When I first transitioned into the product management role I thought I had made a mistake. I wasn’t prepared to make every decision for the team and figure out what everyone should be working on (hint — that’s not the PM’s job).
This feeling of insecurity about what I was doing was compounded by the fact that the team I was working with was scattered in different offices across the country. I was screwed.
A by-product of these first few chaotic weeks was that I decided it would be helpful for me to meet with everyone on the team weekly. I wanted to use the time to learn more about how others on the team were thinking and get more feedback on my own role. I scheduled these 1-on-1's outside of the normal standup and other team meetings and made an effort to keep it informal. It was a chance for me to catch up with each individual about what was going on and get to know them better. The result was even better than I could have imagined and this is a practice I will continue on wherever I go.
It’s All About Building Trust
Although it was not my explicit intention, these regular meetings with the team went a long way towards building trust amongst the team and I. During this time we made an effort to get to know each other outside of work — something that was especially important since we were not co-located and didn’t have opportunities to hang out or small talk as often.
I learned about individual motivations, what people liked and disliked working on, and frustrations or challenges that were not surfacing during team retrospectives or standups. This was also a chance for me to ask them what I could do to make their lives easier. As I would learn over time this is a fundamental role of a product manager.
Selfishly it also provided me a chance to ask questions about our own team’s processes and gather feedback for my personal development. I’ve found that folks are much more willing to speak candidly during these 1-on-1 meetings than in typical team meetings.
I tried to let whoever I’m meeting with steer the conversation and talk about whatever is on his or her mind. Unless there was a specific issue that needed to be discussed about a ticket I avoid the project/task updates altogether. Rather, I liked to focus on bigger picture items, feedback, trends or just life in general.
Google did extensive research to understand the elements of team effectiveness and found that ‘Psychological Safety’ — team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other — was the most important factor in an effective team.
When a team builds trust they aren’t afraid to challenge each other. This should be embraced — as debate fosters critical thinking from all angles and forces the best ideas to the top. This is what all teams should strive for.
It will take time and the right people to build a team that genuinely trusts each other. Making time for regularly 1-on-1's is an important first step that I would encourage all product managers to take to help motivate, engage and rally your team together.