How to be a Product Management Rock Star Interview with Paul Young
Paul Young is a visionary thought leader in the world of product management and product marketing founding ProductCamp Austin and expanding ProductCamps worldwide. Currently, he is a dynamic instructor with Pragmatic Marketing, traveling across the nation teaching Product Managers and Marketers how to become market driven. He has honed his skills by leading teams through major changes, building effective teams and processes, and creating winning products with limited resources at both small and large companies like Dell, NetStreams, Leaf, CISCO and NetSolve. I participated in Paul’s first unveiling of What it takes to be a Product Management Rock Star session at the Rocky Mountain ProductCamp in November. It was by far my favorite and in fact was voted “best session”. I am so excited to interview Paul and have him share his thoughts on What it takes to be a Product Management Rock Star.
Allison: Welcome Paul.
Paul: Thanks Allison. I’m excited to be here and talk with you today.
Allison: Let’s start with: What is a Product Management Rock Star?
Paul: I chose the rock star analogy because it is colorful, it’s fun and most people have a mental picture of what being a rock star means: recognition, money, fans and so on. Obviously, it is not a literal, it is just a device. In product management, or any leadership role for that matter, we’ve all worked with that small set of people that are somehow different in a good way. People that seem to get things done where other fail. People that get the investment they need, people that get the executive team to make decisions that favor their products or themselves. In product management, those are the rock stars of our world. What is interesting to me and I think what is interesting to the people listening, is how did those people come to rise to that status and what can we learn from them and seek to emulate so we can get the same set of results they are achieving. Based on the people I’ve met in my career and those I’ve been exposed to as a product management instructor for Pragmatic Marketing, I’ve formed some hypothesis about these rock stars and what makes them tick. I call those the X Factors that make average to great product managers into stars.
Paul: You know I know a handful of product managers that I’d consider stars but I don’t want to call them out by name and I don’t want to embarrass anyone and I haven’t gotten their permission. There is a story that I like to tell, during the presentation about two product managers I’ve known in my career. I’ve changed their names to protect their identities but we’ll call them Chris and Will. Chris was at the point I met him, was a product manager at a large technology company in his mid 30′s. He had about 10-15 years of experience. Chris was worried because to use his own words he was always being put on the “loser” projects. Those products that were near the end of their lifecycle; they weren’t getting the investment they needed to stay alive. Companies were basically looking to milk these products and not really invest in them and then close them down eventually. He was always tasked with killing products. He was kind of shuffled from project to project and didn’t feel like he was getting traction and have the buy in of the executive team to really make those next set of decisions or investment needed to take a mature product to the next level. Because he was always stuck on these projects, he felt his career was in neutral; just sitting there and not moving himself forward. He was always complaining about the situation he was in. He wasn’t a bad product manager, he knew all the skills it took and knew all the things he needed to do but for some reason he was just stuck in a rut.
Compare that to Will. Will was a senior product manager at a technology company. He actually had a large part in hiring me early in my career. At the time I met Will, he was a similar age and experience level to Chris. He was also in his mid 30′s but there was something different about Will. He was always able to get investment in his products, get the ear of the executive team and the CEO. They were always his opinion if they were looking at an acquisition, or they were having a strategy meeting, they would always invite Will and ask him where to go next. Will always seemed to have the answers grounded in facts and research. Will was always on those up and coming products: the ones that were new, fresh and hot, that had a lot of potential, the ones that were on the 1.0, 2.0 releases or even pre 1.0. He had a lot of strategy work and the executive team was always looking for Will to weigh in on where to go next so as a result, the company strategy was highly influenced by Will and work he was doing.
Now Will eventually left the company I was at and went to a series of smaller start ups. He did very well. He ran some product management teams, he advanced in his career to manage larger and larger teams, had some success and some failures but by and large more successes on the balance and most recently a couple years ago moved into a very large technology company that you would recognize as a senior product management executive.
Now, two senior product managers about the same experience level and about the same age but over time experienced a very different set of outcomes in their careers. What Will had figured out that Chris hadn’t was how could he use the unique set of skills he had and how could he develop the set of skill he wasn’t as strong at to get a completely different set of outcomes and have a very much more aggressive trajectory in his career. That’s what I had been exploring through the work and research I’ve been doing.
Allison: Why is it tough to make it to rock star status?
Paul: I would say that in general, it is tough to be a great leader. Whether we are talking about business, politics or any other engagement. There aren’t that many leaders out there that we would consider great. There are many we would consider average. So it is hard because nobody teaches how to be a great leader. There are books and workshops but most of us unless we are self directed, we don’t really get any instruction from our business, our peers or even our managers on what we need to do to become a great leader. Although you may hear some things during your performance review like “you need to demonstrate greater leadership”. Ok, well what does that mean exactly: The rock stars of the world have cracked the code to get a different set of outcomes. But to them, they are no different. Nobody taught them. To them the kinds of actions they are taking are more innate. They do them without thinking about them. It is more driven out of their personality. Some of us have that, some of us don’t. We all, especially if you are listening to this podcast or come to a product camp, we all have the desire to be great. I believe that anyone who chooses to go into product management first of all, you have to be a little bit crazy, and second of all, you want to be great for yourself and for your product.
