Listening tours for product managers

A product manager’s success in a new organization is determined in the first few months. In those early days, the PM’s must build the foundation: trust-based relationships with all the key stakeholders and enough context to have good judgement. The PM onboarding process may vary from company to company based on the needs of the team, but one should never skip “the listening tour.”

The listening tour is a collection of one-on-one meetings designed to initiate a PM into a new organization. In each meeting, the PM’s primary job is to shut up, listen, and take notes. A few questions can guide the discussion, but the goal is to hear what is most important to the other person.

Some sample questions:

  • What do you think I should know?

  • What is going well?

  • What needs improvement?

  • If you were me, what would you do?

  • How can I be most helpful to you?

Initial one-on-ones can be initiated by the PM’s manager, but the listening tour is a self-directed effort. At the end of each one-on-one, the PM should ask who else they should talk to. The true domain experts and influencers emerge from word-of-mouth referrals, not org charts.

The direct output of the listening tour should be a sort of “state of the union” synthesis (h/t a16z podcast on hiring a VP of product). Most importantly, the PM should report on what’s going well, what needs improvement, and where there are uncertainties and ambiguities. The PM should also keep track of the informal hierarchy of people and what the team expects from them.

This synthesis doesn’t have to be shared broadly. PMs can keep it to themselves or present it to the entire organization. It depends on the culture of the team, but the more senior the PM, the more likely the team expects a public report on what was learned on the listening tour.

The benefits of the listening tour for the PM are:

  • Know the key stakeholders

  • Understand “soft hierarchy” of the stakeholders

  • Build foundation for trusted relationships,

  • Gain awareness of topics and prioritization

  • Identify areas of ambiguity and pain

  • Gather expectations for the PM

The benefits to the team are:

  • Feel heard

  • Receive insights on their organization after the tour

  • Direct line to new PM

  • Eventually, the relationship with the PM will lead to less ambiguity + better results

If done well, the listening tour builds a trust-based foundation for the PM to collaborate with the team and make informed decisions. Before I left Google, a new GM (one degree of separation from the CEO) was hired to lead our organization. Everybody wanted him to provide new insights and new decisions, but he deferred every question and insisted that this period was for listening and learning. I think he’ll do very well.

On the other hand, a PM risks irreparable damage to their credibility if a listening tour is poorly conducted or skipped. There’s nothing worse than a new leader that whirls into an organization and makes terrible decisions. The last time I experienced this, a new exec was hired to manage an existing team and made sweeping changes without consulting any of the team members. Within a couple months, half of the original team had left the company and he didn’t last long himself.

Adding a little structure to something as simple as “listening” has an outsized positive impact on a PM’s likelihood of success.

Have you seen this work or not work in your organization? What else do PMs need to do in their first thirty days to succeed?