Growing together: developing and retaining your product team

Growing together: developing and retaining your product team

34% of product managers surveyed said they left their previous role because there were no opportunities to grow.

In this panel discussion, Lucie McLean (Zalando) discusses growth and career progression for product managers with Jock Busuttil (Product People Limited) and Daniil Pavliuchkov (Tier).

Video and transcript after the break.

  • What does product management growth look like?
  • How can lead product managers and line managers create opportunities for their product managers to grow?
  • How can product managers create conversations around growth with their lead product manager or line manager?
  • And how can product managers create their own growth opportunities?

Lucie McLean from Zalando is joined by Jock Busuttil, freelance Head of Product and author, and Daniil Pavliuchkov, Senior Product Manager at Tier mobility to talk about ways to enable growth and build happy, empowered product teams.

Video #

Note: the video quality of this Zoom recording is pretty terrible in places, but the audio is just fine. The internet was on a go-slow that day…

Transcript #

Introduction #

[LUCIE] Good afternoon everyone I can see lots of people currently joining us through Zoom at the moment so welcome to everyone wherever you are. My name is Lucie McLean I am a product director at Zalando and also a long-time member of the Product Management Festival board. So I’m really excited that you’re here today because we’ve got some really interesting stuff to talk about. Today I’m welcoming two guests to help us address something that we came across in the Product Management Festival trends and benchmarks report. There was a really interesting nugget of insight there that I think is a really good topic for a conversation from multiple angles.

So we’ve hand-selected two guests who we know are really passionate and experienced in this topic. So let’s dive into that. So the source of our information was the Product Management Festival trends and benchmarks report this is something that we do every year, and in the latest version more than 2,000 product managers took part. And this is the way for us to kind of test the temperature of product management. How people feel about their careers, how’s product management developing as a discipline. So we had more than 2,000 people tell us about their personal experiences, how they feel about the discipline, people from more than 30 countries. So we got some great insight from that.

Product managers want more career growth opportunities #

There are a couple of areas where we find some really interesting information that I think can be really valuable both for product leaders and for product managers and it was about product leadership and how people feel about the development of their careers and this stat I’m sharing here is really interesting: nearly half of the respondents said that there was an opportunity for their product leaders to give them more growth opportunities. That’s a really big proportion so we thought that was really interesting. And there was another statistic that we found that really showed the value of this work: 34 of people said they’d actually left a job because of this, because they weren’t given an opportunity to grow.

So I think that just sums up how important this topic is and to me it felt like a really good chance to have a discussion about this area so that’s what we’re going to do today. So our guests are two people that I think would be great to talk about this topic with.

Introduction to Jock Busuttil #

So first up we have Jock Busuttil who is a product leader from the UK he’s a freelance head of product based in London. He’s the author of the product – The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management. He runs the blog I Manage Products and in 2012 he founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy, coaching and training company. He’s spent nearly two decades working with tech companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, the University of Cambridge, and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service, so lots of interesting companies there. He’s a long time friend of the PMF and I actually met Jock at the very first Product Management Festival back in 2013, which feels about a million years ago now. So yeah, so welcome Jock thank you for joining us today.

[JOCK] Thanks for having me.

Introduction to Daniil Pavlichkov #

[LUCIE] And our second guest is Daniil Pavlichkov who is also based in Berlin like myself and he’s a Berlin-based product leader. He started his own found up in 2014 called melbourne and for the last few years he’s been leading product teams in fintech companies in Berlin. He’s currently senior product manager at a super interesting company, Tier, which provides e-scooters and mopeds for rent in more than 70 European cities. And he’s also a friend of the Product Management Festival. He spoke over the last two years about how to develop product management culture across your organisation and how to grow and develop your product team. Recently he also created Product Therapy, a group to help other PMs develop missing skills and unlock their growth opportunities through one-to-one mentoring sessions I love the idea of product therapy and hopefully we can have a little bit of therapy today as a group on this topic close that call okay.

What does product management growth mean for you? #

So product management growth and growth opportunities are an absolutely enormous topic and I think what I’d like to do first is just talk about what it means to you, so just to understand the different lenses we can look at it through. So Jock, starting with you and your experience in larger organisations, can you tell us a little bit about what product management growth means for you and what it can look like?

[JOCK] So what it should look like is opportunities for product managers to become more senior in responsibility, so looking after maybe more complex or larger numbers of products in the portfolio, but also to grow in terms of leadership, so being able to have more of a responsibility for the development of the other product managers in their team. And in an ideal world that should look like a a reasonably clear career path so you know how you’re going to progress within an organisation. But I think the problem is that’s I think maybe highlighted in that survey – in the survey results you showed earlier is that often it just simply isn’t considered. People don’t realise that they need to provide a career path or a clear career path for product managers in their organisation.

[LUCIE] Thanks Jock. And Daniil, thinking about your experience with startups, both with your own and the ones that you’ve worked at what kind of lens can we also look at this through in that sort of situation?

[DANIIL] As well I think the growth is an ongoing process that directly connects to innate desire of every single product manager to be as competent as possible. So this is a process of being more professional, as Jock said, with functional skills, with leadership skills and also being self – more confident in yourself, which should not happen like over years and then you just suddenly get a promotion but that is that’s a process that you should feel every week or every month that you are actually changing. You are becoming more competent than before and that could be through missing skills if you handle more communication or more complex projects, if you have tricky dependencies and priorities that can resolve, so there are multiple ways to do that and that really it depends on what kind of product manager you are, and then which directions you want to develop in the future.

