Expertise Without Experience: 3 Ways to Manage an Established Team as a New Product Manager

Product Management is tricky.  Even seasoned PMs have to be mindful of the balance between people, processes, and products.  Joining an established team as a new PM has added complexity – not only do you have to fulfil your role, but you’re also stepping into a position to guide a team with far more experience than yourself.

Product Managers naturally have to work with people more skilled than themselves.  PMs sit at the intersection of multiple teams—engineering, design, and business, to name a few—and each of your coworkers is going to know more about their job than you will.  

Your engineers will be savvier at programming, your designers will have training in UI and UX, and your sales team will know the business like the back of their hand.  

As a new PM, this experience gap will be multiplied.  This can make giving instructions intimidating – but as communicating, influencing, and guiding your teammates is your job, it’s something you’ll need to master.  

Below are three tips to work with and lead a team even when their level of experience far outweighs your own.

1. Look at what they do, not how they do it

When starting the development process on a new feature, you should be presenting your team with the problem, not the solution.

If the product development cycle is a funnel, you want as many ideas from your team as possible at the top – you can narrow them down later. By prescribing your team with both the problem and the solution, you are stunting their creativity and missing out on great approaches you may not have thought of on your own.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any say in how the end product works.  Let your team do what they’re trained to do, provide guidance and input along the way, and then make informed decisions to help produce the end product.  

Not only will your team be far happier when they have a voice in their work, but the result will be far superior to what you would have created by yourself.

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Micro-managing your teams will not win you any friends

2. Leverage your lack of experience rather than treating it as a weakness

While you might not have as many years behind you as your coworkers, what you do have is a fresh pair of eyes.  You’ll be coming in with different experiences and views than the rest of your team, and although you should be learning from your team, you should be sure to bring your own perspective to the table as well.  

As a PM, you were hired to have an opinion, and even “wrong” opinions can be valuable.  Maybe you don’t know how much the former CEO loved hamburger menus, or how much work went into designing the app’s splash screen — and because you don’t, you can suggest alternatives or fixes that other people wouldn’t think about.  If it turns out to be a good idea, you’ve contributed to the team.  If not — you’ve learned something new.

While brainstorming product improvements, you should also be thinking about the product development process.  Examine current processes, look for inefficiencies, and weed them out.  

As a newcomer, you may have a sharper eye for bottlenecks that are overlooked simply because it’s the way things have always been done or bugs that have been there so long that nobody notices them anymore (yes, we know, it’s a “feature”).

You shouldn’t necessarily be trying to revolutionize the entire design process on Day 1, but tossing out a new solution to a longtime problem or cutting work out of people’s schedules can prove your worth early on.

3. Ask questions – lots and lots of questions

Don’t understand why the product is missing what seems like a key feature? Not sure what metrics are already in place?  Ask.

Questions will get you three things.  

First, they allow you to learn from your team.

Second, they ensure you’re accumulating information from all the proper places to make informed decisions.  What will look worse than any “stupid” question is moving forward with an incorrect assumption that hinders product development–especially when the owner of that information was sitting right next to you.  

Third, they show that you respect your teammates enough to defer to their knowledge and expertise.  You won’t be expected to know everything, especially right off the bat, but you should be smart enough to know what you don’t know, and humble enough to recognize it.

When your team members have been in the workforce since before you knew what a product manager was, it’s easy to wonder what you have to bring to the table.  By leveraging a fresh pair of eyes and stepping up to the plate to voice your opinions, you can provide real value to your team and prove that experience is not all there is to a good product manager.

About the author

Bryce Lewis is a former Product Manager at LinkedIn. Previously, she was an Associate Product Manager at MyFitnessPal and Product-Manager-in-Residence at Product School. As an undergraduate CS student at Bryn Mawr College, she discovered PMing during a software engineering internship and moved to San Francisco to learn about and work in product.  In her free time, she likes to read science fiction and hike around California.

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