When I took my first product role, the main thing I was interested in learning was about specific product skills. How to build a roadmap, what Scrum is, how to write user stories and requirements, what a product vision or strategy is, specific technical domain knowledge like how an API functions and how you might want to test it, etc… I did not understand – nor did I have a peer who spoke about it – that product roles are essentially leadership roles. And that I would struggle to get my work done without having a solid understanding and practice of the leadership skills that are at the core of being successful in a product role.
Over time I learnt: people and relationship skills are at the core of your success in product – and honestly probably any role in an organization today. The relatively stable and certain structures of organizations that built the same kind of product with established processes and a hierarchical organizational structure, are no longer the best way to thrive in highly volatile, uncertain, constantly developing and shifting markets. Especially in Tech. Progress with technologies and our globally interconnected markets mean that hardly any organization building a technical product can ever assume, that what they know today, will be the best strategy tomorrow.
As product people, we have to operate with ways of working that are fitting to VUCA (= volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) contexts. This is where agile mindsets, resilience skills, listening skills, and excellent team work leaning on every team member’s strengths and perspectives, become required foundations for successful product work. This is also why concepts we know from a leadership perspective, become super useful for anyone in a product role. I’ll pick up on just a few of them in this post, but I hope I can show why product success rests on you mastering certain people skills, that are equivalent with leadership skills. The great news here is: If you go from product roles to other leadership roles and you have consciously developed your leadership skills along the way, you’ll be much more successful as a first time people leader than many of your peers.
When you work in product teams it’s almost impossible to have never heard of this concept as a success factor for high performing teams. Amy Edmondson’s research on this topic was published years ago, and psychological safety is, what we all wish our teams have. Everybody showing up to work would like to have a sense of belonging (in fact it is the #1 predictor of happiness at work), we all want to feel respected, appreciated and accepted the way we are. We want a culture that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them. In fact experiments, and learning from them, are often the only reliable strategy to navigate uncertain complex contexts, yet we absolutely dislike to fail. True psychological safety needs the ability of team members to stay away from blame and judgement, and deal with the shame and defensiveness that failing triggers in us, in a constructive way. And it goes beyond that: to make everyone in the team feel welcome and experience a sense of belonging, we have to celebrate diverse viewpoints and perspectives, rather than getting annoyed or angry when a colleague acts in a – to us – surprising (aka annoying) way. We have to actively foster trust, equality and curiosity in ourselves and our teams. We as product people are constantly dealing with all kinds of different perspectives around us: users, engineers, UX, QA, sales, management, legal, investors. We have to find ways to collaborate and support each other, even – and especially when – an experiment fails. We have to embrace psychological safety despite the fact, that it does not always feel good. Something we can work on and learn.
One of the main things we as product people can actively build and develop, are listening skills. I found extremely helpful, how coaching taught me about listening without judgement, with lots of curiosity and without assuming that I know the answers to my questions. To me it was important to become aware of, and actually practice, listening at different levels:
Level 1: listening into myself and self-management. This means an ability to listen to and recognize what is happening in me, as I listen to somebody speaking to me. What triggers me, why does this trigger me, and how can I detach from that emotion as fast as possible to return to an ability to actually listen to what the other person is saying (rather than my own internal dialogue). If I get annoyed with the engineer speaking to me a certain way, I can no longer listen to the content of their communication, and I might miss hearing something that is extremely important for me to understand.
Level 2: listening to the speaker. Being hyper focused on what this person is saying, curiously exploring what is important to this person about what they state and learning their perspective and motives along the way. Listening like that is extremely helpful with any one of your stakeholders you interact with. It gets you to discover why this person cares, which makes them feel seen and appreciated and instantly builds trust. That trust allows you to collaborate, even if you have vastly different perspectives on some topic.
Level 3: is listening with a wide open awareness and presence. Taking in not only the person (or team) in front of you, but also what happens in your inner world and the entire context around this interaction. This is super helpful in discovery conversations. You want to listen to all the subtext of the conversation, the deeper hidden motives behind certain behaviors, their interactions with their context as they speak and what your intuition can add to reading the situation you encounter. Listening skills at that level turn into a super power in product. It helps you in any kind of discovery context as well as all your stakeholder communications. It creates a space where the people you interact with feel trusted, valued, appreciated and seen while you co-create with them. You train for this by working on your attention and presence in the moment. A meditation practice becomes an amazing skillset here.