[LUCIE] Great thank you and I forgot to mention as well that whilst it’s a conversation between the three of us we would really welcome your questions so if you have any questions you want us to consider throughout the conversation please add them in the chat we’ll get to them if we can but we’ll also leave some time at the end during which point you’re welcome to ask questions that haven’t quite come up through the flow. You can unmute yourself and ask those, but you’re also welcome to ask them in the chat. So we’ll leave time for that, so get involved if you’d like to.

How have you experienced growth as a product manager? #

I’d also be keen to follow up both with Jock and Daniil. Tell us something about your career. Tell us a story about how you’ve experienced product management growth and what it’s meant for you in your career. So maybe Daniil, you could start us off?

Experiencing the build, measure, learn cycle #

[DANIIL] So that’s a story that really felt like a revelation and there was an aha moment for me when I finally understood what it means, the famous circle of build, measure and learn and how exactly you use it as a product manager. Because before I was stuck in this I think quite a common way of working when you just build something and you have this partnership coming up and you build integration for that you have bugs and you go and build ethics for them you have a functionality that should be like a history of your actions and you know how it looks like so you’re just constantly building something. And then at some point we faced a problem that we didn’t really know how to approach. It was connected with failed payments and fraudulent activity and there was like there was no one solution to fix it. There was no new functionality that would just solve all of our problems.

So we decided to just try something and we built a small piece of functionality we run it as an experiment and we looked at results it kind of worked, but not in every case. So we built a second experiment and we did it three or four times and after after a while in the end we got a lot of learnings and we ended up with the solution that reduced the fraud level in our use case by 10 times, which was amazing. And when I looked back and did the retrospective I thought that wow it’s such an amazing way of doing things when you don’t know what would be the best solution you try something out you get feedback and this is actually is the build, measure, learn cycle. And what I felt at the moment that I’m never going back to the old way.

Even if the functionality does not give you enough space to come up with it experiment you still should avoid being like in the solutionizing mode and try to think about experiments and hypotheses they could you can try to get some results in a very deep and um cheaper and trick easy way and then see what what what they tell you. So that was very interesting.

[LUCIE] Yeah so if you had to kind of replicate those learnings you have to extract what worked there and kind of turn that into some gold dust to share with our guests today, how could you – how would you explain what what happened there and how they could perhaps replicate the experience?

How can people replicate your ‘aha’ moment? #

[DANIIL] I think that’s more about the change of the mindset so it’s trying something that you are not doing normally in your day-to-day work. So of course everyone is used to, like, writing tickets, building features, deploying, testing and so on, but this was a new behaviour, a new way of doing things. And actually, like, I could have done it earlier but there was no good opportunity for that. And when the opportunity happened, it was very interesting to try and catch it and see actually what can be achieved with a different way of doing things.

So I think that a lot of people in general, they try to avoid things that they don’t really understand or they don’t like, so, like, you shouldn’t go further than, I don’t know, having a bad relationship and you are not looking at it in your face because it’s just not working. Same with product management, if you have something that’s um you try to avoid and it doesn’t feel good or you struggle with it probably there is some point that can be an inflection point and a start of a very nice growth path.

If you just face it and look it in the eye and have enough courage to really ask yourself a question, “Okay why am I not doing that? Why am I always falling back to the usual way of doing things, and I’m not trying this new way?” Is it, like, should I grow or should is it this new way is not just good enough and like try to be honest with this and do some retrospective on the personal level and that might lead to very interesting conclusion and feelings.

Identify the activities that you try to avoid #

[LUCIE] So that sounds like you’ve identified there that those points where you feel uncomfortable or you’re avoiding things are actually probably the times at which you could identify oh this is something I could learn from.

[DANIIL] Yeah, but also that depends on what kind of product manager you are. So for example if you’re a PM that likes to build your own vision and develop a project or product in your own way you and you’re avoiding, let’s say, marketing or sales or competitive analysis, that’s quite strange because to build a vision that’s competitive, you need to know what happens on the market. But if you are and that could be your inflection point for growth. But if you’re a PM that’s perfectly okay to get a vision from someone else like a leader, a visionary from your company from C-level and you just execute on this vision and you know how to build it and deliver it perfectly, then having a lot of marketing inside, it’s not really necessary for you to be a good PM. So that also depends on what kind of culture and setup and organisation you are in right now. And yeah it’s you – you should see how it is for yourself. There is no one rule that will apply to everyone.

[LUCIE] Great thank you. And Jock we’d love to you to share some insight from your career. Tell us about a time when you’ve experienced product management growth and what you learned from that?

Some organisations know little about product management #

[JOCK] So I think there were kind of two big eye openers for me. The first was when I suddenly realised that I probably knew more about product management, having literally just started as a product manager for the first time, than the company I was working at did. So the revelation that product management was something that was quite new and a relative unknown to most companies was a particular thing. So it meant that I had more of a responsibility to make sure I was doing product management the best way I could do. And you know, when I started out, it was very much along the lines of, there was a particular process, a particular methodology, and it was very rigid in that way.

Being user-centric and not rigid on process #

And then, so the really big revelation was when I suddenly realised through exposure to things like Government Digital Service in the UK, agile methodologies that I hadn’t necessarily come across before, that there was actually a way of being far more user-centric about things and that you didn’t have to follow the process rigidly. You could actually determine what it was you were trying to achieve and then figure out what the best way of achieving it was. And that was quite a big revelation at the time.

