Originally published on LinkedIn
Product Manager appears to be one of those ambiguous job titles that can mean completely different things in different industries or even different companies within industries. For the past 11 months, I’ve been a product manager of a line of laser levels and laser construction products within our Facilities and Construction business unit at Fluke Corporation, a Fortiveoperating company.
In my research leading up to the role, conversations with product managers at other companies within various industries, and my own continued learning on how to be a successful product manager, I’ve definitely taken note of the different skills, responsibilities, and duties attributed to product managers. Some product managers completely own the P&L of their product lines and have direct reports. Other product managers are highly technical, especially within the tech industry or scientific industries (bio, chem, aerospace). Others, like me, have a P&L responsibility (but not primary ownership), no direct reports, and are considered general managers. But regardless of those fine details, there are certain things that are likely universal, and I imagine many other product managers have a similar routine to me.
Mornings: Coffee and Contemplation
I like to get to the office before all of the meetings start and people start looking for me. This is something I perfected in my former job in intelligence because I wanted to have answers to questions before I was asked. I read my emails, I look at data, and I drink coffee.
I start by looking for ‘fires’ from overnight (product quality issues, product delivery delays, compliance issues that may affect product availability) and track our overall numbers. Most of the time I will learn this from emails, but I will also pull bookings data, shipments data, on-hand inventory reports, and back log reports from our database. If it’s an easy solution (like an email response), I will mostly likely handle it immediately, otherwise I start making a to-do list (or adding on to my to-do list).
A note on task management: I’ve experimented with tools like Trello, Asana, and even Microsoft Teams to track action items with my teammates, but there was low adoption so I now handle it through a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet just for myself. One of the key components to my job is prioritization of tasks; there will always be more work to accomplish than hours in the day so I must prioritize.
We’re a global company, so I do have an occasional morning conference call with my colleagues in Europe, but this is only about once every two weeks.
Most of the day: Meetings, a necessary evil
People who know me will attest that I do not like meetings. It’s not the concept, but the impact. I tend to believe that a majority of meetings slow down progress with a few exceptions, but I work in a very matrixed organization with each function reporting to their own management chains so one of the most important parts of my job is gaining consensus. In our company culture, we prefer to do this through meetings. So from about 8:30am through the end of my work day, 90% of my time is spent in meetings.
Being a product manager is a lot like being a lobbyist. It’s my job to know my customers (their pain points, their buying habits, their product requirements, and how to both meet their needs but also delight them). It’s my job to know my products. With that knowledge, I have to educate engineers, content marketing, digital marketing, channel marketing, compliance, sales managers, operations managers, manufacturers, and senior leaders on my products, my customers, and my requirements. Almost everything we do requires a business case and each function is balancing my products’ requirements against every other product in our company’s lineup.
There are five primary types of meetings I will attend or lead each day.
- The daily/weekly stand-up. Capitalizing on our company’s continuous improvement culture, we use the daily standup to quickly identify if we are off-track on any of our key metrics. This allows us to jump to immediate action before a problem grows too large or creates too big of a negative impact. I do not have one standup… I have multiple. Our goal is 15-30 minutes to quickly review KPIs and determine if we are off-track, but because most of the teams I work with do not sit near each other, it often devolves into a overall check-in. (about 1 hour per day)
- The Kaizen. My favorite type of meeting, this is part of our continuous improvement process when we’ve identified a problem and meet for a day to week to investigate the root cause and develop countermeasures (along with a plan to sustain any improvements). A successful kaizen requires full engagement from participants and access to potential root cases (factories, distributors, end users). We typical go to GEMBA, walk around and observe the problem where it is occurring. (1 -3 days per month)
- The Action Meeting. My next favorite type of meeting is when we all know what we are trying to solve for and come to the meeting prepared to contribute and leave with a decision and/or plan. These are rare. In most cases, this is where we’re developing go-to-market plans, marketing content, digital strategy, prioritizing engineering tasks on new product development projects, promotional terms, or reviewing strategic partnerships. (1 or 2 a week, usually 30-60 minutes)
- The One-on-One Meeting. This may be networking or discussing something product related. They are usually very effective at establishing common ground, having empathy toward other co-workers and their tasks to complete, and feeling more engaged with the company. This is also a key professional development time with managers, mentors, mentees, and advocates. (1-2 hours per day)
- The Status Meeting. This is my least favorite meeting. I think most can be accomplished through email or a quick desk-side meeting, but I don’t always get to make that decision. These are meetings where we essentially sit in the room and rehash what almost everybody already knows — the tasks to be completed and who owns the task. These are the types of meetings we could likely avoid if we were to all get on board with virtual task management. (2-4 hours per day)
Late Afternoons to Early Evening – Deep work
After a full day of meetings, I’m usually left with a pile of additional things to do. As people start leaving the office, I usually get some quiet time to start analyzing data, fulfilling information requests, mapping out strategy, building new dashboards for monitoring KPIs, and the chugging away at the endless task of product lifecycle management.