So the rock stars have figured out how to become great. In reality, we need some skills. Some of them we are born with and some of them we are not. Some of them we learn along the way either consciously or unconsciously. Not everyone can be a rock star. Just like product management isn’t the right career choice for everyone. Some of us have heard the story of someone that is a pipe-layer for a living. Early on in their career they really wanted to be a chef or some other career, but life circumstance or the people around them led them to go down this other career path of being a plumber. There is nothing wrong with that but maybe deep down they really wanted to do something else.
Sometimes it is like that for product management. Sometime we go into Product Management and just get thrown into the mix. Whatever business you were in at the time, they plucked you out of finance or sales or development or marketing and said “I now bless you. You are now a product manager”. So you say, “great, what does that mean” and you go and try to figure it out. There are other people that are in one of those groups like marketing or engineering and are there for 15 years. Then they realize” I really should have gone into Product Management; that where my love is.” What I’m trying to do is outline a framework and hypothesis about what are the skill sets you need both innate and learned skill sets in order to become great at Product Management. Or if you have been thrown into Product Management you can look at this thing and say “I’ve got that, I’ve got that, I’ll never have that so maybe Product Management isn’t where I supposed to be. Maybe my true love is someplace else.” So what I’d like to do is to help people understand what they need to do to become great up front and let them decide for them if Product Management is right career path for them or maybe it is something else and that’s ok too.
Paul: So Allison, when I started outlining the traits that it takes to be a rock star Product Manager, what I did was I started to think about “what are all the skill sets that make up a great Product Manager?” When I started layout out those traits on a table literally on little post it notes, I realized you could organize these traits in ones that were inherited – you were either born with them or you weren’t – along a continuum, to those that you learned. So if you look at the frame work (see above) and move left to right, you move from those skills that you can learn to those that are inherited. If you cut it top to bottom, you’ll see there are some skills there are skills that apply more to the company you are working with, the skills that you would use in your day to day work with your company at the top and at the bottom, there are skills you would use more for interpersonal relationships.
So starting on the right side, the inherited side, Personality Traits, those things you are either born with or you are not. Things like:
- high integrity,
- are you confident in yourself,
- are you a whole person, do you include your family in the choices you make,
- are you competitive, do you hate to lose,
- Are you an optimist, do you always believe things can be done,
- Are you curious, are you always seeking out new ways to achieving a goal?
I believe that most people that go into Product Management have these traits in some form or another. There are ways you can amp ones up if you don’t have it as much. By and large these are the things you need if you are going to be successful overall in Product Management.
If you move one category to the left toward the learned end of the continuum, you get to Learned Skills; things you can learn or get better at with observation and practice. Things like:
- Do you have the ability to question authority?
- Are you a good delegator?
- Are you a multi-vert? Meaning can you go out and talk to sales, customers, evaluator and potentials and gather all that data, be an extrovert and then be able to pivot, close your door or put up a do not disturb sign and pound out a market requirements document without interacting with anyone for a week to summarize everything that you learned?
- Are you selfish with your time? These are skills you can learn.
If you move a little to the left to the middle we have what I call Product Management Skills. The base set of skills you need to become good at in order to become a great Product Manager. We teach this level a lot at Pragmatic Marketing. Things like:
- Are you very broad? Can you speak across the business to any different department about your product and its applicability to them? Or to a set of existing or potential customers? Can you change your voice to change the data points depending on who you are talking to?
- Are you selectively deep? Can you go really deep in certain areas that are really necessary? When you walk down to engineering, do you feel comfortable talking to them about Service Oriented Architecture? SaaS or whatever buzz word that they are using without them laughing?
- Are you a measurer? Do you measure everything that you do? If your CEO comes to you and asks you what trajectory is your product on? Do you have the ability to give them a dashboard, a set of criteria that you measure yourself on that say “Yes, we are moving things in the right direction, here are a few key stats that I am keeping on myself and on my product to prove that.”
The next category is what I call Communications. Communications are great. Great Product Managers have great communication. Things like:
- Do you have the street “cred”, have you been out in the market and do you understand what their problems are? Can you explain that back to the business or are you just making stuff up?
- Are you a great story teller? Great Product Managers are great story tellers. They are able to weave all this information together into a story. A story that gets them interested, gets them excited and wants them to invest
- Are you a master listener and a master communicator? We’ve hear of the concept of “small talk”. Another instructor at Pragmatic Marketing, John Millbourne, talks about the concept of “small listen”. Do you have the ability to get into a conversation and pick out those key data points and really drill into them to the next level of detail to get the information that you are after.
