Leadership Mistakes and How to Avoid Them: Advice From Tanya Cordrey "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 22 December 2020 True AMA, bad product leadership, good product leadership, Leadership Premium Content, product leaders, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 3100 Tanya Cordrey talks leadership in a Mind the product AMA Product Management 12.4
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Leadership Mistakes and How to Avoid Them: Advice From Tanya Cordrey

In the first of our membership AMAs, exclusively for MTP Leaders, we were joined by Tanya Cordrey, the former Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media.

Drawing on her experience, Tanya revealed her seven biggest leadership mistakes, then took questions from the group. Watch the whole, interactive session again, or read on for a transcript.*

About Tanya

Tanya is the former Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media, where she sat on the executive team with responsibility for Engineering, Product, UX, Data and Growth. During her time at The Guardian, the team won several awards for its product portfolio and revenue and global audiences grew to record levels. Tanya has also held senior roles at eBay UK, award-winning fintech Zopa and Babycenter, and currently sits on the boards of several companies. In addition, she oversees AKF Partners Europe, has an MBA from London Business School and was previously named UK Chief Digital Officer of the Year!


*Questions and answers have been edited for clarity

Tanya’s top 7 mistakes

I thought it’d be really good to talk through some of the things that I know I’ve done wrong. I’ve seen a lot of things and dare I say, made a lot of mistakes along the way. Here are my top 7:

1. Losing Sight of Strategy

Earlier in my career, I ran a strategy team at BBC News and so I’m very focused on strategy. However, one mistake I know I’ve made, and that I see many teams making is that they drift away from the strategic vision. They become rather obsessed with frameworks and process, end up drifting and find that the process becomes their North Star – the what we do and how we do it becomes the focus rather than the why.

We have to remember that process is not a strategy, it’s a capability, and it’s a really valuable one and it gives you operational benefits. But, these capabilities cannot permanently affect your firm’s competitive position, less as a strategy, which helps you make the right decisions at the right time. As a product leader you have to really ask yourself ‘are you spending all your time just building capability?’, or are you spending a correct proportion of your time also building durable competitive advantage? When I reflect on my career, I’m not sure I always got the balance right.

2. Getting Hooked on Optimisation

I often see teams get really obsessed about looking at conversion flows and chasing those tiny incremental improvements.

At The Guardian […] there was a period when we got hooked on A/B tests and probably ran too many, for too long. We stopped recognising the opportunity cost of what the team was doing – it’s very easy to forget about this – and got into a constant cycle of optimisation, which actually offers little more than diminishing returns.

As a product leader, you have to constantly think about the opportunity cost. Yes, you see low hanging fruit. Yes, there may be something that’s going to improve a metric, but consider if it’s really worth the time and the effort because a good idea is not the same as a great opportunity.

3. Not Timeboxing

It’s always really easy to fall in love with your idea, but I’m a big believer in timeboxing. This is probably because I never did it at all, and I’ve been part of teams where we’ve become so obsessed about finding the answer that we let time slip away.

You got to remember, for the average team, sprinting costs around £300,000  a quarter. So, if you’re spending an extra month doing something, it’s really got to be worth that investment.

4. Forgetting to Focus on What’s Actionable

Another mistake I’d highlight is making sure that any insight you’re really obsessed about finding out, is actionable. Sometimes you can get obsessed with answering a great question, and you forget why it’s important.

A good example of this would be at The Guardian, we set up a data science team who discovered that we could identify if it was going to be a very very high traffic day even before six o’clock in the morning. It made no sense because news is very organic. The highest peak times are lunchtime and in the evening, but for some reason we could always predict it and I was obsessed with finding out why.

The truth is, we never found the answer, and we spent too long trying to find it. But even if we had, was it actually going to ever tell us anything that we could take any action on? Be careful about that.

5. Neglecting Financials

Really obsess about the financials – I definitely haven’t done this enough when I’ve been in a product leadership role. For example, do you know the gross margin of your product? Gross margin is a key measure that should be the bedrock of any CPO thinking because if you have an investor in your company, the first thing they’re going to look at is the company’s gross margin. It’s a very important indicator of future profits and I suspect many product leaders, like myself, don’t really think about it.

What’s amazing is the larger the gross profit or the larger the gross margin, the more money there is to invest in product development. So, looking at gross margin, and helping to improve gross margin, actually should release more funds into your team.

