Ep. 3: What Are Non-Negotiables for You to Accept a New Product Leader Role?

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Hope Gurion: Are you considering taking a new product leadership role?  With a shortage of product leader talent and many companies still finding their way to how this role fits in their leadership team, I wanted to hear and share what are the most critical, non-negotiable traits to consider taking a new product leader role. So that’s our focus on this episode.

In this episode of Fearless Product Leadership, we will hear from five experienced product leaders who have led product at multiple companies, explain what they consider to be their non-negotiables to take a new product leader role.  Not-surprisingly, most agree that their boss and market opportunity are pretty important, they each share what is uniquely true for them. And at the end, I’ll share what I consider the most important factors when exploring a product leader role.

Let’s get right into it.  In this episode we hear from

·      Al Ming, VP of Product & Design, CNBC

·      Margaret Jastrebski, Product & Strategy Advisor and former SVP Product at Shoprunner

·      Lauren Antonelli, former head of Product and now Chief of Staff at evite, 

·      Brandon Anderson, VP of Product at Sportsengine

·      Lucinda Newcomb, VP of Personalization at Walmart and former VP of Digital Product at Sephora

Hope Gurion: First, Al Ming shares what convinced him to take his current role and the Ikigai model helps him know when he’s found the right product leader opportunity.

Al Ming: What I think are the non-negotiable things for taking any opportunity because I did just take a new opportunity here at CNBC, as part of the NBC Universal Comcast family. I think the most important thing for me, in terms of what's important about a new opportunity, is that I believe it is both a combination of an exciting challenge and that it is in some form set up for success, that it is a company that is committed to building great products. They may not know how to do it, they might want you to come in and be a change agent, they might want you to build a bench in the product organization, that did not exist before, but that there is a commitment from your senior leadership, the rest of your senior leadership, your CEO, that they want this, that the goal that you have, is the goal that they want. They just don't know how to do it. So, it's not about process, it's not about, “Oh you're a design thinking expert, that's great, that's what we want” it's about, “We want to build great products and we know that we have to try something different” that there is an appetite for doing good product. Even if there is not already a model of great product and that they're committed to having you change things, to having you build more of a test driven approach, for having you engage with customers more, for having you take more swings, build more MVP tests, have your product teams get out of the building and get in front of customers and learn what great products are. That I think, is the most important thing. That is what I need to be set up for success, is that kind of commitment.

Then I think, it's also important that - looking over here because amazingly, I have a picture that kind of articulates what I think about this.

Hope Gurion: What does this say?

Al Ming: This is using that for being Ikigai, a model for a like what’s important to you is and for a long time I used to mentor folks and talk to them about what was important in their jobs; people would come to me and say like, “I don't know what I want to do, I don't know where I want to go” kind of like a coaching kind of model. I think one of the things that's important to me, is that it hits all these boxes. I think that's part of this answer too, is that it is - by now I can feel like I'm good at products so that box gets kind of solved and people do want to pay me for that, also kind of helpful. But, I think another part of this is and I'm not necessarily a hugely mission-driven person, but I want to believe that what I'm doing matters in some form; that I can understand the value proposition to a customer and I think that's a big part of what is needed. What is the value I drive to customers, to the industry, to not just the bottom line and do I have that opportunity to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and to build an organization of people who become like me or are like me already? I think that that really drives towards creating a job that you want to be in forever or for a long time; that you have that that opportunity for change.

There's another model that I've often found interesting in thinking about what's important in a job, that I go forward with, which is the self-determination theory; it's a model around motivation in psychology and it's that you always have an opportunity to master new things. So, it's about learning and development of course, that's not logical one, but also that you have autonomy; that you have the ability to steer your own direction. I think that's always been important, for me is that what I first said is I want to be set up for success, but a part of that is to be able to drive that direction towards success. That success is not just about ticking boxes but growing as a person taking on new challenges and building something that I would be proud of into the future.  It kind of speaks back to the idea of what is a great product organization in general? It's driven by - that's the thing that you want to build, that's the thing that you want to be a part of, and it's not easy by any means sometimes it's not even common. You look around there's a lot of product organizations that are much more like IT organizations or much more like order takers. So, one of the exciting parts for me is knowing if I'm not stepping into it directly, I know that I can create the Utopia of product.

