3 Reasons for Product Manager Turnover (and How to Prevent It)

When an employee leaves a company, there’s more walking out the door than a salary and a nameplate. They take with them institutional knowledge, project momentum, key relationships, and a little bit of your company’s reputation. Today’s article is all about product management turnover, what causes it, and how to prevent it.

When a product manager exits, it can derail major aspects of your product strategy due to their integral role and unique perspective on things. UX issues may be overlooked, business concerns might be missed, customer relationships can suffer, and the rest of the team will be forced to scramble and pick up the slack. Not to mention the impact on the morale of those who remain and the time and expense required to backfill the role.

Even with lots of notice about a new hire on the horizon, product managers aren’t plug-and-play, and it can take months for a new team member to become a fraction as productive as a high-quality product manager that recently left. This is why product manager turnover is an essential concern for any product team leader.

Why product managers leave their jobs

For better or worse, it’s a seller’s market when it comes to human capital. Experienced, educated talent is in particularly high demand. This means it’s hard to hire new folks for important roles, while job seekers have a plethora of attractive opportunities to consider.

So, if you’re an unsatisfied product manager, a wandering eye could easily lead to an early departure for another gig, leaving the remaining product team holding the bag. With this in mind, consider the three primary drivers that could lead a product manager to head for the hills.

Read our new report Product Managers in 2020 for insights on product managers ➜

The team

There are many technology jobs where you can throw on your headphones and block out the rest of the world for large chunks of your day, but product management isn’t one of them. Interacting with others is a huge part of the job and being a hermit simply isn’t an option.

Working alongside a wide range of people is one of the benefits of product management, as you are the facilitator of collaboration, the hub at the center of various organizational spokes, and the engine that turns a market requirement or customer request into a useful piece of functionality. But the job can become unpleasant quickly when you don’t enjoy dealing with the people you must collaborate with on a regular basis.

Symptoms of an unsatisfactory team environment include complaining about individuals, avoiding meetings, antisocial or aggressive behavior, and obvious exasperation. But even when a product manager isn’t broadcasting their unhappiness with their coworkers, they can still be silently seething as they dread another day dealing with someone who makes them miserable.

And since talent-craving companies are always advertising what great places they are to work, the grass can definitely seem greener elsewhere.

The manager

Leadership has a massive influence on a product manager’s day-to-day life at a company, as well as their overall career trajectory. We all have to answer to someone, but we want it to be a person we like and respect that can also help us grow as professionals.

There are three common ways a manager can be perceived as a “bad boss” that a product manager might want to flee from:

  • Lack of leadership—Product managers don’t just want someone to tell them what to do, they want someone who will help them improve and grow. If a manager isn’t providing mentorship, constructive feedback, recommendations, and inspiration, they won’t fully engage the product managers under them or inspire much loyalty.
  • Lack of clarity—When there’s only one product manager, the role is very clear (do everything). But as teams grow, responsibilities must be divvied up and areas of accountability must be clearly defined. Not only should a product manager know what they’re responsible for and the accompanying expectations, they should also have ownership of distinct parts of the product or process. Having to constantly check in with your boss is both inefficient and demotivating.
  • Lack of opportunity—There aren’t too many product managers content to do their existing job forever; they’re looking for chances to advance, take on more responsibility, and expand their skill set. Their manager plays a key role in making this happen by creating an environment where individuals are encouraged to grow and take risks, as well as by offering specific opportunities for product managers to extend themselves and develop their careers.

While these may not be unique to product management, they’re even more critical when leading a team of independent, experienced, entrepreneurial-minded individuals.

The product

Everyone dreams of having a job they love, where they jump out of bed excited to go into the office and see what the day holds. While many people eventually shelve those aspirations for a steady paycheck, most product managers don’t have to.

Instead, they find products and companies that are exciting and opportunities they are truly passionate about. Why work on something uninspiring using outdated technology and stale business models when there are so many other opportunities to build something truly innovative that changes people’s lives?

Even in a space that may not be as sexy as self-driving cars or virtual reality, there are still many chances to innovate within an industry, leverage emerging technologies, and shake up the status quo. When a product manager doesn’t feel like their current gig is giving them that chance, they’re likely to look elsewhere for a job that will let them scratch that itch.

