We’ve all had a moment where we’ve felt out of our depth on the job.
Maybe it’s a conversation littered with acronyms you don’t know, a meeting with a coworker whose area of expertise is different from your own. Or perhaps you’re nervous about starting a new role when you know you didn’t meet every qualification that was listed in the job description. These feelings of imposter syndrome can be especially common for product managers since our roles involve collaborating with people across several areas of the business and understanding their line of work.
While it’s disconcerting to feel like a newbie when you have years of work experience, you can actually harness this power to be better at your job. I’ll share a few reasons why, but first let’s look at why imposter syndrome is so common in product management to begin with.
Why Product Managers Are Especially Susceptible to Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is the feeling of being undeserving of your achievements or position. It often manifests in thoughts like, “I don’t deserve to be here,” or, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
In the product world, this is especially common for a number of reasons. First, there’s no single, clear path that leads people to work in product management. Since there’s no product-management major in college, people who end up as product managers come from a wide array of educational backgrounds. It’s common to find product managers who started in customer success, engineering and countless other disciplines.
Because the paths to product management are so varied, skills and knowledge gaps are common — it’s hard to know every part of the job coming in. Someone with a strong technical background, for example, will probably need to work more closely with go-to-market teams and product leadership to understand business strategy to get up to speed. On the other hand, someone with a strong strategy background will not necessarily understand which solutions make the most sense from a technical perspective or how to take technical debt into consideration when making decisions.
Imposter syndrome is more prevalent among certain groups, particularly women and people of color. And in the product discipline, where people are looking to you to make quick decisions without a lot of definitive information, this can exacerbate the problem. It’s easy to get the impression that your colleagues know exactly what they’re doing — even though, believe me, that’s rarely the case. While these feelings of being out of your element or not having complete confidence in your skills can be uncomfortable, you can actually put them to good use.
How to Leverage Imposter Syndrome to Be a Better Product Manager
It might seem counterintuitive, but there are a number of reasons why feeling like a fraud can actually help you get better at your job.
First, there are countless instances where innovations come from those who are not experts in the field. To name just one example, a company looking for a better way to track inventory took notes from the way robot soccer players used sensors to inform their movements — not exactly an obvious combination. As Harvard Business Review puts it, “People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, ‘known’ solutions to the problem in the target field.”
The key is to reframe your thinking. Instead of being afraid to ask questions or say something because you might look like you have no idea what you’re talking about, remind yourself that your outside perspective is valuable. You’re bringing a fresh way of thinking that could uncover something that others might take for granted (that’s the “known” solutions the HBR article was referring to).
How Impostor Syndrome Can Make You a Better Product Manager
- Bring your fresh perspective to product discovery.
- Let curiosity guide your interactions with your community.
- Help the product team form the right processes.
- Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your peers.
- Trust yourself!
Let’s dig into how these scenarios might play out in different parts of product management.
Bring Your Fresh Perspective to Product Discovery
Feeling a lack of confidence in your knowledge gives you a greater ability to really listen to your customers during discovery. If you’re joining a new team, you should always ask more senior folks for guidance — you absolutely want to heed their experience and expertise. But at the same time, try to set aside one third of your discovery time for pursuing your own questions. What are things that feel unresolved to you?
Here’s an example from my own experience. In a previous role, I was tasked with improving customer retention. The product team’s assumption at the time was that we needed to focus on the customers who had started thinking about cancelling their subscriptions. Therefore, the team wanted to look into what offers we could make to customers at that final stage to retain them and keep them happy.
But as a newcomer, I was wondering if the customer’s early user experience might have more impact on retention. So when I talked to customers who had already quit, I asked about their onboarding experiences. Through these conversations, I learned customers really did want more education at the beginning of their journey. I was then able to pair this qualitative story with some quantitative proof as well.
When I dug into the customer lifetime value, it was clear there was a difference between those who were onboarded properly in the first 14 days versus those who were not. This led the entire team to reframe our view of retention and the product initiatives we wanted to pursue (like investing in improving first user onboarding).
We wouldn’t have learned this if I had just asked about the things that the people on the team told me about. I let my fresh perspective and curiosity guide me to a deeper understanding of our customers.
