Developing courage to lead

I recently realized that I have a problem with leadership, and it is an emotional one.

I have spent significant time studying leaders, reading about their lives, trying to understand what makes them leaders. Intellectually, I felt like I understood it. But emotionally I realized that I don’t believe in myself as a leader. Just talking about myself as a leader makes my heart race, my palms get a tingling sensation, and get nervous. 

That is what I’ve been working through over the past month. Even though I can recognize leadership in others, I struggle to call myself a leader. This is the case even when in the midst of leading a team. I see myself as someone who can gets things done. I can define a problem, find a path to move forward, and fix it. That’s what I’ve always done and that’s how I am comfortable contributing to teams.

As I look to the future, however, I know that my contribution to teams and society as a whole will be capped if I don’t develop my leadership. So I’ve been wondering, how exactly do I become a leader? Is there a checklist I can go through and come out at the other end as a leader? Do I wait until my manager tells me that I should lead a team (hint: it turns out, that’s not how leadership works)? 

In essence, in order to lead all I really need is: 

  1. A point of view, or vision, of how something should be
  2. Conviction & commitment to pursue that vision
  3. Courage to share it with others and compel them to follow

The only person preventing me from leading is me. Item number one on the list is not a problem, I have plenty of thoughts of how things should be. I can definitely argue a point. The second item may be an issue at times, there are few things I feel enough conviction about pursuing, so I can easily drop things. However, I don’t think that’s a big problem. The third element, however, is where I struggle the most. I am afraid to let others down, afraid of not looking smart, so I stop myself from trying to compel others to follow. Instead, I wait for others to lead the way. 

Addressing this issue is truly an emotional challenge. The prescription seems to be courage, practice, and resilience. 

I need to build up the courage to define a vision and share it while it is still not a done deal. I have to be willing to hear criticism and use that to grow. I need to distance my sense of personal worth from my work so that when others provide feedback on my work I don’t take it personally.

If I don’t do this, I will chicken out of sharing my thoughts until it is too late. I will continue to spend so much time thinking through the problem that the opportunity to lead will pass me by. I will become another one of those that hears their awesome idea from someone else and say: “Argh, I could have said that! That was my idea!” Too little too late. 

To be sure, most of this I already knew intellectually, even before this past month reflecting on it. So, what truly matters is what’s next. What am I going to do about it? 

  • I will carve out time to write down my vision & point on view on things I believe to be important. 
  • I will share this with others before I feel ready to do so. I will not keep a task to “polish X vision doc and share it once final” for weeks at a time. I will form a point of view and share before I have all the answers. By doing that, I will learn. 
  • I will not shy away when I get negative feedback on what I share. Instead, I will use that to learn, iterate, and keep refining my thinking. I will repeat that cycle as many times as necessary. 

By doing this, I hope to build up my courage. I know it will suck at first. As I write this, I feel a tingling sensation in my palms signaling nervousness. I really am afraid to let others down, and I will need to have the courage to risk letting others down in the short term for the long-term rewards of becoming the leader I know I can be. 


A note on self-awareness and the enneagram test

If you’ve heard of the enneagram test, I’m described eerily well as a self-preservation type three. Emotionally, if I’m not continuously achieving or succeeding, I feel like everything will come down crumbling around me. Continuous achievement is to the self-preservation three a requirement to prove that they deserve what they have. Any sort of failure, such as disappointing others, is felt very deeply as a threat to everything accomplished so far. 

I mention this because learning about my enneagram type was an unexpectedly emotional journey. More than once, I teared up as I read the hard truth about the fears that drive me. With that awareness, I can see how the fear of letting others down has been sabotaging my own learning and development as it relates to leadership. If you’re too afraid to look stupid, leading will become far more challenging. 

Dealing with ambiguity and work-related stress

I recently wrote what would become one of my most read articles to date, it was my answer on Quora to the question How stressful is it to be a product manager at a tech company?

This is not unique to product management. Increasingly, our responsibilities as workers in the information age have become more ambiguous. We self-direct more of our work and priorities. We work through influence more often. In short, we are expected to deliver results with little, or conflicting, guidance.

As I reflect back, most of what has helped me personally has been difficult and trying situations leading me to a realization and shift in perspective. I have come to identify the physical feelings in my body associated with stress and anxiety. When I feel these, I take the time to dig deep to concretely identify the source of anxiety. Once I can clearly identify the source of stress, it feels more tangible and manageable. At that point, I can then take specific steps to question the validity of my emotional response to the situation and manage it.

