A Self-Onboarding Plan for First Product Hires: 7 Tenets
7 Tenets for every product manager to follow as they onboard to a new team.
Congratulations! You accepted an offer to join that awesome new startup as the Head of Product/CPO/First Product Hire! You’ve explained to the CEO what exactly a product manager is, survived the gauntlet of interviews with the rest of the team, and have convinced everyone you can take the company to the next level. Your start date is almost here and you’re ready to get started. Now what?
After a lengthy online search, you may have noticed there is a lack of content and advice online related to self-onboarding for first product hires. When I found myself in this position, I created my own onboarding plan that I have since used at a number of companies and shared with many other product managers and product leaders who have also found it helpful. Even if you are not the first product hire this onboarding plan can be a helpful guide for any product manager joining any team. I have broken out my self-onboarding guide into two detailed posts:
- This post, which covers the 7 tenets I follow when ramping up on any new team.
- A second post (soon to be launched), which covers key focus areas to dive into and related questions to ask that will provide you with a holistic view of your new company, team, tech, and product.
This guide is industry, product, and company agnostic and is optimized to get you up to speed and adding value as quickly as possible. Hopefully you will find it as effective as I did as you kick off your own product journey. Best of luck!
7 Self-Onboarding Tenets
Every time I join a new team I browse over these onboarding tenets to remind myself of what is important (and what isn’t) to make sure I stay focused on the right onboarding behaviors. You only have one chance to onboard to a new team, so focusing on these tenets early in your process will make your life easier and pay dividends later.
- Focus on developing your product intuition, fast. The most important tenet to live by during your first few months (and, honestly, throughout your entire career) is to focus on developing your own product intuition. At a startup, and even at large companies, your team and industry will move exceptionally fast. You may not always have the opportunity to call up a customer and get their opinion on a new idea, and you and your team will likely need to make thousands of decisions without the ability to get direct feedback from your customers. Therefore, you should make it your number one priority to develop your own product intuition for your new company as quickly as possible so you can act as the voice of the customer in future conversations and decisions. Although this takes time and your intuition will continue to evolve as your product, company, and customer needs evolve, it’s never to early to start developing.
- Go wide, get the context. Don’t let people try to pigeonhole you into only learning about a specific area of the company or product. Learning about areas of your new business that are parallel to, tangental, or even seemingly unrelated to your focus area can always provide you with a better understanding of how the company operates and where opportunities may exist.
- Don’t get into the weeds too soon. Don’t get involved in too many projects too early, or go too deep into the weeds too soon. This will be your one and only chance to onboard to the company and you will have countless hours in the future to get more deeply involved with specific initiatives, so use your time wisely. Focus on getting a lay of the land, learning the dynamics at play within your organization, and getting a broad view of your space before rushing to deliver or execute on a specific project.
- Learn what is sacred, and what is habit. As you begin learning more about the team, how they operate, the product, and processes used across the company, you will start to notice that some things feel off or could be improved. Before jumping in to recommend changes however, you should ask why things are the way they are and learn about what came before you to understand context. Focus on learning the difference between what is sacred and what is habit on your new team. Something that is sacred is something that is done or exists very intentionally and is tied to a core company belief, modus operandi, or objective. For example, a company’s core belief could be that transparency is key. This core belief would likely influence how they design operations internally, how they engage with customers, or how they talk about the company externally. Something that is habit is something that just happens to be done or exist in a certain way due to the fact that no one has reevaluated the process or solution in a while. This is where you will find a lot of opportunities to improve and add value.
- Just because it was done before doesn’t mean it was done correctly. As you start identifying opportunities and coming up with ideas you may hear from other people on the team that “we tried that before and it didn’t work” or “we already looked into that”. Just because someone else investigated an approach or ran an “experiment” months or even years ago doesn’t mean it was done the right way before. Additionally, the world changes very rapidly, so something that may have failed before may be successful in the new world. If you have a deep belief that something should be investigated, dive deeper to understand the methodology and approach that was previously used, determine whether the environment or market have changed, and pursue further if you find there is still an opportunity.
- Identify the hard and dotted lines, and who pulls the strings. Even at a small company there will be organizational and political forces at work. You should very consciously seek to learn how the organization is structured, who drives decision making (formally and informally), and what relationships and dynamics exist between different teams. This will help you identify who your biggest allies will be, who may cause the most friction, and who you will need to win over in order to make changes across the company. For example, a teammate with a more junior title may have been one of the first employees at the company and hold a lot of sway with the founder, or you may learn that the merchandising team really distrusts the engineering team. Seek out these dotted lines and understand what dynamics are at play.
- Make a personal connection. Once again, this is your one and only chance to onboard to the new team. Take the time to get to know your teammates on a personal level. Once you get started with different initiatives you will be sucked into traditional working mechanisms of sprint plannings and roadmap sessions, so try to form a personal connection ahead of time that will make your meetings and interactions more enjoyable and build trust with your teammates.
If you enjoyed these onboarding tenets, stay tuned for the next post in this series covering the 6 key focus areas and related questions to ask as you ramp up in any new product role.