The New Product Manager’s Essential Guide to Onboarding

Effective onboarding means your team and product will struggle less with the transition, and you can become a value-adding contributor within the first few weeks.
Headshot of author Olivia Belitsky
Olivia Belitsky
Expert Contributor
February 24, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Olivia Belitsky
Olivia Belitsky
Expert Contributor
February 24, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

Like most product managers, I’m used to being the subject-matter expert for all things under my product’s umbrella: I know who our customer is, what our competitors are building, how to work with different stakeholder groups and which teammates don’t like to be interrupted when their headphones are on.

I also know what it feels like to be the new person. I’ve worked on nine product teams at three companies, and each time I move, it feels like my world is flipped upside down. The new team speaks in acronyms I’ve never heard, I have to build new relationships from scratch, and, sometimes, I have to learn a new industry overnight. Even when I’m lucky enough to have a knowledge transfer from the previous PM or a formal onboarding plan, it still takes weeks to feel competent and months to feel adept.

There are many skills a product manager is expected to master (here’s just one article that lists 26 of them), but one that is frequently overlooked is the ability to onboard quickly onto a new team. Effective onboarding means your team and product will struggle less with the transition, and you can be a value-adding contributor within the first few weeks.

 

What Does Good Onboarding Look Like?

You establish a baseline relationship with your immediate team (engineering, designers, analysts, etc.) You’ll feel comfortable reaching out to these teammates with your questions and ideas.

You understand what success means for your product (metrics and KPIs) and are able to easily access this data as necessary. You connect with your stakeholders and understand what commitments your team is expected to deliver in their sprints during the upcoming quarter.

The early expectations for you will vary company by company, but here’s a week-by-week guide of what onboarding like a pro could look like:

 

Week One:

  • Connect one-on-one with your manager and director. Ask, “What would success in my first 30 days look like?”
     
  • Ask them to help you form some goals for your first month, which will be your own personal roadmap while you onboard.
     
  • Understand the basic structure of your team and organization.
     
  • Be a sponge, take notes, and ask lots of questions.

Week Two:

  • This is your one-on-one week with everyone on your product team: engineers, designers, QA and analysts. If possible, get some coffee or go for a walk!

Weeks Three and Four:

  • Identify which self-service data tools are available to you, and perform an inventory of what is being tracked and where there are holes. The fastest way to become a competent product manager on a new team and start adding value is to understand “where” your product is (vanity metrics) and to seek out opportunities for improvement toward your core KPIs.
     
  • Gather information on your competitors. Why are they considered competitors? What problems do they solve for their users, and are they the same problems your product is supposed to solve? What do they do well, and is there an opportunity to test some of their solutions on your platform?
     
  • Take advantage of your newness by looking at your product with fresh eyes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, raise possible problems and challenge the status quo.
     
  • Understand the RACI framework for your team and stakeholders. It’s important to understand the ownership structures for all of the projects in your pipeline so you don’t accidentally leave out an important decision-maker.

Building Trust

It can sound like one of those buzzwords that just happens naturally. A mentor once told me, “You have to earn the right to be strategic” — meaning that I needed to gain the trust of my team, stakeholders and leadership before I could credibly advance big ideas. While trust can take time, we are frequently unaware of the two core elements that create trust: shared values and reliability.

  • Shared Values: Simply put, what do you have in common with the other person? Whether it’s past experiences or goals for the future, shared values are how we connect with each other. Aligning on a roadmap and definition of success are examples of professional shared values.
     
  • Reliability: Are you a person of your word? Can people depend on you to meet deadlines, include them in important conversations and be honest?

You can jump-start the process of building trust with your team in your first few weeks — and set up your relationships for success — by purposefully identifying your shared values and setting up expectations for how you’ll work with them as their product manager.

 

Questions to Ask in Your One-on-Ones

Here are some essential questions that can help you build trust during your introductory meetings with individual teammates:

How do you measure the success of this product? This may seem like an easy question to answer, but frequently you’ll find that the definition for success differs based on which team you’re speaking with. It’s important to align on a single definition for success within your team and on stakeholder teams so that you can prioritize work effectively.

What are you expecting this team will build in the upcoming quarter? Again, this may seem like an easy question, but, again, you may find that the answer varies. If you have a roadmap on paper, but your stakeholders are expecting you to build something different, this could indicate that you’re walking into a team with a communication issue.

What is something really important that we should build or fix soon? While you’re getting your bearings straight on your new team, lean on your product team and stakeholders to learn what could be coming down the pipeline. This will also help you build out your backlog.

How do you prefer to communicate? How often would you like updates from me? By asking this question, you’re demonstrating that you respect your teammate’s working style and you’ll learn the most effective method for communicating with them. Additionally, proactively offering to set up recurring updates demonstrates reliability (assuming you follow through).

What stands out to you about this company’s culture? A company’s culture can be one of the hardest concepts to grasp as a new person, but it is essential to know what the organization as a whole values. Since company culture can be hard to define on its own, a great way to gain insight is to ask your teammates and stakeholders how this organization’s culture compares to other places they have worked.

What do you wish someone had told you when you joined? You’d be surprised by how often people will offer up hints for success when you ask them directly. Once, a stakeholder told me that I should always have a list of moonshot ideas in my back pocket because leadership had a tendency to ask for big ideas with little notice. Another time, someone told me that the traffic on the escalators was a nightmare during rush hour and that there was a stairwell hidden behind the cafeteria that took you straight to the garage. (Pro tip!)

In my adventures in onboarding, I’ve seen a lot: teams with very tight procedures I had to learn fast, teams that were still finding their footing, teams that struggled with stakeholder management, and teams where I had big shoes to fill. Through trial and error — lots of error — I’ve learned that context-shifting and quickly adapting to new teams is a skill and a practice that starts with good onboarding. By following this guide, you can make the most of your first few weeks and set up your relationships for success.

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