Onboarding as a Product Manager
No matter if you're onboarding a new team or a new company, there are some steps that could make the process more efficient. A six-step guide to getting started faster in a new product role.
👋 Hey, it’s András here! I write about all things product management: concepts, frameworks, career guidance, and hot takes to help you build better products. Subscribe for each article to be delivered when it’s out!
Onboarding as a product manager takes time: it’s required from the role to understand the business strategy, build good relationships with key stakeholders, be an ambassador of customer problems, and also work well with the dedicated team.
Being efficient in learning the ropes is a key advantage.
Over the years, I’ve onboarded multiple companies and teams as a product manager. Each time, I tried to improve my mental process to onboard, structuring the onboarding process to be more efficient.
In this article, I’m sharing my six-step framework so other product managers can leverage it, no matter if they’re joining their first company, the second team inside an organization, or the fifth company.
Step 0: Invest in self-learning
Before taking the first orientation meeting with someone else, review the available materials about the company or the team.
If you’re joining a new company, search for articles the organization has published about its way of working, how it develops software, other job descriptions (the roles a product manager will likely work with), or the values the company deems important.
If you’re switching to a new team internally, there should be a breath of knowledge readily available. Internal materials describing previous development items, the roadmap, product discovery documents, and other materials on what has happened before.
When going through the materials, note anything that stands out or feels odd.
First, fresh eyes are the best at identifying new customers’ challenges when using a product. Second, if there are some non-self-explanatory items, usually there is some history behind those, so it’s handy to write those down for later discussions.
Step 1: Introduce yourself to key contacts
There are usually some expectations on what a new product manager should achieve in the first months, and it starts with knowing the right people.
Ask your manager early on what roles the product manager should closely collaborate with and who these people are for the given product area. Once this list is secured, try to schedule introductory conversations in the first few weeks.
You don’t have to know everything about your responsibilities or get a deep understanding of the product to have these discussions. Just show a friendly gesture and ensure that others know that you’re here now, so they can count on your expertise and involve you in the right discussions.
The key contacts here are not just higher-ups. Ensure that you also focus on other departments like partnership, marketing, or other product managers that you’ll be likely working with.
These discussions will give you a few pointers on what documents are important, where you should put your focus, and which projects would need your contribution. Build an efficient system to organize all these learnings.
Step 2: How the company and the team operate
By this time, you’ve done some research, looked at some materials, and had a few discussions with relevant stakeholders. Next, understand how the company and your team operate.
Start from a strategical level, discussing the company’s mission and strategy with peers, and slowly narrow down into operational aspects: how the company makes decisions, who decides about what things, and how you’ll be able to resolve potential conflicts.
Most important of all: understand how the product manager role connects to the business, and what most people expect from the role.
And it’s not just about the process. Get a better understanding of the company’s financials, how the organization makes money, its business model, how profitable each product is, and what drives the adoption.
As some business acumen is expected from product managers, it’s important to be aware of key business metrics. And you’ll likely make decisions that will contribute to the company’s bottom line.
On a team level, get familiar with how the team works, what ceremonies it organizes, and how the product manager is working with other roles. A typical question here: who is responsible for the way of working within the team? Is it the product manager or the engineering manager?
Step 3: Past, present, future, and other teams
In the next step, try to understand how the team contributes to the wider company goals, what they’ve done before, what’s planned for the future, and how other teams rely on your work.
Learn what the product team has recently worked on, what fueled those priorities, and the original hypotheses behind them. A new product manager won’t always agree with people who’ve previously held the role, but it’s important to know the reasons.
After then, focus on the present, and get your head around the current projects, how current initiatives are progressing, and who is expecting what from them. Often, some promises have been already made about milestones or completion dates—if not externally, at least internally.
Don’t be afraid to question or challenge previous approaches! As a product manager, your job is not to just blindly execute but to make sensible decisions given the context.
Last, when looking into the future, get familiar with roadmaps and future initiatives. While it’s too early to doubt the entirety of those plans in the first weeks, eventually, validate whether you’d make the same decisions.
