There are no VIPs
Some of my first jobs were working in kitchens. Sometimes on a Friday or Saturday night during the pre-movie seating we’d hear, “four top of VIPs at table 32! Get your A-game on, asshats.”
As a sixteen-year old on a Friday night making bank at $9.75 an hour, I loved that the GM felt comfortable calling us asshats. It was a complicated term of endearment that was one part father figure, and one part warden. I got to wondering though, ‘what makes these people VIPs?’ What went right for them in life to find themselves with this status? Did it make them uncomfortable? What does it feel like to be treated differently in a way that none of us working the fry station or sauté had never be treated? What did a VIP in suburban Minnesota even mean? So many questions!
Most of the time it was because they were investors. Other times, they were minor celebrities, like the weatherman from channel 11. I had trouble trying to figure out what practical reason there was for us to serve higher quality, more thoughtful food to these people, but maintain a different status quo for everyone else.
The friends I worked with on the line would talk about this more when we went out to dinner as a group. Some ragtag litter of kids with twenty bucks saved from payday, we’d go out to restaurants sometimes feeling, well kind of underwhelmed by food that came out late, cold, or just… fine. If we were paying money, shouldn’t we be treated like everyone else?
That missing sense of equality wasn’t it either. What bothered me after thinking about it was that we were holding ourselves to a different standard when we were cooking for different types of people. We were putting more intention behind these people’s food so that we wouldn’t get called out for doing the food we were pushing for every other table. We were covering our asses.
Yeah, we were asshats.
Later at a design shop I worked at, we’d be gently reminded to wear shirts and ties the next day because clients were visiting. Or the CEO was visiting the studio. This felt like the same thing as the kitchen days; we were creating this affectation of someone we weren’t or creating this thing we didn’t make. After all, our best work in the studio obviously didn’t have anything to do with our clothes, so who cares?
Get rid of The Show
Product designers deal with this same stuff though, but now our clients are our own executives. Depending on the company we’re at, we don’t get a lot of face time with them. So we try to make things look perfect even though they’re not. Fancy animating presentations, days of prep honing the things we want to say, meetings about which fancy animation to use, and meetings about how to prep the things we want to say when that magic time comes.
There is no magic time. Everyone on the team, including executives, just wants to know the truth. Where’s your project at?
Most executives, really effective ones at least, don’t care about The Show. They want to see what you’re working on. More importantly, they want to see what’s not working so they can help unblock whatever’s keeping you from doing your best work. Some execs don’t even know how much time goes into The Show If they did, they’d want you putting that time into solving the problem. Not putting together assets to help you feel more validated.
If you’re getting feedback from executives a week before you launch something out into the world, it’s too late.
What executives want most is to help you do your best work.
First of all, getting feedback that late from your executive team makes them feel super out of the loop. Maybe even kind of disrespected because they didn’t feel like you trusted them in a way.
The thing VIPs want most is to show where you’re at with a product. Half-finished? Even better, because everyone feels at least some apprehension about providing feedback we know is backed by a lot of time and show. Have rough prototypes on your phone. Make them super accessible. Print it out like a magic scroll.
“Hey, want to see what we’re working on?”
It’s everyone’s responsibility on the team to share work if the right thing comes up, not just a product manager/project manager/product lead. For an executive, you get different perspectives when folks from engineering, product or design share their work, and that’s important.
It also helps executives feel a greater connection to the product, like they can have an impact on the product. Nothing’s more demotivating for a team than to hear, ‘”hey, we need to change this thing because the CEO said they didn’t like the way we built it / designed it.”
Go on, share often.