Side note: The American Psychological Association recognizes 7 common sources of stress at work. Here I focus on (1) excessive workloads, (2) not having enough control over job-related decisions, and (3) conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.

Here are a few things I have learned to do over time in order to manage stress.

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
― Alan Cohen

Optimize for long-term impact, not short-term recognition. This is more of a principle. Non-sustainable Herculean efforts, such as working throughout the night or weekend, are not something to be proud of or brag about. Such efforts inhibit me from contributing at my best. In a job where careful reflection and decision making is paramount, not being at my peak while at work is not only detrimental to my health but also to the success of my team. As such, I take care of my health. Taking the time to get 8 hours of sleep, to exercise, and prioritizing time to learn and unplug from work has been crucial. I do this not instead of, but rather so that I can do my best work.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
― Stephen R. Covey

When in doubt, prioritize. The most common sense of stress is a clear lack of priorities. Inability to prioritize, particularly by leaders of an organization, forces resources to be too thinly spread and ends up causing initiatives to fail. This causes undue stress. As such it is important to prioritize appropriately, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do so, regardless of your level.

Be clear on what is most important. Write out a clear list of outcomes you want to accomplish and stack rank them. Go down the list and commit only to those items that are most important and you can concurrently do a kickass job at, drop the rest. When you realize that there’s no clear priority due to conflicts between teams or conflicting communications from leadership, use this as an opportunity to force clarity by bringing together the folks that are misaligned and forcing clarity among them.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

Differentiate between important and urgent. I learned from Stephen Covey to be vigilant and diligently prioritize what’s important. There are a large number of seemingly urgent activities that don’t move forward our cause, don’t help us truly accomplish the goals that are most important to us. Know how to identify such activities, and eliminate or reduce them so that you can focus on what truly matters. Disabling notifications was a scary, yet powerful, step I took to bring more focus to my work and unleash more of my potential.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
― Lao Tzu

Always question your sense of urgency. We may be trying to meet a deadline. Or simply feeling like we’ve dragged on too long on a given project and need to ‘ship it’ or ‘get it done’. Stop and reflect, what is driving this urgency? What would happen if you got sick and were unable to work on this for a while?

Most of the time, we realize that our fear has been blown out of proportion. There are other options beyond “I must finish this right now or a catastrophe will ensue.” By stopping to reflect on the driver behind your urgency you may realize that there is a 3rd option in which you communicate a new timeline to get the work done properly, everyone adjusts, and you march forth more relaxed.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
― Stephen R. Covey

Communicate diligently. I’m often scared shitless about letting others down. Disappointing others was, to me, such a strong fear that I was often paralyzed when choosing between what was important vs what others needed from me. To avoid this, when I have to (re)prioritize, I quickly let impacted folks know of the change in my priorities. I also share my prioritization rationale and remain open to their feedback in case I missed any important factors.

It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.
― Steve Maraboli

Prioritize specific outcomes, not fuzzy problems. A manager recently asked me to get crisper when talking about what I was working on. I had a list of projects that all felt very important. Instead, per their recommendation, I concretely defined the outcome that I would be able to accomplish for each of the projects. An outcome that was so tangible I could feel what it would be like to achieve it. Once I’ve defined these outcomes, I could much more easily see what would be the most impactful outcomes and what could be reprioritized.

The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.
– Thích Nhất Hạnh

When in doubt, go zen. Meditation has been instrumental for me. It helps me go from “this is stressful and I hate it” to something more akin to “here’s a situation that’s activating my stress response, let me anchor my attention on my breath and work through it.”

If mindfulness seems complicated or out of reach, consider reading Everyday Zen: Love and Work*. Simple, yet powerful, explanation of zen and meditation.

 

A few concluding notes

  • I realize that the tips above are not for everyone, but I hope that you find them helpful.
  • These tips work best once you’ve built some rapport with your team and established yourself as a strong contributor. If you’re just getting started on a new role, or haven’t been able to perform at the level you’d want, enlist the help of your manager or a mentor.
  • I find it hilarious that until I wrote this blog post I always thought that the phrase “nip in the bud” was actually “nip in the butt”. Lots of butt pinching images have been going through my head in perfectly serious conversations.

