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How to onboard a product manager

Curology on succulents plants
Photo by Curology on Unsplash

So, you’ve made the hire. Congratulations — finding the right product manager who can help your team succeed is a huge burden off your shoulders. As a member of the welcoming committee, you well know that onboarding is extremely important to the success of your new colleague.

Here are the stakes, according to Harvard Business Review (HBR):

A bad onboarding process is essentially running that brand-new hire you just made out the door — and a sizable number will leave before they can do anything they promised during the interview process. Onboarding new employees isn’t something that should be taken lightly.

Except that it is. 

In fact, Gallup puts the percentage of companies doing poor onboarding at a whopping 88%. That means that you aren’t seeing things — yes, people are leaving jobs rapidly. And while much of that can be blamed on bad management, the specter of bad onboarding can be just as impactful.

Onboarding in product management

Those are generalizations about the overall workforce, and while I don’t have a ton of peer backed numbers, I can be fairly confident that the trends follow in the discipline of product management. My conversations with product leaders and founders tend to support that notion, as one of their struggles continues to be keeping great talent. They find that new hires don’t quite find their footing and seem to never reach full productivity. Those folks tend to start looking elsewhere.

All of that work to bring in someone for them to leave in a few quarters is devastating.

This article is going to address the difficulties that product managers face during the onboarding process. These challenges are based on the understanding that product managers are there to help facilitate product decision-making within an organization. This means that the first few months of a product manager’s tenure is more akin to being a “detective” than anything else. 

How a company prepares a PM during the onboarding process can be the difference between a long-lasting team member and a flash-in-the-pan who sends you right back to the hiring boards. 

The challenges are that product managers have to: 

  • Figure out the company’s place in the market from scratch
  • Understand past decisions
  • Know what their areas of responsibilities are and what power they wield

Let’s go through each of these in turn. I’ll share a few things you can do to move your new hire along so they can be effective, plus some things to throw into the welcome pack to help them on their way.

Figure out the company’s place in the market from scratch

Your company doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if you are creating something on the edges, there is often an alternative that your customer base is currently using to solve their problem(s). 

When a new product manager comes on board, it’s critical that they get this information as early as possible. This allows them to ask questions that can improve the current “map” of the company. After all, you hired them for a reason! When armed with accurate knowledge of the market, a product manager is more confident in the bets they make and less likely to run afoul of silent rules that exist in the marketplace.

Put these in the welcome pack: A list of current competitors, the rules of the market from leadership’s point of view, and your business strategy, along with all the artifacts that accompany it. 

Understand past decisions

The company doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either externally or internally. The team or organization made a number of critical decisions in the past, and the company learned from them. 

When your new product manager comes on board, they need to know what those decisions were, who made them, and what the company discovered. As they learn this, they get a picture of where they can add value based on their experience and what they don’t need to re-learn. This means they can use their energy effectively going forward. This also applies to the things people in leadership positions won’t do. There’s no need for the new hire to waste their efforts. 

Put these in the welcome pack: The last six months of major decisions, an org chart, product mission/vision/strategy, and a list of anything that the company won’t do.

Know what their areas of responsibilities are and what power they wield

Building on the idea of “wasting energy,” it’s very easy to do so in a new organization, especially as a product manager. When you don’t know what you can do without getting the “ok,” it can be frustrating. It hints at dysfunction within leadership because when these things aren’t clear, people don’t act.

When your new product manager comes on board, they need to know what they can do. Can they just run a research study without an “OK?” Is it company policy for them to be able to hop on a plane to see customers without your sign-off? How about changing the roadmap? What about bringing in new software? If you are thrown off by these questions, I’ve got more, and they easily compound. Don’t waste your new hire’s time — let them know what they can do without asking permission.

Put these in the welcome pack: Rules on company spending/training spending/research spending, old research wins and losses, and anecdotes on when the company changed course. 

Time is of the essence

You’ve made the hire. The person is coming in the door. They are smart and accomplished and are ready to help make the business better. 

You trusted them enough with the offer, so help them out, and get them onboarded so they can get right to work, the right way. 


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