Hubert Palan of Productboard: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

David Liu
Authority Magazine

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We’ve found new ways to connect with our teammates by setting up breakout sessions where employees can meet each other and talk about things outside of work. Executives on our teams also host roundtable discussions as a way to garner feedback from employees across the organization.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hubert Palan, Founder & CEO of Productboard.

Hubert is the founder and CEO of productboard. Driven by a passion for building truly excellent products, he started the company back in 2015 when he saw a hole in the market for a dedicated product management platform. Prior to productboard, Hubert was VP of Product Management at GoodData.

Passionate about sharing his knowledge and experience, Hubert mentors and advises startups and judges teams at entrepreneurship competitions. He frequently speaks at his two alma maters — the University of California, Berkeley, where he got his MBA and certificate in Entrepreneurship, and the Czech Technical University, where he received an MSc. in Computer Science.

In a past life, Hubert worked in management consulting. Fun fact: he once trained 20 national park managers in Vietnam on ecotourism marketing. Originally from the Czech Republic, Hubert now lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife, Jenna, and their two young sons, Hubert V and Nicholas.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m from Prague, the Czech Republic, born and raised there, but I’ve lived here in the San Francisco Bay area for the past 13 years. I got my master’s in computer science back in Prague, then I ventured into the world of consulting and spent several years at Accenture. Then, I really wanted to go to Silicon Valley, so I applied for business school here in Berkeley. There I met, Steve Blank, the father of Lean Startup — who inspired me to build products with a customer-first mindset. I followed that thinking throughout my career and as I experienced a lot of the pain points product managers face, I realized there really wasn’t a centralized system for product managers, which is what prompted me to start Productboard. Productboard is a customer-driven product management platform that empowers teams to get the right products to market, faster.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I always go back to the quote “Love and activity.” It’s a succinct statement that reminds us to treat every single person with respect and dignity while spending our life productively with the biggest impact possible.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Like most CEOs, I strive to build alliances and bring people into the fold of our company. Productboard has more investors than we needed to get to our fundraising goals and that was intentional on our part, we wanted to bring in as many talented, driven people to help guide us.

A story that stands out to me comes from an interaction I had years ago with Bill Draper, one of the first venture capitalists.. He shared that he would watch entrepreneurs as they were leaving after a meeting with him. He found that the founders who were in a rush were the ones who were the go-getters running to another meeting — and those were the people he often found himself wanting to invest in.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. Can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Productboard is a global company, so we’ve been practicing remote work since the beginning. It works well for us, but we’ve found that it’s essential to meet in person. Having a team physically together allows people to build trust, which ultimately leads to stronger connections. It also opens the door for impromptu conversations, at desks, over coffee, or at lunch, which build bonds and also can lead to quick problem solving and knowledge transfer. Meeting in person also means your team is likely to have stronger mental health, given that they have those strong connections and loyalty to their teams.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)

We’ve found the following five things have been really helpful as we navigate WFH together:

  1. Offering resources for mental health — it’s been a year of WFH and everyone is starting to hit the pandemic wall. Therefore, it’s incredibly important we give our team the resources they need to be their best selves at work. In addition to offering mental health days and a premium membership to Headspace, we’re encouraging managers to check in with their teams and have created a specific Slack channel for employees to share advice and tips to better manage their mental health.
  2. We’ve found new ways to connect with our teammates by setting up breakout sessions where employees can meet each other and talk about things outside of work. Executives on our teams also host roundtable discussions as a way to garner feedback from employees across the organization.
  3. As a company, we rely heavily on Slack as our primary communication channel and practice asynchronous communication. We also use emojis in our everyday communications to cross cultural barriers and encourage clear communication.
  4. In addition to break out sessions, we also host monthly panels with experts and individual teams host happy hours as a way to bond with their teammates.
  5. We encourage our employees to make an effort with their teammates on a daily basis. That can take many forms, from sending employees cakes on their birthdays to simply spending the first five minutes of a Zoom call talking about a teammate’s pet. These small gestures and interactions help us build deeper bonds and ultimately lead to stronger collaboration across our team. We also ran a survey to learn more about personal lives of people, their hobbies and families, so that we can make more personalized touches across the whole company.

Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

We rely on Zoom and HopIn for all meetings, 1:1’s, and virtual happy hours. Recently, our product team started using Gather as a fun way to connect and build virtual spaces.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I think Slack is great as a collaboration system, but nowadays meetings are all virtual, so I find myself using the chat function in Zoom quite a bit because it messages everyone on the call and is easy to reference. I’ve realized that there are a lot of separate conversations happening in Zoom and other tools. It would be great to have a system that would take all those conversations and bring them back into Slack. So let’s say you send a link via the Zoom chat, it would automatically show up in Slack and you would be able to continue the conversation well after the Zoom meeting had ended. It would be great if we could do this for email as well, so those who prefer Slack could respond in Slack and those who like email could respond via their inbox.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

It all really comes down to trust. If you’ve spent time building a relationship with someone, it’s much easier to have that difficult conversation, regardless of whether it’s in person or over a video call. If you haven’t built that trust, it’s likely that the person will be less receptive to your feedback.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Productboard is a global company, we have over 28 countries represented, which means remote work is in our DNA. Therefore, it’s incredibly important for us to find ways to come together, in person and remotely. We typically hold a yearly offsite in a different city (last year before the pandemic hit, we met in Lisbon, Portugal) to help teammates across the world meet each other and build relationships. Now that we’re all remote, this year’s offsite was virtual but we still found ways to connect with our peers through breakout Zoom rooms, and we also worked with a third-party events company and all participated in a fun bonding activity. On an everyday basis, we run engagement surveys and encourage our employees to take more deliberate steps to have engaging conversations, often not related to work, to better connect with their teammates.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d love the opportunity to start a non-profit organization focused on helping people who’ve been left behind by the technological revolution. Technology has been changing far more rapidly than people can keep up, and as we get older, we become less flexible and adaptable to changes. The more education opportunities we can provide people, the better their lives will be.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter & read more about Productboard on our blog.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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David Liu
Authority Magazine

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication