In Product Management, soft skills lead to hard lessons

Guest Post by: Jince Kuruvilla (Mentee, Session 4, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Rishi Kumar]

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Regret, sorrow, disappointment – not all team check-ins and spec reviews end like this, but for a while, most of mine did. I mean, I was nearly a year into my first real Product Management position and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing! Sure, I had spent the majority of my career as a UX Designer, and when I transitioned into a Product Manager role, I made sure to work tirelessly and develop “hard” PM skills like market analyzation, feature prioritization, a command of AGILE, etc. I knew how to build successful products and how to communicate & collaborate effectively, so why was I having such a hard time being a Product Manager?

Well, it took me a while (and a lot of long conversations with my mentor, Rishi Kumar) to realize that my brute force technique wasn’t working. In my quest to learn so many hard PM skills, I seemed to have missed the importance of learning the softer side of being a PM – building and maintaining close relationships with your team.

calculatedistance[1]It wasn’t like we actively distrusted each other – more so the fact that we rarely saw each other in person – we had a wee 4,225 mile gap between myself in Brooklyn, NY and my engineers in Poland. Don’t get me wrong, we communicated pretty frequently –  emails, Skype chats, and a few weekly video chats. Technically, we were in sync and producing great work but the problem was that the great work never aligned: I’d make great specs and document great features, but my engineers felt uncomfortable asking questions and being overly critical of the specs while I felt embarrassed to ask about technical issues, resulting in features being built that were far from the specifications.

My mentor, Rishi, took time to hear me out and help dissect my issue. If anyone could help, it was him; he also worked with a remote team in a different time zone—he could empathize and understand my situation. Rishi even went on to give a fantastic presentation about working remotely to the Product Group! In his talk, he discusses concepts like communication equality, the importance of making personal connections, and most importantly, building trust through transparency/visibility. Rishi helped me realize that in order to address these issues I was having, I needed to take a different approach to my work relationships. With his guidance (and the nuggets of wisdom that the other mentors in the program shared on the youtube presentations), I set out with a new approach to building greater trust and camaraderie within my team:

  1. I established a strict daily “standup” meeting.

    My Polish teammates and I  communicated through email and skype messages constantly, so initially, there never felt like a real need for a standup. A few weeks after starting a daily standup, however, I could see why they’re such a crucial element in Product teams – the daily standup allowed me to have face-time with my coworkers and have a chance to interact informally with each other. The daily standups, though redundant at times, helped us grow closer by formally creating space for conversations to occur and for viewpoints to be explained.

  1. I set out to share my raw, unfinished work with my teammates.

    I will admit that I have a tendency to be a perfectionist. I’m no stranger to sharing my works in progress with my fellow PM’s but sharing with developers and engineers meant being able to explain every little technical detail – I couldn’t “paint in broad strokes,” is what I had initially thought.

    Work_In_Progress[1]I experimented by having a few collaborative work-sessions with my developers over Skype – I showed them sketches and very rough concepts and ideas to help them understand my point-of-view but also to give them a chance to make suggestions and iterate together. At first, the conversations were laborious and slid very far onto the technical side of things, but we soon found our footing and were able to have both high-level “broad strokes” conversations alongside the technical/implementation questions.

    Through this process, I ended up becoming quite comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know. I’ll look into that.” I was initially afraid that showing this vulnerability would tarnish what respect they had for me, but soon found that they respected me even more for sharing my process and unfinished ideas. Not only did it give us a chance to brainstorm and ideate together, it allowed my team to see a side of our process that they hadn’t seen before.

    Soon after, my teammates would set up meetings with me to show me their own unfinished work: rough builds of features they were working on. Product demos were starting to happen nearly daily (instead of once or twice a week, previously) which led to greater transparency and greater shared ownership in our product development process..

  1. I set out to talk about anything but work .
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    As pedestrian as it may sound, this was probably the biggest takeaway for me. It’s easy for me to socialize with my co-workers in my Brooklyn office since we spend so much (physical) time with each other – but my teammates in Poland don’t really get to see that “social-Jince” since most of our communication was work-related.

    To counter this, I set out with a peculiar strategy – I set up calendar invites as reminders to myself to have non-work-related conversations with my Polish counterparts – conversations to check up on their families, their hobbies, etc. As embarrassing as it sounds, the calendar invites helped tremendously in making sure I had these conversations.

    I learned so much about my coworkers and what made each of them tick. It all eventually helped me understand how best to communicate with them at work. I knew that Piotr, with his design interest, could understand when i talked about functionality in broad, visual strokes, while Michal was less interested in the visual side and wanted to know what the user goals were and the rationale for every single UI element and product decision. These learnings led to more efficient work-related communication between all of us. 

I was skeptical at first, but focusing on building these soft skills of navigating and forming camaraderie with my remote co-workers has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned in my Product Management career. The results speak for themselves: after about a month of implementing these new tactics, team morale increased tremendously and we hit our stride. Spec meetings and daily standups were no long foreboding events, but events that our team looked forward to.

I’m happy to share that our team’s friendship has evolved to become the foundation of our working relationship – our interpersonal connections have helped us successfully navigate tense product conversations and establish a wealth of empathy for each other’s’ roles and responsibilities.

The soft skills that the The Product Mentor program drove me to learn have lead to hard lessons; most of which come back to a simple idea: in order to build great products, you need to have a great team — in order to have a great team, you have to work on building trust, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Only then will you and your team be able to produce the best possible work possible. Take it from me—I learned these soft skills the hard way!

 

About Jince Kuruvilla
JinceKuruvillaJince is a Product Manager with a background in User Experience and Design Strategy. He’s carved a career for himself working on products that inspire and empower people – everything from physical products to digital experiences. Ask him about spices, social entrepreneurship, and hip hop trivia — you’re sure to get an earful!

More About The Product Mentor
TPM-Short3-Logo4The Product Mentor is a program designed to pair Product Management Mentors and Mentees around the World, across all industries, from start-up to enterprise, guided by the fundamental goals…

Better Decisions. Better Products. Better Product People.

Each Session of the program runs for 6 months with paired individuals…

  • Conducting regular 1-on-1 mentor-mentee chats
  • Sharing experiences with the larger Product community
  • Participating in live-streamed product management lessons and Q&A
  • Mentors and Mentees sharing their product management knowledge with the broader community

Sign up to be a Mentor today & join an elite group of product management leaders!

Check out the Mentors & Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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About Jeremy Horn

Jeremy Horn is an award-winning, product management veteran with 2 decades of experience leading and managing product teams. Jeremy has held various executive and advisory roles, from founder of several start-ups to driving diverse organizations in online services, consumer products, and wearables. As founder of The Product Group, he has created the largest product management meetup in the world and hosts the annual awarding of The Best Product Person. Accelerating the next evolution of product management, Jeremy acted as creator and instructor of the 10-week product management course at General Assembly and The New School, and mentoring at Women 2.0 and Lean Startup Machine (where is he also a judge). To see where Jeremy is now check him out at (1) http://linkedin.com/in/TheProductGuy and (2) http://TheProductGuy.com