A Common Story of a Female Product Manager: Part 3

Sheela had decided to be a player, and not a victim. However, when she reached home after the happy hour with John, she barely had any emotional energy left to give her loved ones. Her partner, Vinod, was a wonderful man.

He was a patient listener and gave Sheela clear, precise advice. The day John was hired to lead the Pied Piper Council, Sheela had come back home dejected. She’d felt like she didn’t have it in her to fight the system, to constantly prove her worth, to give it a 110% simply to get the same opportunities that her male colleagues got with just 75% of the effort. But, the moment Vinod said

“Look how far you have come on your own Sheela! Don’t give up on your dreams because of some dumb men who don’t see your value”, she immediately felt better.

But, no matter how well she described the events that bothered her at work, she simply couldn’t convey effectively why “some dumb men” had a demoralizing effect on her.

Each event by itself could be explained away as a regular work interaction, but pieced together, they were powerful enough to bring her down, and make her feel like she didn’t matter. Her colleagues said and did all the right things for the most part, but something was off, and no amount of explaining to herself/Vinod helped her clearly state what was off. Americans had a phrase for it:

Death by a thousand paper cuts.

She couldn’t tell if she was overreacting, or worse, crazy. Maybe it was that time of the month, like one of her male colleagues suggested, when she told him that his tone was upsetting. Maybe she needed to fix something in herself — work harder, write better docs, or enroll herself in a Product School course.

As Vinod and Sheela watched Mad Men on Netflix, she couldn’t help feeling that not that much has changed since the 60s. Of course, men didn’t get away with slapping women's butts at work, but it was largely still a pretty relatable show in 2022. Don Draper was not so far out from some of the characters she met at work, and that made her sad.

Player, not victim. Player, not victim., Sheela muttered under her breath as she prepared for her first performance review with Mike.

She had successfully turned the Pied Piper product around. The adoption numbers spoke volumes about her work. She was excited about the review.

As an Indian woman, Sheela was taught to be humble, and let her work speak for her. She didn’t believe in bragging or sending emails to everyone summarizing her accomplishments. So, she simply stated the facts in her self reflection, and left it to Mike to make his own assessment about whether she’d met his standards or not.

“Sheela, let’s jump right in!”, said Mike in an unusually high-pitched voice.

“You received a ‘Did Not Meet Expectations’ for H2 2021”, he added.

The earth stood still.

Blood rushed to Sheela’s face.

She wasn’t sure if she’d heard Mike right. How could that be? She more than met expectations! If not, why hadn’t Mike given her feedback? What were the expectations anyway? It wasn’t documented anywhere. How could she even contend this rating?

“We can set up a follow-up conversation if you have any questions, but basically, Bill and I believe that you weren’t able to establish trust with Merv quickly enough.”

“Is that the only thing?”, asked Sheela.

“There were some other issues too — during the team meetings, you always seem quiet and unengaged.”

That’s because you never listen when I do speak.

“On the other hand, some of your team members think you are TOO opinionated and a tad aggressive. It’s a bit of both.”, Mike.

“Bu..but, Mike, this is a surprise to me. The rating does not fit in with your feedback about my work so far, so I’m not sure where this is coming from.”, Sheela said, ever the product manager.

“I know it can be hard to accept criticism, Sheela, but, as a future leader, you need to learn to do just that.”, Mike said calmly.

“Mike, I don’t mean to sound defensive, but by delivering Pied Piper, I have more than met your expectations — at least the way you laid them out to me when I started — and this rating doesn’t fairly represent my work or the impact I’ve had..”, said Sheela, her voice shaking.

“Sheela, I’d recommend that you take some time to reflect on the feedback I’ve given you. We can chat later this week, okay?”, he said with what he thought was a kind smile.

Once she hopped off Zoom, Sheela wasn’t sure how to process her feelings. That’s when she saw that dreadful email: Her colleague, Joe, who had started at Brotonic just three months ago, and hadn’t shipped a single thing, had been promoted to Senior Manager, Product.

