers (PM) have a lot of influence at Sage they have very little power to make things happen. Expectations remain high though to deliver results! Their job is even more challenging due to the matrix organization at Sage. There are a lot of stakeholders to manage with different and often conflicting opinions in multiple locations. It can be challenging to make decisions in a timely manner. This can negatively impact performance in the product delivery teams.

I have read a few books on Product Management & Strategic Alliances in the past year. I am currently reading “Software Product Management Essentials”. It is above average of a fairly mediocre list of books on the topic. One section I found interesting was the authors thoughts on the 7 habits of highly effective product managers. The list is worth sharing.

  1. Great PM’s know their product but also their limits: I definitely agree with this one. PM’s who know the product have far more credibility with the folks in R&D if they know the product. That said nothing infuriates R&D more when PM’s are pontificating on something they know nothing about. It is important clearly communicate the requirements and market\customer needs. If PM’s have evidence\data to support their perspective it is important to share it. Then it is time to let the experts in their respective fields UCD\BA\DEV\QA\UA do what they do best. In a nutshell PM identifies the right product\feature for the market. The experts make sure the product is built right!
  2. A great PM listens first: Simon Covey’s timeless advice in the 7 habits of highly effective people comes to mind. Seek first to understand then be understood. It is important to understand your various stakeholders needs so you can ask good questions. PM’s message resonates far more when it is tailored to their respective audiences.
  3. Great PM’s are curious: The ability to continue to ask why to uncover the real issue is invaluable. The best PM’s I have seen never settle for the obvious answer and strive to truly understand the problem to be solved.
  4. Great PM’s are decisive: Strong PM’s are willing to defend and debate their decisions. PM’s are often challenged publicly. It is important to encourage people to share their ideas and opinions with you and remain assertive and confident at the same time. Sometimes data is available to help guide the decision. Many times (more often than most organizations care to admit) it is not. If new information comes along that justifies a course correction so be it. In the interests of time a decision is often required quickly.
  5. Great PM’s are responsive: Once a PM loses respect in an organization it is very challenging to regain it. The PM’s with the best reputations I know are very hard workers. They are diligent about managing expectations and actively engaged with stakeholders at all levels of the organization.
  6. Great PM’s are excellent communicators: The most credible PM’s are typically the best presenters. They tailor their message for their audience and simplify the data with easily understand graphs. PM’s need to inspire their colleagues to achieve their vision for the product. People want to believe their contribution counts in something important and tangible.
  7. Great PM’s are passionate: Marcus Buckingham often points out in his writings that your strengths maximized become a weakness. Passion is a great example of this. Why should their stakeholder’s care if the PM is not passionate about their product? That said the ability to get to win-win situations especially in a matrix organization requires a PM to keep a cool head while others resist or even block their initiatives.

Does anyone out there have other comments on what makes a great PM? If you are considering a switch to PM a friend of mine shared the following presentation. I highly recommend it.

Human Capital

As large organizations continue to delayer and eliminate middle management more and more responsibility is being transferred downwards across the organization. It never ceases to amaze me to observe the rigorous criteria organization’s enforce to ensure the ROI on capital expenditure. In comparison how much are most companies are willing to invest for training in their front-line management or key players who manage the most valuable capital of all, human capital? My experience has been not nearly enough…..

For most organizations their workforce is their best opportunity to deliver an extraordinary customer experience to provide that all important and often elusive competitive advantage. Think about it, I know of organizations where any capital request over $10,000 must be reviewed by a committee of C-Suite executives. This meeting alone must cost at least a couple of thousand dollars to the company. Executives typically review a pitch from senior managers on why the investment is worthwhile. This same company has developers that make an average of $80,000 in various locations across North America but cannot find the budget to regularly invest in management training. You could buy a very nice BMW or Mercedes for the kind of money their employees are paid! Are we focused on the return of the right assets?

This may offend some people but company’s deserve a similar return on their investment in terms of high performance from staff on premier salaries. The fact is we are now competing in a global environment. If company’s don’t get the results from employees making three or four times as much as a developer somewhere else it can make sense to outsource to cheaper locations. This is why front-line management serve such a vital role for both their employees and their employers. We need to help our employees be the best that they can be to remain competitive, enjoy their jobs and make a meaningful contribution to their organizations and fellow employees. And make no mistake, for the companies that can afford to pay a truly engaged, well-trained, experienced and talented developer working on a high performing team locally, they will typically receive higher quality software faster and more predictably.

I am fortunate that the company I work for has a generous tuition reimbursement policy. What a great opportunity for employees and managers at Sage. It is vital that everyone takes the initiative to upgrade their skills on a regular basis to remain relevant in today’s workforce. It never ceases to amaze me how many people still believe that the company owes them a job even after the great recession. The onus is on the employee and the employer to invest in each other for future success. Employers who don’t invest in their staff are unable to respond to new market opportunities as quickly as they like. Their core competency becomes a core rigidity. Employees with the latest skills have more employment security as they are more valuable to the market. What happens if no one invests. You have employees who can’t move because they won’t make the same money somewhere else but are not able to improve at the rate needed to keep the company competitive in the market. In the end, everyone loses.