I just had to include this final quote somewhere:

“No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
– Warren Buffett

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

Business metrics vs. user value (why I quit Facebook)

I love data. A great dashboard with useful KPIs is beautiful and useful. If you haven’t yet, take the time to define and track success metrics for your product. It forces clarity and reflection of your goals.

Use data to prove or disprove your hypotheses. Use data to calibrate your efforts and see whether you’re on the right path. Use data to define bold goals for your product. But first, have a clear vision of what matters. Don’t lose sight of that vision.

A big pitfall is when we use easily measurable things, such as time on site or content engagement, to determine product success. It is tempting to do that since (1) it correlates with business value and (2) you can argue that it correlates with user satisfaction and value. While this can sometimes be true and work well, it can backfire as your product evolves.

I will use my experience with Facebook as a way to dive deeper into this.

Quitting Facebook while at a high

I quit Facebook right after my engagement with the platform was at a peak. I quit it because my engagement with it was at its peak.

I quit Facebook a bit over a year ago. I also quit Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. Why? They were optimizing their system to bring me back to their app and use it for longer periods of time and much more often.

I joined those social networks to connect with people. To play a role in my friend’s lives. I had invested 10+ years on Facebook, connecting with friends and sharing photos. But, I found myself spending more time browsing. Scrolling through the news feed. Clicking on articles. Watching videos that would autoplay on my news feed.

I would then see a friend’s update about a life milestone that I wasn’t present for.

I wondered, had I spent less time on Facebook and more time on the phone with that friend, would I have been present for that life milestone? Or maybe, just maybe, I meant to become friends with that person but they are really an acquaintance.

Why was I distracted by their lives?

I would come out of the app and wonder, is this helping me connect with friends or family? Am I happier?

The answer, 9 out of 10 times, was no. That’s a dismal rate of success.

The metrics trap

While Facebook had a mission to connect people, over time they started to optimize for behaviors that were driving their business success.

Well-intentioned Product Managers probably liked my engagement metrics. More time on the app, more engagement with news feed items, etc. These metrics would say that I must be happy with the product. However, while making me spend more time on site would always be better for their advertising revenue, after a certain threshold it is clear that spending more time on the site would be neutral to negative for my well-being. Also, the ‘what’ I did on the product matters.

I was spending more time on the site with an implicit goal of creating deeper connection with friends, family, neighbors, people I cared about. Instead, I was wasting the 30 minutes I could have spent on the phone or on video chat with one of those friends scrolling through a news feed increasingly cluttered with articles and videos.

I justified this as a way to understand other people better based on what they were sharing (articles, videos, etc.) I thought that those social networks would help me better understand the world around me. I had over 1800 connections on Facebook. I thought this would help me hear the diverse set of thoughts, feelings and opinions they had.

But, this was not true. I was hearing from the subset of friends whose opinions I was more likely to like. I was hearing less from those that I would more likely disagree with.

Those that would challenge my thinking were invisible to me. I was being shown perspectives that reassured me that I lived in a world that didn’t exist.

When that realization daunted on me with the 2016 election cycle, it was clear that my time on those platforms was being wasted. Success, as measured by feeling connected with others, was further away. Instead, the platform offered distraction. A fake sense of connection to a reality that didn’t exist.

Where did things go wrong?

Success as measured by metrics such as time on site and interaction events on the site, distracted the product from its mission. Those things that drive the businesses’ success through more advertising revenue were making it harder for me as a user to actually fulfill my desire to connect. Yet, I’m certain that many designers, engineers and product managers were running tests on the platform to increase those business metrics without questioning the long-term impact it would have on my satisfaction with the product.

Another way to view it, they didn’t question whether more and more engagement and time on site could be turning into too much of a good thing

In fact, I remember a video Facebook created recapping my past 1 year. It said that I had liked thousands of things over the past year. I did the math, I had liked on Facebook, on average, a few dozen things per day. That’s an outstanding number. Yet I felt emptier the more time I wasted on the platform.

Was I wrong to quit Facebook?

I requested my Facebook account to be deleted on April 8, 2017. I first did a ‘trial’ by deactivating the account. At first, I found myself mindlessly opening the Facebook app or navigating to facebook.com on my computer. It was ingrained in my brain. After a few days that habit started to die down and my mind started to open up.

When I felt the need to connect, I would now send a friend a text and an invite to coffee or dinner. I called people a few times. Calling, on the phone, can still be a thing. It is amazing how much you can connect with someone by hearing their voice.

