If you’re wondering how to successfully onboard a new product manager, it actually starts before the PdM accepts an offer. Developing an effective product manager onboarding process takes time, consideration, and teamwork. Read on for the lowdown.
Companies with a strong and strategic onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82%, according to research by professional development firm Brandon Hall Group. Yet many organizations fall short, delivering a poor experience that sets new joiners off on the wrong foot. So, after securing a candidate with your employee value proposition, what next?
In this article, we’ll look specifically at onboarding product managers (PdMs), why it’s important for your business, associated teams and the product, and how to do that in a way that’s successful for the organization as well as the individual.
Here, we’re exploring onboarding from the hiring company’s perspective – keep an eye out for the second part of this series, where we delve into things from the PM’s point of view.
What is onboarding?
Also known as organizational socialization, onboarding is a term that refers to the way new employees acquire the knowledge, skills, and behaviors they need to become effective and successful members of the company they work for.
Onboarding doesn’t happen overnight – at least it shouldn't. In fact, onboarding starts before you recruit – more on the specific stages later.
The importance of product managers
Before we dig into the intricacies of onboarding a PdM, let’s take a step back and briefly discuss the product manager position. PdMs have a broad remit, balancing leading a product with people. They must inspire their product management team as well as stakeholders, and be passionate about the product while demonstrating a clear plan and vision.
An experienced product manager possesses a diverse range of skills, from top-class communication, high emotional intelligence, and building strong relationships to problem-solving, delegation, and engaging customers. They’re strategic and entrepreneurial thinkers with visionary mindsets and technical knowledge.
Top product managers are customer-centric and data-informed. That covers a wide range of capabilities, right? It’s no wonder research shows that fully accustomed product managers could increase profits by up to 34%.
Why do you need a product manager onboarding plan?
With that in mind, you want your PdMs to be as effective as possible. To help ensure that’s the case, a positive and well-thought-out product management onboarding process is vital, from the pre-recruitment stage through to mastery (more on these later).
Aside from potentially boosting profits, why else is effective onboarding important?
For starters, properly preparing your new PdM reduces the cost of learning on the job, meaning they can perform their role sooner and at a higher level. In fact, studies show that organizations with a robust onboarding process improve productivity by over 70% (Brandon Hall Group). Moreover, firms with the longest onboarding programs benefit from full proficiency 34% faster.
By showing the new PdM they’re valued right from the outset, you increase morale and cultivate a culture of engagement and satisfaction. Furthermore, successful onboarding also helps prevent expensive turnover. Figures vary, with some statistics estimating it costs six to nine months’ salary on average, with others citing between 100% and 300%.
How to onboard a new manager: perspectives to consider
When formulating your PdM onboarding strategy, it’s not just the product manager you need to think about. There are many parties impacted by a positive (or negative) induction program, including:
- The team the newcomer will be a part of
- Stakeholders they collaborate with such as product squads and supporting teams
- Internal communities of domain practice and expertise
Moreover, effective onboarding plans vary between companies, depending on how it operates, how many people are employed, and the structure. Other factors come into play too, like the product area the new joiner is leading.
New product manager onboarding guide
When getting into the nitty-gritty of your plan, there are five main areas to cover, three of which take place before the new PdM even joins the new company: before recruitment, recruitment, and pre-start.
This phase is all about the company getting itself in the best position to attract the right product manager candidates. That means ensuring online and offline presence are optimized and encouraging employee advocacy.
To attract the “best talent”, how you position your business, its values and culture, and the channels you use to communicate all come into play.
Moreover, it’s important to talk about how you onboard new employees, so people are aware you have a process in place and don’t operate on the fly. Employee experience onboarding testimonials are also valuable – share these via blog posts, social media, or a combination of both.
The next piece of the onboarding puzzle is recruitment, where it’s about both sides – company and candidate – making a good impression on each other and sounding out whether they’re a good fit.
