The X Factors
“There is something different about her."
"He just gets it."
"After spending five minutes with her, I know she’s going to be a VP in the next few years.”
When you hear quotes like these, you either nod your head or cringe, depending on whether you can envision people saying these things about you. The factors that separate the good from the great, the worker bees from the rock stars, can be elusive—which is why they can be so frustrating.
Sometimes there is no doubt that someone you’ve just met is going places in his career. On the flip side, we have all seen those product managers who have all of the data—they have done market visits and have the perfect business plans—yet they don’t ever seem to achieve career traction. These could be two product-management professionals of similar backgrounds, age and experience, so why two completely different career trajectories?
I have been fortunate in my career to work with many talented individuals and meet even more through ProductCamps and as an instructor for Pragmatic Institute. Based on those interactions, I’ve formed some hypotheses about what makes a rock star. And the good news is that there is a pattern that we can all learn from, emulate and use to change the trajectory of our careers.
New Way of Thinking
Many human resources departments would tell you that as professionals get more experience, their effectiveness increases—that someone with 20 years of industry experience will be more effective than someone with five.
I am here to tell you that HR’s perspective on product roles is wrong. Experience and effectiveness do correlate, but they are not necessarily causal. The seven “X-factor traits” I’ve identified are what makes for rock stars in product management and marketing. Take a look and see if you or someone you know has what it takes.
I have all of the responsibility, all of the accountability and none of the authority.
– Every product manager, like, ever
Product professionals around the world utter some variation of this statement every day. It is partially true, although incomplete. Their job titles, “product manager” or “product marketing manager,” can be misleading, because most people assume they are managing people as well as products. But they don’t. They are often given roles of great strategic importance in the organization, yet little ability to directly affect the changes they need. This is why the first of the seven X factors that makes a rock star is the ability to inspire others to action.
While we do sometimes manage teams of people, they are usually not in engineering, user experience, operations or support. And those are the groups we must work with to undertake the changes the company needs to roll out new and updated products. We can’t go to members of those other teams and issue management edicts (“do this, because I’m a manager and I am telling you to do it”). A lighter touch is required. After all, the title is not “product dictator.”
In order to inspire others to action, a rock star must be able to engage them in a discussion of the “why.” When we help the team understand why their work impacts the bigger picture, strategy or goal, it motivates and inspires the team to greatness. People don’t want to just collect a paycheck; they want to have an impact.
Ways to develop this skill. In order to describe the “why” to others in the organization, we must first understand it ourselves. Usually founders have the “why” on the tip of their tongues, because they started the company to scratch a very specific itch. If the founder is available, interview him or her to map your product to the vision.
Another way to access the “why” comes from the market. You must always be in the market talking to customers and non-customers. As you hear the problems from your market contacts, drill down on why they care: Why this problem, and not that problem? Why are you asking for this enhancement; what problem are you trying to solve? When you have the answers to these types of questions, you are ready to inspire others.
The actual communications of the “why” is not difficult. The roadmap can be a good artifact for this conversation. Share it in your engineering or development meeting, but instead of talking about the next set of features to be developed, facilitate a conversation about why you are building these capabilities and why you are doing it in this order.
Call out specific team members and use your market knowledge to help validate what they are working on. For example: “Don, the UX work you are doing on this next release is critical, because 70 percent of our users are abandoning after three clicks.”
Ways to recognize this skill. Rock stars can describe the “why” behind the products they have worked on. Ask the candidate open-ended questions like:
- Why were you attracted to your last product?
- Why did your market care about what you released?
- If I hired you for this role, and asked you to recruit a new team member, what would your pitch be to get them to join?
The answers you receive should indicate to you if the candidate understands the why behind what they do and how they do it—and whether they can use that understanding to inspire others to action.
Truth to Power
Every product professional is eventually faced with an inconvenient truth. It could be during a demo of the beta, when they get feedback from the tester that the product is all wrong. Or it might be during sales training, when the team is disinterested because their quota doesn’t reinforce selling the new product. And most professionals bear the scars of products that were delayed so much that the original release date is now an afterthought. In each of these situations, product professionals have a stark and clear choice: Do I bury my head in the sand or raise this issue to my leadership team, even though doing so would be uncomfortable?
Many product professionals choose not to raise uncomfortable issues, because they worry about being rude or fear that someone might “shoot the messenger.” But rock stars have figured out how to become a voice of the truth in these situations. Raising visibility on tough issues is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. If we truly want the product and business to succeed, we cannot “hope” issues away. There may be organizational designs or larger resourcing issues at play that an executive can help resolve.
Ways to develop this skill. The first step in learning to speak truth to power is understanding at what level to engage those in power. No executive wants to work with someone who runs to him or her every day looking for “parental supervision” on all issues. The second step is to learn that how you raise an issue is just as important as the issue itself. Consider the context. Calling out an executive in public, for example, might not be the best way to address a problem.
