Relationships with the Leadership Team - A Must for Product Managers
Episode 021: Paul Ortchanian
"Yeah, you know... you don't want the leadership team to get together and discuss a roadmap issue without you in the room. Right. It's important for them to say, wait, wait, wait, the product manager is not here. Let's bring them into the room and have this conversation. That's the behavior you want. "
JJ [00:00:37] Hello and welcome to Product Voices. Relationships in product management are bedrock to success. In fact, relationship building is one of the five immutable truths that I write about in my book. It is that important. It is something that all product managers must be good at building relationships with the folks that work with them on a daily basis. Some product managers find it easy to build relationships with peers, but have a more difficult time preaching those important connections with senior leaders. Maybe it's an intimidation factor, or maybe it's just simply that they're not around those people as much. But relationships with these folks are so important. So product managers really must find ways to foster real connections with the leaders in the organization that ultimately have an impact on their products. My guest today is Paul Ortchanian, founder and CEO of Bain Public, a product leadership firm that helps companies make informed decisions and deliver superior products. He's held several leadership positions at San Francisco area startups and high growth companies before starting Bain Public. He's got a very unique insight on this conversation. He helps companies and product managers every day build and bridge those relationships between product management and leadership. So I'm really excited to have him here. Paul, thank you for joining me today.
Paul [00:02:04] Well, thank you for having me.
JJ [00:02:05] Let's start with just kind of the basics. I mean, obviously, it's important, but but tell me a little bit more, why is it so important for product managers to have the relationships with stakeholders in general, but especially those leaders, those folks that are making decisions and can help steer our products in the direction that we want it to go.
Paul [00:02:31] You know, it's it's funny that a lot of leaders and most organizations I'm a leader myself as an entrepreneur. I think that hiring of a product managers means that you're all set. You know, you just hire one. You expect everything to just just fall into tracks and roadmaps sort of pop out. But the reality is that, you know, a product leadership culture is very, very messy in reality. You know, the CMO, CTO, Kroes and all of these directors and VP is for maintaining, you know, either customer support or marketing or anything. They're they're basically, you know, when they get together, you know, their discussions are plagued with derailments and dismissed opinions, incite conversations. And, you know, people who dominate, sometimes it's the CEO, sometimes it's others. And and, you know, you get people biting their tongues, not telling the truth, and eventually they're going to derail this this, you know, a successful product process because they feel they haven't been heard. So this messiness of behavior they have on top, right. Oftentimes basically makes them dismiss the points of views of the product manager or the input of a product manager. And as and as much as they're responsible for creating that culture and nurturing it and creating trust among the various departments, you know, these these these roadmap prioritization discussions end up being diluted. And and ultimately, like, the product manager doesn't feel empowered. So it's important for the product manager to, you know, make sure to work alongside the stakeholders, identify them and and work alongside them on identifying strategies and tactics and, and metrics to measure progress against those tactics. And not not in a way where as a group, they're all, you know, aligned with it, but in a way where you can baseline some of those facts and make sure that they're they're shared among among each other, each one of them, which will allow you to basically move the roadmap forward. So if you feel that they're not in a position to design, nurture or drive the product strategies, in some ways I felling That's interesting. It's, you know, a product manager should be wary of this, you know, this lack of cross-functional trust the at the leadership level because a lot of blackmail can come out of it, a lot of grenades can come out of it. And that just kind of derailed a roadmap. And and ultimately, it is it is the product managers responsibility to to create a better communication with them. So this way collaboration can come out of it.
JJ [00:05:09] But so when a product manager is seeing that, you know, basically they don't have a seat at the table and then leadership kind of dictates down. There's a couple of ways that that I've seen product managers try to try to combat that. One is to build this this group relationship, if you will, this collective relationship with with the leadership team, as if the leadership team were one, one entity or, you know, one person. And of course, you need that kind of rapport as a group. But let's talk a little bit about how product managers go about developing one on one relationships with each of those leaders, because I think that's important. And I know you agree as well, that it's really important for for as a product manager to know each of the leaders individually before you just try to kind of have that rapport with the group. So tell me a little bit about how you've seen product managers successfully build those relationships one on one with someone who, you know, may be two or three levels above them in the organization.
