An inspirational first-time talk from Tobi Otokiti asking us as product managers to consider ourselves as the product. See yourself as a product leader, not just a manager, and genuinely care for your team. Don’t be the aloof CEO of the product, but become a team player and get excited about your product – it will be contagious for your team!
Tobi’s career started as a software engineer before moving into product management. She now leads a team of product managers and product designers, and is the founder of Product Dive, a product management school in Nigeria. She attended her first Mind the Product conference two years ago, and was struck by there being very few people of colour attending. At the end of the day, she went on the stage and set herself a goal “this will be me one day” and this is her first conference talk!
Key Challenges in Building Product:
A recent survey of the challenges faced by product managers highlighted three common challenges:
- 70% of respondents said roadmap expectation setting was a challenge. Note, they didn’t say designing or creating a roadmap, but aligning expectations.
- 50% said that they find managing upwards in the organisation and dealing with executives difficult. Specifically, how do you convince the senior team that your product is worth investing in?
- 60% said communicating with engineering was a challenge. How do we communicate well with specialists, when we ourselves are often generalists?
The underlying question in all of these challenges is how to lead and influence people.
How do you work with people, to ensure that people can trust you to lead and carry out your product function which is to build winning products successfully?
Building products is about more than the “hard” skills you have as a product manager, writing requirements etc. It is about your so-called “soft” skills too. In fact your people skills are key to being a great Product Leader.
1 – See Yourself as a Product Leader, not Just a Manager
Tobi shared a diagram with four key tips on how to be an authentic product leader:
- Genuinely care for your team – It builds trust and dedication.
- Do some legwork and help your team overcome roadblocks – Don’t just ask for status updates on progress, but put in the effort to help them by being available, ensuring that the roadmap is clear and communicating early and often.
- Give them ASK feedback – feedback that is Actionable, Specific and Kind.
- Be self-aware – Ask yourself “what skills am I not competent in” and work on ways to improve.
To highlight her points, Tobi shared an inspiring quote from Nelson Mandela:
If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important – and you do that by being genuine and humble.
2 – Become a Team Player
You’re not the CEO of your product, you are a team member. Your goal as the product managers is to harness individual strengths for the greater good of the team, from Ideation to Development to Launch and (hopefully) Growth.
We are often guilty of involving engineers and designers too late. Taking advice from Marty Cagan in his book “Inspired”, we should involve both engineers and designers in discovery, not just delivery. They then own the problems alongside us, and develop a much better understanding of the users.
As an example, Tobi runs design sprint sessions with the entire team. The team is usually distributed across a number of countries, but for design sprints they all come together – virtually or in-person – as this gives everyone a shared understanding of the challenges they’re working on. And while bringing the team together is crucial, we should also ensure that we share the vision and roadmap with the team, so that they understand the “why” behind what we are creating.
It is also important to gather stakeholders together and work with them to prioritise the features to build. Sales come and ask for things for a sale, Engineers come and talk about tech debt, the senior executives ask for features… it’s impossible to deliver all of that in the timeframe they hope for! As a product leader, we can bring them all together, capture all the proposed features – and the problems we are hoping to solve with those features – and then prioritise together so that everyone is aligned.
3 – Instil Confidence, Optimism and Energy
Tobi believes it is important as a product leader to be optimistic and demonstrate energy in your work as this can be contagious for your team. Data and usage statistics are obviously important, but teams (human beings) run on emotion.
So help your team understand how users use the product sharing data analytics and adoption statistics. Talk about these at stand-ups for example, x number of people downloaded our app today etc. But also talk about your product with excitement – use your energy to get everybody excited about your shared goal, and the impact you’re having on your customers.
Building successful products is not just about having the right roadmap, the right goals, or the right features. It’s about empowering and energizing the people around you to solve the problem, and to work together to achieve far more than you could as individuals.
- Be a Team Player
- Become a Product Leader
- Instil Confidence, Optimism and Energy
How do you know you have become an influential product leader?
This is a good question, and the glib answer is that you never really know, but it’s something you always work towards. That said, there are several indicators that you’re on the right track.
- People count on you – your colleagues know that you’ll get things done with no micro-management.
- You get the job done – you work well with your team, designer, and QA, and the product gets delivered.
- Things move quickly – when trust is high, speed is high, and cost is low.
But remember – It’s a journey. None of this happens overnight, so iterate with yourself in the same way you do your product, and keep iterating until you’re awesome!