My friends didn’t forget about me. My social life didn’t get boring. In fact, now catching up with a friend is more special. We take the time to talk to each other about our lives without assuming the other person saw updates we generically posted for hundreds of people to see.

I hear less from many people. I probably haven’t heard from over 95% of my 1,800 Facebook friends. But, I’m happy to report that neither my life nor theirs is any worse off. I reclaimed the energy I spent “liking” those people’s posts or wondering when I would next catch up with them. I use that reclaimed energy to further my true connecting with people.

User vs. Business Goals

Whatever you do, remain focused on the user. Question your metrics and reassess what and how you measure them.

I may have emphasized in this post one product, but there are many other products guilty of this issue. Of optimizing for things that don’t add value to the user’s life or connect to the mission. Of forgetting to question whether the metric is still sufficient to determine whether users are happy. Watch users and see if behavior has changed to the point in which you need new measurements.

When thinking about your product, always remember to evaluate how it is that you’re adding value to your users. Be extremely careful when adding a new feature that will help you drive business objectives, but dilutes the value users get from their time spent on your product. Find ways to measure and focus on your users’ well-being.

Whatever you do, question your metrics and measurements. Don’t let them distract you from the reality of your user’s experience and the impact the product is having on them.

Be informed by data. Not driven by it.

Emailing? Mind emotions and identity.

To effectively communicate with others, you need to consider at least three aspects of communication.

  • Content: What is it that you’re saying? Is it clear and well explained?
  • Emotion: How do the people involved feel about the topic? Are they vested in the topic? Do they care?
  • Identity: How do people think this message reflects on them? Does it make them feel and look competent in the eyes of others? Or do they feel threatened and that it reflects badly on them?

Often, we think solely about the content. “If I’m right, others will see the wisdom and accept my logic.” This may be OK in the short term, or for topics where others aren’t heavily vested in.

But we are human. As you ignore emotions and identity in your day to day communications, you create emotional drain and anguish to others. This often festers into negativity, which poisons relationships.

Alternatively, by being mindful of other’s emotions and identity you build stronger relationships. You harvest kindness and benevolence from those around you. It is then possible to build strong collaboration on a foundation of goodwill and trust.

So, reconsider whether email or text is appropriate to discuss that thorny issue. Consider what it could do to your relationships, if you instead take time upfront to ensure that your message is received as intended. Ensure that the content is understood. Choose a delivery method that addresses emotions (known and unknown). Mind that everyone involved feels heard and good about themselves.

How to prepare for your Google Product Management (PM) interview

I wrote earlier about the Google PM Interview Process & Preparation. That article, although lengthy, was focused on the overall interview and recruiting process. This article is going to be much more targeted on the preparation aspect for the interviews.

Although I focus on the Google PM interview, I hope this is also helpful for folks considering interviewing for PM roles in other tech companies, and even for those interviewing for other related functions.

Interview types

You will get a mix of questions throughout your PM interviews. These will range across many different areas, but you can certainly expect a few of the following types of questions:

  • Strategy (“should Google compete in market [X]?”)
  • Design (“design an elevator for blind people”)
  • Analytics (“how much revenue does company [X] make”?)
  • Technical (“how would you design an algorithm to detect duplicate calendar invites.”)

The variances in questions are huge. Your temptation will be to try to prepare by answering a million different questions and getting to the right answer. This is counterproductive.

The real challenge will be structuring your answers

In my opinion, the secret to succeeding in the interviews lies outside of the realm of whether your answer is correct or not. Instead, you should focus on delivery of your answer.

What is your interviewer trying to assess? What is your interviewer likely NOT interested in assessing? Here some things I think are most important, but note that each interviewer and role may be slightly different. However, IMHO, these are directionally correct.

Interested in assessing Likely NOT a focus
What’s your thought process when breaking down a fuzzy problem? Do you get to the ‘right’ answer to my question?
How do you approach a very challenging design question? Do you come up with the best ideas right in the spot, within a 20 minutes interview?
What’s your collaboration approach when working with engineering? Can you code? (typically)
How do you balance long term vision with short term needs? Can you be the next Google CEO?
Do you understand technical challenges that a proposed solution may have? Can you design the best technical implementation for a problem?

Given that, focus your preparation on how you will communicate and how you will structure your answers.

The worst thing that you can do is to give an answer to an ambiguous question without walking through your thought process on how you arrived at the answer.