Paul [00:06:12] Yeah, you know, it's funny because you don't want the leadership team to get together and discuss a roadmap issue without you in the room. Right. It's important for them to say, wait, wait, wait, the product manager is not here. Let's bring them into the room and have this conversation. That's the behavior you want. And if you realize that the group is meeting without you and have, you know, voicing concerns, issues about the roadmap and proposing solutions, and that that the outcome of those conversations are simply like, do as we say, then it's your responsibility, I think, as a product manager, to try to find opportunities for a synchronous relationship building with each one of which one of them, you know, having a relationship with the group doesn't mean that they will include you in roadmap conversations whenever they have an issue with it. So trying as much as possible. Or to reach out to each team member. And I know it's tough because you want to start off with the CEO and and asking them for a 5 to 10 minute chat oftentimes results in nothing. So it's important to identify areas where you could basically just have some kind of an informal 5 to 10 minute chat with them. So one of the things I like doing is the watercooler conversations, hallway conversations. I know it's tougher to do in a virtualized world, but being able to create space for yourself with some of these stakeholders and the best one I always say is if you're if you're in a physical workplace and you're about to go to lunch and you realize you're going to go lunch alone, and then as a product manager, you should be asking yourself the question, what's preventing me from reaching out to the CMO or the CRO or even the CEO in asking for a 5 to 10 minute chat over lunch? You know, it doesn't have to be a formal sit down. It could just be like, I'll walk with you to that restaurant you're heading out to and let's just talk about it quickly and know it's also about like how you come about it. It's oftentimes it's not about you just sending information and asking just, you know, bothering the CEO or some of these C-suite members. It's just really about asking what in how questions like what part of the roadmap annoys me the most and how do you think I can basically have a difference here? What is it about their road mapping process that you guys don't like and how can you include me in more conversations? So these are the type of questions that you can ask just to just to create that, that, that trust that that person has with, you know, director level or C-suite executive will dismiss a product manager who's trying to have an informal conversation about some draft version of a road map initiative or some problem the organization has and doesn't want to discuss it. So I think that having these asynchronous conversations, I never get together because the second that these, you know, you get the CMO and the CRO together and you go out for lunch, might sound like a good time, but that's not an option for you. Ask those what and how questions and really dig deeper into what keeps them awake at night. So it's usually just try as much as possible to keep them isolated and have these 510 minute conversations.
JJ [00:09:25] So great advice. Some product managers don't feel empowered, or sometimes they literally aren't empowered by the product leadership team. And so the culture may not may not lead to that true, truly being empowered. But then there's also some folks who maybe the environment is fine, but the individual product manager may feel intimidated or just insecure about how to go about that. Right. Or even literally going up to that CMO and saying, hey, can I walk with you to that restaurant? Right. So so what are some ways that you've found that have helped some folks get out of their comfort zone? Right. We all have our comfort zone. We all would, you know, prefer to stay in it for the most part. So how do we help product managers who feel as if it's not their place or it's just, you know, too intimidating to go up and and talk to those VP's or C-level members of the leadership team? How do we get them to just take that first step to to build that relationship?