As a company, make sure you clearly explain the steps involved to potential employees. How? Give plenty of detail and have an empathetic approach. You may also decide to offer additional info along the way, such as your info pack or culture document.
Then, at every stage of the recruitment process, provide a top-notch experience for the candidate that makes them feel valued. To help achieve that, share feedback regarding what went well and ways to improve, paired with further readings and helpful materials.
For candidates who aren’t ultimately successful and are rejected in the latter stages, thank them for their efforts and provide high-quality and actionable feedback. Additionally, if a person only narrowly missed out, perhaps invite them to rejoin the recruitment process in a few months, when they’ve had a chance to improve their skills.
For the successful candidate, make sure they feel comfortable with your offer and answer any questions they have regarding details. Assuming the offer is accepted, provide them with next steps and who to contact in the interim.
Once you’ve made an offer and the PdM has agreed to join your company, there’s the pre-onboarding stage – the time between acceptance and start date, which in some cases is lengthy, if there’s an extensive notice period.
Here, it’s about how an organization interacts with the soon-to-be new employee. Uncertain of what lies ahead, the person wants to feel secure in the decision they’ve made. To that end, keeping in touch and updating them on organizational developments are important, helping the individual feel involved and excited.
During this stage:
- Give clarity to the newly hired product manager regarding next steps
- Motivate the person by arming them with useful materials to read before their start date
- Offer support – for instance, the PdM may be relocating or need help with a work permit or visa
Other things to consider include encouraging the team to connect with the new joiner, whether that’s on LinkedIn or in person. It’s also a good idea to send a pre-start email answering questions such as how to access email, what time to arrive, the dress code…
As a company, it’s a good time to make sure you’re on top of admin, including employment contracts, background checks, references, and HR records.
Getting this phase right sets the tone for the new employee’s experience, giving them an idea of the way the company works and its culture.
Product manager onboarding process: first 100 days
Next, it’s stage four and onboarding in the more traditional sense of the word – the first day the PdM starts and the three or so months following that. Even when you’re at this stage, onboarding is ongoing.
Processes may include:
- Reading printed materials
- Watching videos
- Computer-based orientations
Although the reasons behind a robust onboarding process are compelling, research by management consultancy firm Gallup revealed that just 12% of people strongly agree their employer does a great job onboarding new starters.
With that in mind, what are some best practices to keep in mind?
Being proactive and having a clear strategy is crucial. In short, it’s about informing the PdM about the people, company, culture, and the product(s) they’ll be dealing with.
Here at Netguru, we have a template for onboarding a new product manager – a checklist detailing onboarding items, their status (complete/incomplete) and associated timeframes, plus relevant contacts.
For example, our learning plan spans areas like organizational, operations and product knowledge, and technical craft. It sets clear short- and long-term goals and deliverables for the PdM’s first day, week, month, and quarter. For instance, within the first fortnight, the hiring manager should set time aside to talk to the PdM about product manager expectations.
By sharing this written plan of employee objectives and responsibilities, the new PdM is aware of expectations, helping reduce stress and confusion while saving time – product managers who receive proper onboarding require less training in the future.
However, it’s not just about the product manager onboarding checklist; it’s also important for the new PdM to have one-to-one sessions with their leader. By doing that, the PdM gets a real understanding of their role, the team they’ll be managing, and the organizational structure of the company.
They also need to grasp the intricacies of the company and its culture: their mission and vision, the values employees live by, the working environment, the business model the organization adheres to, who the key decision-makers are, and communication norms and practices. Without that overview, the person will lack direction and focus and struggle to integrate.
A buddy system is also beneficial, helping a newcomer get up to speed – pairing the PdM with an existing one works well. By shadowing an experienced product manager, the new employee can see how things work firsthand, be it watching how meetings are run, seeing how teams operate and communicate with each other, or understanding how strategic decisions are made.
By the same token, it’s also useful for your new PdM to gain a broad perspective by seeing how other departments work. For example, if they spend time with the sales and engineering teams, they’re able to see how they’re led, giving the PdM additional parts of the company-wide picture.
