Managing Up
Stakeholder Management
Product Careers & Interviewing
How can product managers onboarding a new org make a good, lasting impression?
Question from Nithin
How can product managers onboarding a new org make a good, lasting impression?
Answered by Natalie Rothfels
Co-Founder and Leadership Coach, OIR @ Reforge | Previously Principal Product Manager @ Quizlet and Khan Academy

As a PM onboarding a new org, you can make a lasting positive impression not by doing something positive once, but by being consistently trusted to deliver high-quality work while growing with the company as it evolves.

In other words, positive impressions usually come from a combination of:

  • Efficacy (are you doing your job well?),
  • Consistency (are you reliable in your execution?); and
  • Maturity (are you self-aware and able to change, grow, and learn)

Easier said than done! These are often lagging indicators, meaning sometimes you only know if you’re off track after things aren’t going well.

So let’s focus on three leading leading indicators that you can focus on from day 1.

  1. Delivering high value to the company
  2. Being someone that people value working with
  3. Embodying the cultural values of the org

I’ll first break each of those down, and then we can walk through how you might exemplify them in your first months on the job.

Three leading indicators to start well:

1. Continuously deliver high value to the company

At the end of the day, you want to become high-value for your organization. The more you can tie your work to the biggest strategic priorities of the company, the easier it will be to have an impact on them.

But remember, value comes in different forms. Here, I’ll broadly categorize three: product value, process value, and people value. No matter your scope or level, you can have impact across each.

Product value is generally about moving the needle on business metrics, best accomplished by solving real-world needs of your customers. Examples include initiatives that improve acquisition, activation, engagement, retention, or monetization.

Process value is generally about helping a team to establish ways of working that enable work to get done more efficiently or at a higher quality bar. PMs can drive value inside an organization by making sure the right (but not too many) processes are in place to actually be able to execute.

People value is generally about team-building, either explicitly as a manager with headcount, or as a team leader responsible for rallying people around a vision. If you help others do their jobs more effectively, are a culture-leader in your org, or establish yourself as a mentor to others, that brings unique value into an org.

2. Be someone that people value working with

PMs cannot do their jobs effectively without establishing strong relationships with a variety of folks. To be a PM whom people value working with, you need to develop your relationships around the 3 Cs: competence, character, and commitment (taken from the Army).

  • Competence is all about your ability to actually do your job. People will struggle to value you if they cannot see or feel the value you’re creating on a team. You were (hopefully) hired for a reason…make sure you have the core skills to do the job well!
  • Character is about how you show up in spaces, and what qualities you embody as a person. If you bring to mind a colleague who you’ve struggled with in the past, chances are you might have been exposed to some character “flaws” that made it hard to work together. Maybe they were unreliable. Maybe they had poor follow-through. Maybe they lacked self-awareness for how much space they took up in meetings. To be someone people value working with and trust you, people need data about your character.
  • Commitment is about displaying authentic regard for and earnest commitment to the mission and people around you. If you see engineers on your team as code monkeys responsible for execution rather than product peers who co-own goals with you, you’re more likely to treat them without a genuine commitment to building together.

When people on your team trust you, your ability to deliver value to the company multiplies (maybe even exponentially, it’s that important!). That’s why relationships are often a precursor to your ability to get things done as a PM. What’s important is to do it in a way that’s authentic to you — there’s no script to apply here, though I’ll make some starter suggestions below.

3. Embodying, reinforcing (or instituting) the cultural values of the org

A culture is a set of implicit or explicit behaviors that get reinforced (or reprimanded) in the public sphere. If you’re joining an organization that has values already articulated, they may well be guideposts for how you’re expected to behave and interact inside your company. If your company lacks these, often making them explicit can be a way to acknowledge how work gets done, and then establish some clarity for future employees.

Values are unique company-to-company. Some folks care about (business) growth above all else. Others care about scrappiness and remaining lean. Others care about being at the forefront of a new technology, social movement, or market opportunity. Getting clear on what’s expected of you in moments of debate, ambiguity, or overwhelm is a good way to suss out what your company’s operating principles are.

