Tune back into our chat with Donna Lichaw on this week’s podcast. In part two of the episode, she continues to share key insights into reinventing product leadership and success in product.
Featured Links: Follow Donna on LinkedIn and Twitter | Donna’s website | Donna’s book ‘The Leader’s Journey’ | Career and alignment: Part 1 – Donna Lichaw on The Product Experience
Lily Smith (00:00):
Hey, if you haven’t listened to part one of our chat with Donna Lichaw about her new book, The Leader’s Journey, go back and do it now.
Randy Silver (00:07):
Why is that so important, Lily? Are there spoilers in today’s part two?
Lily Smith (00:12):
No, it’s just a really good conversation and it sets the scene really well for us to chat about the last sections of her book, Mission and Impact.
Randy Silver (00:22):
Yes. So if you haven’t already listened to us talk about why stories are the currency of understanding or how to find your identity and superpowers, do that now. Then come back and listen to the rest of our chat right after the music.
Lily Smith (00:39):
The Product Experience is brought to you by Mind the Product. Every week on the podcast, we talk to the best product people from around the globe. Visit mindtheproduct.com to catch up on past episodes and discover more.
Randy Silver (00:50):
Browse for free or become a Mind the Product member to unlock premium content, discounts to our conferences around the world and training opportunities. Mind the Product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities, and there’s probably one near you.
Donna, welcome back. We have a whole nother half of your book to talk about, so let’s get straight back into it. Last week we talked about the theme of the book, overall. We talked about identity, we talked about superpowers. This week we’re going to start off talking about finding your mission. And you had a specific technique in there, called backcasting, that I thought was really an interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Donna Lichaw (01:34):
Sure. Backcasting is a technique. It’s funny, it is technically a technique in the business world. It’s also, if you don’t call it backcasting, you could call it visioning or ideation, and then we can jump into product development metaphors. But the idea is that you imagine a possible future of where you’re going and the difference that you can create in the world. And then, once you’ve got a future that’s exciting and just a little scary enough that you think might be possible to attain, but you’re terrified by the idea of how could I do this, but I think I could do this or I think we could do this, then you work your way… so you hop back to the beginning of the story, so present day, and you imagine almost by reverse engineering how you got there. And it’s a great way that a lot of storytellers come up with stories.
So if you’re writing a screenplay or a book, sometimes people start at the end and then they come back to the beginning and then they imagine how they got there, how the characters got there, and it’s applying that same creative element to your business and to your mission as a leader or a team. This work, you do this with your team as well. And the idea is that when we are in strategic mode and we’re just trying to figure out, all right, what are we working on this year? What are we working on this quarter? Or what are our goals? What are our OKRs? Talk about kryptonite. That’s one of the things that many, many people struggle with. All right, what are we working on?
It’s really easy to get bogged down in details and get lost in the insanity of your own creation. But when you can engage that storytelling part of your brain and you just imagine an amazing possible future, one, you unlock possibilities that you couldn’t otherwise see, when you were just bogged down by the present day in your actual reality. Two, you can often imagine how you would’ve gotten there, like a time travel project. I know previously we talked about identity, how you can go through your past and figure out who you really are. Now, once you figure out, you know who you are as a leader, now you can figure out where you’re going and you make it up. You imagine it, you dream. It’s really fantastic.
Lily Smith (04:27):
So how does that translate into the goals that you set along the way? You’ve mentioned there that you start at the end and then work your way back. Are you then putting stakes in the ground of key things that you have to hit along the way as well?
Donna Lichaw (04:50):
You do. And what is expensive about this exercise is you don’t have to get bogged down in too many details or turning things too much into specific milestones or key results, but it lends itself to that. So for example, just going to give you, let’s say you’ve got a company and you’re doing amazingly well and you doubled in size last year and things are great and you just secured, you’re series A and you’re onto something. And you start getting stuck in the rut of production and release schedules and what are we doing and pressure and investors and board members and customers. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the day to day. But when you can step back and think big five years, where are we taking our team, our company, you can unlock possibilities that you couldn’t see and then you just work your way back.
Okay, imagine we’re doing X in five years, where would we have started the journey? So come back to the present. Well, the first year we worked on, I don’t know, widgets, make up a company. But the first year we worked on widgets, second year we worked on this, third year we worked on this. So that would be in a business context. If you’re doing it for yourself and bringing yourself into the equation as well, you add a layer to it, which is, all right, in five years, my business is going to be bigger and better than ever and it will be successful and so on and so forth. Who do I need to be to make that happen? Who am I five years from now? That’s something a lot of people in executive leadership are often scared by because once you get into this position of power, you’re often afraid, “Wow, in five years, I’m going to be a terrible person.” This is what goes on behind the scenes. “I’m going to be a terrible person and a tyrant and I’m going to run my company into the ground.”