Paul [00:10:24] Yeah, the most important part is that there isn't a literature out there about being a product manager that discusses this topic. And oftentimes we get into product management roles and we think that our our job is to bring the roadmap downstream and work with the engineers and work with the various stakeholders and getting alignment. But we we never think that it is our job to empower ourselves within this leadership organization, making sure that we're in the room when these key decisions are being made. So if the first is up to the product manager, they need to decide if they simply want to do product management, or they also want to create a culture where the product manager is included within those conversations. So that means that you're going to have to do a little bit more work. That simply means that you're going to have to accept that portion of your job. Your day to day job is is grooming that roadmap and creating value through it. But another portion of your job is also maintaining these relationships with with your stakeholders. And to do that, that what's what's key here is to create good habits around roadmap completion. And the best way to create these good habits around the roadmap completion is, is to really get the leadership team tangled up in collaborative discovery. So asking them amicably to, to work with you on based learning the strategies because ultimately, you know, the CEO and his pack of of the leaders is the one who has to give you this strategic baseline that says the company is going in this direction. And we want we want the roadmap to follow. You know, whatever initiatives and features come out of it is basically going to follow that strategy. And oftentimes you realize that that strategy has been baseline. And I always ask the, the, the product managers I work with, as you know, I mean, you're a publicly traded company or you're your privately funded company with a board. And most probably that there are regular quarterly meetings where you're CEO. And this leadership team is providing board members a glimpse, a snapshot of what's happening within the company with key metrics and strategies being discussed. And, you know, I just have to look at a template of a board meeting and you quickly realize that a lot of the data and metrics and strategies that, you know, that are templated within those decks are pretty much aligned with what you as a product manager would want to get from your leadership. Oftentimes, if that doesn't exist and you're in a very pre-seed stage of a company that investor deck that the CEO is using to or the founder is using to go out there and and look for financing, also has a lot of information about the strategy and the vision for the organization. So what do you usually ask the product managers is to just bring in these stakeholders to revise some of these documents that are, you know, collateral that exists within the day to day of this organization and how to patch it up in order to create something that is proper to product management and product managers, which I call the high level strategic baseline, which should include the mission of the product and an articulation of the various strategies that to differentiate the company from the competitors and the calls that are going to come, you know, some some short term, some long term tactics as well as the metrics that they are measuring. Sometimes the CFO is measuring these and bringing back to the board, such as customer acquisition costs and engagement. And you know, these are key metrics that anyways you're responsible for. So if it's being measured and it's people are discussing about it at the board level, why not just, you know, baseline it all together and let's make sure we're aligned. So by by conducting one of those exercises, it really allows you as a product manager to get that, you know, that that's the key driver that's going to allow you to align all of these initiatives and feature. Underneath the umbrella that's been set by the leadership team. What's forever? What's more important is that every quarter your industry is going to change your market, going to change, your competitors are going to change, your customers are going to change. So it's important for the product manager to also come back to the leadership team and say, look, I know a lot of these changes have happened. They've sent you a bunch of articles and maybe we've reviewed them together. We've had some conversations about would it be possible for me to go back to this strategic tactically baseline and do it all over again? But this time we're not inventing anything new. We're just going to ask ourselves questions. Is this current strategy something we persevere on or are we going to pivot away from it? And if we are going to pivot away, which tactics are we going to pivot away from? And based on what? Based on the fact that we're not meeting the metrics, those are slow moving metrics. And how do we accelerate them or how do we pivot away with them with different tactics and strategies. So it's important for the product manager to simply create those habits of going back to the leadership team and questioning them and challenging constantly without trying to ask know. It's important to not say, Hey, we're going to go to the whiteboard and do this unknown exercise. That's the no leadership team really likes that. But just coming to them and saying, you know, you guys are already updating a bunch of numbers and a bunch of strategy documents and presenting it to board members or or to to the industry. And if you're publicly traded or to investors, so why not just like align ourselves on it together and that's going to allow the product manager, you know, I would say like that, that sympathy capital for them to basically create communication with you, enjoy collaborating with you, which ultimately is going to help you, you know, create these one on one relationships and empower yourself and not be as intimidated. So but that's a decision the product manager needs to make. And if the product manager is not ready to make that decision, and once these this high level strategic baseline to come from the heavens somehow, you know, because there's you know, there's an intimidation factor. Now, I would suggest to, you know, really question, you know, what am I doing? Because no matter what company you go to, you know, you're always going to be faced with this situation. You know, product leadership is messy. It's always a bunch of people who know exactly how to get what they want because they rose to the top by being very good at influencing others. If you take five, five members of the executive team, one marketing, one sales, one support, one engineering and one CEO, and they all have this hyper power of influencing one another with different objectives. And you put them in the same room, you're going to get something very messy. So no matter where you go as a product manager, I think it's important to realize that ultimately empowerment doesn't come top down. It really has to be about how you go about creating these one on one relationships with them and create these habits around collective collaborative discovery and the high level strategic baseline.