Now looking back, it’s like well how on earth did we manage to do it at all? But then you sort of see all of these different products that companies create that just kind of push along down the path to launch without really any consideration of what problem they’re trying to solve for which groups of people. So for me that kind of revelation about the most important thing is the focus on the users, process is largely irrelevant, process is there to help you not to control you, and starting from that from that basis really was I think probably the big turning point for me.

How do you create growth opportunities for your team? #

[LUCIE] Great thank you. And I want to kind of approach this question from the perspective of the product leader and what leaders can do so with that hat on. I want to pick up on a couple of questions in the comments: so as a product leader, how do you create growth opportunities for your team? What can that look like? And obviously one way is becoming a people manager, but what other ways are there that we can approach this, and also how do you measure product management growth? Jock, do you want to take that one?

Mix up the product managers and products from time to time #

[JOCK] Yeah let’s. Well there’s plenty of ways. One way that may be a little bit controversial is to deliberately mix up the products managers and their products from time to time. So rather than necessarily – whilst there are benefits and advantages to having a product manager working on a particular product for a long time, and obviously the domain knowledge that they pick up whilst doing that, there is I think also an advantage to deliberately swapping product managers around so they bring their own distinct perspective onto different products, and I think that’s one way to encourage growth. Because it kind of forces people a little bit out of their comfort zones, forces them to start learning again, to consider other things but also the effect that they have on the teams – the delivery teams by bringing that different perspective in can be quite helpful so I think that’s one way.

Peer learning through communities of practice #

I think another way is to make sure that there are opportunities for people to learn from each other. So I’m a very big fan of peer-to-peer learning, so communities of practice and that kind of thing, where actually rather than the product leader (in inverted commas) as being the person that tells the team how they should be good products managers, I to be honest learned far more from the team of product managers I’ve looked after than I would have been able to share with them as a leader. So setting up a good community of practice where you can take advantage of that exponential growth in learning from lots of product managers sharing with each other I think is is one of the most useful ways to get growth happening in your organisation.

Benefits of swapping product managers around #

[LUCIE] Can we go back to that point about swapping people around teams because I think that’s one thing that when that option is presented to product managers it might be quite hard to identify really what that can add, rather than just doing the same things again that I already do.

So really what do you think of the specific values – the specific value in doing that is just so that anyone is on the call as a product manager who might be in that situation, or as a product leader thinking about that as a potential option for someone in their team, what do you think the real benefits of doing that are?

[JOCK] I think the main one is that ideally multiple products in your organisation’s portfolio should be tackling different problems at the very least if not for different groups of people but certainly there should be different problems. And so in that regard being able to, or being forced in a way to consider the problem in it in a different way or to think about a new problem, rather than continually optimising the one you’ve previously been used to, can be a way of kind of slightly freeing up your thinking and meeting different challenges.

I think it’s really all about that idea of, you know, getting stuck in a rut. And I found that when I was working on products for two or three years at a time, that after a while you’d almost kind of go into uh automation mode, in the sense that you’ve been doing – you’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt, and you’re not really having to think too hard. You’re seeing the same problems, you’re meeting the same way, you’re making a product slightly better, but you’re not really having to think too hard about it.

And what I really wanted to do was to avoid that stagnation setting in with other product managers and throwing them at a different product, which is solving a different problem, possibly for an entirely different group of people, um I felt was a really useful way of shaking up the thinking and getting people learning again.

Stress-testing your product management toolkit #

[LUCIE] So it gives them exposure to different domains, different teams and I think there’s a way to stress-test your toolkit isn’t it? If you’ve already – you always worked with stakeholders in one specific way it gives you a chance to see if that works for other people with other ways of thinking and other priorities, and how to stress-test that and build confidence in what works and then kind of expand your range of doing things.

Because I guess for more senior product managers you’re looking for them to have a range of tools and to be able to explain why they use the ones they use at those points and realistically you can only get that when you’ve been in a few different scenarios and seen some things work and some things not.

[JOCK] Absolutely! I mean that’s one of the main reasons why I went freelance back in 2012 was because I wanted to go from that sort of self-stagnation that I identified to working with the different organisations, a different organisation every few months, because that was the best way for me to get learning again.

Building a range of experiences leads to promotion opportunities #

[LUCIE] And there’s a great comment coming through in the chat that this part is actually quite difficult for some people to recognise in their careers because growth is quite often equated with promotion but actually sometimes promotion only comes when you when you’ve got that range of experience and demonstrate that you’re ready. So maybe there’s a few more of those experiences under your belt will make that promotion more likely in the future, rather than the promotion being the way to get that?

[JOCK] Yes. Maybe it’s like if you stand still for too long you kind of become a bit camouflaged and hard to see so you have to jump around a bit to make yourself more visible in your organisation.

Growth doesn’t always mean managing people #

[LUCIE] Yep, yep. I’m gonna approach my question to Daniil as well. Another aspect that people sometimes think about is the only way to kind of grow as a product manager is to become a people manager. So again what are the other options you can you can suggest there and actually if people management is the way to do it. What are your thoughts on how a product leader can approach giving someone the opportunity to develop those skills to see if they’re ready?

[DANIIL] Yeah I think that when you say ‘product leader’ it doesn’t mean ‘product team leader’. So it’s two different things. You can be a leader of the product and it’s a bit different from being a product manager. So it’s not about building things it’s about creating a vision of what it’s going to be in the future so you know in which directions to go. And then you tell everyone else in an inspiring way that this is the best direction we should do. And becoming a product leader in your organisation without becoming a people manager I think it’s a very nice opportunity that a lot of not a lot of people know about it.