That said, it’s undoubtedly tough at the top, the middle and the bottom of most organizations hierarchy’s these days. Many people’s span of control has broadened considerably due to reorganizations over the past few years. For the most part this is wonderful. Daniel Pink suggests that autonomy, mastery and purpose are three critical elements in maximizing satisfaction and productivity at work in his wonderful book “Drive“. (If you have ten minutes to spare I highly recommend you watch this excellent video explaining his ideas in more detail.)

Empowerment is wonderful. It is incredibly powerful but can be dangerous if not used wisely. Empowerment has changed the nature of the relationship between employees and managers fundamentally. When employees\people taste autonomy and are given the freedom to choose the best way to proceed this often can bring out the very best in them. With power comes responsibility though which is often overlooked. Many senior talented employees now find themselves in “unofficial” leadership roles as well. It seems to me that these new leaders are often intimidated by their new responsibility and don’t quite understand how to act sometimes. This may sound critical. That is not my intent. We need to invest in more leadership training for these new leaders as well. In many ways they are just as influential as the frontline managers. If managers are trying to change the culture or change direction in a project and the unofficial leaders are not on board managers lose the “war” when they are not in the room.  It is very tempting to try to manage this by “staying” in the room. This actually makes matters even worse…..

Challenging but exciting times. Are you continuing to upgrade your skills for the next set of challenges and opportunities? Are you ready to take advantage of them? Is your organization?

New CEO pays a visit

I often avoid writing about my work at Sage to ensure I have the freedom to speak my mind on this blog. Serendipity invites me to try a different approach this week. Pascal Houllion from France; our recently appointed CEO of Sage North America came to visit our office in Richmond. His visit coincided with my first cultural intelligence class in my MBA program. I was fascinated that almost everyone I spoke to who met him used the words “different culture” when sharing their perceptions of Pascal’s comments and interactions with him.

For example,  he appears to have strong views on the work environment. I have seen pictures of the Sage offices in Dublin and Paris. It seems to me the offices are designed to foster collaboration and an egalitarian environment. Both are very open, with low cube walls while very few managers have offices. Introducing similar changes in North America would definitely shake things up if implemented. Office size and location are considered by many as a sign of greater rank and influence in the company while employees typically prefer higher cube walls for privacy to work uninterrupted.

In meetings I was told Pascal was  a “straight shooter”, willing to share his first instincts on the issue at hand with whatever information was available to him. I find this approach refreshing.  This style has its risks though from a cultural perspective. Last year I blogged that the perception of what our CTO had requested often appeared different from what he intended when I had the opportunity to ask him questions directly. It took me several years to adjust to the communication style in North America. My experience is that open dialogue is typically reserved for smaller group meetings and that hierarchy is taken much more seriously in North America than Ireland. Discussions with, or opinions expressed by senior executives are sometimes interpreted as decisions by employees. This can have significant consequences in terms of morale and productivity if a decision is questionable. (Even though many times a decision was not made!)

One other very positive perception that emerged was  that management experience and qualitative feedback will play an increasing role in decisions going forward. This works well for me! Data is important, a key tool in a manager’s toolbox for sure. An excellent book “Made to stick” makes the point that we need much more than data to deliver a message that resonates and inspires a team to action though. We need a compelling message that is easily understood to make the idea sticky with the target audience.

Many who met Pascal got the sense that big changes are in store for our business over the next few years. I sincerely hope so. This comment could easily be interpreted as a criticism of the local leadership. It is not. Sage North America has made huge progress in the past few years. Finally, some tough decisions have been taken from a portfolio perspective in the mid-market business division.  Indeed at the 2010 Sage Insights conference the executive team themselves acknowledged that our investment in R&D had probably been spread across too many products in key-note presentations. I once read our plethora of product offerings described as similar to a ransom note by a former leader in the company to an industry analyst!  My point is simply that many times it takes someone outside of the organization to highlight dysfunctional aspects of a culture or emotional attachments to a product line and position to do something about them. Laurie Schultz, our General Manager has proven she had the courage to make the tough decisions in Sage’s mid-market portfolio. We need a similar approach and new growth strategy for our entire business that customers, employees, partners and shareholders can buy into.

I read an interesting post from Wayne Schultz recently about our latest re-org in Sage North America. Wayne made a good point that it typically takes a year or so for a new leader to ramp up on the business. He wrote “Maybe Pascal will jump right in and begin leading without any need to study the North America operations – but I wouldn’t bet on it.” I will go out on a limb and place a different bet. He will! Everyone I spoke to in Richmond is very impressed with our new CEO’s knowledge of the SMB market. I am confident Pascal will exceed Wayne’s expectations!

I would be delighted if Pascal can exceed employee’s expectations as well. Sage’s ability to deliver an Extraordinary Customer Experience requires a highly motivated and engaged workforce. An interesting article in Business Week discussed a study of 61,000 employees by the Corporate Leadership Council. The data showed that one out of four employees was disengaged.  One of the main causes of this disengagement is directly linked to the massive change employees have experienced when it comes to their Employment Value Proposition (EVP)—or the value that employees gain by working for a particular organization. EVP has trended downwards across the western world due to reasons such as layoffs, organizational restructurings, and shifts in managers. An interesting and scary thought from the article was “the reality is that the anticipation of future organizational change is more detrimental to EVP than the change they have already gone through“. Sacré bleu!  Here we go again but change we must! Our future depends on it.


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