These offer the new product manager people context, helping them realize expectations, motivations, and how to best build relationships.
Next, it’s about product context: grasping the details and understanding how it fits within the wider portfolio. As such, the PdM needs access to the product roadmap, specs, research, data, presentations, product history, and relevant blogs. They should also start using the product straight away, to get a concrete sense of what they’re dealing with.
There will undoubtedly be questions, so relevant team members and superiors should be on hand to answer them. It’s important to be there for your PdM, not just in the first few days, but the first few months and beyond.
Meanwhile, as product knowledge is required, give the product manager hypothetical timeframes regarding when they can expect to run meetings, make product decisions, and run projects independently.
One final area to cover during product onboarding is processes, spanning company-wide, the product team, and the product.
For example, what are the product manager's responsibilities through each stage of a project – ideation, discovery and strategy, validation, data, metrics and analytics, delivery, and growth – and what are the corresponding processes? Which product management systems does the company use? The PdM should familiarise themselves with these areas – they may be different compared to previous workplaces.
With the first 100 days or so covered (don’t be too concrete, some PdMs are quicker to onboard fully than others), what’s next for the product manager? One word: mastery.
This onboarding phase is all about the PdM:
- Being aware of and implementing a career growth path
- Using and elevating one-to-one sessions with leaders to finesse and improve skills
- Product discussions with other PdMs to share tips and bounce ideas
- Improving domain expertise collaboration
- Getting themselves a mentor to help progress their career
- Becoming a buddy to a new team member and sharing useful info
- Becoming a mentor to other employees, helping them further their career
- Practicing what they preach via cross-team product consultations
- Sharing knowledge by offering insightful materials to their team, creating blog content, and hosting internal workshops
Benefits of product manager onboarding
Both the company and the new PdM reap the benefits when onboarding is carried out well. From pre-recruitment through the first 100 days, the candidate and employee’s experience is tracked and monitored.
There’s a clear process and transparency at every step. All parties involved are aware of the process and what to expect, meaning there’s no room for confusion or misunderstandings – risk is mitigated.
In short, you’re maximizing the chances of a PdM joining the company and team effectively, by putting them in the strongest position from the outset and arming them with the relevant tools, knowledge, and support.
Common mistakes when onboarding product managers
We’ve talked about how to onboard successfully and why that’s important, but what are the things you should avoid when onboarding a product manager? Several common mistakes are made that lead to PdMs looking for a new job within the first few months of joining a company. Indeed, up to 20% of staff turnover occurs in the first 45 days.
Here are some pitfalls:
- Winging the onboarding process. You need a documented process that’s customizable to the product manager’s role. It’s not up to the PdM to figure things out for themselves.
- Not reviewing your PdM onboarding checklist and process. Onboarding should be iterative; it’s not set in stone or an exact science. Be prepared to tweak the process and regularly re-examine it to see what you can improve and how you can make it more efficient. It’s a learning process for you, too.
- Getting tactical too soon. Onboarding a new PdM takes time; there’s a lot of info to process. Don’t rush in with a list of tasks – let the product person settle in.
- Not asking for feedback. Checking in with your PdM and seeing what they thought of the onboarding process is super important. That way, you can potentially improve it.
- Leaving one person to take the onboarding load. Onboarding is a team effort; multiple people are involved when it’s done effectively. PdMs impact the entire organization, so getting the relevant teams and departments involved really helps.
Onboarding a new product manager
Onboarding a new PdM successfully takes time, effort, and a plan. When done well, it sets the product manager on the right path and enables them to reach full productivity, quicker. It’s down to the company to implement a strategy that introduces the PdM to their culture, values, people, and products.
However, the product manager also has a role to play, from connecting with people and reserving judgment to setting goals and looking at things with fresh eyes. We explore onboarding from the product manager’s perspective in the second part of this series.