Being a PM When Your Product is People

Despite 10+ years in the field of HR, I still think of myself first as a problem-solver, and then an HR professional.  It’s not because I am in denial, but that’s how I approach everything I encounter and do at work.  Everything is seen as a problem or an opportunity, and while most of the topics originate as a people issue, I don’t feel constrained by a solution set that is bounded by HR.  And I’d say most progressive HR people I know have the same mindset.  Which — I propose — makes our roles a lot like Product Managers, where our product is an engaging, evolving workplace experience, and the users are our employees.

(I’m not original in making this association.  Jesse Hertzberg, the CEO of Livestream, references this in his blog  — Feb 2015.)

Skeptical?  Check out this quick description of what a Product Manager does, and I challenge you to compare it side-by-side with what the best People people do everyday:

PM role description How People people do this
  • Understands the market:  
    • Communicates with customers & prospective customers
    • Conduct usability tests
    • Surveys
    • Keeps an ongoing record of compliments/complaints
    • Uses the product regularly
  • Regular communications with employees and candidates
  • Pilots and iteration of new concepts — training, social programming, etc.
  • Quarterly engagement surveys
  • Open-door approach to employee feedback, including documented 30-day check-ins and exit interview feedback
  • “Guinea pig” for new ideas; lives and breathes the work culture and environment
  • Develops market-based product strategies:
    • Research, research, research
    • Is aware of, and understands, the competition, but is not just slavishly copying their feature sets
  • Continuous research and self-propelled learning on best practices
  • Deep and broad network of what peers at other companies are doing, assessing what might work “at home” and what needs adaptation
  • Brings products into (and out of) the market:
    • Meet market demands and make it to market
    • Realize pioneering doesn’t always pay, but understand the importance of not falling behind the curve
    • Timing is crucial
  • Time-sensitive responses to employee issues
  • Development and implementation of interventions (trainings, tough conversations, etc.) at or before they are needed
  • Continuous innovation of tools, programs
  • Develops customer relationships:
    • Face-to-face, email, blog, phone, social networks
    • W/ clear, concise, confident, courteous comms
    • Completely understands the issue
  • No HR jargon
  • Speak the language of employees — what do they care about, what resonates with them?
  • Expert on employee needs, wants, motivations
  • Bridges every department that touches the product
  • Bridges every department that touches employees and candidates
  • Manages the brand
  • Manages and responsible for shaping the employer value proposition and external branding
  • Champions the product, internally & externally
  • Champions the workplace experience, internally & externally

I raise this because PMs are often judged on their ability to problem-solve, among an array of other skills like influencing without authority, project management, effective communications, etc.  So, too, should People people.

When hiring a People person, make sure to not just assess candidates on their HR knowledge.  To me, being able to problem-solve far outweighs content knowledge.  Because in a People role, you’ll have to travel into uncharted waters — and having sharp navigational skills will get you much farther than the most detailed map in the world.

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