The Zen of Product Management #1: EQ and Social Capital

2014 was the year Product Management arrived in earnest. Thanks to a host of great brand and personal blogs as well as community platforms like Medium and the good folks at Mind the Product, the volume of high quality content about the nuts and bolts of digital Product Management has ballooned in the past year. As a result, we’re now well served by in depth descriptions of what skills you need to be a PM, what your day will be like and what distinguishes the great from the merely average.

In this series, I’ll be focussing on what I call the Zen of Product Management: dimensions of the role that are rarely, if ever, discussed thanks to their non-tangible nature. This post examines two qualities I believe are critical to success in the role: EQ and Social Capital.

In his book, Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines his belief that the biggest insights in life are ‘hidden in plain sight’ — concealed only by our preconceptions or tendency to accept things as they are. So fond is Thiel of this theory that he makes a point of asking candidates about it during interviews. The question goes something like this: “Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.”

It’s a deliberately gnarly thing to ask. I should know. I got caught out by it myself in an interview once. I don’t remember what I said but I’m pretty sure I fluffed my response. Looking back, I wish I had said:

“Google’s full of shit. Hiring ‘really smart people’ isn’t actually that important.”

The fact that there were at least 2 ex-Googlers on the panel would have made the response that bit more punchy.

But it’s true. It’s received wisdom to parrot the line that all you need to do is hire the ‘smartest’ people around, put them together and let the magic happen. The Tech Illuminati have said it so often that now every founder of any pedigree repeats it as gospel: “We only recruit the smartest people.”

But only testing for IQ, by looking at academic records, resumes and letters after your name, or by asking questions about how many people in the USA are eating pizza right now, won’t help you assess whether or not that person can cut it as a Product Manager over the long term.

Which is why it’s refreshing to read this excellent interview with Sam Lessin, former Head of Product at Facebook, in which he observes that: “EQ is more important. People don’t talk enough about it. Product Managers get huge value from being highly empathetic with the team, not just with users. There are plenty of smart people, but not enough with EQ.”

EQ (or Emotional Intelligence) is a comparatively new concept that reached mainstream attention when Daniel Goleman published his book of the same name in 1995. Without getting too deep into the biology behind it (neuroplasticity, anyone?) it refers to the extent to which someone can manage their own emotions and empathise with those around them and to their self-awareness.

Lessin also remarks that he has ‘never successfully trained empathy.’

Despite being well-established as a term, it still remains at odds with the culture of most corporations and some of their smaller counterparts. Likewise it’s wholly absent from the recruitment process of almost any organisation of any size, many of which still focus exclusively on trying to determine IQ even at the expense of experience.

But high-IQ is critical in some environments and of diminishing value in others. In software engineering, where logic and induction are fundamental, it is undoubtedly an asset. Likewise, in fields like strategy consulting where evolving abstract models designed to impress is key. Extremely intelligent people love models. They have a simplicity and purity that implies the world is black and white. One in which problems can be definitively solved.

But Product Managers work at the interface between groups of people, often people from very different backgrounds, and work through influence rather than logic. There are no definitive solutions in this world. Just an endless array of ‘Coulds,’ ‘Maybes’ and ‘It depends…’

Product Managers inhabit the grey areas of human irrationality and, as such, the best ones over-index in EQ. More often than not this means they are distinguished by the following:

  • Total control over their lizard brain, especially fight or flight emotions like anger and fear
  • Unfailing courtesy and impeccable manners
  • A deep-rooted empathy and concern for those that they interact with
  • Understanding that excellence is a habit, not an act.

Conduct informed by EQ is guided by the notion that “you get out what you put in.” Call it karma, call it ethics. I prefer the term ‘social capital’.

What is social capital? Wikipedia defines it as ‘the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups’. Components of social capital include reciprocity, trust and values. If these are shared between individuals within a network then the community will function as an organic whole.

If they are broken then the system breaks down.

Much of this thinking goes against the stereotypical grain. Product visionaries like Steve Jobs, notoriously low on empathy for others, are lionised as men with vision. People whose drive and commitment to excellence compel them to eviscerate product teams and fight political and personal battles with rivals. So what if there were casualties along the way?

But retrospectively, his biographer, Walter Isaacson, has concluded that Jobs would have achieved even greater things, and been a better person, if he had better understood the value of social capital. The nasty edge to his personality, he concludes, ‘hindered him more than it helped him.’

When I was Head of Product at a large UK media company we were encouraged to treat suppliers and agencies like dispensable pawns. They were there to serve our needs and nothing more. Development partners with whom we had built relationships with would fall from favour overnight and be fired. Contractors and long-serving freelancers were treated in the same way. No explanation was deemed necessary. Like a royal court, you fell from grace and were dismissed.

Although I wasn’t then familiar with the term, this was a textbook example of how to destroy social capital. The whole environment was characterised by fear, suspicion and threat. Needless to say, it wasn’t conducive to shipping greatness. In fact, output virtually stopped dead as one supplier after another was dismissed forcing the Product Manager to start over with a new team. It was about power and positioning over product.

The most successful social capitalists, like the most successful financiers, take a long term view. They understand that investments they make now will not vest for many years. But they will compound over time and grow into something immensely valuable.

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