Building a Product Management Rubric

Career Path
Product Team

2 March, 2020

Jon Fan

Jon Fan

VP Product at Box

Jon Fan, VP of Product at Box, shares his simplified four area rubric creation for product managers, using it as a career development template and performance evaluation mechanism.

Problem

In my experience, product management tends to be a position that is learned experientially. Compared to an apprenticeship, you learn more by doing and learning from other people than you do by sitting through formal training. The reason being is that it’s hard to define exactly what a product manager does. The best way to define the role is to list the skill sets and characteristics that you care most about at your organization. A few years back, I set about thinking through what a product manager is. More broadly, I thought about how to appoint a specific set of skills that we could use to evaluate at our organization, and also how those skills would transfer to other orgs during a PMs career development.
 

Actions taken

We already had a rubric in place that contained 15 different criteria. It was difficult for someone looking at it to internalize all the items that we really cared about. So I decided to strip away the complexity. I came up with four characteristics that we cared about the most and focused on those items and how they would come across to individuals so that they could internalize it all. I identified three hard skills: the ability to technically execute; the ability to think through the health and growth of your product once it had been shipped; and the strategy and vision of the product. I also included one area for soft skills: communication and collaboration. These four components incorporated what was important to us as a product org, and more so they were easy to rattle off.
 

Next, I took the simplified rubric and contemplated how I could level it across all the roles that we had - associate market manager, product manager, senior manager, and so on. I needed to create something that was directional - concrete guidance and informative. That way anybody on the ladder looking at the rubric could clearly understand what was expected of them, but without getting overly descriptive because product management is a wide field. I considered the relative fluency and expertise we expected in order to endorse a particular level. I listed the 4 characteristics in a deliberate order to show where development of those areas should occur first - execution, then health and growth, and finally strategy and vision. The second dimension of the rubric was outlining the scope in each of these areas. For example, at the lower stages the scope would be a single feature in the product, followed by owning the product, and as you got bigger you would have a portfolio of products. In this manner I was able to work the rubric out into multiple dimensions.
 

Based on all that was created, I wanted to make sure that the rubric was unique to our organization. So I took a shot at attaching a set of activities one could do that tied specifically to our company. This could be training courses through our internal programs or with those contracted out; shadowing someone and gaining experiences exclusively through the org; or assigning work that would help you skill up to the next level.
 

Lastly, I turned the whole rubric into a Powerpoint. Instead of handing out a laminated copy of an excel spreadsheet, I felt it was important to present the rubric as a system. It was displayed in a fashion that was easy to consume. It was also presented in a way that made it easy to understand how everything fit together. A product manager could view the powerpoint, map out where they were in their career, and determine where to go next.
 

Lessons learned

  • Keep the rubric as simple as possible, but don’t over simplify. Structure it to the stage of the organization. It all depends on how mature and large the org is. With smaller orgs there is space to be a little more ambiguous because you expect your PMs to be flexible with their work. In the case of larger orgs being more descriptive is helpful because it scales better. It’s all about finding balance.
  • I implemented this rubric twice. The first time I locked myself in a room and came up with most of it myself. The second time around I partnered with another director on the team before enlisting the help of five people who were representatives of different levels across the IC population. I think it was much more advantageous to have the help and input of others as we were updating the rubric. We were able to work directly with folks who would be utilizing the template in addition to receiving constructive feedback.
  • This rubric can be used as a performance evaluation mechanism - a scorecard of sorts, and a launching point for conversations around career development. Use it to focus on how individuals want to grow, what matters to them, and mapping it against succeeding levels.
  • Our new rubric directly tied to how we thought about individual career development. It contained a set of skills that were important to the organization and we were able to compare those areas over the course of six months. Effectively it was a career development template. Beyond the template we developed a set of questions to ask product managers. These included inquiring about what things they were really comfortable with; on the best days what activities did they enjoy doing; what things would they like to learn; and where did they want to be in five years. This allowed us to incorporate one or two additional items that were outside of the experiential value of being a PM.

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