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What is product coaching and do I need it?What is product coaching and do I need it?What is product coaching and do I need it?

What is product coaching and do I need it?

If you put the term 'Product Coaching' into Google, you'll get a plethora of definitions ranging from people who help you build your first startup to 'trillion dollar coaches' who work with senior leaders at established tech companies.

However, as coaching becomes increasingly popular for people working in product, a more clearly defined picture of what a product coach is has started to emerge. In this article, we'll examine this definition of a product coach, what they do, how they add value and what skills and experience they typically bring.

What is product coaching?

So, let's start with a definition:

A product coach is an experienced product expert who works with product managers and product leaders to help them get unstuck and deliver on their goals at work.

Despite having coach in the name, in reality, a product coach does more than just coaching. An effective product coach works using the following methods and can switch between them depending on what will benefit the client most.

Coaching

Coaching is lead by the client and makes use of the skills, knowledge and abilities they have already. The coach uses powerful coaching questions to help the client set goals, achieve clarity on their current situation,  come up with ideas on how they might achieve their goals and then decide on the the most impactful actions they can take.

Mentoring

When mentoring, the product coach uses their deep domain knowledge and broad experience to advise clients and give them a broader view of their situation based on how they have seen  similar challenges have play out in other contexts. This tends to be through explaining and advising based on past experiences as opposed to using question-based coaching techniques.

Consulting

Listening in great detail and analysing and breaking down the challenges the clients are facing, when consulting, the product coach actually does the product work with clients, gives the client feedback on the work they have done between sessions, and provides the client with enough detail on the challenge and potential solutions to help them arrive at the most effective solution for them.

Teaching

Teaching is about assessing where client skill gaps are preventing them from achieving their goals and helping them fill those gaps with skills and knowledge. A good product coach brings to life those new concepts and ideas with examples from their own experience, then provides useful resources, exercises and activities through which the client can learn to solve the challenges themselves.

Product coaching sometimes overlaps with other types of coaching

Product coaches help clients with a broad range of product-related challenges, and that means they often end up covering some similar areas to other coaches as they work through problems with clients. You might see product coaches offering the following services as part of their coaching business.

Start-up coaching. Helping people who have an idea for a business, or a business in its early stages, develop their idea into a viable business.

Business coaching. General coaching to help businesses become more successful. That might involve working with the product team, sales team, development team, customer service team and and any other teams required to help make the business a success.

Executive coaching. Sometimes a product coach works with very senior product leaders in a similar way as an executive coach would, using questioning techniques to help them gain self awareness, clarify goals and challenge their assumptions.

Agile coaching. Agile coaches work with product managers, product owners and development teams to improve their agile software development practice.

Lean coaching. Working with product teams to help them adopts and implement lean product development methodology.

Discovery coaches. Product coaches who specialise in the discovery process.

Innovation coaching. Helping businesses come up with new ideas and ways of working, then testing how effective they are.

Transformation coaching/consulting. Working with businesses to change the way they work. Helping them challenge their status quo and deliver on their business goals.

Leadership coaching. Teaching people to be effective leaders.

Why is a product coach important?

Most often, a product coach is brought in to help an organisation for one of two reasons, the first being to deliver on a critical business goal. Common examples include: find product market fit, address customer adoption and retention metrics, improving sales, decreasing time to market, increasing customer referrals, etc.

The other common reason to hire a product coach is for personal development purposes, where the organisation recognizes an individual needs support that it cannot provide internally, or the person has potential that requires specialised skills to nurture. While individuals sometimes pay for this out of pocket, most often it is funded through a discretionary L&D budget or an additional budget request.

As it pertains to achieving business goals, product coaching tends to be more sustainable than alternatives such as consultancy or training on specific topics. You might be able to achieve similar speed in delivering business outcomes with consultants, but when they go their skills go with them. And while you could send people on a course or online training to learn how to solve a problem, applying that learning to solve the challenge at hand is highly contextual. Having the support of an experienced product leader who has worked through similar challenges themselves  is invaluable to charting the right course of action.

While achieving important business goals or providing employee personal development are often things businesses can address themselves, the value of a product coach is in helping them achieve the same outcomes faster and more effectively.

As an additional benefit, because product coaching helps individual contributors in the team build their product management and general problem-solving skills, teams who have had product coaching are less likely to need subject matter experts each time they face a new product challenge.

How does a product coach work?

Typically, a product coach will construct a program or package for their coaching clients which is focused on solving a challenge the client is facing at the time. Most of the time, product coaches work with clients in a one-to-one setting either online by video call or face-to-face. Sometimes they follow a similar process to coach a team through a challenge together in a group.

Structure of a product coaching program

Most product coaches offer coaching programs or packages which are more cost effective than paying for individual sessions. This means the coach can work with the client on more substantial goals than they would be able to address in a single session.

Discovery: In the discovery session or phase, the coach works with clients or prospective clients to build a deep understanding of their context, then helps them understand the real problem they are solving, set goals related to that problem and commit to the actions they can take to achieve those goals.

After the discovery session, the coach will create an action plan that outlines what they will work on with clients during the program. This coaching plan has to be flexible enough to adapt to the client's needs but give enough structure to make sure they make progress towards their goals as a result of the program.

Coaching sessions: A coaching session is typically about an hour long and the coach will work with the client to check in on their progress since the previous session, re-prioritise goals and actions where needed, then continue to help the client work through the challenges they are facing in their workplace.

