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The critical skill product leaders need that no-one’s talking aboutThe critical skill product leaders need that no-one’s talking aboutThe critical skill product leaders need that no-one’s talking about

The critical skill product leaders need that no-one’s talking about

Well, not no-one. There are a few people in the product world who talk about the importance of coaching for product leaders. One of whom is Marty Cagan. I was super-excited to see that he spends several chapters on coaching in his latest book, Empowered.

(For those who don’t know Marty, he’s the Founder of Silicon Valley Product Group, a prolific author, and often referred to as the “most influential person in the product space.”)

I’ve been talking about the importance of product leaders using coaching techniques to develop their team for what feels like a long time. Although the typical response has always been “Yeah, totally”, it didn’t seem to sink in with most product leaders until recently. It’s just too easy to go back to focusing on the tactics of delivering product.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what product leadership is really about, why coaching is the highest-impact tool that a product leader can have in their toolbox and how to get started using coaching yourself.

So now, feeling validated by Marty’s book, as well as all the others who’ve been making noise about coaching (I’m looking at you Petra Wille, Hope Gurion and Donna Lichaw) I’m just going to go ahead and say it…

Product leadership is NOT about product management

Yes, I’m being a little incendiary here. Of course you need to have the foundations of product management under your belt in order to guide your team towards success. But hear me out, because managing people is a very different challenge from managing products.

Back when you were the one managing products, you needed to learn the tactical skills and methodologies in order to get those products out the door on time, to the highest standard, and fulfilling the stated goals.

Now, as a product leader, you need your team to do these same things themselves. You can no longer make all the decisions and you can’t tell them what to do all the time. If you’re involved in every little detail, you become a bottleneck, making scaling and growth impossible.

And so your job is all about developing your team to acquire those same skills you acquired (and hopefully do them even better than you). To accomplish this, it’s all about your human skills: how you listen, how you support, how you teach, how you guide. Your most important responsibility is to make sure each team member has the skills and tools they need to succeed and thrive.

The main message here… your success as a product leader depends on your team being empowered and solving problems for themselves.

So, you ask, what does coaching have to do with developing people and creating empowered teams?

Why coaching?

The most popular description of coaching comes from Sir John Whitmore, who defines it as “Unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance.” If you google “benefits of coaching” you’ll find plenty of compelling data that shows how it boosts morale, improves performance, etc. etc. <insert long list of common business terms preceded by positive verbs>.

All of that is true. But in the work I’ve done personally, coaching product managers and product leaders, I’ve found the benefits to be much more nuanced and difficult to articulate in a concrete, tangible way. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s taking so long for coaching to make it to the forefront of the product world.

So again… why should we care about coaching as product leaders? Perhaps the words of a few fellow product leaders will help.

Melissa Honour, Vice President of Product Management at Ontada (a McKesson company) says:

“Every job I’ve had has required me to do some sort of transformation. Coaching has played a key role in improving the quality of our product management practices.”

Ken Chin, a product leader formerly at ebay and SeekAsia has a slightly different take:

“Once you get too senior in an organization, you actually lose touch with what it’s like to be a product manager making those day-to-day decisions. Coaching my team helps me gain valuable context and stay close to what’s important.”

And finally, Christina Buch-Petersen, Product Management Consultant (formerly Asos, Which?, The Very Group) shared with me her perspective:

“Delivering on commitments is extremely important in product management. So coaching is not only about helping my team work through a problem, but it’s also about helping them form a plan to meet their commitments.”

While these all sound like very different benefits, they all boil down to the same central theme. Coaching allows us to develop our people and empower our team.

Effective product management is all about problem solving. And coaching is the most powerful tool you can use in helping your team members learn to be better problem-solvers and upskill in the areas they most need support… all in a way that’s personalized to them.

For your team members, this means increased autonomy, a greater sense of purpose, and the ability to handle any challenge that comes their way.

And for you, this translates into less fire-fighting, more time for strategic work and a relationship with your team built on the foundations of trust and support.

Who doesn’t want that?

The foundational skills of coaching

Coaching is a discipline in and of itself, made up of many skills that in combination allow people to make a whole profession out of it. But you’re a product leader, so you don’t need that depth of knowledge (just like you don’t need to be a developer to make product development trade-off decisions).

The best place to start is with three foundational skills which, once mastered, become the cornerstone of every coaching conversation you have with your team members.

1. Self Awareness

Self-awareness is about understanding and managing the way you interact with the people around you. How you respond to someone else has a huge impact on how they, in turn, engage with you and ultimately helps or hinders the value they derive from the conversation. Your internal thoughts and feelings can subconsciously drive your behavior, so being aware of those things is the first step in being able to guide a conversation in the right direction.