JJ [00:17:35] Yeah. And one thing I found works and it really goes back to the core of what you were saying is or part of what you were saying is, you know, what's in it for them. Right? And if we know what we're being measured on, if we know what the the the board is looking for, what the leadership is, you know, providing to the board, what's keeping the leadership up at night, all of those things. And to your point of of, you know, having sympathy, having empathy, you know, if we can position ourselves as someone who can help them and our questions are relevant for what is going on in their day to day life, I think that's really, really critical. And then the second thing that I loved about it is, you know, yes, we've got to get to that point where in product management, we at a minimum help set that strategic baseline. But even in in the beginning, when we're not quite as comfortable going to those leadership leaders and saying, hey, you know, can it can I help? Can I learn from you? Can I learn what you're talking about in these? And then kind of ease our way into being that that kind of, you know, leader or influencer of the strategic baseline? I think that's a really, really important point there. Paul So what what tricks have you seen? And I know that you've got some, some things that you work with product teams on and product product manager. So what tricks, tips, tools, what, what, what works for product managers looking to build this skill?
Paul [00:19:04] Yeah, I absolutely agree with what you said. I think that's the first thing that works is, is you can ask for documents that already exist in an organization and no one's really preventing you from saying, Hey, can I have a copy of that board deck? As a product manager, you're managing a product and it's quite important for you to be strategically aligned with the rest of the organization. So never be too ashamed to ask for strategic documents that the company is sharing with other stakeholders, board members or investors. Because that's your job, right? If they decide not to give it to you. And that's pretty much a sign that that you shouldn't be that organization because you're never going to be empowered as a product manager. So I think a lot of providers have an issue with that, like, why should I be asking for these board level documents? Well, I mean, obviously, you know, they they talk about your product and you're managing it. So the company should be a bit transparent about those. The other thing is, is what I would you know, I like to call pre wire. It's a word that comes from McKinsey, the consulting firm. And it's it's about having meetings before meetings have I've often found that if you get into a meeting with stakeholders who are part of the leadership team, they all have opinions and they all come from different backgrounds. They all they all have issues to deal with and getting them aligned in and within an hour, which is a very expensive meeting, is, is very, very hard to do. And you can often get like derailed conversations because the CTO or the CFO kind of has a wants to basically bring the point forward. So it's important to pre wire which is going have these meetings before the meetings separately with various stakeholders. So sit down with the sales team and just let them know that you're planning on proposing the following initiatives for the roadmap and, and get them to sympathize with your point of view, get them to share more information just to make sure that they're there. They're going to be aligned and they're not going to throw a grenade. And when I say you throw a grenade, I mean they're just going to blow up that meeting because they're violently objecting or anything. So if they object, then you can negotiate and you can have that conversation one on one before the meeting. And if you were to do that with each stakeholders, kind of the investment of time is again, it's 5 to 10 minutes, just informal. I have a draft set of initiatives and features that we're going to be proposing. Would you help me refine it? That's that's always a great approach because you're not coming from a position of power. You're coming in from that vulnerable position of I'm thinking the small sit here, just help me out. And that usually gets you going. And within those meetings, if someone objects is completely against some of these initiatives, you can start going in with the what I call the one and how questions never ever start a question or never any. Anything that comes out of your mouth has to start with the word what or how is this? Usually it's a it's a telltale sign that you as a product manager aren't trying to prove a point to put the other person on the defensive. You're simply trying to understand you're interviewing them. You're asking them questions to further dig deeper into their heads. So if if you stakeholders are humans, too, and if they realize that you are allowing them space to speak their mind, you're giving them that space for them to articulate exactly what's in their head. And you're. Digging deeper by asking a follow up white question with a follow up question, then that really gives them this perception that they've been heard. And then when you get into the meeting with the other executives, then they will leave you the space to basically articulate yourself, because now it's your turn. So the what and how questions are are really like very simple. What's what's what do you not like about my proposal? How can I make it better? You know, the answers are coming from you. The questions are coming from you, the answers are coming from them. And that ultimately gives you the respect in the room once you get with the other stakeholders. The other thing is when you when you're really at odds with a with a stakeholder, let's just say