 Hope Gurion: Margaret Jastrebski, who has led product at Narrative Science, ShopRunner and now is a strategy advisor shares the two traits that must be true for her to consider a product leader role.

Margaret Jastrebski: So, my non-negotiables for a product role, I can summarize really quickly; it's a team and market opportunity. I mean, that's really it, and in that order. So, team first and then market opportunity next and both are very, very important, but when I think about product, I can't think of another role in an organization, that has such breadth of responsibilities, breadth and depth of responsibility. As a product person you have to think about the strategy, at any given time you need to be thinking one, two, three years out again, depending on the nature of your organization and be able to talk to that with conviction, with clarity, with alacrity and at the same time, you have to be able to turn around be like “Ok in tomorrow’s sprint, we're going to do X Y Z” and the architecture and the code and blah, blah, blah, have these types of bugs.

Your level of what you have to cover, the things that you have to talk about, really kind of span the gamut. That is a hard roll, you also have to be able to talk to the business, you have to talk to the marketing side, you have to talk to the sales side, you have to talk to the business development side, you have to be out in market speaking to people, you have to be really kind of a lot of that face of the product. At the same time, you still need to be facing internally and supporting the dev team and supporting what they're trying to do and supporting the execution side of house. So, when I think about that role, I think it takes a very special person to be able to have that elasticity to be able to question to all of these types of functions and so it takes a special person, but I also think it takes a special team around you. Nothing that we do as product people, are actually solo; like nothing about this role and you go do alone. You are a hundred percent dependent on all of those people around you, because of the information you need to get and provide to all of those different organizations I just listed. So, it's super critical to make sure that the team around you, is a team that you trust, that you support, that you can get along with, but really face those tough times, face those tough decisions that have to be made and really you come from a spot of trust and then be able to face those tough times together; because what you do as a product person is difficult. You're inventing something, you're creating something, you're doing something that's never been done before and you're lifting from - not the ashes – but, you're lifting from nothing you're creating from nothing and you're the one that's supposed to be responsible for defining that and creating that and manipulating that and maneuvering that. So, having a team around you where you can go take these types of risk and then a lot of times, you're not going to be successful, a lot of times you are, hopefully you are. Finding that team that's going to be around you and finding that balance is just a hands-down top priority for me, just because of the innate nature of the role.

Like I said the second thing is market opportunity. For me personally, I've tried a few industries that it just doesn't resonate with me. Products, the role itself, is so much about empathy and so much about voices user and representing the user. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your user and so if you're in an industry where you're like, “I just don't get it” or “It doesn't resonate with me” then it's going to be very hard for you to be able to show up and speak authentically on behalf of the user, to your organization.

For me, personally, things like FinTech and EdTech, I just love it, absolutely need to be there, it just doesn't resonate with me. In the past, I worked for Orbitz, I've worked for Shop Runner; I really love retail, I really love e commerce, I really love that problem. If you think about it, I like that flow problem; you've got a funnel, you've got a very clear funnel, you feel the funnel, optimize the funnel, you transact at the end of the funnel and that to me is a problem that really resonates with me. I can turn around and go articulate that and then also articulate strategies around that really easily. Some other problems again like Symtec, where you get into the guts of - I don't know I think about like options trading and I'm like, “ Mm,  it's not going to be something that resonates with me.” So, it really comes down to team and I think it comes down to really the market opportunity making sure those two pieces are the things that I always look out for when I'm considering a new opportunity.  

Hope Gurion: Lauren Antonelli, of Evite shares what qualities she needs to see from a leader to consider working for them.

