One night in December 2015, a 110-foot Coast Guard patrol boat was 150 miles off the coast of Mexico when it received orders to interdict a drug vessel. The night was pitch black.
Overcoming the dangerous sea conditions, the patrol boat managed to surprise and detain the smugglers without a shot being fired.
The 18-member patrol boat crew had to transfer over 7,000 pounds of narcotics from the drug vessel into their boat while bouncing in rough seas. The smugglers and the drug vessel had to be towed back to San Diego. The crew displayed remarkable creativity and courage in accomplishing their mission.
The executive officer of the patrol boat was 25-year-old Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Daniel Trainor. He was a seasoned leader at an age when most product management professionals are just getting their feet wet.
No single career path leads someone to a career in product management. Backgrounds in marketing, sales engineering and program management are common starting points, but none guarantee a path to success.
The military route to product management is less common, but it brought Charlie Baker to the field almost 20 years ago. Charlie’s background includes Air Force Academy training, program management roles on active duty, an MBA and a product management career across multiple technologies. He has known Daniel Trainor for most of his life and watched the young scholar-athlete become a Coast Guard Academy graduate, officer, leader and then a budding product manager.
During a Boston-area networking forum, the two men discussed the advantages a military background provides for pursuing a career in product management. They identified six takeaways from their training as military officers that could benefit product management and marketing professionals from any background.
1. Take advantage of training.
Military officers are trained in the right processes and procedures for every known circumstance. They practice repeatedly to ensure they can lead teams under enormous pressure. They learn to make plans that are adaptable to changing situations, which can mean the difference between success and failure.
Key Takeaway: Participate in every available training opportunity. Then practice repeatedly under the watchful eyes of a coach or mentor.
2. Become a generalist before becoming a leader.
Changes in station and promotions force military officers to constantly adapt to new situations and learn new skills and technologies. Prior to becoming an executive officer, Daniel had four jobs in five years. This exposure prepared him for leadership.
Key Takeaway: Expose yourself to a wide variety of roles within product management and marketing. Gain experience in as many of the 37 boxes in the Pragmatic Institute Framework as possible early in your career to help prepare you for leadership.
3. Learn from and leverage a variety of sources.
Senior enlisted personnel have a better understanding of internal processes, procedures, technology and how a boat operates than a 25-year-old leader does. Although Daniel was not the technical expert, he was the decision owner. He needed to be humble enough to realize that he didn’t know everything and be open to input from all sources when making every decision.
Key Takeaway: Remain open to ideas from a variety of sources and seek the technical expertise you need to make informed decisions. Get to know the product architects, longest-tenured developers and support team. They are the experts who will provide a unique view of requirements and features. It can be especially valuable to get input from outside your team or from those new to your product. As you elicit feedback, be sure to reinforce the roles and responsibilities of each group so that expectations align.
An executive officer oversees a crew with a variety of skills and experiences. During active duty, Daniel made a point to sit with the various people under his command. He wanted to understand them on a professional and personal level. He recognized that he needed to communicate differently with an 18-year-old rookie than with a seasoned veteran. An ability to translate orders into relatable language was a key to his success.
Key Takeaway: Take time to walk in the shoes of your fellow employees and customers. Just as Daniel spent time sitting with and observing his team doing their jobs, spend time observing and listening to your customers. Remember that “thank you” and simple recognitions go a long way.
5. Be resilient.
Daniel and his crew were in rough seas miles off the coast of Mexico in the middle of the night, pursuing a drug boat loaded with illegal narcotics. They were in an operational environment where they couldn’t hit pause, reevaluate or give up. Despite the obvious challenges, Daniel remained calm and focused on the big goals. He united his crew to work as a team to overcome the obstacles. They successfully intercepted the drug vessel, safely transferred the crew and contraband onboard the patrol boat, and engineered a way to tow the vessel back to San Diego. The mission wasn’t successful because of a perfect plan, but because Daniel relied on an “adapt and overcome” mindset as the plan evolved.
Key Takeaway: Be realistic about your situation but find ways to overcome the challenges. Remember your plan, but remain flexible so you can adapt as the situation changes and you gather additional information. Every product professional faces obstacles, and while there may be justifiable reasons for pulling the plug on a product or project, truly great product professionals will distinguish between valid reasons and excuses.
6. Make decisions.
Daniel faced decisions every time the ship went out to sea. In dark, rough waters, he made the decision to board the drug-running boat. He used a limited timeframe and available information to make his decision and put the whole crew’s effort behind it.
Key Takeaway: You will deal with limited information, resources and control every day. Embrace the ambiguity. For every key decision, define the criteria, set a timeframe, gather information and then make your decision. In the words of Gen. George S. Patton: “A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied 10 minutes later.” Although you may not have come to product management from a military background, take a page from these six takeaways and learn how to become a more successful product professional and leader.