And it’s more about getting enough room and responsibility to own a specific direction of the product, a specific part of the product to way that you have a bigger impact with your actions. So you really go into, how do I make more revenue? How do I make revenue in the ways that are hard to copy for my competitors? How do I collaborate with different organisational, like departments in the organisation. How do I do it together with marketing, how can I package it in the way that it sells well. And this level of complexity is completely new to a lot of PMs because it’s not about talking to your developers and your designers to build a feature, it’s about how you do the product and you lead it into the bright future.

And then what it is a product leader, you don’t have to be managing a group of 10 PMs to be there. And a lot of companies I think would be happy if there is a PM that is willing to take this level of responsibility because that’s a completely new set of tasks. It’s a lot more communication, a lot more prioritisation, and that’s a very nice way to grow if you don’t want to be a manager. So just thinking about the kind of role of almost a principal product manager, something that we’ve seen in engineering, that it seems to be quite accepted to have very senior individual contributor engineers who are real domain experts, who are driving best practice, but not through people management, through kind of real real sort of domain knowledge and expertise in their skill set.

[LUCIE] So that feels like something that there’s opportunities for more organisations to embrace, and product managers to realise that that is a career path if people management isn’t the way they want to go.

[DANIIL] Yeah, yeah, you can grow in domain expertise. You can really know a lot about – so I work in mobility, and if I want to grow as a PM I really need to know inside and outside the mobility, including the sourcing, and how Chinese factories are doing our scooters, how we work with IT and hardware. And this really go deeper and deeper to to uncover an opportunity for the product to grow in a way that no one expects. And that’s really comes with a lot of expertise, with a lot of knowledge, with a lot of focus and concentration on specifically your part of the product. And that’s way different from managing people. And it’s still growth, still development.

Thought-leadership in aspects of product management #

[LUCIE] Yeah. And Jock, going back to the comment you made earlier about communities of practice, there’s also an opportunity for product managers there to become the expert in a part of product management too. Is there something that they really passionately care about that they can be setting best practice, and kind of leading and becoming a thought leader that way as well?

[JOCK] Absolutely. I mean hopefully people have been familiar with the concept of either the t-shaped person or the pi-shaped person. So in other words you have a generalist kind of coverage of a number of different topics to help you be a product manager, but because of your own particular background you might have a particular specialism that you can bring to the role. In my case, I happen to come from a relatively technical IP networking background that happened to be the first company I worked at out of university. And I occasionally scared developers on my team by knowing far more and I should do about very specific things.

But you know in terms of taking the benefits of that, if all of the product managers in your team come from differing backgrounds, whether it’s design user research, technical or development backgrounds, or indeed something completely outside of the usual areas, so maybe psychology or things like that, then absolutely you want them to be able to help share around that information and that experience and that knowledge with the other members in your team, so that everyone can get a bit better at the technical stuff, which might be a gap for them, or everyone can get a bit better at user research if that’s a gap for them, or everyone can get a bit better at understanding development methodologies and frameworks if if that’s a gap for them.

So I think yeah absolutely the strength of the communities is because it relies and takes advantage of the natural diversity that you’d expect to see within a team. And it makes the team much greater than the sum of its parts than if they’re all acting just purely as individuals focused only on their own products.

How do you measure product management growth? #

[LUCIE] So you mentioned there about identifying gaps, and there’s a question right at the start of our talk today about how you measure product management growth. So Jock, I know this is something that you’ve thought about before. So how can a product leader or a manager or product managers kind of measure or explain how they met their budget product management and also how can product managers measure how they’re doing and where their gaps might be? I know something that you’ve done some interesting work on it in the past.

[JOCK] Thank you, yes. So the first thing is I wanted to differentiate between the performance of a product and the performance of its product manager. So in other words, how could I concentrate on the development – the personal development of the individual, rather than necessarily whether their product was making revenue and that kind of thing. And the way I happened to do this was to get all of the members of my team first of all to agree on what the most important traits were of a product manager both in terms of technical skills, so what technical skills do you need to be a product manager in our organisation, but also what are the soft skills. What kind of emotional intelligence did they need to be able to be an effective product manager?

So once we agreed on these categories we all just did a very simple scoring exercise, one to five, on how they rated themselves in these particular areas. And then we collated those results and that was kind of interesting and that gave me useful things to focus on in one-to-ones if they felt that they were not so great in a particular area, or if they felt they were particularly good, they could share that experience. And I’d encourage them to always present to the rest of the team something they they they were expert on.

Comparing a PM’s self-assessment with that from their team #

But where it became really really interesting was when I did the same exercise using the same traits and got their respective delivery teams, so the developers, designers, the user researchers, whoever was in their delivery team, to score their product manager on the same terms and seeing where the the differences were was kind of interesting. One of two things would happen: either they – the product managers – would be almost lacking confidence in their own abilities and be scoring themselves really low in an area that the team thought they were really good at, or sometimes you get the other case happening where maybe some were overconfident in their abilities and actually teams were saying “Yeah, you’re not so good at that,” you should really maybe put a bit more focus and attention into being better at that.

And obviously it was all done anonymously so I didn’t want any people making a big deal about it. But it was interesting to see where a product manager’s self view matched up with how they were perceived by their team, whom they work most closely with, and where they’re out of alignment. And that was useful in itself.