“Congrats Joe! 🥳”

“Woohoo! SO well deserved! Congrats buddy”

Sheela deleted the entire email thread, and shut her laptop.

Where had she gone wrong? Her first instinct was to sit down and weep like a child.

Player, not victim. Player, not victim., she repeated, and sat up a little straighter.

She decided to contest the rating. She didn’t know how she’d go about it, but this was unacceptable.

The next morning, she reached out to her friend, Sowmya (because she didn’t trust the HR), and told her what had happened. Sowmya was a senior manager at Brobible, and had fought her way through some pretty tough stuff to get to where she was.

She’d know what to do.

Sowmya told her to reach out to the colleagues who would have provided their feedback to Mike during her performance review.

“Tell them to share the gist of their feedback with you. You need to know if they really gave you critical feedback, or if Mike’s just making sh*t up. Let’s meet after you have the feedback.”

The following week, Sheela asked her engineering team, and a few others, to share their feedback with her. She explained the situation to them, and told them to keep it confidential. Everyone obliged. They were outraged on Sheela’s behalf. Only one refused. Many of them even shared screenshots of the written feedback they’d shared with Mike!

They were all glowing reviews of her diligence, customer focus, and deep technical expertise. She almost cried when she read this line:

“Sheela thinks deeply about how to improve not just her customers’ lives, but also about her colleagues’ experience at work. She shows up everyday thinking about how she can create a better work environment for all of us, and I really appreciate that!”

Even if the one person who refused to share their feedback had negative things to say, the rest of the feedback she’d received would be more than enough to prove that she didn’t deserve the “Did Not Meet Expectations” rating that Mike had given her.

She called Sowmya the next day, and they hatched a plan. A brilliant one.

As planned, Sheela setup time with the HRBP, Amanda, and showed her the feedback, and the goals that Mike had set for her in H2. Sheela shared her concerns around the fairness of her performance evaluation with Amanda too.

Amanda setup time with Mike and Sheela, and asked Sheela to directly share her concerns with Mike in that meeting, face to face.

Sheela trembled, but was determined to get through the meeting without breaking down. “Mike, I don’t believe that this performance evaluation was fair. There was a huge disconnect between the feedback I have received from my peers, and the rating you gave me”, she said bravely.

Mike was visibly uncomfortable about being in that room.

“Amanda, I just want to be clear that Sheela did not perform at the level that Bill and I set for her”, Mike said turning to Amanda, dodging Sheela’s comment entirely.

“Mike, I am just an observer. I want you and Sheela to talk to each other directly”, Amanda replied calmly.

Mike turned around and said, “Sheela, I based the rating on the feedback you received from your peers, and from Bill.”

Amanda interrupted, “By the way, Mike, I was able to access Workwork, and view Sheela’s peer feedback. I don’t see Bill’s feedback in there.”

Mike turned red. He did not expect Amanda to have access to her feedback, or an interest in reading through it. “Umm.. Bill just shared his feedback verbally”.

“Well, per our policy, all feedback needs to be entered into Workwork for it to be valid”, Amanda said coolly.

Yes! This is the one time that Sheela felt thankful for corporate bureaucracy.

Mike didn’t respond.

Amanda used Mike’s silence to say, “Mike, I’d like you to reconsider Sheela’s performance rating, and use the Brotonic Performance Matrix to evaluate her performance. Let me know if you have any questions.”

“Okay, thanks. Of course, I want all my PMs to be successful! I still stand by my rating, but I’ll look at the matrix again, just to be sure.”, Mike said.

Player, not victim, Sheela said to herself, the cool air from the aircon hit her face as she left the conference room as Mike walked right behind her, a bit red in the face.

She and Amanda exchanged a tiny smile, as they went their separate ways.

to be continued

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Ashwini Sriram

Ashwini Sriram

I'm a product manager from Chennai living in San Francisco. I enjoy writing about product management, books, food, and people.