An effective product coach uses a range of coaching tools and canvasses to help the client during and after the session. At The Product Refinery, we use our Lean Coaching Canvas to help clients unpack their challenges in a visual way and to keep a record of what happened in the session. Coaches work with clients on video calls and collaborate with clients live using whiteboard tools such as mural to help them get the most they can out of the sessions.

Retrospective: At the end of a program or coaching package, the coach will work with the client to reflect on what happened during the program, learning from what went well and what could be improved then planning next steps for the client to work on after the program or in a follow-up program if they choose to continue with more coaching.

Product coaching on a retainer

For ongoing challenges or supporting several product managers in an organisation, it's often more effective to employ a product coach with a monthly retainer. This generally offers advantages with cost and making sure the coach is available when needed.

Even when working long-term on a retainer, an effective product coach will often split up client challenges into smaller programs to help them make progress and learn effectively as they go.

How does a product coach fit into the product team?

Product coaches are usually external experts brought in to help solve a specific challenge. It's rare for organisations to have dedicated internal product coaches but sometimes coaching is incorporated into leadership skillsets, with product leaders expected to act as coaches for the individual contributors in their teams.

This kind of internal coaching can be a powerful tool when implemented well, and there are many famous examples from companies such as Google where it has been used to great effect. However, the value of a dedicated external coach who can deal with problems in an unbiased way and create a safe coaching space where people can talk openly without worries of being judged or any adverse effect on their working relationship, often means that people prefer to use external product coaches.

Depending on the challenge, the product coach will fit into the product team in one of two ways:

Individual coaching. Working with one or more members of the product team on a one-to-one basis, helping them deal with their individual challenges in their work.

Team coaching. Working with the team as a whole to overcome a challenge they are facing. This can be particularly effective for quickly upskilling a whole product team or working through a complex challenge people need to be closely aligned on.

What skills and experience do product coaches bring?

In order to help clients reach their goals through coaching, mentoring, teaching and consulting, product coaches have to have a broad range of skills and experience which generally falls into three categories: coaching skills, product management skills and knowledge, and product management experience.

Coaching skills

An obvious starting point, product coaches have coaching skills. They acquire these over years of leading product teams and coaching their line reports and clients, and sometimes even formalising them by taking a coaching course themselves.

As mentioned earlier, an effective product coach needs to be able to articulate and explain concepts and ideas in a way that's easy to grasp. This means that they might have done some work as a product management trainer in the past, mentored other product managers or built their teaching skills by training up junior product managers in their own teams.

Experience of working with many clients in different contexts means a product coach will know when it's most effective to coach, teach, consult or mentor to help the client achieve their goals.

Product management skills and knowledge

One of the differences between a product coach and more generalist coaches is that they are also domain experts in product management and leadership. This means that they are well-versed in the core [skills of product management - link to other article when ready] and leadership, and with deep enough knowledge of the various frameworks and approaches that they can help their clients choose the most effective tools and techniques to solve their problems.

In addition to these core skills, product coaches often have one area of even deeper expertise, for example, product discovery, working with startups, or developing processes for large organisations, which is the reason clients want to work with that particular coach.

Broad and varied product management experience

Product coaches have wide and varied practical experience of putting effective product management theory into action in a variety of different industries, organisation size, and team types. It's this experience that helps them work with clients on practical solutions to their challenges that will work in real life - not just on paper. Their experience also enables them to mentor clients when needed and gives them a reference point for what is and isn't normal that they can use to help their clients.

There's no hard and fast rule on how much experience a product coach needs to have of working in product roles, however, you'd expect them to have experience in range of roles from individual contributor to product leadership roles, which usually takes seven or more years working in product to acquire.

Product coaching with The Product Refinery

At The Product Refinery, we select our product coaches carefully. All our coaches have at least 10 years product experience to be sure they have faced similar challenges to those our clients face.

Our coaches also have people leadership experience ****leading their own product teams, usually at top companies where they have been part of defining what great product management looks like.

They also have specific areas of deeper expertise. On top of their general domain expertise, each coach specializes in a particular area of product (ex. growth, discovery, leadership, etc) ensuring that we have coaches to match the specific challenges clients are facing.

Do I need product coaching?

In our experience, we've found that product coaching is most useful to people in the following situations:

When there is nobody more senior or experienced in the company to discuss product challenges with. Product management can be a lonely place and some challenges are too sensitive to discuss with a product management community. Product people often turn to a product coach in this situation.

When you are feeling overwhelmed or don't know where to start. Similar to the above, having a coach help you unpack your challenges can help in situations where you just don't know where to start.

Stuck in a rut with your career. Expert help from a product coach can help you identify what you need to do to take the next step in your product career.

Just want to be more effective. An assessment by a product coach can help you identify blind spots and build your skills to fill them.

Upskilling a product team. Even the most effective product leaders use product coaches to build capabilities in their teams if they have identified a particular challenge or sticking point they need help with.

In summary

Product coaching is an emerging role with an increasingly clear set of expectations on the value they offer and how they deliver that value. The reality of the role is that a product coach needs plenty of experience actually working in product, combined with the skills needed to coach, mentor, teach and consult with clients. Product coaches use their skills and experience to help organisations and individuals achieve product-related goals quickly and effectively, while learning the skills needed to solve the challenges that arise along the way again.

If you'd like to find out more about product coaching and how it can benefit you or your team, get in touch with us and schedule a free coaching consultation.

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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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