Let Curiosity Guide Your Interactions With Your Community
If you don’t feel confident about your knowledge, let this feeling motivate you to spend more time with your customers. Bring this sense of curiosity to your interactions with your community — whether it’s through online forums or in-person meet-ups.
Rather than making assumptions about why they’re doing certain things, it’s powerful to ask. The way we build our product flows isn’t necessarily the way our customers use them. They come up with their own flows that we don’t know about. When you ask questions instead of assuming they’re using the product as your employer perhaps intended, you’ll uncover new use cases and flows that could potentially fulfill an even larger number of customers.
We’ve seen this firsthand at Productboard. For example, a customer was recently making a request in our online community. At face value, they appeared to be asking for a specific feature that we don’t have. But when we took the time to dig in and ask what they were trying to do with that particular feature, we discovered the only reason they used that feature was because it was a workaround for their real pain point. I’m proud to say that Productboard is now building a solution for that pain point rather than investing in fixing a feature that was only being used as a workaround.
When you bring curiosity to interactions with your community, you can end up uncovering your user’s real needs.
Help the Product Team Form the Right Processes
Your fresh perspective doesn’t just have the ability to inform your interactions with customers — it can also help develop better internal processes at your company. You might discover that you’re lacking a resource that could help everyone on the team.
Let’s say you’re preparing for a launch, and you want to make sure you don’t forget any critical steps. You could bring this up in a meeting with the entire product team by saying something like: “I don’t know what the process is to launch this. Do we have a resource product managers use to keep track of all the steps leading up to a launch?” Of course, the key here is to do your research ahead of time. You don’t want to waste people’s time asking about resources that already exist and are easy to find.
But there will often be cases where there is no set process or resource. By bringing this up to the team, you highlight the needs of other PMs, not just your own. This could be that an existing resource needs to be more discoverable, or perhaps you need to create something new like a go-to-market checklist. In either case, you’re helping create something that’s scalable for your organization rather than handling one-off operations.
Trust Yourself, and Don’t Be Afraid to Enlist the Help of Your Peers
When you switch to a new role or industry, be sure to allow yourself time to get up to speed. It’s okay you don’t know the lingo right off the bat! If you’re coming from B2C to B2B, for example, you’ll probably encounter new acronyms all the time. When someone shares your current cost of acquisition, you might not know the industry benchmark off the top of your head.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this type of terminology and technical knowledge, but it’s something that just takes time to learn. If you’ve ever studied another language, you might remember how tricky verb conjugations seem at first. But with enough time and exposure, you start to pick them up. It’s exactly the same when you’re immersing yourself in the jargon of a new industry. Try not to feel bad about it; just trust yourself. With time, you’ll absorb this knowledge.
In some areas, though, it’s about more than factual knowledge. You have skill areas where you’re already strong and others where you know you’d like to improve. In both cases, your peers can be great resources. I recommend finding one or two people who excel in your deficit areas and one or two who need extra support in your areas of strength. You can turn to the people in your deficit areas whenever you need a little extra support. Tell them that you’re committed to learning and listening. And the people in your areas of strength can be your advocates during the performance review process.
When you take this approach, you demonstrate self-awareness of what you’re good at and what you’re not — as well as a willingness to improve. If you can, try to find ways to put your improvement goals into your personal OKRs. If technical skill is one of your shortcomings, for example, you can aim to do a technical review in front of engineering leads by the end of the quarter. Remember: No one expects you to be perfect, but you want to show that you’re improving. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the areas where you already shine. If you’re too scared of a humblebrag, let those who know your strengths sing your praises.
Imposter Syndrome Doesn’t Have to Hold You Back
You’re not alone. Everyone — even the best product manager out there — feels imposter syndrome at times because everyone’s coming from a different place. Don’t forget that you’re already amazing at certain things. That’s why you were hired in the first place. You can get up to speed on the technical stuff. It’s like verb conjugations. You’ll get there eventually!
People just want to see that you’re improving and show self-awareness of the things you’re bad at. And most importantly, remember to harness your doubt into customer empathy. This will help you really understand pain points that can lead to new use cases and innovation within your company.