The most common mistake I have seen TPMs make is not understanding the difference between doing work and achieving meaningful impact. As a TPM, checking off a list of tasks seems fulfilling and we often naively think of it as achieving results. Every TPM spends some amount of their time doing tactical work such as jira backlog grooming, writing status reports or creating timelines. However, in order to grow as a TPM you need to demonstrate strategic thought leadership and execution. The tips below will help shift you from being a good TPM to being an excellent TPM.
Demonstrate thought leadership
There are variations in the definition of this term based on which dictionary you refer to, but in its simplest form, thought leadership refers to “intellectual influence and innovative or pioneering thinking”.
TPMs work in a variety of domains and industries and there are consistent opportunities to influence product/technical direction and simplify complexity by asking the right questions or rallying alignment towards hard decisions.
Focus on meaningful impact and strategic execution
Don’t drown yourself in busy work and think it will get you the success or the recognition you want. Working hard is important, but you also need to work smart. Value your own time and prioritize the work that will achieve the right results through the right actions.
Marie-Kondo the tasks that don’t give you joy!
Block off time each day to think about the next day or week and plan out what will make your day/week effective. Purge, automate or transform them if they are absolutely required, but don’t keep doing them for the sake of it or just because that’s how it was done.
Demonstrate bias for action
At Facebook, there was a poster that said “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem”. This mantra applies to every company and individual.
Don’t wait for someone to come and tell you what to do next, define the problem for you or ask you to find the solution. If you truly want to be a successful TPM, you have to proactively identify gaps, define the problem statement and provide solutions and recommendations. Taking on a problem does not mean you have to do all the work to solve it. That is where you will leverage others, but the fact that you were willing to go that extra mile, sets you apart.
TPMs often have to influence without authority and that is really hard. Holding yourself accountable is important but you have to hold others accountable as well. This will help you manage your time more effectively. Oftentimes it’s easier to do the work because it's in your control, so learn how to let go! Set ground rules and mechanisms in place so people proactively come to you as things get done.
Find the balance between seeing the big picture, being rigorous and diving deep
As you take on bigger and bigger scope, you will need to balance the breadth with the depth. You may not know every single technical detail but you need to know when is the right time to jump in. You want to be thorough and systematic in your approach while being able to connect the dots and context switch between multiple programs. This will take some practice but with experience, it will come to you. Some of the other points made here will actually help you with finding that right balance.
Set expectations and communicate in a timely manner
You will be working with a number of different stakeholders - your core team, your peers, partner teams or other functional teams, manager, leadership team. Everyone has slightly different expectations of you, so it is important to set expectations in terms of your role, responsibilities and deliverables. If you no longer decide to do certain tasks, you cannot just drop it and say that you are now strategic because you read this post. You have to have a plan to handoff and ensure everyone understands what you will be focusing on and why you are making the change.
Communicate early and often, utilizing a data driven approach with a focus on the audience.
Build strong trusting relations and rally the team
Sometimes I feel working with code is easier than working with people. You have a set of rules or syntax to ensure the result is right. The compiler will let you know if there is an error and you can fix it without being judged.
People are highly complex beings and having high emotional intelligence and ability to assess people dynamics will go a long way in building strong and trusting relationships. Find what motivates people, what irks them and work in a way that will help you rally these folks especially during crunch times or delicate situations and negotiations.
Have a passion for system design and architecture
Last but not the least, what sets apart a TPM from other roles is the deep technical/domain expertise and leveraging it to influence technical decisions/design and build robust, scalable systems. As long as you have the willingness to learn and grow, you can build expertise in any domain. It is fun and challenging to learn about a new technology every few years. Irrespective of your technical expertise, as long as you enjoy getting into the technical details while keeping an eye on the program, you will enjoy your work as a TPM. At the end of a hard work day, that is what counts!
As systems and programs get highly complex, there is a need for excellent TPMs who can think big and deliver results for these ambiguous and cross-functional programs.
The career track for highly effective TPMs has never looked this promising!
Success will follow Excellence!