How to deploy these three efforts as you onramp

Now that we’ve articulated what types of things make a difference, let’s turn to how you might implement each category to set the foundations for your work. Note, these are just ideas…and the unique thing about your company is that they may have different ways of displaying mastery in each category. That’s the puzzle for you to figure out!

1. Delivering business and product value

  • (Product) Deeply understand how the business works, and what the key strategic initiatives are within the org
  • (Product) Draw out a map of how your product area influences or is a driver to those strategic initiatives.
  • (Product) Deliver a small feature through to completion so that you can deeply understand how well the team is performing today, and can get your hands on some more customer-focused data
  • (Process) Meet with your teammates and seek to (authentically and genuinely) understand how they see the team’s process today, and what feels broken to them
  • (Process) Propose one small tweak to process based on what you’ve heard from informational interviews with your teammates
  • (People) Meet with other PMs across the org and seek to understand how they think about their product area (so you can start to piece together how your teams may / may not collaborate)
  • (People) Identify who your x-functional peers are and establish a working project together that has a shared goal (e.g, develop a deeper understanding of the top customer issues that prevent successful habit formation, and then propose a solution to the most egregious one)

2. Be someone that people value working with

  • Find ways to send appreciation or acknowledgement when you see something someone else has done that works
  • Ask for feedback on your process tweak to see how what has improved
  • Ask one clarifying question back instead of immediately responding to someone’s question or request to you
  • Synthesize discussions you’re hearing, or ask folks to slow down if you’re lost (you’re almost certainly not the only one)
  • Ask your manager to proactively align on what success looks like for your first few months so it’s not a surprise to either of you
  • Create an onboarding doc as you learn that can be used for the next hire, who will probably have the same questions you had

3. Embody, reinforce, challenge, or create the values of your org

  • Learn what the org values are, and ask others how they inform weekly work.
  • Identify ways you can authentically embody them. For example, if your company cares about acting with urgency, perhaps you can be the person who asks “Do we have enough information to make a decision and move forward?” when conversations are spiraling.
  • Engage upwards — ask the “dumb” questions that you don’t understand but that would be helpful to understand for your job
  • Remember your own strengths, and lean into them in the early days as you gain confidence.
  • Identify ways in which the company is not living up to its values, and thoughtfully challenge and courageously call in an opportunity to make a change.

Remember, you can’t control how others feel

We’ve talked through what makes a good impression broadly, and some tools for how you can practice and get off on the right foot. But here’s the rub: you ultimately can’t control what other people think or feel about you.

In fact, I’m personally wary of advice about making a good impression that doesn’t acknowledge how much our perception is influenced by social and cognitive biases. Companies are not meritocracies where the only thing that matters is objective performance.

“Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing,” says Clifton Mark in his piece “A belief in meritocracy is not only false; it’s bad for you”.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where your competence, actions, and impact may still not leave people with a positive impression of you, and you may actually be discriminated against for things that are completely out of your control.

“[…] Simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found  that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.” - Clifton Mark

Why bring this up? Making a good impression is not 100% in your control, and even when you do perform well, it doesn’t necessarily lead to acknowledgement or reward.

So here’s what you can control and should focus on: your competence, your confidence, and your self-awareness. Your first few months on the job should aim to improve one, two, or all three of those.

One shortcut I use is: Am I doing this to look good, or to help us get to the best outcome?”

The less I focus on looking good, the more I can focus on getting to great outcomes in a way that I’m proud of, confident in, and can learn from. The rest will hopefully follow.

Good luck!

About the author
Read more
Read less
Natalie Rothfels
Co-Founder and Leadership Coach, OIR @ Reforge | Previously Principal Product Manager @ Quizlet and Khan Academy

Natalie Rothfels is a product leader with a decade of experience building, launching, and scaling at Khan Academy, Quizlet, and Reforge.


See all the questions & answers

Tag me in coach

Want to level up your product manager skills?

You can apply to a Guided Sprint and we’ll make sure you get the most value out of your coaching experience and being part of our community.

We want to make sure you don’t miss out on any of our free events and career resources, so follow Scale Higher on LinkedIn. Hope to see you at our events soon! 😊

See guided sprints