Third, speaking the truth to power is not simply about raising issues, it is about providing solutions. A rock star should describe the problem, as well as provide several potential fixes.
Role playing and practice can help alleviate that fear factor about telling the truth to those in power. Talk to a trusted colleague about the issue and what you’re planning to tell the executive team, then work with him or her to contextualize the message and provide potential solutions.
Ways to recognize this skill. Discovering the truth to power skill in an interview setting can be difficult. It is not sufficient to pose the obvious question: “Tell me about a time when you told a difficult truth to an executive team.” Unless you know an executive at the candidate’s old company, you have no way to know if you are getting the truth or what the candidate wants you to hear.
Test truth to power by posing a direct, uncomfortable question: “Tell me the worst thing about our interviewing process.” You can then evaluate if candidates are comfortable having this type of conversation, and if they suggest solutions or deflect and defer.
Many product professionals are adept at gathering data. They spend hours researching the competition, interviewing salespeople or buyers and observing users. A good product professional might take all of the various sources of data and turn them into a 100-page business case. A rock star can synthesize that data down to a compelling 10-page presentation, including a call to action.
Ways to develop this skill. Synthesis is best developed by practice. Take the output and conclusions you have drawn from your information and assemble them into a presentation. Then, pull a trusted peer into a room and have them play the role of the critic. Ask them to consider:
- Are your conclusions well-founded?
- Have you backed your assertions with data (either in presentation or voice-over)?
- Have you included too much data for the audience?
Remember that what you say is important, but what you don’t say or include may be equally important.
Ways to recognize this skill. There are several ways to test for synthesis during an interview.
Give the candidate a reading assignment to complete before the interview. Then, during the interview, ask the candidate to tell you what they learned. A good synthesizer will be able to sum up a long article into a few key takeaways.
To raise the level of difficulty, give the candidate a research topic instead. In this way, you can test both research ability and the ability to synthesize what they have learned.
Alternatively, you can use open-ended questions like: “Tell me about a time when you observed an end user of your product.” Then you can probe to see if the candidate focuses on the observations, or if they can pull threads from other data sources to emphasize what they learned, how that validated or conflicted with what they already knew, and what action items they took as a result.
According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
– Jerry Seinfeld
There comes a time in every leader’s career when they must stand up in front of their peers, managers and executives and sell their ideas and conclusions.
For some, these situations create sweaty palms, heart palpitations and weak knees.
But a rock star learns to relish the chance to share his or her perspective with the group. They are skilled communicators, able to hone the content, style, tempo and tone of a presentation to the group at hand. He or she knows the content backward and forward and can handle questions on the fly. When the audience experiences a presentation by a rock star pitch artist, they walk out of the room nodding their heads. The ideas presented and conclusions drawn seem forgone.
Ways to develop this skill. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that the fear of public speaking, known as glossophobia, affects approximately 75 percent of the U.S. population. So if you find yourself feeling anxious, you are not alone. The good news is that, like most fears, this one can be overcome.
There are two effective methods of overcoming the fear factor of public speaking: practice and preparation. Join a group such as Toastmasters and force yourself to speak. Also, become the subject-matter expert on your topic area and your confidence will skyrocket.
Ways to recognize this skill. Give candidates a situation, topic or scenario where they must ask for more funding. Have them work up a 10-slide presentation that they might give to the executive team.
Some candidates will balk at doing this amount of work for an interview—but those weren’t the candidates you wanted anyway. A true rock star will jump at the chance to use his or her synthesis and pitch artist skills to demonstrate being the most skilled communicator in the candidate pool.
At Pragmatic Institute, we teach that product professionals should be the “president of the product.” Sometimes, that means challenging executive teams. Being a solid executive debater is an X factor, because a rock star must be the strongest advocate for what is right for the market and for the product. Some may worry that using this skill is politically dangerous. But the more the product professional exercises this skill (within limits), the more the executive team respects him or her. How can you respect a professional who can’t provide reasonable pushback?
Ways to develop this skill. To develop your executive debater skills, first evaluate your situation. Will your executive team be receptive to being challenged? If not, you might be able to shift the dynamic with an upfront conversation about how you plan to provide stronger guidance and leadership—even if it means offering pushback. Otherwise, recognize that not every company wants this from the product teams. Some companies want people to check their brains at the door and simply execute. If this is the situation you find yourself in, you may be at the wrong company.
Next, look for opportunities to challenge team thinking and drive the right outcomes. How you debate will vary based on the personality and temperament of the team but, in general, remember to praise in public and criticize in private. Also, recognize that moderation is key, so pick your battles wisely. No executive team wants to be pulled into a debate on every decision. Focus on the big decisions that matter.
Ways to recognize this skill. Ask the candidate to provide examples of when they challenged an executive team and the result. One interesting way to phrase the question: “Tell me about a time when you challenged your executive team. Now tell me about a time when you did that and they overruled you, and why.” A good candidate has prepared for the first part of the question, and the second part allows you to evaluate how the candidate feels about being overruled.