The interview is not about getting the right answer, the interview is an opportunity for you to show how you get to that answer and your thought process.

Build your own framework

There are plenty of frameworks to structure your answer. Often cited is the CIRCLES method for design questions. I’d suggest that you read through a few frameworks and build your own. Here are the core items that I think are crucial for your success.

Understand the real problem: the question you are asked will likely be ambiguous. Don’t try to answer right away. Think about ways in which you can clarify and make sure you understand the question in detail. Also, understand the goal. What are you trying to accomplish? What are the constraints that you have? What should you consider as ‘in scope’ or within the realm of possibilities for your solution?

Question: “How would you improve Google Search?”

Are we trying to improve revenue? UX? Increase daily users? Repeating visitors? Are we focused on the Desktop version of Google.com? Mobile? Google Home assistant? Is it in ranking the top results? Or on giving answers within the page itself? Or are we focused on improving the ads experience? How much budget do we have for the solution? Is there a particular cost revenue/cost target?

There are a gazillion questions you can ask to narrow down the problem. I’d ask a few of the more crucial ones that will allow you to focus on what matters and understand the goal. If your interviewer readily engages with you in providing additional information, great, keep going. If not, take that as a sign that they expect you to make reasonable assumptions and explain them as you work through the problem.

Structure your solution: Think of how you will solve the problem. Sketch out your solutioning approach. Think of the core elements of how you’ll approach it. If this is a product question, map out the user journey and identify key pain points. Identify your various user personas and how you will prioritize one vs. the other. For technical questions, think of the various alternatives you can think of. Think of complexity of your implementation — what data is needed? Cost of keeping up the feature? Think of privacy concerns.

At this point, you want to set the overall way you will tackle the problem, you are not yet answering the question or solving the problem.

At this stage, you want to present how you will tackle the problem to your interviewer and get feedback. For example, you could say:

To figure out how I’d improve Google Search, I’ll first pick a user segment that I think it’s crucial. I’ll then map out their objectives and key pain points when accomplishing that goal. I’ll then propose a solution that will tackle the key pain points and discuss some alternatives I can think of. Once we agree on a solution, I am happy to discuss the implementation approach I will take.

First, however, I want to clearly establish the goal we are going after, which is X. Knowing that X is our goal will help us narrow down to the right user segments and problem types to solve.

I’d strongly encourage you to write down your framework on a large piece of blank/white paper as you’re talking through it and write down the core pieces of your solution (pain points, user personas, core constraints, etc.) and refer back to it as you work through the solution.

Your goal at this stage is to be structured. Remember, you’ll have 10-20 minutes to walk through your solution and you don’t want to be all over the place. A structure is crucial for this.

Propose an option and an alternative: here is where you work through your framework, as you’ve explained it in the last step. You’ll actually identify a persona, identify use cases and user flows, identify unmet pain points, etc.

The core things that I’d stress about this stage is that it’s crucial that you communicate clearly.

  • Don’t just jump through to a solution. Instead, talk about how you’ve arrived at that solution.
  • Don’t simply say “I’m going to assume X”. Why do you think X is a good assumption. How would you validate or double check in the future if X is, indeed, a good assumption. If there isn’t a way you can think of to validate X, how will you test for it or minimize the risk of getting it wrong?
  • Write down key reasons why a particular part of your solution may be difficult to accomplish. Discuss (and write down!) ideas about alternatives you may consider to mitigate some of those difficulties.

Evaluate the pros/cons of your solution. Consider the components of an ROI here. What are the costs, complexities, and risks of your solution? What are the potential benefits? How do you get the most of the latter while minimizing the former?

Talk about implementation & potential complexities and challenges. Time permitting, discuss how you’d implement a solution. If this is a technical interview, pseudocode may be great at this stage, or a general framework of the algorithm component, data sources, etc. that you’d tap into. If a design question, consider sketching out a solution / design or writing down Critical User Journeys and key requirements. Call out complexities of the solution. If it is a strategic question, get tactical about how you’ll implement it. How will you go to market? What parts of your strategy would you implement in the short term, medium term, long term (draw out a roadmap!). How will you mitigate key risks in personnel, execution complexity, costs, PR, etc?

Finally, wrap it all up by discussing next steps. Refer back to your pain points. Discuss, how have you solved the pain points? How have you solved the problem? Moving forward, how will you measure and make sure that your solution works? What will you measure to determine whether you should continue to go down the path you’ve outlined or you need to pivot? What signs will you get that your solution or proposal is good? How will you validate key risks you outlined previously.