The organisation’s expectations of the product manager role #

[LUCIE] So there’s a few parts out there that are quite interesting, I guess. A lot of companies have a set of product management role expectations. So I guess the first thing is to find out if your company does. Have a look at them and see if you understand them.

But underneath that, it sounds like you also do a piece of work there for the team themselves to reflect on those expectations, if they exist, and just see actually to do that job here, in this team, on this product, what is important, what are the things that we as a group need to know. And then from there you do your team reflection and your self-reflection. And then through that identify what comes next.

[JOCK] It’s kind of mindfulness. I think it’s one of those things where we’re so busy, that we don’t actually spend that much time reflecting on how well we are doing our jobs. I mean sometimes we’re kind of given a rude awakening when we’re told quite bluntly when we’re not doing it well. But it’s kind of nice to make sure there’s good alignment between the product manager, what the organisation’s expectations are, how the team is working, what their expectations are, and just having some kind of thing. You don’t need to do this very often, maybe no more than once a quarter, maybe only every six months would be sufficient, just as a kind of temperature check. But it’s quite valuable.

Treating yourself like a product #

And also I think when you start to look at over a series of – over a period of time, then saying, last quarter we saw that you weren’t so great at public peaking. Since then, you’ve done in your personal goals several more talks. How do you feel about public speaking now? Are you a bit more confident in it? Has it had the desired effect? So it’s almost taking the experimental approach that Daniil was talking about earlier and applying it to your own personal development. I think lots of people have said, “treat yourself like a product,” and I think experimentation and measuring yourself and being – forcing yourself to be honest about: are you actually getting better at this or you’re just still putting it to one side? And being uncomfortable about it like Daniil was saying, um is something we should keep an eye on.

[LUCIE] Great, thank you. And there’s some great advice coming through the chat of a website for the PM wheel on it you could use to kind of understand the skill set. Another one I’ve used before is the PM daisy. So there are a couple of different tools you can use to unpick what makes up a good product manager, what’s important, and can identify where the gaps might be.

How do you get space from your organisation for growth? #

So going back to Daniil, we’re going to put you in a situation now. You’re a product manager, you’ve done this analysis, you’ve found your uncomfortable spots, you’ve identified some things where you want to grow. How do you have that conversation with your manager? How do you get that space to do these things? What kind of persuasive arguments can you make?

[DANIIL] So it’s funny because I did it a month ago for myself with my manager so I can share my recent experience. And basically we have this personal development plan that has a matrix of skills and you have functional skills like technical Understanding, UX simplicity, consumer science and so on. We also have a section that is about leadership and vision and business maturity. And then you have a third section, which is about company values. So what the company in general thinks is important for employees. And that could be, I don’t know, I care about my teams, and I care about my users. Or it could be I maximise revenue.

And there is no right or wrong answer because depending on the company, you can have different priorities, and also the same company can have different priorities in different stages of the company, or like now is corona crisis everything is to reduce our costs and this is the priority. And then afterwards okay everything is scale. No one cares about costs. Everything is just dumping a lot of cash on the gas pedal.

So when you score yourself either with the team or with 360 degrees, like whatever you use, and you have a reflection, you discuss it with the manager and basically you come up where you want to be in the next six months. Because, yeah, it’s a good cadence to repeat it twice a year. And the tricky part is you kind of want to get better at everything but you can’t, because you have only so limited number amount of hours per week, and even if you work 40 hours a week you still need some time to develop yourself.

Dedicate time during working hours for growth #

And I found out that people don’t really do that in the evening because they just want to relax, and they have their families and friends and hobbies. So you don’t have more than a couple of hours every week to dedicate to your personal growth outside of your regular responsibilities. And it’s important to be very realistic about it that you can touch not more than one skill a month. But if you have set a specific goal, so if you want to be more technical, you can set a goal: I want to do five commits to our repository this month.

So I know – I need to know how the code works, I need to learn microservices, database and so on. I need to write it, install it, connect it on my local environment, and I push it, and then it goes through review, and that would be an evidence that I have increased in this skill. So that should be not about, like, yeah I’m going to spend more time focusing on my leadership skills. That’s not going to work you have to come up with an actionable plan, and you should create it and co-create it together with your manager, And then get support and buy-in and sponsorship both from, way like if you fail it’s okay, I will support you, but also here I can offload you, you can dedicate more hours to that, because I also want you to grow.

So you need to discuss the – agree on the terms of your growth and how much you can dedicate to that, and have an actionable plan. And then you you do, you measure, and you learn, and you go through this experimentation approach that Jock mentioned. It works really well with a personal growth as well, so you can treat it as a micro product and you are your own product manager.

[LUCIE] Nice! And Ruth has mentioned her organisation. They use OKRs for individual development as well, so I guess that can really keep that focus on the things that add value, but making sure it stays on your to-do list, which is really nice. That’s great.

And I think another thing is important is that we expect product managers to be very proactive. You know, that’s one of the really important skills. And actually being proactive in your own career development is a great way to demonstrate that and it’s, you know, shows your leaders that you’re both a proactive person, but you’re also practising developing your own product, yourself, as well.

The role of coaching and mentoring on growth #

So another aspect that’s come up in the chat as well is about the role of coaching and mentoring here. So I’d love to hear both your thoughts on that. Where you think it could add value and really how to to make the most of those opportunities, because everyone’s busy. So how can you really use coaching and mentoring to best effect in developing as a product manager. So maybe it will go to Jock first and then Daniil on this one. Jock, what are your thoughts here?