Another way to test this skill is to assign candidates a presentation or analysis to perform, and then poke at their findings. Challenge them and force them to defend their conclusions, perhaps in a panel interview where the panelists toss questions to the candidate in a round-robin format. This method is intended to probe deeply, use the intelligence of the group and induce stress in the candidates, so you can see how they perform under pressure.
Great products do not come from the force of personality. They require the organization to work together toward that greatness. But inspiring others to action is not enough, especially if different parts of the organization are working at odds with one another. To really become a rock star, we must be “consensus builders” who align the organization to solve a problem together.
Unfortunately, consensus is often elusive. It has received a bad reputation recently, with many looking at it as the fluffy domain of management consultants. But product professionals who are consensus builders can travel across an organization without being perceived as pushing an agenda. They can ask questions and receive honest and open answers because they have the street cred of the market. Other teams trust that they are looking out for the good of the product and not a specific department. These skills allow them to smooth out conflict among teams and get products to market faster, by redirecting energy that would otherwise be spent on internal strife.
Ways to develop this skill. The best way to develop building consensus is to practice. Start by getting to know your organization better and understanding how departments are measured, such as quotas, net promoter scores or hitting dates. Where there are warring factions, bring them together to discuss. Do not choose sides in the conversation, but facilitate it and let them work through it on their own. The consensus will stick better if they feel like they reached it, instead of you forcing it. Pose leading, open-ended questions, such as: “I’ve noticed that there is friction when your team and Joe’s work together, what do you think about that?” If there are deeper issues at play, these types of questions will bring them out so that you can work on them with the team.
Sometimes, just listening is enough to oil the gears and get people working together again.
Ways to recognize this skill. When you call on the candidate’s business references, don’t just ask the standard “would you recommend Amy for this role?” The reference doesn’t know anything about the role you have created, and is completely unqualified to answer. Instead, ask for specific examples of Amy building consensus across the organization and how she did it. Someone familiar enough with a candidate to be a reference should be able to provide a few simple examples.
The final X factor is intertwined with all others, and will amplify all the other skills rock stars bring to bear. It is the ability to be “empathetic” with others, inside and outside the business.
Empathy means understanding what people are going through, without actually having experienced it. Unfortunately, many product professionals undervalue empathy and issue edicts such as “we’re moving up the ship date” or “we’ve worked with management to add this to your quota.”
When leaders fail to understand the situations of others, the tendency to make unreasonable demands skyrockets. Their credibility then decreases, their effectiveness drops and eventually they flame out and their products fail. Failing to empathize with people outside the organization, such as customers, is even more fatal to product success: You will not ask good questions at the best, and will make terrible choices at the worst. Both routes lead to failure.
One reason that empathy receives short shrift today is culture. Most business cultures embrace execution and “just-do-it” attitudes, with empathy sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. Another reason is that being empathetic takes time. In a world where execution and daily tasks rule, stopping to understand a peer’s world outside of a hot action item feels strange–almost like a waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, empathy is wound into the entire product we deliver, whether we know it or not.
Empathetic leaders budget the time to understand their peers. They know how other teams are measured, how the groups they work with spend their time and when a request is reasonable or not. As a result, the empathetic rock star is able to intercept, redirect and reframe executive action items that could derail the team. Empathetic rock stars also understand that their prior industry knowledge may not be applicable to every situation, and they seek to fully understand the market. The result is products that are created faster and solve problems more completely.
Ways to develop this skill. Start by putting yourself into your peers’ shoes. Think about how they are measured and then ask them open-ended questions to understand their lives:
- What are your top concerns at work?
- What drives you crazy about your job?
- What would you change about work if you could?
Next, think about the last five things you asked for from them, and how they align with what you just learned. You will probably discover that you were the cause of some stress. Consider how what you asked might have changed if you knew this data beforehand. Would you have asked for a different timeframe or in a different way? Would you have asked at all?
Being empathetic is not about being soft or not caring about results. The opposite is true: Strong empathy can create better trust, communications and results when used correctly.
Ways to recognize this skill. Evaluating empathy is actually one of the simpler X factors to test. Run candidates through a battery of questions about their last or current roles, and ask them to identify how the different groups at the company were measured. Drill down for details. A strongly empathetic leader will know these measurements quickly, and be able to talk about if they were good or bad. Ask follow-up questions such as: How did that measurement change the way you worked with that group? This will help determine if they made good use of their empathy to change how they worked across the organization.
Think about how you personally interact with the data you collect and the people you come in contact with. Are you inspiring others, speaking the truth to power, synthesizing data and building consensus? Are you being empathetic, while also being willing to debate executives?
As marketing guru Peter Drucker said, “Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.” This holds equally true today for making a rock star product leader.
While some of the X-factor skills might already be present, the others can be learned. Take the steps outlined in this article to become a rock star and launch your career to new heights.
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