Quick aside – if you actually come say ‘yeah but we’re in a low gross margin business’ this is also very relevant for product leaders because I hate to tell you, if you’re in the low gross margin business, the anchor of your product and tech strategy needs to be the defensibility of the moat you’re building, nothing less. So it’s very important you recognise that.

6. Overstaffing

I’ve made that mistake where I thought I needed to hire just one more product manager. You hire a product manager, but to be honest, a product manager as a sole individual contributor doesn’t work because they need developers, they need UX etc. Don’t think that you’re just going to add one more headcount.

At the same time, you can make the opposite mistake. You don’t need to fully staff every team, with every single discipline. I’ve seen teams that will have amazing user research capabilities because they have it in every team but they’re working on a project which quite frankly, doesn’t really need much.

7. Communicating Poorly

Communication is so important – communicating what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and the impact it’s going to have. It’s that old adage – tell them, tell them again, and tell them again. I believe wholeheartedly that any product leader needs to have a comms strategy and it needs to be visited every month, if not every week. It should be in the job specs of the people in your team, because if you get comms right, then you make not only your own life a lot easier, but that of the broader organisation, as well.

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After revealing her top 7 career blunders, Tanya took questions from the audience.

There’s no shortage of information on what strategy is and what it should be, but there’s very little on how to actually implement it. How is it implemented?

The first hurdle is defining the strategy, and the second hurdle, which is probably even greater, is to get everybody to buy in and accept the strategy. That second point is really hard because an effective product strategy, allows you to liaise with a broader organisation and prioritise. If it’s done well, it’s really empowering for the team.

Phase 1: Define strategic pillars

There were several ways to approach it but the thing that I found most effective is to try and keep the product strategy relatively high level and there are a few components to this.

One, you need a very exciting compelling vision that sits on top. That’s the ‘Where are you going to be in five years time’ piece, it’s inspiring and it’s why everybody gets up out of bed and goes to work.

The next piece is the strategic piece that I have found most effective. It’s where you build 3-5 strategic pillars. These are broad themes such as ‘build a competitive differentiation through user experience’, or it might be something about driving growth through machine learning or personalisation etc. Once you have those, communicate them very broadly.

The next step for getting it bedded down is to work with the organisation so that when you’re developing your map, everything is nested under those strategic pillars. What’s really fantastic, is that the organisational piece is hard when other teams want their projects on the roadmap, but the strategic pillars guide as to what the priority is, particularly if you’ve articulated why it’s important well. People will then hopefully amend their thinking about what they want so that it falls in line with the strategic pillars.

Phase 2: Communicate your strategy

Once you’ve found your strategy, it’s very important that first, you communicate that you’re doing it. I find one of the easiest ways to come a cropper with product strategy is to suddenly surprise everybody. So, be really loud about the fact that you’re doing it, and make sure that if you have a team, they’re engaging the organisation in the formation of the strategy. This is how you can stress test the ideas with them and eventually, you’ll have your strategic deck.

Again, this is where the communications piece comes in. It’s really good to make sure this is communicated far wide. At The Guardian, we did brown bag lunches, where I got the team to hold open sessions. two or three times. Anybody could come along and they would hear the team walk through the strategy. One of the best investments I made at The Guardian was to give my team presentation training. If your team gives a confident presentation of what you’re doing and why, and the narrative is really crisp, everybody finds it really inspiring.

Phase 3: Position your product

Once you’ve got this strategy embedded, there’s a third phase of how you do your product prioritisation. Again, what you do is you repeat the idea of the strategic pillars, and you gather the various ideas and you as a team prioritise them to come up with a prioritised list of projects that really reflect the strategy.

What’s really incredible if you do this, is if you say the succinct narrative enough times, you’ll start to hear it back as people start talking about your strategy. It can be very powerful if done right.

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How do you approach product strategy in the context of the broader business strategy? Where are they one and the same, and where are they different?

They’re not necessarily exactly the same, but it depends what type of organisation you’re in. If you are in a digital-only organisation that’s relatively small, it could be that the product strategy is the business strategy. If you work for a larger organisation, then they’re going to be several other elements that need to be thought about and that are probably part of the business strategy e.g. pricing, marketing strategy or the sales strategy, etc.

If there is already a business strategy, the product team should really embrace that and hook on to that. When you latch on to something that’s very deeply embedded in the organisation […] it can be the best friend for the product team.

