Sharks and perspective

I saw this factoid about sharks at an aquarium we visited recently.

Apologies for the dark photo (underground). It read – Are the sharks dangerous for our divers?

No. They’re actually very cautious around divers – as they should be. Humans kill more than 100 million sharks every year. Sharks kill about 5 humans every year.

The combination of the stats, the image, and the way it all came together made me pause and think about the power of perspective.

It was powerful, humorous, and poignant.

Refunds and customer service

If you charge money for a product and say it is refundable, make it easy for the customer to get a refund.

If you have a customer service number, make sure a customer gets a response within a few minutes. Or offer a call back.

This sounds simple enough.

And, yet, how many businesses can you think of that manage to do this at scale?

Simple is hard.

Trade-off

Trade-off – a balance achieved between two desirable but incompatible features; a compromise.

One of the enduring lessons I took away from graduate school was that defining a strategy inevitably means defining trade-offs.

A good strategy helps us navigate trade-offs by helping us understand what matters and, thus, the sorts of compromises we should make. This works just as well in business and in life. If we decide something is a priority, we should be willing to make compromises in other areas. This exercise is never fun. But, it is important.

If all we’re doing is spreading ourselves too thin in our attempts at doing everything, then we’re not executing on a strategy.

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

13

ALearningaDay turned 13 last week.

13 years and 5,600 posts later, I’m more aware than ever of just how hard it is to learn something.

But, the more challenging the path, the more memorable the journey.

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.

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(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.

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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
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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):

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(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)
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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.” 

A few reflections on Caste

(1) Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” is a recent read that I’ve thought about a lot. It is fascinating to dig into the history of a place. I’ve had some insight into the institution of slavery in the United States. But, there’s nothing like the kind of insight a seasoned reporter brings.

It was particularly powerful for me as she draws parallels to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of Dalits in India. She makes the case that calling this “racism” is a simplification. Caste systems go deeper than that.

Stories about caste in India always sadden me. That’s not just because of the heartbreaking stories. They remind me of our collective stupidity and our unwillingness to learn from experience.

Most Indians – regardless of caste – were treated horribly by the British during the years of the British occupation. And, yet, despite all the shared humanity that helped us get through that experience, we didn’t take those lessons forward.

(2) While Isabel Wilkerson focuses on these 3 caste systems, the truth is that caste exists everywhere. Just like other popular western exports, a caste-like hierarchy based on skin color has become the most popular kind around the world. But, there are other systems too. When I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 months, the dominant caste was Muslim for example. And, if you’ve traveled around the world without a western passport, the global immigration system will never fail to remind you about the importance of the color of your passport, your accent, and the color of your skin.

(3) At its heart, caste systems are about pecking order. We attempt to establish pecking orders wherever we go. Then, we go to crazy extents to maintain them.

This isn’t just true about nations. It is true about any human group. It is likely such pecking orders exist where we work – some function is the equivalent of the “dominant caste” and does all it can to preserve its status.

(4) It is hard to empathize with groups below the pecking order if you haven’t been there. That’s part of the human condition too. Reading stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book is one thing. Experiencing it every day is another.

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This place likely has more immigrants per square foot than most places on the planet. And, yet, even in a place where we are not the lone outsiders, we experience situations that remind us of our status in the hierarchy.

This week, it was getting honked and told to “get out of the way” in a parking lot as we were unloading our bikes and kids. Last week, it was being told what to do in a car wash. We have a long catalog of these experiences. It is nearly always an older white/caucasian man who assumes he has the authority to tell us what we should do and how we should behave.

If this is our experience in the Bay Area, I can only begin to imagine the daily slights many others who are lower in the hierarchy experience. It is enough to drive you crazy.

And, yes, the frequency and intensity of these daily slights have likely gone down – on average – in the past decades. But, they’re still around.

(5) It takes a lot to see through false narratives of those who seek to use it for their gain. As Seth beautifully described, identity is often used against us.

We can hope for mature responses from time to time (this one warmed my heart).

But, I don’t see any way out of pecking orders and caste system. I think it is a side effect of our fallibility.

(6) While I don’t believe we’ll ever live in a world without arbitrary hierarchies, I do hope for progress toward that ideal. In a few years, the US will have as much of its history without slavery being legal as it spent with that institution.

I hope we’ll cross many more such milestones and move closer to a world where we spend more time thinking about what we have in common vs. what is different. Over time, maybe we’ll extend that to the plants and animals we’re blessed to share this space with. Before it is too late – at any rate.

The only way that will happen though is if we construct the kind of society that doesn’t gloss over our past. Our history is full of bloody wars and cruelty toward each other for arbitrary reasons. We have much to learn from all that bloodshed and suffering.

The more time we spend understanding our past, the more we will be able to understand the imperfections in our culture/community/country in the present.

No culture or country is perfect.

The problem is when we think we are.

Maybe you’re trying to do two things at once

“The first is making exactly what you want, for you.

And the second thing is making something for those you seek to connect and change.

Pursuing either is fine. Pursuing both is a recipe for unhappiness, because what you’re actually doing is insisting that other people want what you want and see what you see.” | Seth Godin, The Practice

I’ve attempted to make this point in the past in “writing for yourself vs. writing for others.”

As expected, Seth did so with a pithier and punchier articulation. :-)

Transfer to this device

A feature I’ve fallen in love with of late is the “Transfer to this device” feature on Microsoft Teams.

If you, say, start a call on Teams on your laptop and then open Teams on your phone, you see two options – “Add this device” or “Transfer to this device.”

And, if you choose “Transfer,” it seamlessly moves the call over to your mobile device.

See the source image

I’m guessing the Teams product team analyzed the data on cross-device usage and noticed a significant proportion of users switching between these devices. It makes sense when you’re working from home and perhaps juggling other responsibilities during the pandemic.

It is a thoughtful feature – one of those that delights me every time I use it. A nice example of good product management.

Impatience and the default impulse

As I work on becoming a better listener by interrupting less, I’ve become increasingly aware of this default impulse that results in a display of impatience.

Every time things get busy, this impulse sends a signal indicating that it is time to move things along.

The impulse isn’t wrong. It IS likely time to move things along.

But, I’ve learnt that interrupting someone to make that point is not a good option in most cases. It ends up being counter productive. We often have to go slow to go fast.

And, in the rare case where that interruption is warranted, it matters that we do it with an apology, clear communication of our intentions, and grace.