Is there a senior product person in your organisation to coach you? #

[JOCK] So I think the first thing is whether or not there’s actually someone in your organisation that you can have a one-to-one coaching session with. I think particularly my experience of getting involved is that often there’s no senior product person in the organisation, or the product manager that I’m talking to is the only one there, and their organisation doesn’t even understand what they do. So I think the first thing is identify if you’ve got someone you can actually have a sensible coaching session with.

Find someone to provide a different perspective #

And then ideally that person should be someone who can at least provide a different perspective and challenge, maybe, some of your thought processes. Not necessarily – you don’t necessarily want to have the kind of relationship where someone is telling you what to do in a very directive manner, but I think occasionally saying, “Well, have you tried thinking about it this way?” or “How well did that work out for you? Did you think about trying it maybe a different way, and see if we get a different result?”

So I think the one-to-one coaching is useful, but I think it’s part of a number of different things you need to be doing as part of your growth. I think the one-to-ones are useful, and I think Daniil’s probably far better qualified to talk about the product therapy side of things, but the – there’s always going to be two things: which is solving the immediate challenges, solving the – almost kind of mental challenges or the stress-related stuff that you tend to get in one-to-ones, but then coupling that with more the peer-based stuff or the community-based stuff, where it’s a bit more open. It’s less about ‘poor me’, and it’s more about, ‘okay, what can I do to actually push things along.’

Have a running set of personal development goals #

One of the things I found quite useful was to have kind of a running set of almost goals or key objectives – key results for individuals from a personal development point of view. Saying for example, “I want to get better at public speaking.” I said, “That’s great, so let’s agree that between now and the end of the month, you do at least two more speaking opportunities, and we’ll encourage you to do that.” And then reviewing how did that make them feel at the end of the of the process. So trying to keep it as objective as possible, and not purely about the, you know, ‘Isn’t product management quite hard?’ ‘Yes it is’ sort of side of things.

So yeah I think that’s probably how I’d see the the coaching working. But it needs to be done in combination with other things and really you need someone who’s going to challenge you and and encourage you to to step outside of your comfort zone.

[LUCIE] And I guess if that person isn’t in your organisation there are other ways to do that, so I guess Daniil can tell us about his work as well. There are other mentoring clubs and other ways to find mentors as well. So definitely worth thinking about those. So yes, Daniil, do share a little bit more about you know your thoughts on this and how you’re seeing this.

4 stages of the mentoring process #

[DANIIL] So I think the the relationship between the mentor and the person go through different stages and the growth of the process that has basically four steps.

Build trust #

The first one you need to build trust, and you need to get involved in another person’s problem. Because if you say, like, you see that the person is smoking a lot. And then you say smoke is bad for your health. And, like, another person is not stupid. He or she knows that smoking is bad for the health. And they went through this mental exercise many, many times. So you should not be, like, directive and just have this fixer attitude that I know the solution that will help you become a better person. So you have to build trust that you are not facing this goal of scepticism when you say something, and this is the first stage to get to know another person, to build a relationship that meaningful with them.

Focus on the most relevant growth opportunities #

The second one and when you’re start talking about different growth opportunities, you need as a product leader to focus people on the ones that are most relevant. Because you have many different opportunities and you don’t know which one will bring the most value. And you also at the moment – as a PM probably you don’t really know what kind of PM you are. What are your own personal product values. So the product leader or your partner will be able to focus you. And instead of going into some strange direction lights slightly return you to the way. So the second part is focusing on a specific problem.

Motivation to improve #

And when you see this problem or opportunity or issue, the third stage is to get motivation to improve that. Because if you just give a solution it’s like a present. But you never grow if you receive a present. You only grow if you do the hard part yourself. So you need to do the thinking and you need to do the doing. And it takes a lot of courage and to get – to have courage you need to have motivation to fix it. So you really need to understand why doing that will improve your life. And you will be a better PM, you will have less stress from your work, your products will improve and your colleagues will love you, and everyone will want to work on your team. So this is a motivational part, this is a third stage.

Come up with the plan #

And the last one which is usually in many cases the first one, but it should be definitely the last one, is the planning part. When you actually come up with the plan, how you do the growth. So before going to those actionable items, you need to first get involved with another person, you need to focus them, you need to bring motivation and courage out of them, support them, and then you plan together, and you do the steps and actions.

And of course every of those stages, they overlap, they don’t happen consecutively, they’ll run in parallel more or less, and it’s like everyone is building on top of the previous one. So this is how I see a job of a product leader to unlock the growth of a PM.

[LUCIE] Lots to do there, isn’t there?

[DANIIL] Yeah, it’s not easy and you really need to build this trust relationship, because otherwise you’re going to be a stranger to them and your words will will face will not go through this internal sceptical filter.

[LUCIE] Yeah. That was super-interesting stuff. Thank you. I think we’ve galloped through lots of themes today, from lots of different angles. So we’re going to pause for breath now, and then want to ask everyone who’s attending today if there’s anything you’d want to dig into a little bit more, through a question, or any other areas you’d like us to explore.

What has most helped you become a product leader? #

So, yeah, great question just come in here. Going back to Jock and Daniil about your own career. So what do you think the most relevant factors are that have helped you become product leaders today?

Using psychology to frame product management #

[DANIIL] I think for me I really started talking a lot about it and I started reading a lot about it, and about things that are connected to that. So product management for me personally is very close to psychology. For example, so I started reading about consultation practices, motivational practices, how you help other people develop. And that gave me a lot of insights and that actually formed my personal position on how product management should be working.

