In Product Management as in life: what is the key difference between impostor syndrome and a true fake impostor, how can we spot them, and why should we?

By Mauricio Geraud

In my 24-year career as a Product Manager and over 10 years in consulting, by far the most common pitfall-trap I have seen my colleagues fall into is when, for whatever reason, they either are or become a paper/feature-pusher with no pushback or questioning abilities whatsoever, in other words, the HIPPO’s bi*ch/secretary. Small disclaimer sidenote: Back in my manufacturing days I had extraordinary secretaries/assistants that saved my a** more than a few times, ergo I have all the respect in the world for that profession, so please do not get confused or get me wrong.

So, a while back I was brought into a troubled project and nobody seemed to know exactly what was going on besides the project´s PM giving his 2-week notice. Our boss, wonderful person, smart and knowledgeable as they come, one of the best I’ve ever had, but a tad overburdoned and overworked. The first symptom of trouble I noticed happened when I saw this guy blame everything and everyone around, whilst also asking the project’s sponsor, well, pretty much everything, just shy of asking which color of socks he should wear the next day. Not kidding. I mean, hidden under the ”I’m here for your service” and a huge assault of accommodating but mostly cringeworthy battery on nonsensical questions, I mean, not the questions per-se, but in context beyond the surface of the words muttered, he was pretty much asking how he should do his job.

Seriously. In the meeting I got invited to shadow him to find out what was holding the project back almost two months behind schedule, he asked (to our project’s sponsor, by name) at least 4 times that I can recall: “How should we prioritize the tasks?” “Have you reviewed our user stories in backlog?” It was clear since the first time that our sponsor had no answers because they had no reason to have them. I had already tried to stop him cold through the second and third times by replying: “Dude, that is (Y)our job..” with a smile. Our sponsor just nodded profusely every time I interrupted with this. He still didn’t get the hint and had the nerve to ask again, and again… And yet again. Every time I just went on thinking with my eyes looking into my brain to stop me from screaming out: “Objection: Asked and answered!” (Yes, Law&Order fan here, but besides the point).

By the way to add some extra unbelievable cringeworthy and salty footnote on top of the sh*tpile he left behind backlog and documentwise: he made sure to mention to eeeverybody, over and over, and over, by finding a really far-fetched justification to include it into every conversation I overheard him into how he had worked in one of the faanGs for many years… Un-freakin-believable…

And then of course this whole thing reminded me of this other guy, who during a meeting with a client he miss-clicked and turned on his camera, so we all saw him lying on his belly-side on the bed, clearly in his PJ’s, watching TV and eating Cheeto’s… at 3:00pm… not sick…and more than a couple of times during different meetings. Anyway, his MO was promising everything but never doing or delivering anything to anyone…

I mean, I confess I have faked my way through things a couple of times in my life, but have done so while I catch up to the expectations I had set for myself, as I did back when I was in the music and entertainment business, in which I ended up being pretty good at. But back to the Cheeto’s guy, suffice to say it was much, way worse than anything else I have ever seen as he clearly gave absolutely no s**ts about his job or responsibilities, but that is a story for anther day.

I have two probable explanations for those: 1- Either they manipulated their way through all by navigating the unknown waters by just pushing papers expecting others to fill them in, promising but delivering nothing, and getting away with it all by blaming on whatever and having everybody else do their job, or, 2- When it was his time to step up and drive the product lead, unlike with his previous projects’ sponsor where they could lay back and let someone else drive for them, as in this case, (our sponsor) knew enough of what the outcome they wanted, but nothing and did not care squat of the how, as they are indeed entitled. So the guy simply got way over his head, overwhelmed and just got lost… It was simply not our sponsor’s job to know or even care because that is why they hired our team! It is indeed a big part of our job as Product Managers. There is a reason our title says Managers and not secretaries or assitants or whatever else, right?

Well, apparently not everybody gets it as they likely should. Once, I interviewed a 15-year PM experience in the hopes to him joining our team, he was just fresh out of his near-Faang position, and he knew nothing, I mean literally nothing especially about backend, he did know something about heavy-data-based decisions but he had made none, so I’m guessing he just drowned in analytics for what I could guess would be trying to justify holding onto their job that ended up being for very small, tiny cosmetic-only changes. I mean, he had no idea on how to take a stand, or pushback in things that made absolutely no sense to add to the scope while at the same time the company’s platform had quite ugly performance and usability issues… I know, I tried it. And I mean, I get it, it wasn’t his job to say anything, so I cannot blame the guy, but apparently no one within the company dared say or do anything…. Analysis paralysis? or Systematic tie-up policy? Perhaps, but I incline to think most times is the latter.