Also, if there is already an overarching vision, just take that overarching vision. You might want to articulate it in a different way. For example, at The Guardian, there was this vision of The Guardian to be ‘The world’s leading liberal’ which frankly means nothing to me and if you’re an American you define liberal differently than if you’re a Brit, etc. It’s also not a good bad example of a North Star because being the biggest is often just a vanity metric. However, I took that to mean we should be the biggest newspaper, bigger than the New York Times which was number one in the world at that point. And that’s how we articulated a lot of our growth ambitions.

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What do you feel is the product leader’s role in forcing through a strategy that’s non-existant or unclear?

This is one of the most common things I get asked when I work product teams – they say, ‘we can’t do a product strategy because there’s no business strategy’. I know it’s a pain in the neck to find yourself in that situation, but it is a wonderful opportunity for a product leader to show how they’re going to add value and drive growth in the business. So, if there is no business strategy, take that as a huge open goal to go and build a really amazing product strategy.

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How do you build team culture to make people feel empowered, and to reduce conflict?

One of the hardest things about a product manager’s job is that it’s very nebulous around the edges. The first step is to articulate what all the elements of the roles are. So then, there is a sort of generic dividing line as to what are the expectations and. as to who does what. Once you’ve got that clarity, there’s always going to be somebody that’s slightly unhappy.

Then there’s the hard discussion to be hard that says, that’s what that means in this organisation. Saying that, none of us want people in our team to be real jobsworths (as we call them here in Britain) – the people who say ‘I’m not doing that, that’s not my job’. You don’t want to encourage that. You want to encourage people to be standing outside their remit, but at the same time, there is a core set of responsibilities where their success is judged and that’s what they do to be seen to be doing a good job. To do an exceptional job there will be lots of things you would like to see them demonstrating outside the boundaries of that.

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How do you find a balance between optimisation versus big bets?

I’d encourage everybody not to necessarily think about it in terms of optimization and effects. I like the framework, McKinsey’s Three Horizons Model, and I think every product leader should think about the work they’re doing in terms of those three horizons.

The other thing I would really encourage everybody when thinking about optimization is that I’ve never ever come across a team that has not got enough good ideas. But, what I have come across, time and time again, are product teams that have clogged up their roadmap with loads of good ideas that incrementally have very little impact. As a product leader, you really have to be very clear on a good idea, just because it’s a good idea you don’t necessarily do it.

Again, it’s about opportunity costs – can you and your team tell the difference between a good idea versus a great opportunity? If you’re not sure about the difference then that’s something for the team to reflect on.

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How do you find a balance between obsessing about financials and things that are harder to measure?

I’m a big believer that if you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t do it. There are probably very few exceptions, but as a rule, I think you should be able to measure everything.

In terms of the financials, one of the things I’ve done that I found really successful in various organisations is to think about how the financials are driven in terms of the company as an equation. For example, if you work on an e-commerce site, your equation might be the number of visitors times the number of times they browse versus times they put something in a basket versus the average basket size etc. But what I love about articulating it as an equation is that it’s really powerful if everybody in the product team, and not just the product managers, can see how they’re impacting the revenue engine of the organisation.

The other thing I would add is that financial metrics are really important but they tend to be lagging metrics, so you only know if you’re successful after it’s been done. I’d therefore really encourage product managers to think about not only metrics but lead metrics. These are going to be things like customer satisfaction or perhaps the number of things somebody’s browsing. And those metrics indicate sort of goodness, on the financial revenue engine a little later down the line.

Of course, we’re talking very much here about quant metrics and you need a basket of both the quant and qual metrics as well, particularly when dealing with things like UX satisfaction. Those slightly softer metrics are great lead metrics, which do pop out with financial success at some point. With a product leadership role, it’s really important with that basket to indicate how you’re going to drive value for the company.

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What is an effective way of organising different product teams to ensure minimal dependencies on other teams?

I wish I had a brilliant answer for you because I have spent so much time in my career staring at whiteboards trying to work out what’s the best way of optimising the structure of a product team.

The truth is, I don’t think anything’s perfect, but sometimes I think you can have teams that are based on products. I’ve also done it where you have teams, based on sort of customer types. Or you might have product teams who own certain types of flows, etc […] I think all of them have their pros and cons and unfortunately we have to recognise that there is no perfect way of organising a team.

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