And how – what it actually means – how a person that is at the two or three years of experience is building a product, and affecting a revenue of the company and might change the strategy of the product, and change the strategy of the company in some way, and that’s just a person with two or three years of experience that’s not even C-level. How does that work and why it’s working in many organisations? So talking to other people outside of PM world, talking to other PMs as well, is what helped me understand what I value.

And when you, like, hear another person you see oh I agree with that or no this is not what I share um in this opinion. So doing that more often just helped me understand more about what kind of person I am in this particular dimension of product management.

[LUCIE] Super interesting, and same question to you Jock, any thoughts?

Experience in diverse skills #

[JOCK] Yeah I think the the thing that shaped me most, one was being thrown into lots of different things, lots of different problems to solve. When I started working out of university, I went and joined a startup and this was around about early – right the beginning of the millennium, if that doesn’t date me too much – and being a startup, which then went through the dot-com bubble bursting, and most of the company being laid off, I suddenly found myself responsible for a whole bunch of things that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. So I was the marketing department, and the IT department, and the receptionist, and the person giving product training. And whilst I wasn’t necessarily the product manager at that point, I did get exposure to a lot of things. Then suddenly I just had to get good at stuff. So I think that that helped me grow as a product person, just having to take responsibility for getting stuff done.

But also having to learn about the fact that you don’t know a lot of stuff, and you have to be given the opportunity to learn about that. And so encouraging the people I look after to try out new things and not be afraid of failing or being perceived to fail just because you don’t get it right first time, that’s okay, it doesn’t matter. So that’s been really helpful.

Learning from the mistakes of my own managers #

And I think the other really big insight was when I sat down with myself and said right I’m going to become a team manager soon, I’m going to be looking after product managers.

From my own experiences of being managed well and badly, what kind of product leader, what kind of product team manager do I want to be for the people in my team. In other words, how can I avoid making the same mistakes that my managers sometimes made with me, and how do I need to be helpful in different ways based on different personalities and differing needs of the individuals in my team.

My team is like my users #

So in the same ways we kind of regard our own personal growth as a product, I regarded each of the team members I was looking after as my users. And I had to understand their needs to understand how I could solve their problems or help them to solve their own problems. So that that was kind of another big revelation for me.

[LUCIE] Great, thank you. Ruth has just made me realise we are 48 minutes into a webinar and we haven’t mentioned working from home or lockdown. I don’t know how we’ve managed that.

[JOCK] Good!

[LUCIE] It’s not a thing. But it is a thing, right? And it has changed things and it definitely changes the kind of conversations we have about growth and the relationships between teams and understanding each other. So let’s talk about that, because it is definitely a thing and will be a thing for much longer.

How has COVID-19 changed our approach to growth? #

So that’s a quick question to you both, starting with you, Jock. Has this changed our – how we approach these conversations? Are there things we should bear in mind and proactively do differently while we’re not able to go to the coffee shop and have these conversations with our bosses?

Remote one-to-ones are essentially the same as before #

[JOCK] So it’s a really weird one, because I’m kind of used to managing teams that were geographically distributed anyway, if anything has just become slightly easier. I appreciate not everyone is necessarily used to managing remote teams, and so on and so forth, but I find that a video call is a bit better than just a plain phone call. And I was doing quite a lot of the one-to-one sessions over a phone call anyway, so actually being able to do coaching sessions, one-to-one sessions over a video call is is actually quite good. I appreciate that if your norm is getting together in an office and being able to nip out for a nice coffee somewhere from the office, then it’s a bit of a change, but in some respects, at least from the one-to-one side of things, I don’t think it’s really fundamentally changed too much.

Compensate for loss of human connectedness #

I think where it has changed is the – the experience of being near other people in a working environment. And it’s a very difficult kind of sense or feeling to put your your finger on. Because it’s all of the stuff: it’s the the bits where it’s quiet and everyone’s, you know, busy and that’s kind of quite a nice library-like almost atmosphere, and then sometimes just silliness erupts, and you have a laugh for a few minutes, and that kind of takes the pressure off, and then you’ll get back into doing the thing you were doing. Or then you have the days where, you know what, everyone’s just in that mood where oh we just can’t even face it today. So you just almost abandon it and go and have a drink after work, or you go for a coffee, or go out and get ice cream or something.

I kind of miss those bits but at the same time it’s like well, we just have to work with what we’ve got. So I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any easy way. You can’t use Zoom to replace that stuff. You can compensate to an extent, but you can never really get the same sense of feeling and connectedness that you get from when you’re sat in the same room as someone. But, you know, we’ll get through it and we’ll get back to it.

Allow time for purely social conversations #

[LUCIE] And one thing I was thinking about as well. I think our lives at the moment are generally run by our calendars and there isn’t so much dropping by your desk to have chats. In a world where we’re scheduling time to do things, is this now the time to actually get this in the diary as a thing? Time to focus on this, time to have conversations, making that time to make this a priority?

[JOCK] I always was really strict with myself if something isn’t my diary, even if it just literally involves me, it wouldn’t exist and I’d forget to do it. So for me time management and sticking things in the diary was literally the only way I get stuff done. But that’s because I’m a notorious procrastinator and I need all of the help I can get to keep myself on track. So I would advocate doing that anyway. But it does mean you’re kind of playing almost Tetris with your calendar at one point.

