The Underperforming Product Manager: Navigating the Tough Seas of Decision-Making

Explore how to identify, manage, and make tough decisions about underperforming product managers

As the leader of a product team, you’re akin to the captain of a ship. You’re in charge of guiding your crew through calm seas and stormy waters alike, with the ultimate goal of reaching your destination – in this case, success for your product and your organization.

However, what happens when one of your crew isn’t pulling their weight? An underperforming product manager can be like an anchor dragging your ship down, slowing your progress and, in severe cases, even threatening to sink your vessel. So how do you identify, manage, and make tough decisions about underperforming product managers? Here’s a guide to help you navigate these choppy waters..

1. Spotting: Identify the Underperformer

Just like a captain keeps a keen eye on the ship and its surroundings, you monitor your team’s performance. Of course, it helps to have proper measures, and make sure you measure the right things (nice topic for another time, but hint: it is NEVER velocity of their team. It should definitely include how often they interact with clients/users.)
The other thing that almost always is a good indicator that it is time for a talk is the feeling in your gut. That doesn’t mean going crazy every time your gut is off, but consistent doubts are something that should at least be addressed.
Oh, and it is not 100% up to them of course. Take responsibility for making sure that they are at least set up for success, and not blocked by leadership or external factors.

2. Course correction: The tough conversation.

Once you’ve identified an underperformer, it’s time to step in and attempt a course correction. It is time for a tough conversation. Heads up: Even though you probably have been dropping hints, there is a big chance the person doesn’t see the underperformance yet. It is super important that you don’t sugarcoat it, while at the same time staying away from making it personal.
Focus on the work, not the person. This is a thin line. Just a few words can make the difference:
It is okay to say ‘I expect [XYZ] as an outcome. Therefore the work isn’t up to par with what I want to see.’
But you can’t say “You didn’t produce [XYZ]. Therefore you aren’t up to par with what I want to see.’
Give them time to respond, but be super clear in your expectations.

Provide constructive feedback, and if it is a situation you think can be saved, the maturity of the person determines the next step.
Are you working with a junior? Tell them what you will measure to see if there is improvement.
Are you working with medior/senior? Discuss how you will measure improvements.

This should include clear objectives, a timeline for when you will check the improvement together, and have regular check-ins to monitor progress.

3. Cutting the Anchor: Ending the contract.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, an underperforming product manager may not improve (enough). Then it’s crucial to remember your responsibility as a captain. Your primary duty is to the well-being and success of your crew, in this case your team and your organization.

Letting go of a team member is never easy, but tolerated underperformance continues to fester and will lead to terrible consequences (like your top performers leaving or the whole team lowering the bar). So sometimes it is best to say goodbye.

Cue the next tough conversation.

Always start the conversation with what you want. Don’t be vague. Say ‘I don’t see a future for you in this team.’

Confirm it isn’t personal, and that you want to end things on good terms. We’ve seen in many peer groups that being fair and working with the person and give them enough time and space to find a better fit ALWAYS takes less energy (and money) than going the official HR way. Practically: Offering someone 3 to 4 months pay while having all space needed to find something is really fair and often does the trick.
Ending things well is an art, but if you mange it you’ll be surprised what positive things can come from it.

4. Charting a New Course: Lessons Learned

Once the tough decision is made and implemented, take some time to reflect. What could have been done differently? Were there early signs of underperformance that were ignored? Use this experience to refine your leadership skills and develop strategies to prevent similar situations in the future. Again: Take responsibility. Three lessons learned in our groups:

  1. A lot of times your expectations can be more concrete
  2. Continuously communicate what outcomes and behavior you expect from your team.
  3. Don’t ignore unacceptable social behavior. Everyone is human, but directly act if it happens.
  4. Hold both yourself and your team up to a high standard, and make this a fun thing to strive for.

As a product leader, you’ll inevitably face the challenge of managing underperformance in your team. Remember, it’s part of your journey, just like the choppy seas a captain must navigate. By identifying, managing, and making tough decisions about underperforming product managers, you’ll ensure the health of your team and steer your organization towards a prosperous future.

In conclusion, being a product leader means making hard decisions for the betterment of your team and product. While it’s always challenging to let go of an underperforming product manager, it’s sometimes the best course of action. Navigate these tough seas with grace, empathy, and the knowledge that you’re charting a course toward a brighter future for your team.

Good Luck!

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