The final category is what I call Executive Acuity. EA is basically how effective are you at an executive level? Things like
- Multi-level effectiveness. Can you be effective up and down the continuum?
- Can you build consensus? Both at the grass roots level and the executive level and drive that into a decision that is right for you and for your product?
- Are you a consensus builder? Do you have empathy toward other groups inside your company?
- Are you a great debater at the executive level?
Those are all the skills that are absolutely critical in order to get the right decisions made for your product. There are 30 some odd skills in this framework that we all use from time to time as Product Manager. What the star Product Managers have figured out is how to use seven of these which I call the Product Management X-factors that the stars use to become great and get a different set of outcomes.
- Do you have the ability to inspire others? This is in the learned skills category. Specifically do you have the ability to inspire others to take action, to do something? It is really difficult to get others to get them to do what you need them to do in Product Management because of the old adage, as Product Managers, we have the responsibility but not the authority to get others to do what we need them to do. We don’t have the direct managerial authority to say “you will do this because I’m your boss and I’m telling you so”. Instead we have more subtle means to get people to take action on our behalf or on behalf of our product. So the star Product Managers have figured out how to crack that code and inspire others to do what needs to be done in order to manage the product. That’s a key skill.
- Truth to Power. More specifically, the ability to speak the truth to those in power. There are lots of Product Managers out there that say “Woe is me. My executive team is so hard on me. They don’t really want to hear the truth, they aren’t interested in that. They are not measured on the right things so it is pointless for me to go and tell them this dog won’t hunt, or we need to kill this product, or we need to invest 50% more in order to successful.” The star Product Managers know that the only way to be successful as a company is to have the ability to get up in front of your peers which I would include executives in that discussion, and tell them the hard truth. Maybe the truth they don’t want to hear. Because the ability to speak truth to those in power, the ones that have the power to actually do something about it is critical. If we don’t speak the truth, then we are not being effective Product Managers. Sometimes there are things we have to take into consideration like how the executive team is measured, how they are going to look upon our request, but if we are not investing enough in the product and we are not telling anybody, we aren’t doing our jobs. So the great Product Managers have no fear in speaking the truth to those in power because they know “hey, if I get fired for speaking the truth, there are 10 other companies down the road that would be happy to have me because they are looking for someone to do just that.” So speaking the truth to power is an absolutely critical skill to becoming a great Product Manager.
- Synthesis. A good or average Product Manager can take 1,000 points of input and distill it down to 100 slide pitch or business case. A star Product Manager can take that same 1,000 points of input and get that down to a 10 slide presentation. As Product Managers we are exposed to mountains of data. All sorts of data but can you take that mountain of data and turn it into a concise set of actionable information for the business? If we are sending our exec teams 100 page business plans and 50 slide presentations, they are not going to read it. So being a good synthesizer is critical to becoming a Rock Star Product Manager.
- Pitch Artist. A great Product Manager loves getting up in front of their peers and executives and pitching their idea; defending their idea in front of their peers or managers. In fact they don’t just love doing it, they jump at the chance. They are excited to do it. They know they can get up and give a pitch that can inspire and cause the business to drive action in to what they are trying to accomplish. So becoming a pitch artist is absolutely necessary in order to get to that next level.
- Empathetic. Meaning, are you empathetic to the other groups within your company, to your customers, to your potential customers? If you have walked a mile in Sale’s, Tech Support’s or Engineering’s shoes, it will change the way you go to the business and ask for investment because you will understand how they are measured, what they are going through, their quota, their backlog and things like that. By understanding those things, you will make better and saner request of the business. If you have ever been in a meeting and you’ve made an ask of the business, whether it was for investment or time and you have the Sales VP, Tech Support manager or R&D VP laughed and said that was totally unreasonable, that might be because we might not have understood their current situation. What are they going through right now? What other requests is the business putting on them? Maybe it is not enough to just ask for what we want, maybe we need to also ask the business to de-prioritize another piece of work. Maybe we need to bring that to the table because we can empathize with what they are going through. We’ll make better decisions when we go to the business to ask for things if we have empathy for the other groups.
- Consensus Builder. That means do you have the ability to build consensus both at the grass roots level and at the executive level? There is always one executive that wants to shoot down our ideas, that wants to shoot our requests for investment or time. That is because we haven’t effectively built consensus with that executive ahead of time. Recognize it is not just the executive, sometimes it is the executive’s lieutenants. Sometimes we need to have the meeting before the meeting. To get them on board, to empathize with what they are going through, to adjust and change our ask based on the consensus we were able to build throughout the business. So can you build consensus at the executive and the grass roots level?
