Building relationships with Product Executives

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far – 

“How can I better influence my product executives to fund my projects?”

“How can I better communicate the impact I drive to <insert product executive>?”

“How do I build a strong relationship with <insert product executive>?”

Variants of these questions are common in conversations among product managers. If you were an alien listening in on some of these questions or conversations, you might be forgiven if you thought product executives are creatures from a different planet – full of mystery and intrigue. After all, you’re likely to hear some story about said person’s super human abilities in this or that.

The good news is that we’re not dealing with extra-terrestrial creatures. Every executive – product or not – is human. Just like us, they have goals, areas of strength, growth opportunities, insecurities, and fears. Most are good at keeping calm above the surface. But, like the proverbial duck, they’re all paddling hard underneath.

No alt text provided for this image

(H/T: Leslie Gail for this image) 

PM careers and scope

The PM career journey involves some dramatic jumps in scope as folks get more senior. 

You start with a narrow focus on features and products as an IC. This grows to product areas for senior ICs/people managers. While this jump is significant, it doesn’t compare with the jump from senior people manager (typically a Director or Senior Director) to an Executive. PM Executives typically lead entire marketplaces or ecosystems as product executives. And, in many companies, they may even go from leading a group of PMs to being a “General Manager” of a business with multiple functions reporting into them.

No alt text provided for this image

No matter their title, they’ll continue to be responsible for the pixels you ship. So, it still matters that you have their buy in on your vision. It is important that they’re excited about the work you’re doing. And, they will continue to play a critical role in your ongoing career progress.

But, given their scope, building relationships with PM executives isn’t easy. Their broad responsibilities mean time is at a premium. And, asking them for frequent 1:1s or throwing out the “will you be my mentor” question isn’t the answer.

Strong relationships and contribution

Building strong relationships with product executives is no different than other relationships. They’re built on understanding and trust, and are sustained by contribution to each other’s growth.

The difference in these relationships is that we don’t generally have the time to spend hours working with each other to build the relationship. And, without that understanding, it is often hard to know how best to contribute. In the absence of us doing so, these relationships become one-way – we get (hopefully useful) feedback that helps us and our products get better. But, as with any one-way relationship, it ends up feeling more like a series of transactions than an actual relationship.

While every product executive is unique, there are some certainties (thank heavens). And, these certainties come in the shape of what matters to them – and thus areas we can contribute. I think of these in 4 categories:

  1. Impact (this is foundational)
  2. How you achieve this impact – in a way that is aligned with their product vision/principles/culture
  3. Team/org growth and happiness
  4. Their growth
No alt text provided for this image

These categories are stack ranked in default order of priority. But, their relative importance will vary based on the executive. Let’s dig into these.

(1) Impact

Most product executives are judged on outcomes. The primary outcome they’re measured on is typically revenue. In rare cases, it is a key driver to revenue – e.g. some user/customer value metric or engagement that contributes to Revenue.

Depending on how the team is structured, various PM managers and their IC/individual contributor PM reports will be accountable for outcomes that contribute to the executive’s outcome. Understanding our executive’s outcome, how our work contributes, and actually contributing to it is the minimum bar. 

We move past the minimum bar when we’re able to earn trust in our capabilities. That happens when we add being competent with being responsive to their questions/concerns and staying on top of the details/trade-offs. Trade-offs matter a lot as a product executive because their ultimate responsibility isn’t the success of their business unit – it is the success of the company. 

So, the more we’re able to do our job with their lens on the objective that matter, the more trust we’ll be able to earn.

(2) How we achieve that impact – the culture of the product organization

Product executives have very different styles. The 4 common areas they tend to index on (roughly mapped to our 4 core skills is):

No alt text provided for this image

(a) System/strategy/metrics (problem finding): Some product executives are strong system thinkers. They care about how the various pieces connect to the whole and how each team’s strategy and incentives are set up.

Practically, these executives check if – (a) you are measuring the right things, (b) you understand the levers to achieve your metrics, and (c) you are focused on the right problems to move those levers.

(b) Product experience (problem solving): This brand of product executive is all about the end user experience. They will go very deep on your understanding of the specific user problem, your hypotheses and validation for those hypotheses, and how it all shows up on the screens you ship. They will want to understand the thought process behind every pixel on the screen. No detail or line of copy is small enough to not warrant discussion.

