💯 How to Thrive as a GPM at Microsoft
GPMs are great managers and more. This post defines the "and more" part.
At Microsoft, we have a Product Leader job called GPM (Group Product Manager). While much of the industry uses the GPM title to denote frontline manager for 2-4 people, at Microsoft for historical reasons it’s a larger role and typically a “manager of managers” job. The standard team size is 10-20 PMs coordinating the work of 40-80 engineers and the job has direct accountability for one or more end-to-end product areas or services.
It’s the sweet spot for someone who wants to stay close to product yet wants to drive impact on something massively bigger than they could accomplish on their own.
My first GPM job was in 2013. Just as the cloud wave was gaining momentum, I ran a team that delivered a set of key infrastructure services (e.g. authentication, provisioning) to what would become Microsoft 365. Since then, I’ve had other classic types of GPM gigs: a) incubating new product lines b) refreshing the UX of an existing product c) building x-company partnerships to transform our product portfolio for the cloud era.
Today, as a VP of Product, I manage a leadership team of GPMs and other discipline leaders across a diverse portfolio and much of my job involves growing, empowering, and securing the resources for GPMs to succeed. (You can read my career highlight reel).
This post is speaking to new GPMs. First off, congratulations on the opportunity. Undoubtably you were put in this job because you are a fantastic manager and capable of empowering the careers and supporting the work of your team.
Yet I bet you feel like this new GPM gig requires manager excellence and more. You are asking, "What is the 'and more' part exactly?" This post attempts to answer that question, breaking the job down into the distinct characters you need to grow into to thrive in the role.
I like this idea of approaching new roles like this - writing down “who you need to become” as you adapt and grow.
🗞️ Step 1: Become an editor
“Become an editor.” These three words were at the top of my first performance review as a GPM. The GPM job is a force multiplier role because you raise the bar for your entire team using your accumulated product sense. However, being an editor is more than giving notes on work. Talk to any professional author or news reporter, and their editor also provides context, alignment, encouragement, and is there to navigate tough tradeoffs. This is the first and most important set of skills to invest in as a new GPM.
I asked some of my colleagues in other disciplines what makes a great GPM - one response that stood out to me is that they rely on GPMs to drive “tasteful production decisions.” Judgement, product sense, and a taste for highly crafted products - this is all part of the editor role.
Practical Tips & TODO’s:
Establish great product discovery fundamentals. Your team’s ability to deliver written clarity should be as rigorous as any engineering manager’s code review process. Be transparent with the throughput of specs, whitepapers, or notes on product definitions (tables of status and dates are your friends). Own and run a synchronous (virtual or in person) review process of both core design/big decisions and the details of investments. Utilize a central doc repository and ensure the doc templates exemplify your philosophy on product discovery (e.g. Why before What, success definition).
Give great notes. Yes, I said that giving good notes isn’t the only aspect of being an editor, but it is an important one. Practice bar raising, using good judgement on what to hold the line on, and how to be clear & concise & actionable in your feedback. You should set norms with your team that your notes are an expected part of the operational model of the team.
Share the burden of your biggest problems with your most senior people. The GPM job can be lonely and burdensome at first, until you tap into the support network you have, starting with your own team. Ensure the 2-4 most senior people on your team are fully thriving and working on your most important problems. I like using the Flow model for assessing this.
Bridge to your business and marketing goals. Your job as an editor is to simplify for the team the context that they operate in. A good first step as a new GPM is to invest in translating the product work into the business results needed of the team. Marketing and sales are complex organizations on its own and a GPM needs to navigate it on behalf of design & engineering. This is part of an industry-wide trend for Product Management to trend more towards general management and output business metrics - lean in!
🌍Step 2: Become an ambassador
A great ambassador in the U.S. Foreign Service requires a mix of storytelling, relationship building, and crisis management - all while managing a complex set of stakeholders, including their own boss. If you haven’t checked out Netflix’s The Diplomat, I’d highly recommend it as a fast paced, West Wing-inspired adventure that dramatizes the ambassador role and captures this blend of skills well.
For GPM’s, after you’ve looked internally and made yourself a great editor, look outward and learn to represent your team and bring back key insights to them.
Practical Tips & TODO’s:
Repeatedly sell your strategy. As Andy Grove used to say, “repetition never spoiled the prayer.” You should be finding opportunities to practice & refine the pitch of your product to customers, partners, and internal stakeholders at least 2-3 times a week. Sweat the details on your written pitch deck and supporting docs - keep it evergreen as you learn what’s hunting. Be persuasive, not informative.
Build shared values and mutual understanding in your cross-team relationships. Your team requires your help to feed the internal alliances with partner product teams. Don’t fully delegate relationship building, even the healthy ones. Keep a hit list of sticking points to work. Treat inclusion and shared values as equally important to strategy and priority alignment.
Be systematic about bringing customer signals back to your design and engineering team. In the US Foreign Service, “cables” are an important process where ambassadors share insights about the world with the organization in real time. Find your own way of ensuring you are providing new signals - about customers, industry, or partner relationships - at least 2-3 times a month.
