...and how they helped me succeed in product strategy.
I've been fortunate to have immense opportunity in my short career thus far, one of those was to become a manager at the ripe age of 34. Not only was I a brand new manager, but I was a new manager to an all acquired staff, from day 1. The growth I experienced was tremendous and the mistakes I made were countless. I channel that experience into my product strategy today by treating each user, customer, client as if they were part of my team.
Here's five mistakes I made that continue to stand out to this day and how you can avoid them.
Number 1: Not Setting Boundaries.
This is thankfully becoming a common theme in not only management and leadership, but in life. My number best advice, set clear boundaries day one and stick to them. As a new manager I wanted to make sure I met the needs of my staff, even if it meant compromising myself. So, instead of taking time to clearly outline when I was there for them, I handed out my cell phone number and said call anytime. Rest assured they did. Sunday mornings at 7:00 am, weeknights at 10:00 pm, and everywhere in between. Not wanting to seem unapproachable, and never knowing if it was urgent, I ALWAYS took the call. The real problem; none of these were urgent issues that needed addressing during those odd hours.
The result; burnout, resentment, and an assumption that those calls were always going to be unimportant. To quote the amazing Brené Brown "Clear is kind, unclear is unkind." Not setting boundaries around the times I was available, or under what circumstances to contact me, meant I set the expectation that I needed to know about issues immediately, even if it wasn't urgent. Setting boundaries sets clear expectations to everyone keeping them aligned, clear, and comfortable with how and when to reach out. The same is true of products, be clear in your call to action and set boundaries around what each action does or does not do.
Number 2: Assuming management is like parenting.
No, it's not. Let's be very clear, management is not like parenting and the minute you start treating your employee's like children, is the minute you have lost. For me, that was day one. Looking back I embraced the management equals parenting analogy and failed spectacularly. I was irritated, not empathetic, when there were misunderstandings; I scolded instead of teaching when there was failure; worst of all, I tuned out when I should have been actively listening. Employees are your co-workers and equals, regardless of their company title. They are seeking to do their best, whether that's becoming amazing at their current role or learning how to enhance their career and move forward.
A manager is there to actively listen and provide the tools and resources to grow, without a power struggle. Approaching any level of leadership from the role of a parent assumes that you are higher than the employee, and that leads to a power struggle, whether intended or not. Products should be treated the same way. What messaging are you sending when an unintended action is taken? Better yet, how did you mitigate that by gathering strong user research before you started designing. Don't treat your users like kids, pretending to know the answer to their question/issue before you actually asked.
Number 3: Not knowing your core values.
Learning your core values is the most powerful tool you have in this world. Straying from them is the most damaging. I would encourage everyone to take the time to learn their core values. Brené Brown has a free guide here. At times you may be asked to do things that go against your personal core values and these are the moments that change us. A leader stands unwavering, knowing that whatever the outcome, they can feel secure in that they stood true to themselves. There have been very few instances I have wavered, but rest assured, when I did, those moments became the most damaging to my sense of self and as a result, non-negotiable in the future.
Is your product staying true to your company's core values? Do you clearly defined company and core values? Are all your interactions and messaging aligned? Successful products stay true to their values and believe me it shows.
Number 4: Assuming everyone learns the same way.
This is an easy trap to fall into. You say, "I sent you email, didn't you read it?" Or the good old, "it's on the board in the break room." Just because they read the email or the break room updates, or that unicorn that did both, doesn't mean they learned anything. People are wonderfully unique beings and truly should be treated as such, including with things as simple as learning. If it's really important, ensure you're checking back in through multiple methods, but better yet, make it a part of your one-to-one time with each person. Ask them how they learn and what they want to learn, then help by teaching them that way.
Product strategy is as simple as knowing your target audience. While there are endless ways to go about that, ASKING your ideal clients is the best and most reliable. How do they want to interact with your product? Maybe they don't want a chatbot popping up after 10 seconds of logging in, or maybe they do. Not everyone learns the same way, holds true for all product strategy, get to know your users well.
Number 5: Not Seeking An Outside Mentor.
As a brand new manager and VERY early in my career, one of my biggest regrets was not seeking outside mentorship. Sure, I had senior leadership support for one-off advice, but as you might have guessed, it also led to some bad habits; i.e. see points 1-4. Mentorship can offer so much, but most importantly for me it helps bring in new perspective, an unbiased outlook and challenges you to sit outside your comfort zone. Mentors drive us to become the version of ourselves we might be otherwise unsure tor unaware to embrace.
Seeking out a mentor is key to finding your blind spots in your product. Chances are you've been working to make this vision a reality for years and you're too close to see the pitfalls. Enlisting the help of a Product Strategist can help you mitigate issues before the product flops on the market.
The countless lessons I learned in my management career continue influence and drive who I am today as a product strategist. I read books, listen to podcasts and attend conferences, reflecting on how I might have approached management differently and how I can use that in my approach to products. The amazing thing about management is how much you learn about yourself and how much your co-workers push you to become who you are meant to be. To lead is the most challenging and humbling position filled with endless opportunities to learn, but being able to translate that knowledge and experience to products is the real joy.