I’ve been in a few big corporations including interviews in even a couple of Faang’s, to now have a strong enough hypothesis that, in at least some, they are exactly looking for that type of profile: requirement-gathering, quietly-hiding paper-pushers behind the cumbersome gigantic bureaucratic machinery. I mean, I get it. Some if not most enterprise-size corporations do need that kind of people in purely justifiable-enough seat-warming bureaucracy blocked-out positions. I totally get it.

However, if we’re hired to manage a product, ergo the title Product Manager, it well at least should be to manage at least something, whichever the size of the sprocket within the machine we’re hired to manage. And stretching a bit beyond today’s point, whether I am the interviewer or the interviewee I tend to find this things out 10 minutes into almost every chat.

Anyway, just to close up the guys story, he ended up quitting quite suddenly, like minutes before he’d likely been fired, but whatever the real reason behind him quitting may have been, he did so whilst blaming it on everybody and everything else for all his misfortunes, his mismanagement, and mis-everything, as none of the versions he told each one of the rest of the team fully matched or added up.

Bottom line is this guy thought he was never to blame, for anything. The truth behind that extreme level of arrogance is the fake humility disguise blanket of being a servant perfectionist. But thing is, I could see through that façade with which he was trying to hide his self-serving self, for whatever reasons may have been.

I mean, impostor syndrome is a real thing, but it shows itself in a completely different way of transparency and accountability.

I mean we will always have rules, regulations; whether nice or difficult, stupid, righteous, or self-serving people with which we must work with; any number of blockers, impediments, and whatever number of project/product mistakes or misunderstandings… That is, more often than not  s**t simply happens. And all of those have good and sh**tty reasons but mostly true causalities behind, absolutely. But it is an essential part of our job to manage and navigate through all whilst in no way disrespecting the title, and doing the job we were hired to do by being humble and accountable. For that is completely different than blaming and delegating s**t that simply shouldn’t be delegated. I just hated that my awesome boss was tricked and bamboozled into believing this guys’, and I’ll give them the credit for a perfectly built, perfectly believable, but still a sh*tpile of lies. I mean, I do get it: some people and corporations do love those kinds of things and most don’t even realize it. I know too many of those personally. Anyway, all I can say is I know full well the damage that kind of sh*t can do to a business.

So without further ado my dearest reading friends, that is the biggest and most times very-difficult-to-spot red flag that I can share today, finally this being the moral, or rather the point of this story: The accountability and tonality between one and the other are subtle but completely different. So, I don’t know about you, but I’ll take an impostor-drowned-syndrome colleague thats willing to ask and try to overtake any challenge that has been cast onto their projects with humility and accountability, over any fake-impostor person without a seconds’ thought or hessitation whatsoever.

Simply because maybe I am just a full system, big picture kind of guy who takes the profession very seriously and is amazed of how some hiring managers and veterans alike fumble or fake their way through (sorry, I can’t call them senior or profesionals, they are not even close to earning being called product people, but that’s just me). That pisses me off quite a bit as it should piss everyone off just as well. I take pride in getting the job done as many of my awesome colleagues and teammates do and deserve shots and many shoutouts, but have trouble getting them because of sh*tbat fake impostors as the aforementioned ones. Real Product Management may look, but is Nowhere near easy, especially since sh*t does happen.

Oh, before I forget about the troubled projects from the fallen soldiers: The one almost two months behind schedule, it took me just over a week to get it back in track and at the time of this writing it is still ongoing quite well onto a successful launch path. The Cheeto’s guy was removed from the project as it was in fact over 3 months behind schedule and drowning in problems, I fixed it within 2 hours, and got it back in track within 4 weeks. It eventually got cancelled for other-than-us budgetary reasons.

Whenever we are hired to do something, I make sure and take it upon myself alongside my teams and higher-ups to make it happen, whatever it is, whatever it takes and as far as we can get it, which usually is all the way into success in the best and fastest way possible. Simply because I love building awesome, hopefully game-changing product solutions into successes, whatever their size or complexity in whichever industry I may happen to find myself.  I’ve done that for 24 years and counting.