the CTO wants to focus a lot on technical debt and doesn't really want to add more features to the product. And he or she is just literally like not even willing to support any of these features that are being proposed. And, and, you know, like there are some surprises in the product and you're suggesting to fix them. It's always important to know, like, you don't want to go. You don't want to basically say, well, whether you like it or not, I'm going to do it because I'm doing it for the betterment of product. That's not a great way to go about it. So it comes down to just giving choices to people. So you could just lay it out in this, this, in this way. And I call it you give people a personal choice. You have the choice of a or you have the choice of be. Either way, we're going to do see that. So that's the framework. So it's like, you know, you could do technical debt or we can do these features. Either way, the roadmap has to basically meet the engagement metrics that we're targeting, for example. Right? That's a way of just letting someone know that, you know, we're going to consider yours, we're going to consider mine. But the key metrics are the things that are the most important, which ultimately means that we're going to do mine, right? I do it my daughter constantly. It's like you can eat your your your your dinner or you can eat ice cream. Either way, you're going to have to eat something healthy, which is a way of basically framing the conversation where the other person feels like they have a choice. But you're restricting their choice to what you think is best for the organization. So never be at odds, go pre wire, ask what and how questions. If you realize that you're like up against the wall, give a choice. Say you can choose A or B either way, we're going to have to accomplish C together. And actually, you know, that just that just doesn't mean that you made a decision. That simply means that the other person's going to have to think really, really hard about what you said. So again, you can do technical debt or we could basically add a bunch of features to the product. Either way, you know, we need to move this key engagement metric in order for the company to reach its next financial milestone. So that's even tougher choice. Right. And ultimately, the last thing that I find that's quite interesting is are getting to the stakeholders on agreeing on a decision making framework, which is how do we collectively make a decision and what are the top five questions we should be asking for any feature that's being added to the product that prevents the the conversations from going into any direction. And it gives you a set of questions that you can ask repeatedly for any types of features. So even if it's technical debt or it's, it's about adding a bunch of features, you know, by getting the stakeholders together and saying, what are the most important questions for for us to make a decision on go no, go on a particular feature. Surely it's going to have to be the effort that we have to put into the building of that features that includes engineering, that could include marketing, support, sales, maybe most importantly, it's going to include people, technology costs as well. Right. So that's that's one thing. But what about the customers willingness to pay? Is that an important question? What about the customers perceived value for that feature? And perceived value has nothing to do with their willingness to pay. What about the impact it's going to have on our company? Is it incremental, the company changing? There's like hundreds of questions we can ask. Right. But being able to say, can we agree on five questions we should be asking ourselves? And as a product manager, I'm going to bring those questions up constantly for every feature that we're going to be discussing in in on the product or any initiative we're going to be discussing on the roadmap. Just so this way we can have a baseline to to just start conversations. Right? And they're not restrictive, but they're pretty smart questions. Right. Asking the question of impact is a smart question that most stakeholders might council me, but they just have to agree. Is it low impact or high impact? Is it low effort or high effort? Is it low perceived value or high perceived value? And is it low willingness to pay or high willingness to pay? But if if they all agree, then they're going to collectively give consent to move forward. And if they all disagree, then you just drop it. Right. But that's. That's an that's an interesting one because I often find that just letting them loose in their messiness is not going to allow you to get the best out of those conversations. Getting five stakeholders or six stakeholders or ten stakeholders in a room for a prioritization meeting where key decisions need to be made under 60 minutes. You know, you need to find the most straightforward way to prep to prevent these unpleasant jolts of of, you know, just derailments. So it comes down to those things.
JJ [00:28:06] I love this. Those tips, those are really, really valuable. I've used some of those myself and definitely helpful. And the ones that I haven't, I will definitely implement. That's why I love doing these podcasts, because I learn something every time. So those are great tips. Thanks, Paul. Okay, final question. Obviously, you and Bain Public do a lot of content and tips and tricks and all kinds of great tools that product managers and product teams can use. And by the way, we will link to those. You can find them at BainPublic.com or you can find them linked on productvoices.com. But aside from from that, what are some resources that you've found valuable? How have you learned the product management craft and how have you kept your learning journey going over your career?
