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Onboarding for Product Management

by Mike Smart

onboardingA few years ago, a friend of mine recommended the book Topgrading by Brad Smart, Ph.D.

One “a-ha” moment for me was the cost of hiring and retaining a team member that doesn’t work out (or is retained for less than two years). The costs are staggering; $100,000 for every $10,000 of compensation.

I won’t bore you with the arithmetic as you can refer to the book, but I’ve found that proper onboarding results in a real payoff. Onboarding is the fair and equitable way to tell our product leaders and managers, “We want you to be successful.” It also identifies issues early and provides a path to correct them.

Onboarding should apply to everyone new to the company—individual contributors; managers and directors; even executives—and be tailored to past experiences and roles. An ongoing process with measureable results in a 100-day or less timeframe is best. This ensures your team, and most expensive assets, will always perform at their peak even when adding additional resources.

Why is this especially important for strategic roles such as product leader and management?

Not that long ago, I worked with a CEO of a mid-size enterprise software company that hired a product director. The director had industry experience, managed a team of product managers, and had an advanced degree from a prestigious school. He was a very “smart” guy. The CEO liked his education and intelligence—and was very behind schedule filling the role.

Some issues started to surface a few months after he accepted the role. He was “too busy” to check-in with his team, and didn’t request they spend time with customers to develop market knowledge—or do so himself. Two operations reviews later, a board member commented the product strategy lacked credibility and showing signs of decline.

Fast forward six quarters: The same board member asked with frustration, “How did we get here? The product strategy is a mess, our customers are unhappy and we haven’t delivered anything significant in almost two years.” He thought the product director was failing. The director had not created these issues but now he owned them.

An executive-level onboarding program would have helped the product director integrate the company’s goals, objectives and expectations into his job. Onboarding would have solidified what methods, resources and tools were available to him to accomplish key objectives. A formal process would have kept everyone updated on the progress and answered whether they had a great product leader and if he was a good, strategic fit. In fairness it would have given the director a tracking tool to let everyone know he was on course.

What does an effective onboarding program look like?

Here are six basic steps to create your own:

  • Formally assess teams and individuals. Model your best practices after your current best talent. What skills do they exhibit?
  • Create a scorecard. Define key results and outcomes for the team. Publish them!
  • Create a complete feedback cycle. Talk to your organization—make sure all employees weigh-in. What do they want in the next 60-90 days? What was missing in the last 30? Do something meaningful and visible with the feedback.
  • Promote and foster a formal and informal network. Set the stage and get out of the way. Let the informal network grow, but make suggestions on pairing-up team members as well.
  • Focus on things that aren’t visible. Recognize individuals that embrace the role by practicing the skills and the process. Recognize and encourage a continuous learning environment.
  • Keep it light, but fit. Make regular adjustments to the process to make it fit. This works best with a “just enough” process.

Successful onboarding is how some companies achieve the 10x:1 results the rest of us only dream about. It’s about leveraging your organization, increasing productivity and developing a successful product management team. I have seen it firsthand—this is a critical part of high performance teams.

by Mike Smart

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This post was originally published on ProductManagement2. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

About the Author

mike-smart-bwMike Smart is Principal Consultant at Egress Solutions, a technology product management and marketing consulting firm that specializes in solving the critical product and market problems companies face.