How to practice

The above was a very long way to explain what you should be focused on when preparing for your interviews. I focused on the above since I don’t believe it is productive for you to focus on fundamentally acquiring new skills or knowledge you are completely unfamiliar with to pass the interviews. The interview questions are complex and varied enough that such preparation will likely yield OK but uninspiring answers. Instead, prior to an interview focus on what may actually get you from OK answers to an excellent discussion with your interviewer. Focus on what can get you to shine.

Practice with a friend. The best way to practice is to have a friend who has gone through the process practice with you. Ideally another product manager, since they’ll have a ton more context on what makes for a good answer.

Practice by recording yourself. In addition to practicing with a friend, record yourself using your phone/computer as you answer practice questions. Then play back the recording. This is way more helpful than people initially expect.

Review fundamentals. While I think that you’ll succeed mostly by capitalizing on your existing strengths, as you get stuck answering a sample question review the fundamentals behind it. If it’s a technical question, review the algorithm, data structure or infrastructure concepts that would have helped you. If it’s a design question, run through a few design frameworks that may have helped and tweak your overall response framework.

Get plenty of sleep! Personally, I perform 10x better at any task when I’ve gotten plenty of rest the two nights before. I suggest that you prioritize sleep over obsessively reviewing things in the last stretch before your interviews.

Don’t forget the soft stuff

I didn’t talk at all in this article about the soft questions, such as “why do you want to work in PM?” or “why Google?”. I also didn’t touch upon behavioral discussions such as “tell me about a time in which you faced difficulty, etc.” Be prepared to answer any of these, but don’t stress too much about it.

The only tip I’d give is to pick ahead of time a few projects or efforts that you’ve worked on in the past that show your diligence, ability to communicate cross-functionally, rise up when there’s a challenge, and collaborate well. Review your past accomplishments and challenges so that, if a question like that comes up, you have fresh in your mind a list of potential activities to talk about.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve seen incredibly talented people not get a job offer after going through the Google PM interview process. The process is optimized to minimize false positives, that is, sometimes even if a candidate seems ‘good’ they may not get an offer if the hiring committee has doubts. Some of these folks that don’t get an offer in the first try interview again, usually 1+ years later, and do get an offer, so make sure you keep that option in mind.

FAQ

Do I need to code during the technical interview? 

While there’s no hard rule I have read about online, for PMs the focus should be in demonstrating:

  • That you recognize technical challenges and scalable vs. non-scalable solutions
  • Can smartly talk through how you’d design an algorithm/solution to a problem
  • Understand data structure and internet infrastructure fundamentals

I haven’t heard about PMs being asked to code during interviews, although pseudocode does seem to come up.

Other resources

Cracking the PM Interview*: best ~$15 I spent when preparing.

Thepminterview.com: specifically their Estimations, Product Design and Strategy questions.

My article on Google interview process: for a general overview of the process.

Update: this article is now also available as a Google Doc (link) so you can easily add comments and help us improve it.

* Note: I use some affiliate links in this post, marked with an asterisk. If you click through and purchase products I earn a small referral fee at no cost to you.

How I have transitioned job functions

Recently, I’ve been advising students and recent graduates. A common consultation request I get is to discuss career transitions. When people look at my experience, they often wonder how certain work transitions were possible.

I hope that my experience is helpful to folks looking to switch functions or industries. As such, I’ll let you know the key things that have been successful for me.

Transition 1: MIT Chemical-Biological Engineering undergrad to Accenture Consulting

This one is simple to explain. Most people don’t realize that consulting firms aren’t looking for management and business gurus for their Associates/Analysts straight out of undergrad. In fact, many consulting and finance companies, such as Accenture, hire a significant amount of engineering students as consultants for their analytical skills.

The trick for this one? Convincing the firm that you will be prepared, confident and comfortable when working with a client. I find that the analytical portion of the consulting interview process is easy for engineering students to prepare for. The key area were engineering students blunder is in articulating clearly their answers in a way that showed they were ready to communicate with clients.

Storytelling is a crucial skill here. Often it’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about whether you can explain it to someone for the first time and make them feel a part of your story. Make them intrigued by the problem and ultimately happy and excited about your solution. Have them “feel” the pain you went through as you failed and then show them what you ultimately learned from the experience.