2. Active listening

We’re all guilty of not giving our full attention at times — especially when there’s so much going on around us and pressure to move fast. That’s why it takes a conscious effort to listen with focus. Doing so allows you to respond effectively to what others are saying, so you know the right moment to hold back, provide encouragement, or step in and ask an insightful question.

3. Powerful questions

Powerful questions are the kind that allow your team members to reach their own insights, rather than you giving them the answer. They should be judgment free and focused on seeking the truth; creating opportunities for reflection, exploration and resourcefulness in a safe space. Just changing the type of questions you’re asking your direct reports when they seek your support can have a huge impact on their ability to learn and problem solve.

Getting started

Now that you’re convinced coaching is what you need to take your product leadership skills to the next level, it’s time to pause for a minute and make a plan.

To successfully become a better product leader, I recommend treating the exercise the same way you would a new feature in your product. In fact, I like to think about changing my leadership behaviors as “leadership sprints”. I’ve found it helps me to know what’s working and what’s not, as well as bringing my team along on my leadership journey.

It’s also the approach we take at my company, The Product Refinery, to help product leaders successfully acquire new skills.

The basic three steps to change behavior are:

1. Create a baseline: Where are you now?

Assess your current coaching skills to understand what you might improve on. It’s really important to be as honest and unbiased as possible here. Gather data as you would with your product. You might even want to think of your direct reports as your “leadership customers” and gather feedback from them to help build an accurate picture. However you choose to collect your data and assess yourself, you’ll need it for the next step.

2. Pick one thing to focus on

Start with something small and define very clearly what you plan to do and when. It’s generally best to change one thing at a time — like an experiment — just changing one variable will give you a better picture of its impact.

For example, I’ve noticed that when I think I know the solution to a challenge my direct report is facing, I tend to stop listening and wait for my moment to respond with the answer. This takes away my chance to gain valuable context and their opportunity to think through all the options. From this example, you can probably see that changing my behavior is a multi-step process. I first have to practice noticing when I’m feeling impatient to give the answer. Then I have to practice putting aside that impatience and listening with intent. And the third thing I need to do is find a way to help my team member come to an answer, even if it’s not exactly the way I would have arrived there (or perhaps not even the same solution I had, as there are often many solutions to a problem).

So the one thing I’m focusing on right now is noticing when I’ve stopped listening and doing something different to change the current habit of tuning out. I’ve designated a specific weekly meeting in which I practice doing this. Every time I catch myself tuning out, I breath in, and then out again slowly while I refocus my attention on the person speaking.

3. Track your progress and reassess

Here is where the baseline assessment from step 1 is useful again. You want to learn if what you’re doing is actually producing a different outcome. Use a similar method to gather data and re-assess the impact of your new behavior. It could be as simple as a quick chat to ask your line report “Did you notice anything different?”, “How did you find it?”, or “What could have made it more useful for you?” Once you have that information, you can then think about whether you’ve made enough progress to move onto the next skill or habit you want to embed, or whether you need to keep at it a bit longer.

I know you’re nodding your head right now and it feels like these things are straight-forward, easy and you’re probably doing them already. But be honest with yourself. Have you really assessed your leadership habits at this level of detail? What did you change and what did you learn from it?

Acquiring these skills doesn’t happen overnight. It takes energy, focus and lots of practice. Plus, it can be really difficult to carve out the time to do it.

But it’s worth the time and effort. In the words of fellow product leader Patrick McDonagh, Director of Product at Meshify:

“In terms of the time/money benefits of coaching, I can’t even put a number on it. If we can solve problems that are costing us 10–20 hours a week of hand-holding, that’s a reduction of at least 50 man-hours per week.”

To sum up…

To become an effective product leader and empower your team, coaching has to be part of your toolkit. To acquire the foundational skills of coaching, you must understand your current behaviors, focus on changing just one thing and incorporate feedback from your team to track your progress.

You’ll find that relatively small things can have a big impact. But you have to practice those small things in order to turn them into habits and change your behavior for good.

Once you start coaching, you’ll wonder how you managed without it! Soon you’ll connect with your team on a deeper level, gather more meaningful insights from them and watch your team members grow.

You’ll free yourself up to focus on the bigger picture, and your team will thank you for it.

So, what’s the first small step you’re going to take in making coaching a part of how you lead? I’d love for you to share in the responses below.

And for any fellow Adam Sandler fans out there, I leave you with this thought…


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Robin Zaragoza

Founder and CEO at The Product Refinery, Robin has been working in tech for 20 years and delivering product for the last 15 of those at companies of various sizes, from early stage start-ups where she was the first product manager, to large publicly traded companies where she led teams of product managers.

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