5 onboarding best practices for product management leaders

5 onboarding best practices for product management leaders

Not long ago I was hiring someone on my team here at Productboard where it was clear, almost from the earliest conversations, that the person I had chosen would make the process of onboarding as smooth and straightforward as possible. 

He was incredibly engaged when we discussed the role he would be taking on. He was asking thoughtful questions — and many of them. He wanted to get not only a sense of our market and our priorities as a company but where we were in that journey. 

He also asked for more materials to prepare himself, which of course I was only too happy to oblige. 

It doesn’t always go this well, of course. Depending on the size of your company and how fast you’re scaling, there can be an urgency just to get vacancies filled and a hope that onboarding will consist of simply putting the new hire to work. 

The risk here is forgetting that the opposite of welcoming people onboard is leaving them adrift — where they spend more time trying to figure out your business’s processes and culture than actually working towards the outcomes you need them to achieve. 

True product leadership is about making sure that doesn’t happen. You need to think not only through the new hire’s first 30, 60 and 90 days but even farther out, much in the way you would plan out the development of a product from ideation to bringing it to market. 

Here are some of the best practices that have worked for me:

1. Write a ‘success brief’

You won’t truly align new hires to a product vision and mission if you don’t write it out for yourself at the outset of your search. I call these “success briefs,” and they get everyone else in your team (and possibly the wider organization) on the same page regarding: 

  • Why this person is being brought on
  • What they’ll be working on
  • Who they’ll need to meet and work with
  • How we’ll know if they’re successful
  • How we’ll keep them (and ourselves as managers) accountable

You may be able to template about 80 percent of these success briefs if you’re hiring a number of people for similar roles but every person’s mission is going to be unique. Don’t let these success briefs become stale or outdated, and commit to approaching them with fresh eyes for each new hire instead. It’s important to discuss with the key collaborators what a great candidate will look like, what they will be working on, and what they will achieve.

For example, my most recent hires include a product designer who is based in the U.S. working on acquisition and activation of small business customers. The other new hire is in Europe and is a product manager working on expanding our platform and collaborating with our business development team. Even if they weren’t separated by geography, these are completely different worlds. 

Particularly in early-stage startups, every single hire you make is important, so the success brief should be as specific as possible. As you expand into new markets or segments, you’ll likely need to create new success briefs as well.

2. Give them the VC treatment

When companies go on the road to seek a funding round, they make sure their audience gets as comprehensive an overview of the company and its target users as possible. The same is not always true of the people we hire to develop the products for those users. 

Try this: create a pitch deck not unlike what you would create for a venture capitalist, but in this case position it for onboarding purposes. It should go over: 

  • Your mission and vision
  • How customers are solving their problem today
  • How your company and product is changing this
  • Your products’ key value propositions 
  • Where you will compete vs. partner and integrate 
  • Your ideal customer profiles 
  • Segments you’re going after and how you’re ranking them
  • Your progress in serving those customers so far
  • Your three-year strategy and current roadmap
  • Your go-to-market strategy

Maybe your company doesn’t have all this packaged together. That’s okay: do it yourself. I did, and the deck is about 45 slides. Imagine you were in the position of the person being onboarded and ask: “What would I want to know to have the best context to do my job?”

3. Help them discover the oddities

At one point, joining a new company meant you got the same desktop and phone as everyone else, and you shared a printer with the rest of the people working on your floor. Today, your team might be working remotely and have a much greater choice of devices and tools for collaborating.

In some cases, it won’t be clear which tools are actually the best to use because there are many of them in play. In my own career, I’ve worked at companies where chat wasn’t used at all, where proprietary collaboration tools were encouraged but not really used, and others where Slack replaced email completely. 

Companies typically fail to provide enough guidance to their employees on what to use and when. The tools and their usability aren’t usually the problem, since in most cases they were designed to be easy. 

What you need to do as a product leader is help them discover the oddities — the names of specific Slack channels you use for certain tasks or projects, for example, or places where information tends to be stored and shared. 

This goes beyond tools, in fact, and extends to processes and culture. For example, before joining Productboard, I led product at a mobile health and fitness startup. Every day, around 3:00 PM, most of the company had a ritual of stopping work to do a set of pull-ups. You want your new hires to know that this will happen.

That may seem like an unusual one, but there are other “ceremonies” and traditions in meetings or workflows that employees should understand as early as possible so they can approach them with comfort and confidence.

4. Let them unlock achievements at the outset

A big part of onboarding is obviously integrating new hires to the team.  Many companies set up a buddy or mentor system. I think this is a good idea, but it works better when the pairing isn’t random. Product leaders might want to assign a buddy in the same discipline as the new hire, or someone they will likely be working with directly. 

Don’t stop there, though. As part of onboarding, I try to find an activity a new hire can complete in their first week. This accomplishes three things: 

  • It makes sure they’re set up with all the tools and information they need to really get things done.
  • It gives them a strong sense of accomplishment at the start of their time with you.
  • It sets the tone with the rest of the team that this is a person who gets stuff done. 

There are always going to be differences in personality and working style across a team. For the most part, though, people just want to work with colleagues they’re inspired by and that do good work. Your onboarding process should accelerate the process by which they prove they have those qualities.

5. Extend ownership of the onboarding plan

When I brought on my new hires I spent time thinking, “If this was my job, what would I do in the first 30/60/90 days?” Obviously I did this because I wanted to provide them with guidance. But one of the first tasks I gave them was to put together their own plan. 

A week or two later, I regrouped with them to see how their plans were coming together and how they were going to approach it. This took us out of the manager/subordinate dynamic and allowed us to talk simply about ideas. 

This is where your listening skills as a product leader become all-important. Every couple of weeks, you should expect an increase in the level of detail and nuance in how they talk about the domain they’re working on. If after 45 days you’re having the same conversation over and over, they’re not getting the context they need and you will need to step up to help them reach competency.

Setting your product team up for success

Onboarding really takes longer than 90 days. It’s a process where you keep coming back to the fundamentals with each hire to ask yourself: 

  • Do they build connections with colleagues?
  • Do they truly understand the product?
  • Do they truly understand the market you’re in?

It’s not only worth it to do a good job of onboarding for the candidate. You’ll benefit directly as well. With a PM, you’re hiring really smart people to solve problems. As they get onboarded, you may find they can spot adjacent problems or opportunities that you hadn’t thought about, and in six months they could tell you about how to have the most impact for the business. By that point, they’re not just onboard — they’re indispensable.

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