PM: The Person, The Situation, and The Style

As always in my blog, PM = Product Management.

The Framework

One of the core frameworks we’ve discussed in the LEAD class at HBS is the idea of “person, situation, and style.”


The person is clear: It’s who you are (personality) and the skills you bring.

The situation is also pretty clear: It’s what’s going on in the existing environment and context. It’s what the person has to operate in.

The style bridges the two: It’s how you can change, while still acting authentically like yourself, to function within a given environment.

It’s hard to understand in the abstract, so here’s an example of how it played out in my last four environments:


At Olin, the environment was perfectly suited to my personality. I didn’t need to change at all. Microsoft and Kickstarter were both in the middle, but in different ways. They both posed their own challenges. At HBS it’s the total opposite: most things feel foreign, and I feel no matter how far I stretch, I don’t quite fit. It’s been helpful to examine my successes and failures using this angle.

Using this for PM Hiring

I think this framework is a solid lens to consider PM opportunities — from both angles: What PM role should you take as an individual? Which hold you stay away from? If you’re a hiring manager, who do you hire to strengthen your team?

Culture: Discipline Background

The first aspect to consider is the discipline strength of the PMs. PMs need a variety of skill sets, across disciplines. Even so, most companies have PM team that leans one way or another — towards Engineering, Design, or Business. As an individual, you probably know which discipline resonates with you.

To figure it out for a company: What’s the background of each PM you met at the company? What “org” do the PMs report through? Who do PMs spend most of their time working with?

For example, at Microsoft, the PM team is heavily Engineering leaning. PM is part of the “Engineering Triad.” PMs rarely (in my case, never) discussed revenue or business. There’s a separate design studio. Most PMs have an Engineering degree.


Culture: Interactions

It’s also important to consider how the team interacts. This is more subjective, but includes things like:

  • Do PMs spend more time talking to or listening to the rest of the company?
  • Does vision come from senior leadership, or does each PM set vision?
  • Is the culture meeting-oriented, or informal checkins?
  • Do weekly status emails matter? Or are they a hassle?
  • Do people argue? How loud are meetings?
  • Do we care more about being fast or being right?
  • Do people share as they work, or present a final product?

It will be rare to completely overlap, or completely diverge from the interaction types. It’s very likely that a candidate will be “more” or “less” like the existing culture.

Evaluating these together

Once you’re figured out what the discipline and interaction model for both the org, and the employee, how do you evaluate it? What’s the best option?

Both Match

If both match, the upside is in short term performance. It’s going to look a lot like the diagram I drew for Olin: the new PM won’t have to change at all to fit in.
They’ll fit in with the existing organization. That ups their likelihood of executing quickly (and well).

The downside is that it doesn’t grow the organizational knowledge. Adding one more person with the same skill set helps with execution, but won’t help with innovation. It doesn’t broaden the skill set available. The addition will be likely to keep the company set in it’s current direction — but not improve it.

Neither Matches

This is the opposite case.

If neither the interaction or the discipline matches, the upside is diversity of experience. You’ll have an employee who brings a lot to the table. They’ll have a different way of thinking about Product, and a different way of thinking about the organizational dynamics.

Unfortunately for both the company and employee, that’s going to be a rough. First, the new employee won’t be doing the same work others deem “valuable.” Second, given communication differences, it might be challenging to explain why. They have to stretch along two directions to figure out how to fit in. Stretching yourself multiple directions at once can be exhausting.

I’m going to guess that many PMs that quit quickly, or are fired for “career fit” fall in this bucket. They could be great PMs — they just didn’t match with the situation at hand in either way. It was too hard to move their style across multiple dimensions.

One Matches

I’d argue the sweet spot is when one of these two attributes matches. That gives some common ground — and some room for growth.

If you have a common ground on work style, but different backgrounds, you’ll be able to learn about different disciplines. Collaboration will occur, and it may be possible for each person to get better at Product as they understand it more deeply. i.e. Someone might fit in with the organizational dynamics at Microsoft, but stretch to meet the Engineering background:


If you have a common ground on backgrounds, but different work style, it comes with a different benefit. You’ll be able to work more effectively internally and figure out how to be more inclusive/get better ideas. Of course, you’ll still be grounded in the starting discipline.


So here’s my thought. If you’re an individual looking for a PM job, make sure you fit with either the discipline background, or the interaction style. You’ll be able to learn and teach about the aspect you don’t fit with.

If you’re a company, hire a range of PMs. Make sure that some differ from your “norm” in their interactions and some differ from the “norm” by discipline. This way you’ll be able to maintain a resilient team with diverse perspectives.