Paul [00:29:01] I started ten years ago or maybe 12 years ago, and I read every book available back then on product management and I can say that they are very valuable. The ones that stood out to me were really Marty Kagan. I know he has a series of recent books, one of them called Empowered, which I like a lot. But I think the VP or Silicon Valley product group and the blog that he maintains is is his point on. I think Marty has this ability to really understand the pulse of product managers and articulate it in a very short articles. I always found those articles really gets me to the bone. You know, for example, he recently wrote one about, you know, product managers not wasting time getting into long documents, creations, because we're all working virtually. And now this collaboration doesn't happen when you're working virtually because everybody has these feelings. So suddenly a product manager is stuck, no longer collaborating and going into writing these requirements documents that could basically, you know, just end up being done alone in isolation. And I find that he has a way of understanding the problems that plague product managers. And he's also of the state of mind that, you know, products about people. It's not about software. It's really about how people engage and interact with one another. I felt the product camps, Silicon Valley especially to be a great place to meet other product managers and talking up in a very open environment. I know there's a lot of conferences out there. You know, they all showcase great product managers, but I always found the product camp had this more relaxed approach where people could just get to talk to various other people about product in a relaxed environment and everybody from, you know, they could be like a product manager in a big Silicon Valley organization with with huge functions and just be there, just mingling with others. And I thought that was a great place. Rich Marin of the Godfather of Product Management always has great advices. But I personally think that that, you know, it's important to learn from leaders out there in different functions and different spaces because ultimately it comes down to, you know, who are the people out there who are tasked with the responsibility of influencing a group of people? And I think product managers can learn a lot from, you know, coaches of professional sports and how they basically work with with athletes. How do they how can they basically sell them their vision, their strategies? It's very, very, very similar to what we do as product managers. There's also a great book called Never Split the Difference Negotiating As If Your Life Depends on It, which is a book written by an FBI agent who basically worked or CIA. One of the two basically worked his his entire career on negotiating terrorists as well as other type of, you know, very, very complex negotiations where you have, you know, just just a few minutes to basically convince someone to do something different. Right. So it always I'm always amazed at how someone kid, you know, you have this person who's who's about to jump from from a bridge or from a ladder or somewhere. And you come in as a negotiator and you have to convince them not to jump. And you have 5 minutes to do it. Right. And how do you go about it? I find that's like these skills that they coaches of professional sports and, you know, negotiators in the FBI and the way they the teachings they had are great for product managers because it's ultimately they're dealing with humans who are trained to do what you don't want them to do. And and how do you basically use your power of influence, your power of listening in order to make them change and discredit and give a lot as to doctors and. How they. And they basically, you know, they learn hard skills in schools, but they often learn they don't learn soft skills as much. But the best doctors are the ones who have the soft skills and how they basically, you know, have to make you take a life changing decision to lose weight or stop smoking or exercise more, you know, very, very tough decisions, you know, a human being needs to make and stick to it. And how a doctor is able to, you know, influence you to change your life, to change your behavior. And I think these are you know, there's a lot of deaths of of learning there. And and I definitely always try to find information from from those sources and bring them back into product management, because I think that's a it's a great way for us to learn. Software development isn't anything different than trying to convince a patient to start exercising for the rest of their lives or lose some weight and keep it off.
JJ [00:34:08] Yeah. I love the diversity of those resources and those, um, those tips because I agree. I think there's so much to be learned from the world around us, whatever that is. And we tend to focus on the product management world. And you mentioned Marty and Richard. I mean, they're just amazing, amazing folks that I follow and love as well. In fact, I just bought Never Spot the difference, actually. So that's I haven't read it yet, but I was I was highly recommended that one. So another great, great tip. But but to your point, it's I mean, there's so much that we can learn from coaches, from world leaders, from doctors, from others that we can bring into the product world. Paul or Jenny and thank you so much for joining me. It's been a tremendous conversation. I've enjoyed listening to your wisdom and having this conversation today.
Paul [00:34:59] Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I definitely invite you to go and visit our blog. We have tons of articles in there, and especially when discussing how your product manager can manage and improve their relationship with the leadership team. If we can help product managers out there really become better at their craft, the better for all of us. So thanks a lot.
JJ [00:35:20] Absolutely. Thank you again, Paul. So again, go over to Bain public dot com or product voices dot com and you can find those those resources. So again, Paul, thank you and thank you all for joining us on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
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