A Primer for the Rising Product Professional
There’s no doubt in my mind that the high-performance product professional is a game-changer in any organization. I know. I architected the strategy and provided leadership for two market-leading companies in technology, and there were always product professionals at the epicenter of our success. I was fortunate to lead and serve those individuals. Mostly, I learned from them.
When we sold the second firm to a global software giant, I shifted my career focus to executive and emerging leader coaching and teaching at the MBA level. Success in both of those fields demands keeping current with the latest research on human thinking and performance. Success helping individuals chase their potential demands careful adherence to a rigorous coaching regimen that pushes people to uncover and adjust the right behaviors to create high performance.
I wish I had known then what I know now about chasing your potential and succeeding. It would have eliminated a lot of flailing on my part and the part of the product professionals and teams I was responsible for leading and coaching. From experience, I know that we spend an inordinate amount of time in our careers immersed in the urgent challenges of the day, and in our spare moments we work on our technical skills. What gets lost in the time crunch is deliberate learning and development focused on skills and behaviors that are incorrectly labeled as “soft.”
There’s nothing easy about developing these skills and expanding your toolset for thinking, decision making, communicating, leading and growing influence. But these skills set you apart and propel you forward in your career.
Here are my top five takeaways from having both lived the product role and succeeded at the senior-executive level, and from almost 15 years of helping motivated professionals chase their potential and succeed wildly in the process.
- Commit to Developing Yourself, then Do the Work
There’s an innate drive to grow, learn and develop in all the top performers I work with in my practice. These individuals understand that professional development requires deliberate effort to learn, gain and deliver feedback, and study and experiment. And they do the work.
High performers read, listen, watch and soak up ideas; strive to translate what they’ve learned into actions; and then learn from the outcomes.
Great product professionals—the difference-makers I referenced at the beginning of this article—operate with an unyielding curiosity to connect the dots, make sense of noise in the environment and uncover opportunities and threats. However, at the heart of their performance is a commitment to doing better. They are competing in a race—with themselves more than others—to reach their potential.
- No One Succeeds Alone; Get the Right Kind of Help
It’s tempting and noble to believe you can succeed on your own. But we all need help. The earlier you recognize this and the faster you build your career support network, the faster you will succeed. Here’s an overview of the various personal stakeholders you need in your career.
- A “swim buddy” who will share the unvarnished truth on you: If you don’t have this trusted resource helping you see yourself as others do, make a note right now and then start the work of finding this individual. Choose a peer who sees you regularly and who you trust has your best interests at heart. Ask them to support your development by observing and sharing their perceptions. Offer to do the same for them.
- Bosses who offer feedback and development support: Not all do, but treasure those who take the time to help you grow. Do extraordinary work for and with them and help them achieve their aspirations. For the rest, never tire of asking for input and feedback. Even if the signal-to-noise ratio from their commentary is garbled, strive to find ideas in the noise.
- Team members who can tell us if our approaches to leading are off-key or tone-deaf: Of course, you’ve first got to earn the team’s trust before they give you anything you can use to support your growth. You can accelerate time-to-trust with your team members by practicing providing yours first.
- Coaches at different stages of your career: Find a coach who is good at helping you succeed wildly in place and, when you’re ready, find a coach who is adept at supporting individuals in next-level situations. There’s a difference, and I wish I would have figured that out earlier.
- Sponsors: I like good mentors—individuals who share their wisdom and serve as sounding boards. I’ve been on the receiving end of helpful mentors several times in my career. However, I also love sponsors—those who advocate for our programs and initiatives and us as product professionals as team and functional leaders. Choose mentors for growth and sponsors for speed.
Your success demands a crowded table filled with individuals who have chosen to trust and support you because you’ve earned their trust. Spend time creating your table of guests.
- Master Challenging Conversations
An early sponsor of mine offered, “Art, you’ll go as far as you can communicate.” It turns out, he was right. Everything important in your career (and in life) takes place in one or more challenging conversations. High performers understand this and strive to develop verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors that allow them to navigate challenging situations, gain support and raise coalitions to take on big problems.
Learn the art of what I term “positive persuasion”—the ability to negotiate internally while creating value for your counterparts. This means slowing down to go faster and recognizing the relevance of the persuasion process and the power of seeing the situation from someone else’s point of view.
Develop the ability to manage your fight-or-flight reflex when engaging in stressful communication situations. Your ability to maintain control and transcend emotions to help individuals and groups uncover solutions will set you apart in your workplace.
Take time to design your messages for clarity and impact. I teach product professionals to use a strategic-message design process that challenges them to stress-test their logic and prepare for the tough questions in high-stakes situations.
Product professionals navigate some of the most challenging conversations in any organization. From investment pitches to executives to dealing with frustrated stakeholders, demanding customers and overtaxed colleagues across functions, these are the communication encounters that generate success or perpetuate flailing. Learn to succeed in these high-stakes conversations.
- Level Up as a Thinker
Every organization has a strong gravitational pull powered by how people think and act, often based on long experience in an industry or with customer groups. In times of stability, this dominant logic might suffice. But in periods of volatility and uncertainty, dominant logic is toxic to survival and success.
High performers master the art of altitude adjustment. They learn to zoom in or out and think critically, regardless of level. And they have an extra ability referenced by various authors and coaches as “seeing around corners” or “seeing over the horizon.” This extrasensory ability is a thinking skill that involves looking at the noise in an industry or our world and seeing emerging patterns that represent risks or threats. Then, thinkers translate these ideas into actions.
In one case, a product leader I worked with was concerned about her firm’s prospects in a changing world despite the current great results. While everyone was busy congratulating themselves on yet another great quarter and year, this product leader was concerned that systemic changes in distant markets were going to ripple through to her firm’s industry. Ultimately, she channeled her concerns into guiding the firm to look at the world differently and begin to see both new opportunities and emerging threats. When I interviewed the CEO, he credited this product leader’s ability to think differently and motivate support to ensure the firm’s continued success.
- Engage in the Work of Influence Development with a Clean Power Process
You will uncover many facets of organization life in your career, but perhaps the most difficult one to grasp is that a political environment emerges in every place where individuals gather to pursue a mission. And in this political environment, a few individuals decide what gets done and who does what.
As part of chasing your potential, it pays to connect to people who have influence—and it pays to cultivate your own degree of influence. Research backs the connection between influence and career success; however, there’s a better reason for developing yours: The more influence you command, the better positioned you are to maximize your impact on initiatives, teams and, ultimately, organizational strategy and results.
Those who view “cultivating influence” as synonymous with “playing games,” rest easy. I don’t want you to play games. I want you to build relationships, create value for those who have influence and do it in a manner that aligns with your values. In our practice, we reference this as building clean power; we cultivate influence without compromising our values.
You don’t get to opt out of your political environment by refusing to “play those games.” Instead, you must define your rules of engagement and cultivate clean power by creating value with those who decide what gets done and who does what.
The Bottom Line
Play the long game in your career. It starts with an unquenchable thirst to do better and to learn more, faster. It’s a competition with yourself that demands constant work, more than a few stumbles and an extra helping of stick-to-it-iveness for the tough times. Get it right, and you’ll find yourself leading teams and organizations and helping many others chase their potential. But first, you must make up your mind to chase your potential, then commit to doing the work. Fair warning, there’s some heavy lifting ahead.
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