The Hope Gurion Hypothesis: Fearless Product Leaders Build Alignment Around Clear Goals and Evidence-Based Decisions

Hope Gurion is a former product leader at CareerBuilder and Beach Body and now the founder of Fearless Product, where she coaches product leaders and teams. She’s also the moderator for the Product Leader Council at Collaborative Gain. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about Hope’s experiences transforming organizations to focus on value, and how she helps product leaders learn the skills they need to take their work to the next level.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Hope Gurion Hypothesis: Fearless Product Leaders Build Alignment Around Clear Goals and Evidence-Based DecisionsWhat was Hope’s experience getting into product, starting as Director of AOL Shopping? How did she identify the need for product management within her more general managerial role? How did that transition come from a focus on value propositions? How did her market research inform her choices to find differentiation for AOL-branded products? What data did she look at for validation? How did she set up a product management and UX infrastructure?

How did Hope’s experience with Collaborative Gain help her transform her teams and organization? What was her experience working with Marty Cagan? How did that experience carry forward to her work with Beach Body? How did she shift the organizational emphasis from cost metrics to value-added metrics? How did she create discomfort with the status quo?

How do you structure product at an organization to help you make the best decisions? How do you get your organization to collect the validation data you need? What did Hope do to bring stakeholders to see customer interviews when they refused to be in the room?

What do you do when people think they’re making evidence-based decisions but they’re not hitting their goals? How do you get your team to stay objective and get real about why they’re not meeting those goals? How do you identify if it’s the team or the goal that’s causing the problem?

As a leader, how do you leverage your team’s strengths by understanding what stage each product is in its lifecycle? What does Hope emphasize when she works with product leaders and business leaders?

Why is Hope’s coaching and consulting business named Fearless Product? What has she learned from her work? How does she fill in the gaps for product leaders who don’t have a product background? How can you get your organization to invest in development?