Transition 2: Accenture System Integration & Technology Consulting to Accenture Management Consulting

A key goal I had while at Accenture was to learn about management and business. I joined Accenture initially as part of their System Integration & Technology Consulting. This was a great start since it leveraged more heavily the analytical skills developed during my engineering education. However, Accenture also has a Management Consulting practice which I realized would help take my learning opportunities in the management and business side to a new level.

The trick is, just like a promotion, a company needs to have justification to approve an employee’s transition from one role to another. There are several factors that the company has to consider:

  • Track record: this is the most important. A company is unlikely to invest in transitioning you to a new role and helping you thrive in the new role if you aren’t already performing well on an existing role.
  • Skillset: does the employee demonstrates having the right skills to perform well in the new role? For any missing skills, can the employee reasonably develop them in a short period of time?
  • Headcount: do we need additional people in the role the employee wants to transfer into? Can we more easily replace their headcount on their existing role?
  • Transition cost: moving an employee to a new function always has costs. Training in the new role, disruption to their existing team’s role, etc. The company needs to consider all this.

So, how do you overcome all this and justify the transition? In my case, it took two key elements: (1) a strong performance track record and (2) senior management support.

The strong performance track record was possible because I clearly understood what the company expected of me. I clarified the company’s established responsibilities for my function, not just for my level but also for 1 and 2 levels above my existing one. That is, as a Consulting Analyst, I was ensuring that my work didn’t meet or exceed the analyst requirements, but instead I looked at the Consultant and Manager ladders and tried to meet or exceed those as well. I often checked in with my manager and looked for opportunities to replace low-impact work with other more impactful work.

The senior management support was correlated with the performance track record. By becoming known for being able to solve problems well and help managers, senior managers and executives started to come to me for special requests or side projects that I could help them with. Since I was diligent about saying no to low-impact, irrelevant work, I often had the additional time to help with these important requests.

At the time I was intent on moving to Management Consulting, I had a set of performance ratings ready to back me up. More importantly, I had several members of the senior management team ready to make a case for why I should be granted the transition. My transition to management consulting was approved a few months after my request, thanks in large part to these two elements.

NOTE: all that I mentioned above also helped with transition 2b, relocating from the Accenture Boston to the Accenture San Francisco office (which has higher demand, thus hard to transition into.) An additional step I took there was to ask Senior Managers I knew from the Boston office to introduce me to partners in the San Francisco office. Thanks to their endorsement, the partners in the SF office agreed to talk to me and later supported my case for a transfer.

Transition 3: Consulting to Product Management

This is really several transitions. Which is the point I want to illustrate. Sometimes, you need to make several smaller, adjacent transitions to ultimately land the position you will be happy with. This was my experience here.

I was happy as a consultant at Accenture. As I mentioned in the above transition, I had various supporting senior managers & senior executives, had roles I enjoyed, and a good track record. For a while I thought I’d stay in consulting forever. However, a part of me didn’t want to miss out on tech. However, I was puzzled, how does someone with a chemical-biological engineering degree and a few years of consulting experience joins a startup in the tech world?

I owe a lot of gratitude here to a great recruiter who pinged me at just the right time on LinkedIn. He wanted to talk to me about a role at a tech startup. At the time, I was busy and didn’t respond. However, he followed up a week later at just the right time for me to look through the company website and realize that the team working at the company was amazing and I’d be lucky to join that team. I interviewed and got into the company as a Product Engagement Manager. This was very similar to a Customer Success Manager role, which I knew wasn’t the last stop of my career. However, it allowed me to use my enterprise client skills I had acquired as a consultant to help the startup while, in return, I could learn about product, technology, software as a service, and startups.

Once at the startup as a customer success manager the story of how to transition to Product Management was very similar to transition 2. The specifics may have varied, but the framework was the same. I had the same barriers to overcome — and the same strategy to overcome it. Say no to low impact work, focus strongly on deliver high quality, high impact results, get strong performance reviews, help out executives in work related to my target function that helped me develop new skills and, ultimately, get executive support to transition to product management.

Due to the nature of startups, however, timing can be a bit more unpredictable. It could have been the case that new positions in Product Management, my target function, wouldn’t open up for 1+ years. I saw that happen to other people seeking to transition. However, the experience and learning opportunities, plus executive support, I gained while pursuing the transition would have been valuable regardless of whether I accomplished the transition while at that company or in a future company.