Lauren Antonelli: I've made a personal promise to myself that you know even when I leave Evite, I will always work for a leader that I believe in and who is passionate about their product, but listens to the people around them because I've just seen it so many times work the other way and it's been terrible for people, it's terrible for morale; people are checking in and checking out and it's just really not a high-performing organization. I think it's important to teach PMs how to feel comfortable and giving them tools to be able to challenge anyone, or to ask questions to anyone, regardless of where you are you know on the totem pole.

Hope Gurion: Next Brandon Anderson, who leads product at Sports Engine, shares why clear vision of success is key to take a new product leader role.

Brandon Anderson: The first thing that I would care about, is who's going to be my boss and do we share similar values and do we share a similar sense of purpose within the organization and a clear understanding of what success looks like in the early days. I don't care if somebody paints with five-year vision, I mean, I do, but that's not a non-negotiable part of that. I'd hope that I'd have a huge say in that over the course of the time, but really, without that, I don't think you have the basis for a successful relationship or a successful stint at a company, however long that might be.

I am not fearful of things like hard jobs or I think a lot of people will say the culture has to be a perfect fit, I don't believe that. I actually think that if you do your job really well and you make sure that people are focused on the right stuff, that you can help shape that in really dramatic ways. It's some of the hardest work there is, but I think it's possible, I know it's possible, I've seen it. So, that to me is not a non-negotiable, it's really about how you align with the vision of the company and where it's going and the people that you're going to be working really closely with. you don't have to agree on everything of course, but that to me, is the biggest thing.

Hope Gurion: Finally, Lucinda Newcomb, who leads Discovery and Personalization products at Walmart.com, shares her five evaluation criteria that she uses to vet product leader opportunities.

Lucinda Newcomb: Well I realized quite a while ago that that there's five things that are actually the most meaningful for me, when I think about when am I happiest in my role. I just took about six months off in-between jobs, where I quit my old job, took my time to find a new one; so I got a chance to talk about this a lot, but really because I was very clear that I think early in your career you may just be chasing the next level, but the better you know yourself and the better you know what makes you happy, the better you can actually choose what it is that you want to do next.

So, for me my five criteria are, number one - and these are in priority order, I am a product person - number one, is good macro; so if the company you're joining is struggling and not growing, you are in a very different place than if it is growing. So, in often times when you're in a struggling company, no matter what you do, you're not going to get the resources, you're not going to be able to do the things that you think are important. Some people out there may be turnaround experts and may really thrive in those environments, where they're like “Hey, we can save this.” I personally have found that it is super critical to be in a place where you have macroeconomic tailwinds versus headwinds. For example, when I was at Lonely Planet and I was doing mobile apps, which is super fun and so great macroeconomic tailwind in terms of mobile app adoption, that was back in 2011; but it turns out, people don't want to pay for content. That was a huge macroeconomic headwind, that just meant that no matter what we were trying to do, we were always going to be faced with this fundamental, that was an exogenist variable and outside of our control and when it's outside of your control, you can't fix it. So, just know what are the macroeconomic situation and understand what the impact is going to be on those things that are in your awareness and impact you, but can't be fixed by you.

The second thing for me is passionate match. I'm a consumer girl, I love the purchase funnel, I love ecommerce, I love retail. For me, it is all about like what is it that she's trying to trying to buy, but also what problem is she trying to solve and how can I help solve it in a way that is meaningful for her and help her make a better, more informed decision. I've heard a lot from companies that were like b2b, they want to talk about enterprise offer, I have no interest in that, because I truly believe being a great product leader, requires an empathy and an understanding of your customer and that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be the target, but it requires you to have empathy for who you are trying to solve the problem for; otherwise you can't do a good job of solving for it. Sometimes, that means you have to go out and develop empathy for it, you have to go and do the research for it, but ultimately if you don't have a passion match and don't want to have empathy and don't want to solve those problems, you are going to have a really hard time connecting with what is the right solution, because being a product manager isn't about doing what somebody asks of you, it is about understanding the need and the problem and coming up with new and innovative ways to help solve that problem. So, passion match was a huge one for me and hence how I ended up at yet another large consumer retailer.