(c) Communication (selling): This variant of product executive pays a lot of attention to how PMs communicate. While most folks associate communication with verbal communication, the typical form of communication they pay attention to is written. They care about a regular cadence of weekly updates in an agreed upon format, crisp documents that bring trade-offs and decisions to light, and strong email communication.

(d) People/stakeholder management (team): This final variant indexes deeply on alignment. They care that every stakeholder is rowing in the same direction and will check for that whenever they meet you or the other cross-functional leads on the product team.

Typically, product executives will index deeply in 2 out of these 4 areas. A rare executive may index on 3. I think meeting folks who index highly on all 4 is rare/unlikely. That said, the one thing that is common – regardless of style – is their desire for urgency.

What does this mean for an IC PM? Get to know your product executive. Learn their story and speak to folks who’ve worked with them in the past. They are typically not shy about sharing what they care about. You will also see it in the systems/processes they set up and the questions they ask. Once you understand their desired culture, be the change they want to see. 

(3) Team growth and happiness

Product executives are responsible for the well-being of the team. With their focus on the health of the business, this tends to be an area that they’ll have to carve out time that doesn’t exist on their calendars. This tends to be an easy area for IC PMs to have disproportionate impact – both on the executive but also, more importantly, on the organization. 

Broadly, you can think of the following areas to contribute toward the growth and well-being of the team.

  • Hiring – especially hiring diverse talent
  • Onboarding – or setting new PMs up for success
  • Learning – includes sharing know-how insights/regularly or contributing to training
  • Belonging – team socials and offsites
  • Norms – documenting/setting culture and values (these don’t happen often but can be very high impact)
No alt text provided for this image

Every one of these is an area PMs can contribute toward. I have learnt 3 lessons about these contributions: 

(i) You will never have spare time to execute on one of these areas. It is important to start here. You will have to carve out the time or find time beyond your normal hours to do it well.

(ii) Don’t try to be “strategic” – pick an area you are passionate about. Given you’ll never have spare time, it is thus important to not try to be “strategic” – i.e. picking an area that your Chief Product Officer or your VP works on.

You may make an exception to this from time to time depending on he need. But, you are better off focusing on what you care about – an area where making an contribution to the people in the organization energizes you. It will show in how you execute because it will feel like fun. You’ll run out of steam faster on things you don’t care about.

Besides, product executives change. They move on to different focus areas or teams/businesses. So, doing these with the sole objective of building a strong executive relationship typically backfires. 

(iii) Doing a good job on these “side projects” can have a disproportionate impact on your organization. Each of these areas can have a large impact on the culture, growth, and well-being of PMs in the organization. So, if you’re doing it right, you’re having a lot of fun while also having a tangible impact on the work lives of your coworkers.

(4) Their growth. Product executives don’t get to where they are by sitting on their achievements. Folks who do well will be focused on their growth. While they’ll rightfully look to their managers/other executives in the company to give them feedback, don’t underestimate the importance of providing useful feedback.

Useful feedback is thoughtful, constructive, and direct. 

Great relationships are built on a two-way flow of feedback. Ask them for feedback proactively. And, give them feedback too.

It isn’t easy to provide feedback to product leaders. Our interactions with them have disproportionate impact on our career growth. So, it is easy to not do this. But, it helps to remember that product executives rarely meet people who have the courage to tell them things they don’t want to hear. So, if you can be the person who speaks the truth and offers solution – without whining! – it can go a long way.

We started this note attempting to tackle building relationships with product executives. As with all relationships, chemistry matters. It is possible that you’ll just “click” with your product executive. Relationships can work like that. We’re all bags of emotion and irrationality after all. 

But, the goal of this is go beyond the chemistry and work through areas where we can have a positive impact on the organization and, by extension, our leaders.

While we’re at it, it is important to also share a disclaimer. If you do succeed in building a strong relationship with a product leader, use it carefully. Every once a while, you’ll meet PMs who do a phenomenal job building great relationships with product executives but struggle with earning the respect of their peers.

That happens because of one or both of these –

(1) “Name dropping” executives from time to time.

(2) Using product executive names/directives to influence peers – instead of the merits of the argument.

Both of these can happen in conversation or by forwarding emails to others that show off their relationships.

So, by all means, go ahead and build great relationships with your product executives. I hope it works out for you. And, in addition, as in Albus Dumbledore’s note to Harry Potter when he handed him his invisibility cloak, I’ll just say – “Use it well.”