The product manager’s guide to the care and feeding of humans

Leading through influence, not authority

We have metrics and dashboards that give us cursory views into how well our project is progressing, and red, yellow, and green color-coded milestones that let us know what level of panic we should be in. It’s great to know what’s going on while we focus on optimizing the product we’re building, but what about the wellness of the team? What about the people we’re working with? How are they doing?

Let’s talk about the care and feeding of the humans.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve led teams as small as 5 and as big as 60, putting on successful shows, creating leadership development programs, launching products, reimagining processes, and redesigning organizations. One common link across many of them, is that in a lot of cases, not a single one of those people reported to me. In the “boxes on org charts” sense. So how do you lead successfully, when you don’t have authority? When no one has to listen to you?

These humans, the ones who show up every day — or most every day — to work with you, create with you, and ultimately fail or succeed with you…are, to me, the most important part of a product lifecycle.

We’re shipping experiences, not just products. There’s the thing a person interacts with, but the experience of that transcends the product itself, and starts in your offices, at your company. The culture of the people who build the thing you make — ultimately winds up in the product. And that shows up externally in the experience for the people who use what you make. Some people call that brand, but…

As much as we like to think we control our brand, we don’t. You can put out press releases, do advertising, send out flyers, but in reality your brand is the stories other people tell about you. On sites like Yelp, on social media, in person. It goes beyond stories, even, and into how people use your product.

Q-tips, for example, were never designed to go in your ears, but that’s how most people use them. In fact, there’s a warning label on the box about it.

So back to the premise: discussing how to lead a team. How to create a healthy working environment — experience — for the team who delivers cool stuff with you. Someone asked once what I do to ensure success. How I do what I do. They noticed I have a high repeat rate of people who want to work on things I lead. As I thought through how to answer their questions four tactics, or patterns, emerged. Here’s my leadership philosophy:

  1. Empower the team.
  2. Rally around the cause.
  3. Be humble.
  4. Give away the glory.

Let’s go through each tactic one at a time — and I’ll spend more time on some tactics than others, really just because they deserve it.

When it comes to empowering the team, the short of it is simple:

Love your team, believe in them with all your heart, and do everything in your power to set them up for success.

The long of it (still relatively simple, if not longer): give them a goal, rally them around the shared vision, work with them to set up their plan for how they’re going to deliver their part, provide air cover when they need help or when there’s conflict or roadblocks, then make sure they know you believe they can do it.

The key bit involves creating an environment where people feel they’re in a safe space to do some of the best work of their career. How do you do that? A former manager use to say, “By giving them enough rope to take risks, but not to hang themselves.” While that’s a bit grim, you get the point.

Make sure they know they can come to you — and that sooner is better than later. Tell them risks are good and valued, and also when to pull you in to help them out.

Empowering the team doesn’t just mean you set things up and then never check in. (I’ll talk about check-ins and laying the foundation in “Rally around the cause.”) What it means is that you demonstrate that you trust them to do what they’re there to do. As a leader, you’re responsible for the overall end-to-end experience, for sure. But it helps no one if you’re in the weeds day in and day out. Start off by identifying the key areas needed.

In this example, I designed the team in a way where we had a four verticals: communications, experience design, production, and talent. It was a small show — 250 attendees — and in the spirit of lean I wanted a small team. And I choicefully gave the different leads titles that matter for each vertical — so even if their day to day title is Writer, for this show they were Communications Manager. Why?

Whether we like it or not, titles matter.

Doing this empowers them, gives them a feeling of ownership, and ultimately they want to succeed because they feel responsible to the rest of the team and the deliverable for their area of expertise. People responded to this action, and rose to the occasion. (Let’s be honest: they knocked it out of the park.) It’s a great example of leadership development that works within the bounds of an org, but is scrappy at the same time.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll call them team leads — they’re the person responsible for making calls in their area of responsibility. Design, content, engineers, etc. And in many cases, I’ll design it in a way to have a team of folks working under them. Having an org chart makes it clear not only for each individual’s own accountability, it also gives them a road map for who to escalate things to, or who to ask for help. And when new areas of need are identified, it serves as a foundation for a conversation around, “Well who’s going to take responsibility for x?”