It’s amazing what lurks behind the shadows of our brains when we’re doing scary things. But if you can really imagine, all right, five years from now, who am I? Well, I’m confident, I’m kind, I lead with integrity again, I’m making this up. Then you come back to the present, all right, how am I doing right now? And what do I need to do to get there? And you map it out. It’s a creative project, but all right, so this year I’m working on my confidence because you know what? I’m not confident enough. And also, by the way, I’m burnt out and I’m not sleeping. So I’m not going to be doing anything in five years if I don’t sleep enough. So yeah, business and personal transformation are just completely intertwined. And it’s the same thing, I work with executive teams, and it’s the same thing, “Who are we? Who do we need to be in order to move this company forward?” And then you just figure out, I’m going to use a technical term, what the requirements are to get you there and you make it happen.
Randy Silver (08:11):
I’ve been in these meetings, I’ve been in the done the Amazon, write the press release and work backwards meetings and things like that. And you get to a point where people start talking about obstacles and things that the way, or you’re actually working on it and it’s not matching up to the plan that you put out there. How do you deal with those obstacles and what’s your recommendation for that and make it so it’s not a negative reaction?
Donna Lichaw (08:38):
So when it comes down to, and this is where personal transformation and business transformation are so intertwined and it’s almost like you need to separate the two, even though you can’t separate the two. But let’s say you created a new organisation, you work at a giant tech company. And when I work with folks, we’re not necessarily working on the product piece of what your organisation might be doing, we’re working on the organisation and your leadership of that organisation. So it might be, hey, and in five years we are seen as pillars of innovation at company X. And in order to make that happen, who do I need to be? I need to be confident and clear and really excited about my job and bringing everyone along my journey. And so when you come back to the present and then imagine how you got there and you start seeing things that could get in the way, typically I find that the things that could get in the way are really productive to uncover.
So let’s say you want to grow this organisation and you want to be seen as pillars of innovation at your big giant tech company, but right now, no one takes you seriously. So good, that’s really important to know early on. If it’s a blocker, this whole endeavour is going to be pointless. And so you need to start asking, and this is where stories come into play, and again, and we can bring a little bit of lean thinking to this, is this true?
So one thing I hear from teams, “They’ll never take us seriously.” Okay, is that really true? If so, then good, let’s end this right now and be done with it. If it’s not true, then what is really true? And then you start designing around that. Well, the engineering organisation, they hate innovation because we make their lives miserable. Okay, so what do we need to do? Well, we need to become best friends with the head of engineering, and we need to have more lunch and learns with them. And then you pave that path forward. So I think uncovering blockers are wonderful because the sooner you can uncover them, the more you minimise risk. And half the time, these things aren’t really true anyway, and you figure out how to move forward more quickly.
Lily Smith (11:22):
And just bringing it then also back to that mission for your own individual, for yourself, and kind of casting forward into the future and creating a picture for what you want to achieve and the vision for yourself in the future, with people that you work with, do you see that changing or evolving over time, and as people kind of learn what they really want versus what they think they want?
Donna Lichaw (11:58):
Yeah, the best visions of the future should learn and adapt according to what you learn as you build and make that vision a reality. And so I’ll give you an example. I once worked with a founder, CEO, who initially, what we were trying to work on was she had plans over the following year to double the size of her company and double the size of the business revenue and a few other things, a couple of markets. And in order to do that, she was convinced that she not only needed to feel more confident. It’s an amazing paradox of people in power, how not confident they feel, but she knew she needed to feel more confident and less burnt out. But one of the things she was convinced was that she had to be a better people manager because she didn’t know what she was doing as a lot of us don’t, once we are promoted or start companies.
And what we found after a few months of working together and also working with her executive team and people across her company is that people didn’t want her to be a better people manager by being a better project manager, which was always her assumption. She needed to get better at managing projects and blah, blah, blah. Storytelling was another thing. None of that mattered. What they ultimately wanted was for her to get out of their way and to just lead the vision and get them excited, which is why they all joined the company and to let them do their jobs and let them manage their projects, and let them manage their people. But they wanted her to be the sort of pillar of inspiration at the company. And so once she learned all of that, she did shift her vision, not of where the business was going, but of how she would take her business there and who she would be at the end of that journey.
And eventually, she realised, wow, her ability to lead the company was not in managing projects, managing people, and doing operational things. It was really in being more of a public persona and doing thought leadership outside of the company and helping with innovation and helping them come up with new products, new services, new business lines. And it completely shifted not only her role at the company, but how she had showed up because instead of fighting herself and being cranky and tired and burnt out half the time, she showed up actually really excited to do what everyone needed from her anyway. So yeah, the best visions should adapt to actual data and actually what’s going on in your world and what your purpose really is.