There are snags of course… this is also the ideal time for calls with our teams in Asia and as our work days fill with meetings, last second meetings pop up in the only remaining time slots on our calendars (4pm and later).
I typically work from about 7am until 5pm. But if there’s work to be done, or a call with Asia, work can last as late as 10pm.
When I’m not at the office
Michael Ambroselli of Ambroselli Construction in New York City showing off a tried and true PLS 180 laser level at one of his job sites. Photo taken by author.
One of the best parts of my job is going on the road. This is the time I get to truly know what’s happening with our distributors, our customers, and with our competition. I attend trade shows, host end user get togethers, visit brick and mortar distributors, meet with our sales managers and independent reps, go to job sites to watch work flows and look for pain points, demo new products, or shoot photo/video in collaboration with our marketing team. This is 25% of my job and by far my favorite part of the work.
I do also work remotely or from home at times. If I’m in the Seattle area, I’m most likely going to be at the office. I find face-to-face to be much more effective than email or phone calls. When I’m working with a lot of people who do not have to answer to me in any way, it’s frequently common for emails to go unanswered. But sometimes I really just need to crash on a project without interruption. The freedom to work from home or a silent coffee shop can be refreshing. Our company also offers spaces to hide away and get work done, but if I’m at the office, I like the convenience of my dual monitors and desk!
What I Really Do.
At the end of the day, my mission is clear. Manage every aspect of my product line including product strategy, product concept, product design, go-to-market plans, product marketing, product promotion, product line profit & loss, supply chain, compliance, and product retirement. Of all of these, there is not one single task I do on my own, each involves collaboration with various parts of our company. I do my product justice when I come to others with facts (a body of evidence from market research, sales data, operational data, or end user feedback/surveys). I do my product justice when I build strong relationships, treat others fairly, and build a strong business case. I do my product justice when I help others succeed at work, even if it doesn’t directly fall into my job duties.
Would I be better at my job if I were an expert at laser levels or the construction industry before starting? Absolutely. But the skills that make a product manager successful far exceed market knowledge. Learning the industry did take time and I still don’t know it as well as my sales manager peers. So a good product manager must be humble, ask a lot of questions every day and rely on our experts within the company to help make great decisions. It takes strong emotional intelligence–the soft skills–to build strong relationships, persevere through setbacks, and maintain an attitude that leads to progress versus frustration (something I imagine most of us struggle with frequently). It takes great analytical thinking to gain insight from both structured data (the database) and unstructured data (visual observation, interviews, free-text surveys, online video reviews, etc). It takes very strong organizational, executive functioning, and prioritization skills. It takes having a mentor (or two)–someone to have direct talks to when you’re frustrated or need advice–as well as a coach to help you improve on areas where you know you need work.
What I really do on a daily basis is act as a general manager of my product line, doing whatever it takes to make my product and my company successful.