Allison: You know Paul in my experience; I’ve called this the “What’s In It For Me” factor. I have to figure out for that executive – what’s in it for them and have that meeting before the meeting to understand that, consensus is built and their needs are met, whether it is professional for themselves or for their people or for a product or whatever. I completely understand that concept and believe it is very important.
- Executive Debator. What that means is do you feel comfortable with and are you able to go toe to toe with an executive or executives as you are pitching your ideas and they want to tell you your idea is junk. There is always that executive who’s face turns purple and spit flies out when you try to explain your idea or you try to ask for investment and they something like “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Why would we ever want to do that? That’s not our business.” Do you have the ability to quickly pivot and defend your idea using data and facts to that executive amongst their peers? If we do not have a parry or the ability to defend our ideas, it quickly becomes a pile on. The other executives say “oh yeah, that’s a dumb idea. We’d never want to do that.” But we are able to provide immediate effective pushback, non-emotional data driven push back to say “I don’t believe this is a dumb idea and here’s why. I went out to do on site interviews with 25 customers, we surveyed 500 and the data clearly shows this is the right decision. Actually, the data shows that the investment we are asking for is very modest. Etc. etc. etc.” Do you feel comfortable doing that in an executive forum where there is one executive in your face providing strong pushback? That’s what being a great Executive Debator is all about.
That outlines the framework and the seven X-factors within that framework that the star Product Managers have figured out how to use both to change the trajectory of their product and also their careers.
Allison: How would you suggest someone get started if they wanted to become a Rock Star in Product Management?
Paul: My first recommendation would be they come to a ProductCamp. If they are interested in seeing this presentation, I’ll be showing it again on January 15th at ProductCamp Austin and again in February at ProductCamp Vancouver assuming I get the votes to present those days. I’ll be offering this session as a presentation. You can also download it here.
What you can also do without coming to the presentation is take a look at the concepts that I’ve outlined. We’ve all worked with 2 or 3 PM’s that we would consider Rock Stars over our career. I’m sure everyone listening can think of someone in their background and say “that person was different, they were really good.” Think of them in the context of the concepts we’ve outlined today and think about how they used those skills and which skills they used to achieve greatness. Then emulate them. Think about the X-factors that I’m really good at and what skills do I need to improve on? That is a good way to target the direction that you develop your career to become a Star as I know you can.
Allison: Beyond the Lessons Learned you compiled for your Rock Star concept, do you have any specific lessons learned from leadership and Product Management you’d like to share?
Paul: Yes, definitely. I have a couple of opinions about that and again, what works for me might not work for everyone. We all have different leadership styles and everyone is a little bit different. A couple of things that worked well for me in my career:
- I’ve always been a big proponent for myself and my teams that it is often better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. Especially when it comes to doing activities like getting contact with the market. I’m sure you’ve been in some companies where there is strict account control by Sales, maybe a little bit of worry by Sales where they keep the current customer base on lock down. Maybe Product Management is a new concept at your company. One of the things I’ve told my team to do is…You always have to ask Sales first to let them know what is going on, but in a couple cases where we got strong pushback and they didn’t want us to talk to customers and tried to shut us down, I told my team ignore that, I’ll take the bullets, I want you to go out and have those customer interactions and in that case it worked really well. When everyone realized what we were actually trying to do and it wasn’t to make our customer base angry.
- Don’t be afraid to debate with your executive team. The reason I put Executive Debator as an X-Factor, is because it is so important. Executives have a tendency to pile on, make snap decisions, they don’t always have all the data, they are used to making decisions without complete data. Sometimes executives get to where they are because they are bullies. They respect people who provide strong pushback when they believe they are right. Now, you can’t just do that. You have to have data and information compiled from the market when you are debating. Don’t be afraid to step up and have a frank, a very direct conversation with your executive team because I think they actually will respect that and it is a technique that has worked very well for me.
- Make sure when you are having these debates, when you are talking to your engineering team or to your marketing team, that you have data to back your assertions. As a PM, we should strike the words “I think” and “in my opinion” from our vocabulary as much as possible. We should replace them with “I did an onsite interview with these 20 customers and did a follow on survey over the web with these 500 customers (or whatever numbers work for you)” because we need to show that we are making data driven decisions around what we are asking these other groups to do. Not just letting our opinion infiltrate what we think is best for our product because we aren’t developing for ourselves; we are developing for a market of customers.
So those are three lessons learned that have worked well for me and hopefully will work well for you too.
Allison: Paul, I know I learned a lot from you today and from your session at the Rocky Mountain Product Camp in November. Thank you so much for your time and information you shared with me today.
Paul: Allison, thank you a lot. I really enjoyed speaking with you today and I hope your audience gets something out of it. If you are interested in reading more from me or seeing more about me, you can come to the ProductCamp presentations that I talked about earlier or you can find me at my blog www.productbeautiful.com.
Allison: Thanks a lot Paul!Tweet This: Send Page to Twitter