Which leads to this: Beyond the title and the vertical, it’s crucial to have documentation of who’s responsible for what.

The Roles and Responsibilities doc. #simple

In a case of glaringly easy simplicity, I call it the Roles and Responsibilities doc. This is great not only for clarity between teams, but is also an easy way for new people coming on to the team to understand who does what. Same goes for people not on your team: how often do things get tripped up because someone — with all good intent — asks someone on your team to do something? And it’s the wrong person to ask, resulting in wasted work? Having this doc helps outsiders know who to go to for what, too.

We’ve talked about the structure and the work, now let’s talk about the humans.

It takes time, but a big key to success is really taking the time to know what makes folks tick — find out what’s intrinsically motivating for your team. This can be accomplished via an icebreaker activity at the beginning of a project or sprint. Or take them out to coffee, or you know, just pay attention to what they say or how they act.

The market is generally an extrinsic motivator. Find out: why did they choose to do this kind of work? How can you align the team’s shared goals with its members’ individual ones? Then use this knowledge to build them up. Give them confidence. Show them you’ve got their back and that you believe in them.

A happy, functioning team = a great atmosphere, solid culture, and a great product.

Throughout one large project I led—it was 11 months from kickoff to finish, with a few thousand attendees, so we had a much larger staff — I would send flowers, wine, beer, chocolate, or, most times, a simple note to the team leads at various points that I knew were stressful or intense. In this one, I just wrote, “Thank you for doing that this week! YOU ROCK.”

Their reply ended up rocking me: “You always seem to reach out just when I need it most, and I didn’t know I needed to hear it. I was ready to walk away today, then your note showed up.” You never know the difference a small gesture can make. Be kind. Care. And show it through actions and words. This culture creates a sense of empowerment and “I got this!” for the team.

Your homework: tonight — or tomorrow — send a note to someone on your team. A person who you’ve noticed needs a pick me up, or who’s done a good job lately and maybe hasn’t been recognized. It doesn’t have to be long. It just has to be genuine.

Product UX is design-driven. The market demand for well thought out, delightful products has grown tremendously. People expect seamless experiences. This is not just true for consumer products. There is so much pressure on enterprise products and government products as well.

The market is no longer putting up with poor experiences in ANY industry. With that sophistication comes a responsibility to create personalized UX and a more nuanced approach to product development. It’s no longer feasible to talk about product management uncoupled from UX. You may have heard the terms human-centered design or design thinking. Embracing a design-driven approach to product management ultimately benefits the folks who use your products and services.

So where do you start?

Create a vision. Write it down. Share it wide.

In the past, vision statements were so bland, we have to wonder if anyone knew how they could individually contribute to their success:

It would be great if we all agree, here today, to not use something like this. It’ll make the world a way better place, promise.

First, interview all the stakeholders and your team, in addition to — and most importantly — the people who will be using what you create.

The most important question to ask: What does success look like?

This also helps you learn what intrinsically motivates these folks, which will help you immensely as product manager.

Armed with this information, I like to start by creating a vision for the deliverable, rooted in emotion. How do we want people to feel? Then we come up with design principles that reflect back to the vision. All decisions made about the product or in meetings must ladder up to these. Meaning, if people are making decisions and can’t come to consensus or get to alignment on something, rather than it be, “Well Ed likes it this way and he’s the lead” it empowers people on the team to say, “I’m not sure that decision syncs with our design principle of ‘people feel taken care of’.” Wow, now you’ve got a conversation!

Once there’s a draft, get input from your team and the leads, as this leverages both their strengths and their internal motivations. (Remember the “why they show up every day” bit.) Collaborating on creating a vision increases morale and decreases confusion.

The vision and principles become the True North for the deliverable, whether it’s a product, live show, event, or process redesign. (Sidebar: gone are the days of a product being a physical or virtual “thing” per se. Creating live experiences = delivering a product.)

Now that you’ve got the vision doc, what do you do with it? For one thing, you don’t let it sit in a folder on your computer. I find it useful to link to it in meeting invites, and bring it up in conversations as we’re making decisions. Folks need to know the why of what they are doing, so that they can figure out the what and the how. All decisions should be rooted in the vision.

