This post is for anyone looking to break into the PM field, no matter your background.
Before I even interviewed for a product manager (PM) role, I was hungry for information on how to be the best PM. Luckily for me, there was an endless list of blogs, Medium posts, books, podcasts, and people who were excited to share that information with me. When I sat down with a PM to learn about their career, I would always end the coffee chats with “Where do you learn and keep up with product news and strategy?”
I would always expect people to follow some hot shot VC blog or sage words of an all star podcast, but some PMs gave surprising answers:
“I try and read fiction to broaden my thinking.”
“I pursue hobbies to stay creative.”
“I look at other roles and see how they improve their skills.”
This opened my mind to some other avenues where I could learn how to be a great PM. After a year and a half into my PM career, for example, I realized some of my biggest insights came from my previous role as a Solution Engineer on our sales team. Whether you’re interviewing to be a PM, you’ve already been hired, or you’re a seasoned product leader — I encourage you to learn from different industries and leaders of different backgrounds.
1) Negotiating isn’t just for money: PMs negotiate for time, priority, and resources
Negotiating gets a really bad rap — it’s not always haggling at untrustworthy car sales people for a better price. The worst myth is that negotiations only happen when money is involved — we typically think about negotiating for a raise or better price. However, negotiations are key for other resources that matter in product work, such as time, priority, and resourcing.
How sales negotiations translates to PM work :
- Sales teaches negotiation strategies for reaching true alignment— this is done through asking a series of well-thought-out questions to figure out what your prospect actually cares about.
- As a PM you negotiate all the time with:
- teams you’re collaborating with for
- your tech lead for a more customer-centric solution
- your designer for an easier to build design
- product execs for more resourcing
- external vendors
- legal and security
What PMs can learn from sales:
- Figuring out what other teams are motivated by and do the research to understand their initiatives and the metrics they want to move
- Building alignment — making sure you map out who the decision makers are and what their needs are
- Being open to change — what can you budge on so that everyone ends up with something that will help them advance?
- Listing out risks and what you can do to minimize them
- Anchoring actions in a clear timeline and in the context of customer need
2) Focus on what you can control: creating a productive and focused environment for you and your team
Sales is famous for the ups and downs of sales cycles — whether it is in the highest highs of exceeding quota or lowest lows of ending the month without hitting your goal, it takes a strong of emotional stability to thrive in a sales career month after month.
As a PM, you will face unexpected setbacks:
- A project getting reprioritized by stakeholders
- Needing to slow down your roadmap for emergencies and tech debt
- Issues with external vendors
- People leaving your team
- Not being on the same page as collaborators
These are some of the most difficult moments as a PM — evaluating a situation, recovering, and steering your team in the direction of building the most customer value possible when everything fees like it is working against you.
I’ve seen masterful sales managers take a team of sales reps from under quota to over quota within the last couple of days of the month, building success out of a positive attitude and the belief that every piece of effort matters.
What PMs can learn from sales in terms of focusing on what you can control:
- How to get customer feedback
- How to build up the quantitative and qualitative data to convince others
- How to help your team iterate quickly from feedback
- How to pivot if needed
3) It’s not just quotas and deadlines: generating and working with urgency
The nature of sales is to do things efficiently and quickly — constantly juggling between different tasks and deciding which account to focus on to help hit quota as the end of the month looms ever closer.
Luckily, in product the deadlines aren’t as cyclical, but it benefits PMs and product teams to move with a sense of urgency. Not that the best product teams are shipping at a break neck pace that feel like a death march — it’s more that we are constantly able to honestly answer the question:
“Are we shipping customer value?”
The trick is pace yourself and bring a consistent urgency to the team, so that it feels like you are moving at a brisk comfortable jog — not a slow crawl and not a cheetah-like sprint.
What PMs can learn from sales:
- How to constantly ask yourselves and others what the next step on the project is
- How to make sure there is clear division and ownership of tasks
- How not to get bogged down in a specific framework or design principle, or any of the many other rabbit holes that delay product teams
- How to future-proof without slowing down development
- How you and your team know and are driven by the mission and goals of the team and company
You never know where your most valuable lessons will come from…
The biggest lessons don’t always come from the experts of your industry. While these are the learnings of a green PM who’s only 1.5 years into the job- I know I definitely have a lot more to learn from both PMs and non-PMs alike. But these are the lessons I steer my ship by now, and I didn’t learn them from a traditional PM training course (if there is such a thing!). So keep your eyes open — you never know what you’ll learn, or where.