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Create a professional development plan for your product managers

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the annual performance review is a required event at many companies. Each team member sees the annual review as a healthy career discussion. Or else face them with dread, fearing you’ll have nothing helpful to say.

There are three types of feedback: positive, negative, and none. As expected, positive and constructive feedback generates the best results, but it turns out that NO feedback is even worse than negative feedback.

Each year, managers do mandated performance reviews. Their employees expect this. But they also expect career guidance. Not just assessment but direction. They want a professional development plan.

As a product leader, you're expected to coach each person on your team. And your product managers hope you spend much more time on this than you probably do. From their standpoint, you hold their career in your hands. They don’t realize that you must do one of these things for every person on your staff and the work can be difficult and sometimes annoying.

Your people value your feedback. Good or bad, knowing where they stand can only be helpful. And it’s a failure of your leadership if your team members are surprised by your appraisal of their work.

In my experience, directors and VPs spend too much time making product decisions and not nearly enough time making “people decisions.” When you take on a people management role, the people become your product.

Product management professional development plan

A professional development plan (or personal growth plan) is a roadmap for organizational advancement. The product manager's growth plan typically includes specific goals, learning objectives, and activities tailored to the individual's professional development needs and career aspirations.

Ask each member of your team: “Where do you want to be in three years? How can I help you get there?”

One of my product managers expressed interest in moving into a marketing role. He wanted to know the mechanics of promotions. We set up a one-year plan to flesh out his resume with stronger marketing experience. I partnered him with a marketing lead to “see one, then do one.”

Annual performance reviews always snuck up on me, and I had to create growth plans for each team member on a tight schedule.

There’s a better way.

Involve your team members in their growth plans. Just like a product manager. What problems do you have (in your career) that I can help you solve?

Develop the plan

Review their product status. Ask each team member to bring their product plan or product canvas. A one-page canvas is a good format for understanding the product: What is it? Who is it for? Why do they need it? They should have one for each product they manage.

Here’s the product canvas we use in Fundamentals of Managing Products.

Product management product canvas

The success memo. In an ideal world, we’d know all the good and bad things employees do throughout the year, but I never could. Ask for a “success” memo. Get your product managers to write a list of accomplishments: the projects they worked on, their product deliverables, and the goals they achieved. You’ll likely be surprised at some of the things they tell you about—things you’ve long ago forgotten. As managers, we tend to have short-term memory; we can probably only remember the last thing an employee did or perhaps the last lousy thing the employee did. We surely don’t remember some of their successes from months ago.

Growth goals. In your face-to-face discussion, discuss their career plans and help identify specific activities to help them achieve their goals. One product manager wants a closer relationship with salespeople, so discuss good and bad approaches for working with the sales team. Another wants to increase her technical chops, so sign her up for an online course.

How to move to the next step in the career ladder. Discuss where your employees want to be in the next few years and give them specific tips on how to get there. I asked my team to write next year’s resume, and then we’d work this year to make it come true. An updated resume is an excellent tool to guide a discussion on how your team members’ past successes might steer them to different futures.

Share your own challenges. Be sure to get advice from your team during the annual review. It’s always easier to see things from the outside, and you may be amazed at what observations they have that you’re too close to see. After all, you hired your people to help you solve business problems; let them help you solve your business problems!

As a manager, you owe it to your employees to give them career counseling. But don’t do all the data gathering yourself. Use existing information and get your employees to pull the raw data together. Then use your management skills and career experience to analyze the data so you can provide specific recommendations. Your team will appreciate that you cared enough to prepare a meaningful assessment.

Product Management and Marketing Activities

In college, no one told me about the jobs I took on later in life—no mention of sales engineering or product marketing. Tech doc, UX, and Q&A were never discussed. It’s often difficult to identify how one’s skills might be used.

It’s also likely that your employees may not know what is expected at the next level in their career path. How do they become a top performer in their current job? How do they qualify for a promotion? Inventory the activities you expect from your senior people and use that as the basis of the growth plan for less experienced team members.

Consider these:

  • Conduct problem discovery

  • Create business deliverables

  • Manage the product roadmap

  • Validate product strategy in the market

  • Create product requirements (what)

  • Create user personas (who)

  • Define acceptance criteria

  • Prioritize the backlog, and so on.

Use the list of activities to profile different roles on the team—strategic product manager, technical product manager or product owner, and product marketing manager. Or activities for other organizational roles, such as sales engineering, UX, etc.

Download a copy of the personal development plan spreadsheet

Download a copy of the Professional Growth Plan spreadsheet, which you can tailor to the activities that align with your organization.

Skill, experience, and interest

Ask each person to indicate their level of skill, experience, and interest for each activity you expect from an experienced team member.

For this activity, I have what level of Skill, Experience, and Interest.

SKILL: None, Untrained, Good, Excellent

Many product managers move into the role without any training. So how can you expect them to be excellent at something they’ve never been trained to do? Sadly, 70% of employees report they lack mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. Yet many of them learn on the job or pick up tips from online sources so that they may have good skills even without formal training.

EXPERIENCE: None, Limited, Some, Extensive

Product managers may not have experience despite having gone to training. Maybe they learned how to roadmap or prioritize or groom the backlog, but have they been able to do it? After all, stuff that’s learned is forgotten if not applied within 7 days.

INTEREST: None, Limited, Moderate, Passionate

Haven’t you found that you do better work on things you’re passionate about? I hate project management, and I’m bad at it. Or I’m bad at it, so maybe that’s why I hate it. But for that matter, I have never really been trained in planning. And good news for me: project management isn’t product management.

Review the list of activities with your team members and ask them to rate themselves for skill, experience, and interest. The result will guide personal growth plans from those areas where their interest is high but skill is low. Or where skill is high but their actual experience is low.

Too often, managers seem to want their employees to stay in their roles until retirement. But it’s imperative for managers to groom their people for their next job.

Honestly, shouldn’t managers be coaches for their people?

In my first job out of college, I was a programmer in Fort Worth. Over time, I grew confident in my skills and experience but wasn’t very interested in the work. At my annual review, my boss said, “I don’t think you should continue working here.” (YIKES!) But then he added, “I’d like you to interview with a colleague of mine in Dallas.” He realized I would be better suited as a sales engineer than a programmer. (And I was.) Now that’s a great manager!

Dig the well before you're thirsty

There’s an old rule of management that you should groom your replacement if you ever want to be promoted yourself. Your existing team members are likely the best candidates to take over your job. And then they and you can both move up.

Fundamentals of Managing Products for product managers

Schedule a call to discuss how to assess or upskill your product management team.


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