Let’s look at the respect pyramid that, although unofficial, exists in nearly every organization. If we start at the top, then we find the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are the people who really know what’s going on both in the company and with the technology. These are the people who make sure that the team is really solving the right problem: “That won’t work because that’s not the way that we take orders for that product…” Just under them you’ll find the legacy crew — those folks who have been working on a system or a technology longer than anyone else and are the ones that everyone goes to in order to solve technology problems. Beneath them you will find the code rockets. These are the folks who have an amazing ability to turn out code or other productive work seemingly overnight. When a schedule gets tight, they are the ones to turn to.
Once you get this far down on the respect pyramid, things get a bit boring. That is until you get to the bottom. I’ve got good news for the Product Management world, we’re not at the bottom. I truly believe that the bottom of the respect pyramid is reserved for the good souls who work on the Quality Assurance (QA) team. Just above them (doing better, but not by much) are the Program Managers. The bad news is the Product Managers sit just above Program Managers which is way to close to the bottom of the pyramid if you ask me.
This, of course, begs the question: why? How did Product Mangers come to live so close to the bottom of the respect pyramid? If you take a look at who is up at the top, you’ll notice something very interesting: the most respected people in an organization are givers, not takers. Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but this is most often the case. Way down at the bottom of the respect pyramid you find the folks who are viewed (rightly or wrongly) as basically being takers, not givers.
This sad realization generates the question, so what can be done to improve the lot of Product Mangers? Clearly Product Managers need to find a way to be seen as givers. So what do we have to give? The three quick answers that come to mind are direction, status, and understanding. Direction has to do with making sure that the product team knows what they are working on and what problem it is designed to solve. Status means making sure that every member of the team fully understands at all times how the product is coming along and what the outside world thinks about the product team. Please note that an occasional “Status” email does not even come close to accomplishing this goal. Understanding is the most important and the most difficult to do. The product team lives an insulated life and often times does not understand why certain decisions are made or why the team or the product is viewed as it is. It is the Product Manger’s responsibility to monitor all of these things and relay them back to the team in terms that they can understand.
Can Product Managers climb up the respect pyramid? Yes, but it won’t be easy. If you are willing to give it time and constant attention, then you will eventually find yourself on top of the pyramid of respect and isn’t that where we all want to be?