Why a good PM will never be Employee of the Quarter

Many companies have some kind of recognition awards that they give to employees on a quarterly basis. I’ve seen these in most companies I worked at. At one company, the winners were called “Stars”, and at another they were called “Wizards”. Regardless of the title, one thing I noticed at these companies was that the majority of the awards went to people who went to extraordinary lengths to handle burning fires.

For example: at one company, a developer flew to a customer site on the Friday before Thanksgiving weekend, and spent the weekend there, debugging product problems and fixing then (he took a full build environment with him), and left on Thanksgiving Sunday having addressed all the problems and leaving the customer with a working build of the product.

Here’s another example: the finance clerk, who stayed until almost midnight on New Year’s Eve, to ensure that all year end orders that came in were complete and could be properly processed so that revenue could be recognized that quarter.

Or how about the example of the Technical Support Engineer who spent days and many nights (of his own time) working with a key customer to pinpoint a very nasty bug in the software. The customer was 3 hours ahead of the time zone of the support engineer, so the engineer would get up early in the morning to be available when the customer came into work. Then he would stay up late and work with the offshore dev team in India to try to reproduce and diagnose the issue.

All of these people won awards for their work. And on one level rightly so…they went to extraordinary lengths to deal with extraordinary situations. Companies tend to reward those who “go the extra mile”, “above and beyond”, or who “exceed expectations.” But these words are usually reserved for those who take a nasty operational situation, and help alleviate the problem through significant personal sacrifice.

First question: What about the people who dropped the ball and let these fires begin in the first place? Are they penalized for that? Sometimes, but often not.

Second, what about the people who prevent these fires from starting in the first place and do their jobs WITHOUT having to get others to go through extraordinary efforts? Do they get rewarded for this? Have you ever heard this speech at a quarterly award ceremony?

The next award goes to Javier, who has been with us for 2 years. In those 2 years, Javier has never had to travel out of the office to deal with a customer issue. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing any critical customer issues from Javier’s territory. Javier consistently comes into work between 9:00 and 9:15, focuses on his work and doesn’t chit chat too much. He does his job efficiently and effectively, and is out of the office, pretty much by 5:15 everyday.

I’ve never heard anything like this. The “Javiers” of the world usually don’t get recognized for the work that they do. If someone does their job well, they may get a bonus or something once in a while, but they are not seen as extraordinary — “going the extra mile” etc. When is anyone who doesn’t stay late, seen as going “above and beyond” anything.

So what does this have to do with Product Management? A lot.

A good Product Manager shouldn’t be a fire fighter. They are more like Smokey the Bear. The work they do should prevent fires from starting and keep things moving forward smoothly. Once in a while PMs get involved in fires, due to specific tactics by competitors or sales and customers problems, but to be honest, if a PM spends a lot of their time fighting fires, then they are not spending much time being a Product Manager.

And thus, like the example of Javier, a good product manager will not get recognized for heroic activities that have disrupted their lives, simply because, they probably aren’t being called on, or needed to stop the fire from spreading.

What do you think? Have you received recognition for your efforts? If so, what was it for?



13 responses to “Why a good PM will never be Employee of the Quarter

  1. Pingback: 2 For Good » Blog Archive » Why a good PM will never be Employee of the Quarter

  2. Nice article. I pretty much concur with your feelings.

  3. @Saeed

    Product Managers shouldn’t be firefighters, but in the real world, that is what is called for frequently. Whether it’s an escalation from the Support team to talk to a customer who is upset about some aspect of the current or future release, or a last-minute call from Sales to help save a deal, Product Managers get pulled into all kinds of disasters to help “right the ship.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

    As for the whole recognition thing, my experience is that Product Managers get recognized more by Sales for helping close business than by any other areas of the organization. Most of the other firefighting activities are just assumed to be part of the PM’s normal responsibilities.


  4. Thanks Saeed — you have summed it up exactly. The last PM who rec’d such an award at my company did it for giving up 3 days (on no notice) to fly to corporate hq and redesign the home page because the new leadership read somewhere we should. Wasn’t their planned VISION, see, just something they thought they had to do. Then they gave each other awards for thinking so brilliantly so quickly and miraculously pulling it off. Getting an award for having a 3 year plan is so 80s, I guess.

  5. @Ivan

    PMs should not be firefighters…I agree. But rarely does a PM have to fly off somewhere to actually fix the problem. Usually it’s a critical decision that needs to be made or a dispute that has to be settled.

    In one company I worked at, in my first month on the job, I basically had to mediate a long running dispute between Support and Engineering over testing and escalations. It was strange. Both the VP Eng and Support Director had been at the company for years, but they couldn’t work it out.

    In the end though, I made a call and set a policy that is still in place today many years after I’ve left that company.


  6. @Caroline

    Some dysfunctional companies have PMs but don’t understand Product Management. Why is the PM redesigning the home page? Just curious, (un)successful is that company?


  7. I have to agree 100%. I have two coworkers who regularly stay quite late in the office. Honestly, I have noticed that they also regularly come in fairly late (between 9:30 and 9:45), regularly take long lunches, and spend a lot of time talking about things that are unrelated to their assigned tasks.

    We are salary employees and are not paid overtime for working over 40 hours a week, so I prefer to waste as little time as possible while at work and get as much done as possible so that I don’t have to stay later than 5. Sure, sometimes it will happen, but I try to minimize that.

    Unlike the my coworkers, I haven’t had the need to go to extreme lengths to put out fires. Excellent points. Unfortunate that PMs who do have to go to extreme lengths to put out fires are seen as heroes and recognized for it.

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  9. @GottabeMe

    Thanks for the comment. Seems unanimous from the comments that others see the same pattern.

    At one company, I was once nominated by another team (Marketing) for a quarterly award, but the awarded needed approval of my own Sr. Exec (VP of Products). Guess who won the award. The Engineer who gave up his Thanksgiving weekend. After that, Marketing gave my wife and I a weekend stay at a local resort as a thank you for some work I did with them.

    In that case, I’m glad I didn’t win the award. The weekend was a real treat.


  10. @Ivan – I have been in that situation myself and IMHO, I’m always thinking “where the heck is the Product Marketing Manager? Or Sales Engineer?” Now that’s fodder for another conversation, but if the Sales person is not getting any help from PMM (which I often see as a mutual ally and gatekeeper ), or the PMM, at least for standard “product expertise” requests, then that is an example of a thankless job of picking up after someone’s else’s ball-dropping.

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