You’ve got the team in place, and a vision, so next: you need a plan. Have each team lead create a draft plans for their area of responsibility. Sit down with them and review it, and provide feedback. Rather than tell them what to change (though there will be some of that), say things like, “Tell me more about what you mean here” and “How did you get to this idea?”

It will reveal the thought behind things so you can get where they’re coming from. At this point I have them go back and revise their plan based on our conversation. After they finalize it, I take one last look, then let them do what they do best: they run with it. Your job is to: do check-ins, provide coaching/support, help them pivot when things come up, and most importantly: cheer them on.

Sidebar, because I get this question a lot: “Do I have to do usability testing if I do A/B testing?” Yes. No amount of A/B testing will tell you that you forgot to put the login button on your homepage in your mockup. Be data-informed, instead of data-driven. Being data-driven means you base your decisions on what data tell you. By being data-informed, you also take — and respect — the experience, strengths, and best practices the team brings to the table.

What this looks like in action

Step 1 is identifying your key audiences. Creating a solid end-to-end (E2E) experience is more than just solving for the people who use your product. By also declaring how you want the people involved with creating the product to feel — meaning the humans who build it and the stakeholders — everyone feels valued and taken care of.

Now you’ll go back and do this for your product (or process, even) but for today, maybe practice it quickly with a company you’re familiar with. Can’t think of one? Go with Disney. Because Disney.

Step 2: How do you want folks to feel? Think about the touch points for the product as you’re filling out this page.

Step 3: Create a journey line. Just like a play or movie has a rhythm to a scene, build out a customer journey line that lays out key moments of your product. This is based on: 1) your product vision and/or map and 2) the emotions you identified in Step 2.

The above is the journey line we created for a design workshop held during a large, multi-day conference. We knew that after spending a full day listening to speakers then going to a concert, folks would need a pick me up.

We pivoted on a traditional journey line and made it aspirational, drawing the main journey around how we wanted them to feel primarily, then what we think they’ll actually be feeling in each moment. Doing it this way gave us a more holistic view overall.

At that same conference, we created a vision statement and design principles. This was the team’s True North, and as all the teams — Marketing, Experience, Sponsorship, Product — were building out their plans, they’d refer to it. If something didn’t sound right in any of those, we’d pull back and ask, “Where does this fall under Connect, Educate, or Inspire?” If it didn’t, we’d change it.

And here’s what it looked like in action: during the day we had a main street where all the sponsors were, we built a park indoors, complete with trees and hammocks — I LOVE HAMMOCKS — and Train played a concert to close out the event. Positive feedback and word of mouth was through the roof, and it’s because we stayed true to our vision at every turn, and with every decision in the experience design.

Full Designing Experiences toolkit.

While the main thrust of this has been ensuring the well-being of the humans who work on your product, don’t forget to take care of yourselves. That means being self-aware enough to realize what you don’t know and what your deficiencies are, so that you can seek out people who can help you out in these areas. In other words, be vulnerable.

This was traditionally seen as a weakness in leaders, but let’s put that notion on its head. There’s benefits of being humble, and vulnerable not only for the individual, but also the team. By showing you don’t know everything, you’re modeling to your team that it’s okay to ask questions and creating a safe environment for people to flourish.

Sure, you should have a pretty good handle on all the skills needed to get the work done, and aligning the people to the roles. And here’s a secret for me: I’d rather work with someone who’s good at something but is really passionate about it, than someone who’s excellent but whose heart isn’t in it. I can always take the good person and help them grow, answer their questions, get them where they need to be.

Give yourself permission to not know everything. Being honest and open with your team that you don’t have all the answers, and that if something comes up that you don’t have the answer to, you’ll work together to figure it out. If someone doesn’t know the answer, pause and ask yourself whether you need to give it to them directly, or if you can brainstorm with them to get to it themselves. And if it’s the larger team that gets stuck, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.”

Letting them know they’re not alone connects back to empowerment and creates a safe environment for people to flourish.

Sometimes, though, there may be something you feel you need to work out on your own, outside of the team, because reasons. In addition to building a good team around you, you’ve got to make sure YOU have the support you need. This is where it’s handy to have people you can get trusted feedback from. Where having an inner circle comes in handy. Build your tribe of confidants: it can be your peer group, other product managers, or other people at your org who you trust or admire. I’ve usually got 3 people that I can call for just about anything. There’s the tribe at work, the ones who know the ins and out of the org, and who know the challenges well. There’s the tribe of folks I used to work with, and they’re the ones who’ve known me a long time and can remind me who I am. Then there’s the tribe that knows me, gets me on a personal level, and can tell me when I’m too close to something.