Plus, don’t forget to map out how your team’s work connects to other teams. If the overall product is complex, chances are high that frequent collaboration is needed with other teams to bring new solutions to the market.
Step 4: Research notes & talking to customers
After getting familiar with the business, how the team operates, and the existing plans, it’s time to spend more time with the main stakeholder of a product manager: customers.
Going through the previous steps is essential to getting into the right mindset. While talking to customers might sound like something that you’d want to do first, starting those conversations without proper context setting could be harmful.
Before you participate in the first customer meeting, review notes, research summaries, and other past feedback gathered. This information will get you up to speed on the major pain points from key customers and help to frame better questions next time.
Always have a goal in mind for customer meetings, but don’t be afraid to go off-script. While most of the discussion should revolve around a well-defined topic, customers might have other impactful needs. Ensure they’re given enough space to explain those—as product managers want to focus on the most pressuring problems.
Customer sessions are also good occasions to see what users like about the product. Unfortunately, these meetings are far too often focused on problems only, and it’s a breath of fresh air to ask about the positive experiences. Plus, product people can also take away a lot from the discussions: get an idea about what works well or might be driving retention.
Step 5: The product manager takes ownership
By this point, a product manager is aware of what’s happening and should have gained enough knowledge to feel more confident in the role. This is a good moment to take full ownership of the product area and consider the onboarding completed.
Work with the team on daily delivery activities, start to discover the next best opportunities, and shape the product strategy. You don’t have to know everything; just ensure that you know who to turn to if something unexpected comes up.
Gradually, a product manager should be less dependent on others when making decisions and be able to solve most situations without managerial escalation.
Remember, the learning will never be fully complete!
Create an environment where you can navigate the complexity without knowing every single product detail. Instead, focus on what’s important, and learn everything else just when you need them.
Step 6: Measurement & user behavior
While the onboarding might have been completed, there is one more important area to know more about. As product managers become fluent in navigating the new role, they should also spend more time analyzing what works and why. Start by looking at satisfaction and adoption metrics, and understand how customers use the product.
Which are some of the most popular functionalities, and where do users spend most of their time? What features have increased utilization, are flat, or are on the decline?
Establish a baseline of a healthy adoption and test how each feature measures compared to that. Use organizational standards if you have any. Otherwise, come up with your own thresholds.
While some product work will always be centered around new opportunities, existing functionalities also need attention. If something is not producing enough value, it should be addressed: reworked, improved, or killed. And it’ll be your decision to make a choice!
Relevant data points can also be powerful for decision-making. But PMs will eventually encounter cases when the needed data is not available. Don’t get too carried away with measuring everything; focus only on what matters!
If you identify a significant tracking gap, improve that, but it’s not worth having an overly detailed measurement plan. Think about what data you’ve looked at in the previous months; if you haven’t something, that’s a good indicator of its importance.
Also, be mindful when using data to make decisions, as data in isolation rarely provide a good explanation. For example, if something is increasing or decreasing rapidly, try to find other data points that correlate with the change and give more confidence to the analysis.
Plus, always use a pinch of common sense! If all signs point to one way, but the data says otherwise, don’t get too attached to what you measure. Try to find evidence that reconfirms the rational option, and double-check whether the measurements are correct.
It’s an exciting time to onboard as a product manager to a new company or team—if you’re on this journey, congratulations!
In the article above, I detailed the six-step framework I’ve distilled from years of experience joining different companies and teams as a product manager.
The onboarding is not always easy, and product managers want to ensure they invest the first few weeks wisely. The journey includes getting to know the right people, getting familiar with how the business and the team operate, learning what has been done and planned, talking to customers, taking control, and then looking at how things are performing.
And as mentioned before, the learning will never be complete.
As PMs become fluent with the roles and responsibilities, they can start focusing on sharpening their knowledge, learning more about the business, taking a bigger role inside the company, and widening their product management knowledge.