One thing I’d add is that for this specific transition there was more of a skills gap that I had to narrow down, so I had to be deliberate about the extra projects that I helped out with. I focused on projects that were high impact, but also helped me develop the skills I was missing for product management.

Bringing it all together

The key learnings that I’d abstract out of all my transitions so far are:

  1. It ultimately boils down to senior management and executive support. If they are convinced that you can do an excellent job on the new role, they’ll invest in you.
  2. The easiest way to convince management about anything is data – a great track record proving that you deliver strong results and can learn the skills required to succeed in the new role.
  3. The best way to deliver those strong results are to (a) understand your role expectations, (b) say no to low-value work to free up time for high-impact work, (c) aim to deliver excellent results 1-2 levels above your current level’s expectations.

One important factor I failed to talk about, but it’s a simple one, is that you should never forget that people are just that, people. Ultimately, they will be more likely to help you if they think you’re awesome, which is just as much about your personality as it is about the results you deliver. Simply put, be kind and genuinely care for others as you do great work. A competent ass is still an ass.

Storytelling is your PM superpower

I was recently reflecting on the following quote

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

The first thing that came to my mind was, languages. I’ve had some of the richest experiences by being able to communicate with people in their native language. For example, traveling around Japan in 2009. I want to continue having such experiences.

It takes a very long time and effort to get to fluency in a language. The rewards, however, are immense.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Language is a strong unifying force, and when two people speak the same language, it helps them build bridges, build rapport, and accomplish much more than we can imagine.

What does this means for product management?

Someone recently asked, as a Product Manager do you ever find ourselves wanting to learn more about design?

My answer, unsurprisingly after this preamble, is “absolutely, 100% yes.”

As a product manager, you are trying to speak many languages on a daily basis. The language of marketing, the language of engineering, the language of design, the language of partnerships. You bounce from team to team and, as you do so, you translate ideas, thoughts and feelings from one language to the other. The success of your product depends in large part on your ability to coherently bring these ideas together into a coherent strategy.

You will never become quite as fluent in any of those languages as your counterparts who are immersed in that discipline. Languages rapidly evolve and your colleagues will be fully immersed in the latest slang for their group, while you’ll dabble in it for a few hours here and there. However, to the extent possible, try to speak to your counterparts heart by speaking their language. And never stop learning about the various disciplines’ languages.

One caveat: remain humble. Don’t lose sight of where your limits are. When having a difference in opinion about design with someone who’s much more fluent than you in design, be careful not to overly push your point of view simply because you’ve passed the beginner phase in design knowledge. Propose ideas and explore alternatives together. When at an impasse, suggest getting additional input from users and/or other team members. Resist the urge of contributing too much to disciplines outside of your core language. For engineers turned into PMs, don’t try to dictate your engineering team’s technical design when writing your PRD.

Your core language

There is one language in which you should have primary command of and hone the most: the language of storytelling.

Human beings are able to organize and accomplish amazing things when they all believe in a story that is worth pursuing. You should work the hardest at figuring out why is it that your product matters and tell that story. What will the future look like with your great product initiative implemented? How will your users benefit? Tell that story day after day.

Everyone should understand that picture. Everyone in your team should be able to listen to it, understand why it matters, and be inspired to show up every day to help make that vision into reality.

As a PM, that’s your primary job. It is also your responsibility to drive towards the accomplishment of that vision by doing whatever you can to contribute to the story, as a core believer and participant in it.

Continuously refine the story as the world around you changes, your users change and your product evolves. Don’t forget to evolve your product story, or soon you will find yourself driving towards a vision that’s no longer needed in the world. You will be driving towards irrelevance.

Lastly, you should build an instinct for how your users will react to your product. Speak their language as much as possible and represent your users in your daily conversations. And remember, not all of your users speak the same language, so learn more and more about their language as you go and represent them throughout your company in all of your meetings.

Bringing it all together

I consider communication a PM’s superpower. As someone often seeking to drive initiatives forward through influence rather than authority, having a compelling story to tell and being able to distill it and translate it into what matters most to different audiences is crucial.

Time spent honing a compelling story, figuring out how to best communicate it, translating it for your various audiences, refining it, and lastly driving towards accomplishing it, is never wasted time.

Do this, and allow your teams to contribute their talents and skills towards helping you refine and accomplish that great story, and you’ll delight your users with a great product only a great story could have inspired.