How to prevent product management turnover

Product manager turnover should generally be avoided when possible. And product team leaders can do a lot to create an environment where product managers are less likely to look elsewhere.

Intentional team building

There’s not much you can do about the cranky database architect, the egotistical sales lead, or the demanding CMO. But acknowledging the environment in which your product managers work can inform your decision-making during the hiring process. This applies to both hiring individuals that will fit into the overall company culture as well as placing them into roles where they will interact with people they’re likely to work well with.

“Due to the varying scope of responsibilities for the product manager from company to company, the skills and experiences at one place may not translate to automatic success at another,” says Vinh Jones of Lithium Technologies. “As the hiring manager, you have the best grasp on what skills are needed to be successful within your current environment.”

Although you can’t always control all the variables enough to create a totally harmonious experience, you can at least mitigate the drama with some good planning. Of course, symbiotic personalities within the product team itself are also key; there should be good dialogue and trust between team members and not too much competitiveness and jockeying for position.

Beyond personalities, roles should also be assigned to create an opportunity for product managers to be successful while developing additional skills and experiences. Giving them responsibility for discrete areas of the product that are within their capabilities but still provide stretch goals and challenges is a tricky, but essential, balancing act for leaders.

Embracing management

Not everyone dreams of managing product managers. Sometimes you just get elevated to a leadership role because of your excellent work as an individual contributor. But once you get the title and a team, the hard part begins.

There’s no shame in admitting that you’re not a great manager right out of the box. You just need to identify and acknowledge your own growth areas and work to address them. As a leader, your focus is now on your team versus yourself, and you might need to add some skills to your repertoire to become the manager you want to be (and your team wants as well).

Are you setting clear and achievable goals? Are you having quality one-on-ones with each product manager on a regular basis? Are you providing constructive feedback and praise? This isn’t rocket science, but for someone not used to managing others, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and not cover Management 101 items while still focusing on product strategy.

The other tricky part of management is knowing when to step back and let your team members succeed or struggle on their own.

“Don’t solve their people problems. Don’t make decisions for them. Overall, don’t disempower them by doing their job,” says Brandon Chu of Shopify. “Doing so sets them up to fail, because people around them will no longer perceive them as having the agency to make decisions, and their job-ending frustration is self-fulfilling from there.”

Relinquishing ownership isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to position your team members (and your team itself) for success. They need end-to-end ownership to round out their skills and be productive; you need it so you can operate at scale and work at the higher level required of a senior manager. And as hard as it may be to share the spotlight, giving their success the proper recognition it deserves will improve both of your reputations.

Make it fun

As a team leader, you set the tone for everyone who works for you, as well as how your team is perceived by the rest of the organization. So create an environment that you would want to work in and give your team enough space to explore their interests.

While the have-to-dos have to get done, product managers should be encouraged to pursue their own ideas as well, as long as they don’t become too much of a distraction. There are plenty of examples of unexpected positive outcomes coming from letting individual employees experiment (think Google’s 20% rule) and it will let product managers scratch that itch without actually leaving the company.

“Talented employees are passionate. Providing opportunities for them to pursue their passions improves their productivity and job satisfaction,” says Travis Bradberry of TalentSmart. “Studies show that people who are able to pursue their passions at work experience flow, a euphoric state of mind that is five times more productive than the norm.”

And engaging the team with fun activities, team building, and entertainment can improve the overall mood of the office. It’s a high-pressure job and product managers may be resistant to let their guard down with other groups in order to maintain their aura of professionalism. Just make sure the “mandatory fun” is more “fun” than “mandatory.”

Hiring and managing for the long term

Your product managers will leave, but you want them to be doing it for the right reasons and after they’ve been at the company for a while—you don’t want to be known as a revolving door on Glassdoor. To mitigate the inevitable, every team leader should be simultaneously focused on increasing the longevity of their hires with great management, as well as planning for continuity when product management turnover does eventually occur.

Understanding individual motivations, offering rewarding opportunities, and placing employees in positions where they can succeed can be the difference between a transient hire and a long-term fit. Creating a space where product managers can continue their career development and grow without feeling the need to jump ship will not only create a better environment for your team but also broadcast your own ability to be a true manager and leader.