Lily Smith (15:11):
In the last episode, we kind of talked about superpowers and the discovery process that you go through in order to uncover what your superpowers are. Is there a shortcut when you’re focusing on that mission and creating that sort of vision for yourself in order to, shortcut to get through some of those learnings, if you like, as part of that discovery process?
Donna Lichaw (15:39):
Yes, there’s a great shortcut to uncover superpowers when you’re in a pinch or to just remind yourself of your superpowers when you’re in a pinch. And this works great for other people as well, who you work with. It’s to think about heroes, who you admire, and if you have time, three heroes are great because then you can compare and contrast and find themes or just do one on the fly and you’ll be out of any situation that you’re stuck in no time. And with works is when you think of people you admire in life, whether they’re they’re real or fictional or people or celebrities, famous people alive, not alive, and you think about what you admire in them, the things that you admire in them are important to you because they are actually superpowers you possess.
And it’s a strange thing. It takes a minute to realise, but the example I always give is Dolly Parton, who’s one of my heroes. So if I’m stuck, I might think, “Well, what would Dolly do?” And I obviously didn’t invent that term. She’s a hero to many people, and it’s a wonderful thing that more people in the world should ask themselves when they’re stuck, “What would Dolly do?” And so writing the book, for example, it’s really hard to work on a book and it takes a lot of time, energy, and money. What would Dolly do? Well, she would do the thing, and it would be really important for her to make sure that she can help more people in whatever way, shape or form. And it’s really important to her to put things out into the world and put more goodness into the world. There you go.
So it is one of my superpowers, like it or not, is to create things, make things happen, and to put them out into the world for people. And so just think about your heroes, ask what they would do and whatever they would do is the answer to what you would do. Because when you admire things in people, you admire it. Someone else might admire Dolly Parton for her hair or for how she does her outfits, and they would have a very different answer to that question, but it tells you more about yourself than it does about the other people.
Randy Silver (18:10):
Donna, you just alluded to something that’s come up any number of times in conversations. As product people, we tend to be really good at focusing on problems, focusing on the future and trying to stay on mission. We’re not as good at pausing and assessing our impact and celebrating success and things like that. And the last section of your book is all about assessing the impact. So how do we do this? How do we actually be mindful about this, and any tricks, any advice on this?
Donna Lichaw (18:41):
It’s a great question, and it’s not lost on me that that’s actually what I talked to my coach about this morning is, God, I have such a hard time slow slowing down and taking stock of what just happened and appreciating things and getting closure because it is so hard to do. And especially, you’re right, especially as product people and working in tech, we’re all move fast and break things in whatever order we do that in, like it or not. So the important thing, when we know who we are and we know where we’re going is, and honestly, this is why OKRs are a thing, we need to be able to, one, know when we got there, how will we know what are we looking for? And two, we need to be able to measure the impact that we’ve had.
And it’s essential in the business world to be able to do that because that’s how you learn and grow a business and as a leader and with your teams, it’s essential to be able to do that as well. So the example I just gave of the CEO I worked with who realised she didn’t need to be a project manager, people manager extraordinaire, she really needed to be a more visionary leader who was thinking high level and taking breaks and sleeping more, the irony is she ended up being a great people leader once she did that, because that’s what everyone really was wanting from her. But once she did that, it was important that at the end of the year we were able to say… and not just at the end of the year, I mean constantly every couple weeks and definitely quarterly able to say, “What’s different? What’s different and why does it matter? What ripples is it creating in the world?”
And so she was able to see things that she wouldn’t have seen if she was moving as quickly as she used to be. She was able to see that, yeah, she’s sleeping longer at night, she was no longer checking emails till midnight. She was hanging out with her family more and getting to spend more time with her family, which was really important. That’s part of why she ran a business in the first place, was to do what she loved and be able to provide for her family.
The business was successful, it was growing. So it’s important, again, separate personal and business, but then also smash them back up together. So why did it matter that she was transforming as a leader? Well, her team was happier. Her team was more productive. They were working more quickly. They were growing. They were to add more people to the team. They were firing fewer people. They were also growing the business more successfully with more intention. So when they were clear on the vision, there was less churn. They were building fewer features for nothing. So they were spending less time, money, and energy building the wrong things. So they wouldn’t have known that if they hadn’t been constantly looking for what was working and making sure that they were completing those learning loops. So that happens during a journey, and then it should happen onwards for forever, really.