Quotes From This Episode

Part of the multiyear journey to becoming product-focused was to identify how we resource these teams so these aren't projects, they're ongoing entities that will have customers with evolving needs. - Hope Gurion Click To Tweet I inherited a team of product managers in title, project managers in reality. Who were taking requests, trying to scope them out, and giving a cost estimate to drive towards the cost metric. - Hope Gurion Click To Tweet You need to create the right environment and expectations for good decision making from your product teams. - Hope Gurion Click To Tweet I call it Fearless Product, because everybody has that feeling of “I'm not really sure I'm doing this the right way.” Because every company is different.- Hope Gurion Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast. Where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams, and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it, and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m excited to have Hope Gurion as my guest. Hope, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to product management and what you’re up to these days?
Hope Gurion: Sure. Thanks for having me, Holly. My journey to products has been a while back. In fact, I was doing product without realizing it was called product back in the day is when I was working at AOL, where I ran a number of different verticals. Shopping, real estate, jobs and careers, travel at one point.
Hope: But essentially, it was a role where you are responsible for creating an experience that had to deliver revenue and be monetized, and had to work with engineering and design. And third party partners. So it was my first venture into product. And it was definitely at a time where there was PRD expectations and other things.
Hope: And since that time, I went to a startup in Seattle where I was doing product marketing. Then I went to Career Builder to lead business development. And as I was looking for incremental growth opportunities for the company, that naturally led into product expansion. So I ultimately became Chief Product Officer there. And then after about 10 years at CareerBuilder, I went to a company called Beachbody in the fitness and nutrition space and was SVP of product management there.
Hope: Now today, about a year ago, I set up my own product consulting and coaching business called Fearless Product. And I’m having a lot of fun trying to help new products leaders, product teams, with discovery. Startup founders and other companies just in need of more product leadership help to make good decisions.
Holly: Cool. So there’s a lot of things in there I’m going to want to know more about, but I’d like to start with the beginning. So if the role wasn’t called product at AOL, what was it called?
Hope: So at one point I was director of AOL shopping. And being a vertical director where I had a team of merchandisers. I had dotted line design and engineering teams that were responsible for creating an experience, working closely with the sales team to figure out what’s our business model, what’s our strategy for getting revenue into AOL shopping. So that’s an example of what it was back in the day.
Holly: Got it. Would you say that was a little bit like a GM model or something where they’re just like, “You’re just the manager of these things”?
Hope: Yeah, and I think that’s what it was. And very similar to I think a lot of product roles these day. It’s like you are the glue that is keeping everything in the organization. It just happens to manifest in this digital experience. But what’s the business model decision? How are we practically going to operate to get things populated into the site to create experiences? They didn’t really have a name for it. It wasn’t called product for, at least say AOL didn’t call it product at that time.
Hope: But it was interesting. AOL, I really got a lot of user experience and usability at that time, and this is back in the early 2000s. We were doing usability labs. We would bring in a consumers to test whether or not we were designing experiences that were effective. At that time, we used focus groups heavily instead of doing one on one user interviews. We would do focus groups, but again, heavily focused on the problem. I can remember doing extensive focus group research when we signed a new jobs partner, which happened to be CareerBuilder, which I ultimately ended up joining. But they were really trying to understand, I was trying to understand what is our value proposition to get people who are looking for jobs to use CareerBuilder on AOL as opposed to CareerBuilder on CareerBuilder so that we could actually create an experience that people would want to use, and it would drive our KPIs.
Holly: That’s really helpful to paint the picture so we can understand a better. Do you recall what the value proposition was for that case? I’m curious, [inaudible] AOL.
Hope: Well, what we came up with, was this the most compelling? I don’t know, and it was a very interesting time in the internet history. But AOL had a lot of anchor tenant models, tenancy model. So shopping was a multi-tenancy model, and usually we would pick a single category killer to be our single vertical partner. And I needed a reason for them to use CareerBuilder on AOL. And what I found is, and this was again, very cyclical in the job market. It was at a time when there was higher unemployment rates. So what we found through our customer research was that people wanted to know the second a job was posted. Because they knew if it had been posted too late, there would be too many other applicants.
Hope: So what I arranged with CareerBuilder was that okay, I need you guys to give me a feed through an API that was updated as soon as a job is posted. And that way we could instantaneously through AOL’s competitive advantage, which at that time was instant messaging. We could through an instant message if you were online and you had set up a job alert, you could instantly be notified. So that was the value proposition that leveraged the competitive advantage was for AOL and was feasible based on career builder and valuable to the customer.
Holly: Wow. I never would’ve thought of that, but I totally can follow why that would have been the thing you could do with those raw materials. So did you stick with that long enough to see how it played out?
Hope: Yeah, so we did have a fair amount. So I’m very data and analytically oriented. So absolutely we had tracking on that. I don’t remember the specifics because this is ages ago. But we would track to see how many job applications came through that source. And that was part of our ongoing reviews in terms of how the partnership was. So it wasn’t that highest contributing source of applications, but it was a significant source of applications that helped tell the story about why you should set up your job alerts on AOL as opposed to on CareerBuilder, but still as valuable to CareerBuilder.
Holly: Cool. So you went from there to CareerBuilder, and it sounds like you probably saw many seasons of CareerBuilder’s journey. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like, where were they at when you joined? What were the ups and downs?
Hope: Yeah. So when I joined CareerBuilder, I joined as VP business development. There were two dominant products in CareerBuilder’s portfolio, which was jobs and resume database. There was some fledgling, niche site products. But for the most part, that’s what the entire company had been built on. There was no product organization. It was CEO to engineering, or sales to engineering. It just wasn’t something that … there was one under resourced and ill-equipped usability person who largely was trying to fight against the instincts of the organization, to try to create pleasant product experiences. But there was I would say a misguided belief that the engineers could do at all.
