Startups are notorious for being fast-moving environments. Often by the time a PM is hired it feels like they are already months too late. “There is no time to onboard, we need to throw them into this urgent project!”
Unfortunately, this mentality sacrifices the long term for the short term. The PM is such a heavily leveraged role in a product-focused tech company. More than in almost any other role, an investment in effective PM onboarding will pay dividends. So don’t skimp on onboarding your new PM!
This is why I always make a point to create and follow a deliberate onboarding plan for my new PM hires. In this 3-part series (hey - there’s a lot to cover!) I’ll outline what my typical PM onboarding process looks like.
In this 3rd and final post of the series, I will share about how to invest your time wisely with your new PM. A rock-solid onboarding will be a time commitment from the hiring manager (and other teammates). But if done well, with the right candidate, it will pay back dividends by freeing up the manager’s time later. Let’s walk through some of the things I try from day one to get things off to a good start.
It should be a given that people want time to understand their role, but I’ve found there are some people who want nothing else but to jump fully into project work. This is why I spend time early to ensure that my new PM understands the value of their onboarding. They should be bought in to invest this time now so they can not only be successful in this role but also as a future product leader in the company.
To make it less hypothetical, you should provide some rough guidance for how they should balance their time between onboarding activities and project work (E.g. “80%/20% in your first two weeks”).
I also work to instill an ownership mindset about the onboarding process (which sets a good first example for instilling an ownership mindset about future project work and personal development as well). I do this by explaining that “it is their onboarding plan; what I have shared is just a first draft. Moving forward, they should be responsible for tracking, adding, and removing topics in their plan. The draft should be seen as suggestions, but if they find better topics they have the leeway to deviate”. It’s not enough to say these things, you need to monitor and ensure that your new PM is truly internalizing this and acting accordingly.
During onboarding, I try to over-index towards being explicit about expectations rather than leaving things up to interpretation. This clarity will help the new PM avoid stumbling blocks in their first days and weeks.
You should think about your management style and how you can best support your new hire, and then make this clear to them. For example, I share that their onboarding (and overall success in the role) is my priority, and as a result I expect them to proactively grab time with me as needed rather than waste time struggling through a question.
You might be wondering how hands-on you should be with your new PM. One thing that I learned early as a manager is that it’s important to play an overly hands-on role with a PM during their onboarding period. As soon as they demonstrate that they can work independently, and that they will proactively reach out to you when needed, you can dial this back. But it’s much better in these first weeks to find you were unnecessarily involved than realize you had been too hands-off and should have made adjustments sooner.
Even though many people don’t prefer a hands-on manager, these concerns can be alleviated by being open. For example, I explain that I expect to get to a point where I am much more hands-off, but in this onboarding time I want to have a short feedback loop so we can better understand each others’ styles and make adjustments more quickly.
Using the role definition you prepared in Part 1 of this series, you go into depth about how their role is defined. What are they responsible for? How should their work ladder up to the broader business goals? What does success look like?
If you think there might be differences between how PM is structured at your startup vs. where they worked previously, this is also a good time to adjust their understanding of what is expected of PMs.
Even if you have a pretty typical PM setup at your company, there will always be a flavor to how your company does Product Management. For example, Experience Design, Customer Research, and Execution have each been viewed as disproportionately-valued skills for a PM at different past companies where I’ve worked. Making this clear from the beginning will help the new PM decide how to spend their time.