Understanding that every human walks through life with a certain lens of understanding is key to having successful relationships. It does not matter in what context. This is true both in your personal as well as your professional life. Whatever your life experience has been to date, will shape you. It shapes what you know (and what you can therefore draw on when thinking), it shapes how you think (most of it happens unconscious following established habits and patterns), it shapes how you emotionally react (and what your triggers are) and it literally shapes your body and brain. The latest research in neuroscience confirms that how we think, what we think, what we feel and how our body relates to this, are intimately linked. This means: everyone in your team has a unique perspective on life and work, you can never assume that it is the same as yours. Most likely you will feel surprised and frustrated, when people around you act in ways, that make complete sense to them AND are different from your ways of acting, speaking and being.
This diversity in perspectives is actually awesome for anything that has to do with innovation: it literally means we all think differently, ideate differently, and go about problem solving differently. That diversity of perspectives can result in truly new solutions and products. But only if we have the skills to embrace the constructive abrasion those different perspectives create. It is very easy to kill this diverse perspective asset in its tracks by making fun of differing viewpoints, judging different ideas in a way that makes the person feel stupid or inferior, or not giving certain identities on the team equal speaking time (women, people of color, junior team members, non-native speakers, LGTBQIA+ humans, etc…). If you in your product role manage to create spaces that nurture the constructive dissent stemming from different perspectives, it will allow for out of the box thinking in ideation. Your ability to listen with curiosity and intuition, will lead to you building much more successful products based on tapping into the creative potential of many perspectives and skillsets. If you think of the double-diamond of Design Thinking: every time you want to expand the thinking on the diverging parts of this process, you’ll really benefit of different perspectives.
Visioning skills and values as alignment tools
Obviously a Design Thinking process also has the converging phases, where you want to narrow down, synthesize insights or select promising prototypes from a broad pool of ideas. Or if you already have an existing product, you’ll need to prioritize feature requests and new projects for your existing clients somehow. Usually there are many good ideas and you’ll need a mechanism to choose and decide which ones you want to pursue.
This is where visioning skills, and values become immensely important. Visioning allows everyone on the team to have a clear sense of the impact you want to create. And values (or product principles) become great guardrails to select between equally promising ideas. Whenever there is disagreement in your team, or with your stakeholders, about what to build next, taking a look at the larger vision, the strategic impact goals and the values of your organization is super helpful in getting people aligned behind the selection of work for the upcoming sprints. We know these tools as part of our product work. And yet, taking a deeper look at why they became so important for leadership in general, helps us become much more effective in using them with our teams to work towards a common goal. Any prioritization decisions you will end up taking can be justified in service of the larger impact your entire organization wants to achieve. Your “no” to certain requests is no longer perceived to be personal, but for the greater good of your organization. Vision and values are the most effective way to get out of toxic politics around roadmap decisions and into the driver’s seat of a truly empowered product team. This in combination with the above mentioned listening skills gets you trust in the organization. Your peers will believe you that you care about all stakeholders AND know that you are focused on the joint success of the entire organization, because your actions and behaviors are supporting this.
Assuming the best in people
This one seems like such a no-brainer. And yet: how many times have you been frustrated with the actions of somebody on your team? Do you find yourself looking for somebody to blame when things went wrong? Do you judge the actions of a team member, when they are ones that you would not have chosen? Have you then made fun of somebody, or made a snarky comment? We’ve all been there and done that. When I look back at my career this is something I certainly had to learn. And yet:
When I act from the following core beliefs, my joy at work increases and the outcomes of my teams are much better: I strongly believe that everyone shows up to work with the best intentions. Everyone takes a job because they want to make a positive contribution. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, seen, respected and safe. And every human is naturally creative, resourceful and whole.
When I get frustrated with the people around me, I choose to get curious. I ask what’s missing. Sometimes it is understanding of direction (then I need to do more with my visioning and alignment skills). Sometimes it is lacking of a skill (then I look at what kind of pairing or training might solve this). Sometimes it is simply behavior stemming from a different perspective (then I can learn to be less triggered by that and learn to appreciate and celebrate that diverse perspective asset). Sometimes it is that we truly disagree about values and impact (then I get to choose whether I want to keep working with that team). In either way, my assumption of positive intent and my bias for assuming the best in people will get me out of playing in the drama triangle (victim, villain, hero) and into an empowerment pattern (challenger, creator or coach). And that mindset will create great outcomes with my team. The conscious leadership group has great resources to learn about that.
The good news is: all these skills can be learnt, practiced and mastered over time. The fastest way to get there, is to work with a coach or mentor with a background in product and leadership (shameless self-promote: somebody like me). You can also always self-study. I hope I could get you a little bit curious and intrigued about the ways in which leadership skills become super powers in product roles. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, subscribe to my blog. You’ll get an inspiration about leadership or product topics into your inbox once or twice a month.
Featured image by Antonio Janeski on Unsplash
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