Understand the thoughts, wants, and feelings of your design and engineering counterparts. GPMs have positional authority at Microsoft and they should use their privilege to help other disciplines thrive. Deeply understand the needs and priorities of your x-discipline peers and practice allyship.
Speak in the language of impact. Establish finish lines. Practice saying "Here's where I think the goal state is..." not "Look at how far we can go." Adjust your language to speak with intentionality. This impact vs. execution mindset thinking is critical to being more than just-another-manager-in-the-room.
🔮 Step 3: Become a futurist
The best GPMs are two steps ahead of the rest of the organization. Not twenty steps - we don’t need GPMs to have their heads in the clouds - but the GPM gig requires you to figure out “what’s next.” Yes, this requires studying industry trends and paradigm shifts but equally important is anticipating the smaller details - the workback to key internal reviews, upcoming initiatives, and likely emergencies.
Practical Tips & TODO’s:
Drive awareness of how much vision runway is left. I find that most products can define durable 18-month visions, 6-month roadmaps, and monthly backlogs. It’s the GPMs job to drive consensus on when these need to be updated - before they run out. Establish a rhythm and in particular catch the vision runway expiring before anyone else does.
Own the Six-Month Calendar. A gift that a GPM can give a team is their brain dump of all the important milestones coming up in the next six months. Key deliverables, reviews, conferences and more. It helps the team feel in control and positions the GPM to be the one charting what’s coming.
Be the most frequent user of the product. I’m a huge fan of product play - using your product and others in the industry where the goal is to be creative and idea generative. Great GPMs get hands on with product and know how to use the time spent in product to develop product sense.
Always have 1-3 low percentage shots in motion. It’s easy for backlogs to get filled up with only high confidence, urgent ideas. GPMs are in the unique position to ensure 10% of the team’s resources are taking some high risk/high return bets. This is how you manifest your futurist thinking into concrete actions.
🌱 Step 4: Become a change agent
GPMs are always in motion - focused on creating a stronger organization tomorrow than exists today. If steps 1-3 are about getting your product and team to thrive, this step is about having a larger impact on the broader organization and the culture of product making. This is great prep work if you are interested in growing into a Director or VP role.
Practical Tips & TODO’s:
“Be curious, not judgmental.” Yes, some serious Ted Lasso vibes are in order. Prioritize a learn-it-all culture within your team (I have some tips for that here).
Use praise. This was one of the top lessons from my previous boss Omar Shahine (see his Substack here) over his career as a product leader. Learning to give authentic praise frequently is an overlooked skill but it’s a force multiplier for GPMs who are changing the status quo.
Treat the org like a product - have a backlog. Every org has weak points - holes in the product discovery process, areas of inefficiency or slow velocity, an inability to inclusively hear from certain stakeholders. As a GPM, pick an area of focus and create a 30/60/90-day plan that focuses on results, not activity.
Find your super skill. Are you great at early-stage vision? Do you know how to empower Design Leaders for high-craft product? Are you a business focused GPM? Pick a lane to be the expert in and known for and help others in the organization learn that skill. This is about developing your brand as a GPM, rooted in helping the org grow.
The Five Biggest Traps for New GPM’s
Posts like these need anti-patterns as well as the best practices. Here is my top five “Don’t do This” list that I’d advise new GPMs to avoid.
Stressing over problems everyone else also has. Matrixing and resourcing are often the top two stressors for GPMs. Everyone would love to work single threaded with more resources than they have. And everyone thinks their situation is worse than their peers. It’s all a distraction to thriving as a GPM. Fit to plan and plan to fit.
Focusing on the urgent at the expense of building the system. GPMs who struggle often involve someone who couldn’t rise above the day to day and invest in the systems and processes for long term sustainability. Yes, create urgency but don’t create a sense of persistent emergency.
Letting others define the job for you. All GPMs need to deal with strong willed stakeholders - be that other GPMs or activist engineering leaders or design leaders with a POV on product. While a GPM needs to listen and be responsive, they must own their own job definition. If others are defining your job for you, it could be a sign that you don’t have a deep enough product sense for the role yet.
Doing your previous job. Don’t forget to punch at your new weight class. The GPM title requires you to build senior-level partnerships across teams and disciplines and operate at the portfolio/product vs. feature area level. Often new GPMs stumble when they don’t adapt to the new altitude of relationships and scope.
Not balancing vision and execution. GPMs need to invest in both ends of this spectrum - generating energy with a compelling product story and creating a x-discipline environment that executes faster on that vision than if they weren’t around. Ask for smaller scope if you are having trouble finding time to drive excellence in both.
One theme throughout this post is this notion of ownership within the matrix. A great GPM defines their job, defines their product, defines the outcomes for their team, and defines the path to deliver on the vision - yet is grounded in the fact that they operate within a larger system and actively builds the partnerships required to succeed. Finding this balance between ownership and partnership is key to thriving in the role. Good luck!