How can we keep career growth in everyone’s minds? #

[LUCIE] Not a fun game! I always lose. And Daniil, any thoughts as well on how we can kind of keep this career growth in our minds, and our leaders’ minds and our team’s minds through this phase, if it is a phase.

[DANIIL] Yeah of course. With remote, a lot of has changed about the processes: how you document things, how you communicate. Everything went async. And like that’s expected. But another thing that we found useful in our teams that we have – like, if you are eight hours in the office, you are not working eight hours because you have a one hour lunch break, and then you have a coffee or a chat, and you are probably working, I don’t know, six hours. And when you’re at home and you’re having eight hours, you work for eight hours. You’re completely focused, and you do things all the time. And that’s not healthy.

Invest time in social time #

And I think that you should remember about it. And we started having meetings. We schedule like once a week, a two-hour call on Monday evening to just talk to each other about the weekend and how our lives went. And then we have something like Thursday drinks, also for two hours – and it’s inside the working hours, it’s not after work – where we connect with the team and we just grab a drink online and we talk about things. We discuss travel, discuss new bike models, whatever is interesting for us. And we invest a bit more, or even way more, into person-to-person communication.

And we also started one-on-one doughnuts. So it’s like a random meeting with a colleague that you have a half an hour break within during the week. It’s also really great to talk and you get to know other people more. And the result of that, that in our Slack we started having groups such as bread-baking, and people who are baking bread at home they are not talking about it. And then we have a group about gardening, and we have a group about clay and pottery. And they just formed around people getting to know each one better. And because of the corona, you spend a lot of time at home. You develop new hobbies. And people just started talking about it. And it’s really cool because we are stronger as the team. And it’s very hard times, but it’s easier for us to go through that, because we have new ways of offloading our stress by just being more human to each other. And that’s really was one of the biggest changes in the last few months.

How do we keep our work visible? #

[LUCIE] Yeah, that sounds really nice. Been definitely enjoying all the sourdough pictures on my Instagram feed at the moment. Definitely got bread envy there. I’m just thinking specifically about an aspect – I guess some of our work is now a little bit more invisible.

So whether that’s work that we’re doing, work that our team is doing, or work that our bosses are doing or maybe seeing, how do we make sure that where we are developing and growing that that’s visible? And that where it needs recognition, it gets it. So what what kind of things can we do there to make sure that all the good work that we’re doing through these super-intense times is being visible?

Show the thing #

[JOCK] One approach that I would absolutely recommend is get a regular show and tell in the weekly diary, and encourage as many people in your organisation to come along to it. This was something I was talking about doing in person way before coronavirus kicked in. And it’s just essentially – the focus is short snippets showing what you’ve built, what you’ve learned to anyone and everyone within your organisation.

And it’s not there to prove that you’re doing stuff, it’s there to show the stuff that you were doing but nobody – people didn’t necessarily realise about. And you can do a very similar format online by, again, just showing a few a few snippets or showing literally the thing itself if you can. I always favour demos of the actual product or the actual findings of research that you’ve done over a huge slide deck every day of the week. So try and get those in the diary.

Get lots of different voices speaking. So don’t just make it the product manager standing up and doing it. Make it your devs. If they’ve built something that’s really cool that other teams can benefit from, get them to spend five minutes talking about it and take a few questions. The trick is not to scare people into thinking they have to present. It’s very much about just saying, “You’re an expert on this. You already know this stuff. Just stand up and tell everyone about something you’re really interested and really good at for five minutes,” and then someone else will stand up and do the same thing.

And if you can do that on a weekly basis for 45 minutes at least, you’ll be on to a winner and so many people will be interested in the kind of things you’re doing, and you won’t have to prove that you’re working anymore. People will be able to see what you’re doing.

Weekly win sessions #

[LUCIE] Yeah I think that’s such a good idea and it reminds me of a weekly win session that each of my squads at BBC and Children’s used to do. And it was a completely democratic thing self-organised with a Google slide that anyone could share anything. And actually I think for the product managers, it helped to lift the lid on what they did all day. You know? And they were talking about, I was in stakeholder meetings today, I was off meeting this company, I went to user testing, and it just helped people understand what product managers were doing, and gave the team the confidence that we were talking to customers, and talking to users. And it felt like a really great way for everyone to celebrate everything they were doing whether it was coding, testing, design, or filling in spreadsheets.

So yeah I agree, I think it’s a great a great habit to get into and I agree can work really well digitally too. Thank you! And again there’s more fantastic suggestions coming through in the chat of systems to use to kind of keep some of that kitchen chatter and the doughnuts going in this new world. So I think that’s fantastic. I really appreciate everyone’s getting involved there.

Closing remarks #

I think we’re out of time now. I’m sure everyone’s got meetings or things burning on the stove to get to. So I just want to say a huge thank you to Jock and Daniil for joining us today, to Anna at the Product Management Festival for keeping us in line and running today’s session. And a massive thank you to all for taking part for your contributions and for paying attention. Anna will follow up with an email where we’ll share some of the things we talked about today, some of the links. And again if you want to find out more about ways to get involved in our product management community, sign up for the newsletter, follow us on LinkedIn and think about whether you want to join us in the future.

You know we’re always looking for people to join our groups, speak at the conferences, get involved in things like this. So think about how you can kind of share the product management love and share your experience too. So thank you everyone, have a fantastic weekend, and thank you again for joining us.

[DANIIL] Thank you everyone!

[ANNA] Thanks everyone!

[JOCK] Thank you very much!

[DANIIL] Bye-bye!

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a product management and leadership coach, product leader and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn.

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