These are the people you turn to when you’re not sure about something, or want to bounce something off of before you take action. And encourage your team to have an inner circle. It’s saved my butt a number of times. Your tribe may vary in size, but if you don’t already have one, think about it and write a couple of names down. Surround yourself with smart people that see or process things differently than you. They’ll fill in your blind spots, if you let them.

There’s a story that sticks with me about how to treat people, and it’s a reminder to be humble. I was working on a TV show in Hollywood, and one day I didn’t have something ready for the director. I got yelled at for a good 5 minutes. Truth be told, it was a dumb mistake on my part, but I’ll never forget how small I felt that day. Fast forward a number of years, and I was on an American TV show called Glee. In between takes, the director needed an actor on set. He didn’t yell and say, “Get them here now!” Instead, he calmly said into his walkie talkie, “Could we please invite Lea Michele to the stage?” It was a little thing, really, but it’s also always stuck with me. Even at the highest levels, you have an opportunity to be humble — and kind — in your words and actions. As my old boss at Intuit Brad Smith liked to say, “People will forget what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”

Let’s start by defining glory. Some define it as market success, or money, others by solo efforts or random acts of genius. Since this talk about the people, the glory here revolves around them.

I define it as looking for opportunities to raise people up. To let them know not only are they doing a good job, but looking for ways others to know it, too. To share the credit.

My friend Amina and her podcast co-host Ann created something called The Shine Theory: “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”

Some ways I’ve approached rewards — big and small — started with, surprise, emotions and figuring out what makes people tick, what their individual personalities would appreciate. For me, I like cheese. A lot. So if you want to give me an “atta girl” publicly or privately, cheese works.

Each person has their own preference for praise. Some people are okay with public recognition, like at an all-team meeting. For others, that would be devastatingly embarrassing. When you’re getting to know folks, figure out which one’s right for each of them.

For people who are okay with individual recognition, some things you can do:

  • Verbal recognition in front of group
  • Call out in newsletter or at all-hands meeting
  • Given more responsibility

For those who may run away from things like that, you can give them:

  • Verbal one-on-one recognition
  • Little notes
  • Flowers or gift basket

A key thing to remember when someone comes to you asking you to do one of these things:

  • Speaking at conferences
  • Case studies
  • Press interviews or stories

Take a moment and ask yourself whether it has to be you or can you suggest someone from your team? You don’t always have to be the one talking about or being interviewed about the work. Take a step back and let others on the team shine.

And for everyone, regardless of preference, celebrate key milestones in meaningful ways. Embrace the pause. Find ways to celebrate with — and for — your team. We had a tradition at a former company of champagne and cupcakes on launch days or key release days. I still do it to this day. Creating shared moments between the team members creates lasting effects x100. Running a marathon at a sprint’s pace for weeks or months at a time isn’t sustainable or tenable; it’s actually detrimental to the health and happiness of your team.

Take a moment to reflect. Was there a time this week — or is there one coming up — where you can let someone else do the interview, present to senior staff, or have the spotlight? Even better if it breaks up the diversity of the same types of people who we always see for these types of things. For example, I have friends who decline conference panel invitations if it’s all males on the panel, and they actively suggest women, people of color, and LGBT folks to take their place.

In closing

I’m always learning, always pivoting, always tweaking these tactics to make it better. I do retrospectives, and ask how it’s going for folks.

By empowering the team, rallying them around the cause, being humble, and giving away the glory, the teams I work with are healthy, happy, and deliver great experiences. A huge a-ha for me this year is that it’s not about hitting home runs, a lot of times base hits are the success. Hopefully some of these tactics help you move your teams forward in meaningful, and memorable, ways.

In the spirit of Be humble and Give away the glory, many thanks to the folks who provided edits and feedback on this: Elaine Kamlley, Russ Unger, James Young, Jeff Maher, and Andrew Maier. Would love to hear your thoughts, too. You can follow me on Twitter.