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The product manager is the monkey in the middle – interview with Suman Sarkar

    In this episode of Product Bytes we interview Suman Sarkar, Head of Digital Product Management at OneMain Financial (NYSE: OMF), who shares product leadership lessons managing teams of product managers at large and small companies. This is an excerpt from the interview, published in our Product Bytes channel.

    Suman: I am Suman Sarkar. How do I introduce? So, most of my life I have spent doing product management in the Fintech companies back in the Bay Area, primarily at Yodlee for almost a decade where I built a lot of the flagship products and platforms we had there. Moved over to the financial services industry and was at Capital One, working on our retail banking transformation over there. And then, in the last few years, I have been working in the lending industry.
    Right now, I am running the product team at One Main Financial. One Main is the largest, I think, personal loan installment lending industry in the country.

    How did you get into a product management career, what was your step, how do you get there?

    Suman: By accident. It is not so much as an accident, I would say, but it is really I raised my hand and I saw an opportunity, and people around me trusted me for that role. At the time, I was working at Yodlee, I was in their Professional Services Department, I was running a lot of high-profile customer implementations of our product, and I became a subject matter expert of the product itself through that. I could tell lots of things our product managers were not thinking of because it was a complex product. It was a b2b2c product and the product managers were mostly thinking from a b2c point of view. It was somewhat easier to think about a customer logging in and doing stuff, but then, the moment you wanted to sell the product to a financial institution like a bank, there were a lot of requirements that got lost. So I kept complaining to the product team saying why is this not happening, why is that not happening. And at some point, I looked at myself. I was like “What is stopping me to own this problem?” So, I just raised my hand saying that “guys I know I have been complaining about the product but I am raising my hand to fix it”. And that started my product management career.

    What do you see as opportunities? Where is product management going? What do you see as an opportunity for product managers to grow their careers?

    Suman: I feel product management is not a very defined role. It is very difficult to box product management within five bullets on a piece of paper saying that this is your job. Because as a product manager, you are supposed to solve a problem, and when you are trying to solve that problem, you may have to wear different hats. And so that is why boxing a product manager is very difficult and I do not think people get it. I think people who are learning product management from schools or from different disciplines, they would start working in a certain company and that company gives a definition to the product manager, “okay, this is how the product manager works, right?” All of a sudden, you go from this company to another company, you see that same role, same title, but they have very different responsibilities.

    One of my mentors used to say, “the product manager is the monkey in the middle”: you are really trying to get everybody together and craft a solution solving a problem. When I recruit product managers from other companies, I feel that is the biggest piece. You may be coming from a very product-focused company to a large enterprise where business decisions mostly drive how the product behaves. For decisions which you were making yourself all of a sudden you have to talk to twenty people to make that same decision and you never know who is making the decision there. So, there is a lot of getting people along the journey, steps needed in a large enterprise, which I think are a lot of the challenges that product managers face when they move.

    And also, the large enterprises especially in this industry, they know that they have to behave like a Fintech. Otherwise, they will not survive. So there, on one hand you have this top-down decision-making approach and on the other hand there is a desire to change it, but they do not really know how to change it.

    That is why, for example, I was recruited to OneMain. When I was interviewing, they said we need to bring in product thinking in this company. So, I think product management and design become those pillars that people anchor on to make that transformation.

    You said we need to introduce product thinking, a product mindset. Are there specific activities, specific traits that you are looking for in a product manager to say yes that person has a product mindset or no, that person has not because they are doing something different?

    Suman: I think largely it is about being comfortable in a very ambiguous white space environment. If I am continuously asking for clarity of role, I am probably not going to be a very good product manager. Circumstances really define a lot of those qualities, sometimes I may be a content writer, sometimes I may be doing something else based on what my team needs. It’s about being comfortable with the fact that I may be required to play different roles and that my job is to get people together and help people make a decision.

    Let me put it this way, I have seen very few examples where top-down decision-making actually arises out of empathizing with a customer. It becomes lecturing the customer as opposed to listening to the customer. So, product management is really an important function to bring in the voice of the customer and think from a customer point of view. Asking questions like “Is this really needed? Why are we having this practice? Are there other ways of accomplishing the same objective?”

    What about people in your team, what do they need to do?

    Suman: I have a very interesting unique situation here because I inherited a team where the product managers were recruited with the expectation that we will be telling them what to do and they will do it. Now, we are changing the game, we are saying that no, that is not how things should work. All of a sudden, people have to look at these product managers with a different lens and some of them get the memo quickly, some of them do not get the memo as quickly. So that creates a lot of stress and that creates a lot of ambiguous circumstances for the product managers like, “how should I react?” And a lot of times, they are not ready, do not have the skill to react that way, because they have not played that role.

    Sometimes, I see my team all day long like they will be over-preparing for a meeting and then when they actually show up, if they are presented with a different point of view, they will not stand up on their feet because again that has been the legacy training of them. My entire team is very uncomfortable about sharing bad news especially if the bad news is about a date that is moving and things like that, but why? What is the stress?

    So now the question is for me is okay, how do I train them for those right things? I think it is a lot about leading by example, not afraid of getting your hands dirty, ask uncomfortable questions.

    I recently hired a new product manager. And this lady comes in and one day she sends a nicely written email about why suddenly this thing is moving and I immediately took that email and created a celebratory event through that saying that hey, this is a really good and I did not talk about why that date moved. I talked about how we manage the expectation of the customer.

    We need to make decisions without all the data. We need to be able to deal with ambiguity sometimes, we are wrong and that should be the spine because we can learn quickly and then change the plan.

    Suman: Yes, one big problem everywhere I see is this waiting for the perfect moment. I do not have all the answers, so I am not ready to talk about it. I am like no, you do not need all the answers. You will never have all the answers, come on. So, you just start somewhere, be willing to feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, and sometimes you will see a sorry face, but that is okay and then you get yourself up and start running again. Otherwise, it will never happen, right, you have to do it.

    Suman it was a pleasure talking with you. Thank you for your time today.

    Suman: Thank you and I wish you all the best.

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