The third thing for me is culture. Now, early on in my days at Sephora I found you know unbeknownst to me, that the culture there was a huge amplifier for me. So, my first  ten years of my career, as I mentioned, were as a consultant and so one of my hero powers is adaptability; I can get along in any culture if I have to, I may not I enjoy it, I may not choose to stay, but I can. When I got to Sephora, I found a culture that naturally aligned with what are my natural tendencies and it came down to three key things:

·      Number one: super get shit done. I love getting shit done, I love checking things off a list. Like so many product managers I know, I love myself a good list and be able to actually make things happen.

·      The second piece is, I would say I'm a compulsive collaborator. I'm an off-the-charts extrovert; my favorite thing in the universe is getting smart people in a room with a whiteboard and a problem to solve. So, I love a collaborative environment, where it's not about ‘pipe down listen to your elders,’ it's about, ‘hey how do we get some really strong and informed perspectives in a room and have the conversation’.

·      The third thing for me was super focused on solving for the customer; the client experience is queen and so whenever we'd have disagreements, it would always come back to what's the right thing to do for our customers? And that helped banish a lot of a lot of the sniping and a lot of the disagreements.

Finding myself in an environment where the culture naturally aligned to and appreciated and rewarded what were my natural tendencies, was a massive amplifier, because what it meant was, I could lean in to being authentic and figuring out my own leadership style, because I trusted that my instincts were good and were aligned with what the organization was going to appreciate in value. As a result, I got promoted very quickly, in a couple of different levels, because it was so clear that I was a natural fit and that I could really be amplified there. So, a big part of it for me was finding a culture where I found that I had people who I was going to be going to trust and respect and find that collaboration again. People where there was an urgency of wanting to get things done and not being bogged down by the need for certainty, but really figuring out, “Here's what we need to do” and how do we make decisions and move forward and find a place was all about delighting that customer. So, that was a huge part of my decision process. The flipside is probably one of my most important, it was also the hardest to find, it's also one of the hardest to test for, when you're not actually in a culture. So, what I would say is, a lot of it is simply about finding people who you think are going to be your partners in crime, who you think are going to be strong collaborators with you, because product management, if we're off in a corner, we're not doing our job. So, you need to find people with whom you can have that collaboration.

The fourth criteria for me was around role and similar to the passion match, I was looking for a role that would help me stretch and expand what I'd done. As I mentioned, I was running product at Sephora, but here at Walmart it's on such a completely different scale. Really thinking about that role at this scale, stretches me and makes me think about things that I haven't done before, because I'm what I would say is a lifelong learner; I want to continue to learn and grow and when you're in a role and have been in it for too long, you may be expert at it, but you stop learning and you stop being curious. In fact, sometimes you stop even realizing you're no longer doing a good job, because you're not learning and adapting. So, I wanted to be in a place where that role was going to continue to push me and inspire me.

Then the fifth criteria is compensation, because we all got to eat sister. So, don't be afraid to ask for what is the right value, for the value that you bring to the table and what is market and so I wasn't looking to go out there and try and find the biggest bucks for you know for my role, I want to make sure that I was going to be a place that valued what I brought to the table and compensated me appropriately for it. So, those are my five criteria.  

Hope Gurion: I am often surprised how few recruiters know what is truly important to a product leader, when considering a new opportunity. For me when I was considering Product Leadership roles, in addition to the market opportunity, I focused on:

·      Do the CEO and other key members of the leadership team really understand what it takes to enable good product strategy and practice?

·      Do customers and evidence play a central role in decision-making?

·      Is this a culture that encourages collaboration and cross-functional partnership to inform strategy and execution?

·      Am I going to learn something new and important?

I hope that this episode has inspired you to consider what your non-negotiables are. Product leadership is a hard role so don’t compromise to make sure you’re getting as much as you’re required to give to make it a success.

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You can find me, Hope Gurion, on Linkedin and Twitter or subscribe to “Fearless Product Leadership” on your favorite podcast platform to be notified of new episodes.  You will find transcripts, videos versions of each episode as well as more information on my Fearless Product coaching and consulting services by visiting my website, Fearless-Product.com.