I remember a couple years after I had worked with this CEO, and I saw her written up in the New York Times, and it was great because to me, I was like, “Hey, you’re doing what you wanted to do.” I see you in the New York Times all the time now. And I emailed her and the response was like, “Yeah, because I now have the energy to do what I wanted to be doing for my company.” So you always have to be looking, whether it’s products, metrics, data, and more qualitative, squishy things, numbers, I’d add emotions to that. And then your physical being like, how are you feeling in your body? And how are you all showing up as team members and leaders and a business? Because it takes humans and we all have bodies, emotions, and we like to get things done.
Lily Smith (23:22):
And Donna, one of the things I really loved in the previous episode that you mentioned right at the beginning as well, was this idea of more intentional leadership rather than riding that wave of your career trajectory. How much of this, just thinking about the intentions as someone who wants to carve out that sort of leadership path for yourself, I think I feel like sometimes you can have the best intentions about that, but not necessarily hit the mark. How important is a coach or mentor in this discovery process and in this very intentional path to leadership?
Donna Lichaw (24:12):
I think it’s all extremely important. Anytime you are pushing yourself against some kind of growth edge, it can be painful. And it’s not that you can’t do it alone, it’s you will work much more quickly and effectively and efficiently if you get help. So one, I’m biassed, I would say if you’re a founder of a company and you’re onto something and something, your hunch is that you need to transform your leadership to make it happen, absolutely get a coach. At that level, or you’re a new CEO, new executive at any level, absolutely get a coach. It’s a not so hidden secret in Silicon Valley and also the corporate world more broadly that super senior leaders, it’s hard. It’s hard, it’s lonely on the top. It’s scary. And you need that outside perspective to be most effective.
And the analogy I always love to use there is the point that you’re super senior and you’ve got a tonne of responsibilities and you’re doing stuff with a huge potential impact, it’s almost like being an elite tennis player, for example. So you don’t get a coach because you’re broken or bad or doing something wrong. Serena Williams would have a coach because she wants to keep getting better. And that’s how she did what she did as Serena Williams. She didn’t do it alone, and it wasn’t by anyone telling her what to do, it was by eventually finding the right support and having someone by her side who was able to see what was amazing about her and just reflect it back to her and then ask her what she wanted to make of it. And then grand slams and on and on and on till greatest of all time.
The best performers in the world have coaches beside them. But it’s not just that. It’s also, you need mentors. So I think everyone should have a team of superheroes or a league of super friends where you’ve got people who you can call on when you need something. You can’t be dependent on a coach, that’s not going to be productive for anyone. So you need to have people on call. I always like to have a handful of people on call at any given time. I have it this week during launch week. It’s essential. I’m having coffees with mentors all week long and they’re, they’ve been absolutely amazing. And so everyone, so much of my success is thanks to them. So absolutely, it’s lonely at the top. You need people around you.
If you’re a new manager, for example, it’s the same thing. You might not be able to go hire a Serena Williams’ level coach, or more likely your company may or may not. You can’t invest in super elite coaching for managers, it’s just not possible. It’s not scalable. But there are other options as well. There are definitely lower cost coaches out. A lot of companies are starting to invest in more like new manager coaching or mental health services. Sometimes you can maybe use a therapist to talk about work a little bit, although therapists give terrible work advice, which is how I got working with a coach in the first place. It was years ago, my therapist finally saying, “You know what? I can’t do this anymore. Please get a coach. Talk to them about work and we’ll talk about everything else.”
But yeah, I think, and again, you use the superhero metaphor. No superheroes work alone and no great leaders work alone. It’s just you don’t work in a vacuum. You can’t. You need your super friends, you need mentors, you need advisors, you need coaches, and you need to constantly build everyone you engage with and work with into their own superheroes so that you all make your journeys and your impact that much better.
Lily Smith (28:47):
Amazing. Donna, I think that is all we have time for today. But thank you so much for joining us for this very specialty part and yeah, I hope that everyone else is ready now to take on the world and be intentional superhero leaders.
Donna Lichaw (29:06):
I can’t wait. I want to hear all about it.
Randy Silver (29:11):
It’ll be super cheesy if I finished by saying up, up, and away, right? To Infinity and beyond.
Lily Smith (29:30):
The Product Experience is the first.
Randy Silver (29:31):
And the best.
Lily Smith (29:34):
Podcast from Mind the Product. Our hosts are me, Lily Smith.
Randy Silver (29:39):
And me, Randy Silver.
Lily Smith (29:41):
Louron Pratt is our producer, and Luke Smith is our editor.
Randy Silver (29:45):
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Lily Smith (30:06):
If there’s not one near you, maybe you should think about starting one. To find out more, go to mindtheproduct.com/producttank.