Hope: So part of the journey, and this was a multiyear journey, was as we started creating new product experiences, how do we actually effectively resource these teams so that these aren’t projects, these are actually ongoing entities that are being created that will have customers, that will have evolving needs. And so how do we create the team and infrastructure that we need to be able to really expand the product portfolio.
Hope: So first we started with dedicated teams. We started with product managers associated with those teams. And over time, we ended up out of necessity building out a UX organization to help support creating experiences that actually were usable. And frankly for the sales team, a lot more fun to demo because they actually looked like products people might want to use.
Holly: Wow. I love the way you described the poor usability person in that original setup.
Hope: He was fighting the good fight, but he was fighting it alone against a very confident leadership team who felt like that seemed frivolous. “We don’t need that.”
Holly: Yes. Oh man. Poor guy. So it sounds like there was a pretty transformative situation there if you managed to build out product teams that were focused, and UX, and things like that. At that point in time, what were the resources, or the coaches, or how did you figure out what should be done or how it might look?
Hope: So for a while, it was trial and error by me and my team trying to think about how do we actually set revenue targets for these new products? How do we know who the target customer is? How do we actually figure out what’s the right place to start and how to build? So for a long time it was trial and error.
Hope: And then one of the things that, I would read books and articles, but one of the key, I would say pivotal moments for me in my product leadership journey was joining an organization called Collaborative Gain. Collaborative Gain, I forget, at that time it was maybe Creative Good, but it became Collaborative Gain.
Hope: And what was significant about that is now I was surrounded by a community of peers, people who led product, led technology, led UX. And being able to learn and leverage their experiences just helped fuel my mind with so many more possibilities and options for my teams to be successful, for my company to be successful. So that was a really important moment in my life. And while I had read Inspired and was familiar with Marty Cagan, literally to a person, everybody had had Marty Cagan come in and do the workshop, which is basically day one, here’s everything you’re doing wrong. Day two, here’s how to do better. So very quickly we had Marty come in. And that way, the rest of my organization could have the same epiphany as I was having.
Holly: That sounds amazing. It’s so transformative when you start having the support and just a picture of what better could be. So just for anyone who hasn’t heard of Collaborative Gain yet, because I know that in my experience has been something that it’s like, it’s almost sounds like the secret club that people get to know about when they reach a certain point. But that is led by Phil Terry who wrote Customers Included. Is that right?
Hope: That’s correct. Yeah. Phil’s the mastermind behind it. What I love about the Collaborative Gain model, it’s essentially you’re getting together in councils have 15 to 20 members. People who are in non-competitive companies, who really are there to learn and share what they’ve learned. It’s this great community of helpers. And you meet twice a year, but you have access to one another all year round. It’s a wonderful community. And most recently, I was asked to come back as a moderator and I’m thrilled to be able to do that. It’s a wonderful group. And every product leader who I chat with who’s not a member of that community, I highly recommend they check it out.
Holly: Yeah. Awesome. So tell me a little bit more whether through your time at career builder or one of the next places that you went. But tell me a little bit more about this journey of helping the people around you change what they’re even aspiring to for how they work. Because it sounds like you are kind of the vanguard of, “We could do things this way.” And I know that people often don’t love that the experience of coming to the realization that the way they were doing it was not the best way. What did that look like?
Hope: Yeah, so maybe I can give an example from when I was at BeachBody. Because having gone through such a significant transformation at CareerBuilder and being able to see the change and the quality of the products, the benefits in terms of sales, we were able to diversify our revenue from two products that were largely under extreme competitive threat from LinkedIn and Monster. To an indeed, to having a real diversified portfolio of products that’s all different needs for our customers, easy for our sales force to sell, easy for our account management team to position for renewal. I was excited to take on another transformation role.
Hope: So I joined beach body working for the CTO. So every company does it a little bit differently. In that company, it reported into the technology organization. And I inherited a team of product managers in title, project managers in reality. Who were taking requests, trying to scope them out, give a timeline and a cost estimate to the stakeholder partner’s tracking hours to really drive towards the cost metric. As opposed to the value creation metrics.
Hope: So when you walk into a situation like that, it is what people know. And very few people had any other experienced even recognized that they were wandering in the dark. Right? So this is a really challenging, but it can be a rewarding situation to walk into.
Hope: So the first thing that I did there was really just observe, what’s the dynamic today? What’s the relationships like? What are the goals, how do we track success? Just really trying to understand what the starting point was. And when I gathered my team together, we did an all hands where I said, “Okay look, here’s what I’ve observed for the the last six weeks or so. And here’s my concern. There’s not really clear goals at the company level. So that’s something that I’ve got to take on so that I can give you clarity about what success looks like. And two, you have great project management skills, but we don’t track the value of anything were created. And as soon as something’s launched, we’ve forgotten about it because we’ve got to move on to the next thing to launch. And I am personally concerned about the viability of your careers in the product field if this is the way we continue to operate.”
Hope: So that was my motivational hook was not only do you want to create more value for the company, for the customers, but you personally. You are going to have a limited career, limited marketability for your skills in product if you don’t know how to do this.
Hope: So that was really my how do I create discomfort with the status quo? And my mantra as a leader is I accept if you don’t have the information that you need to do your job well. And I can work with willing all day long. But I can do virtually nothing with unwilling.
Hope: So through your actions more so than what you say, if I see that you are unwilling to change your behavior, then I have to get somebody else in. And that was really how I approached it. And had to do a lot of legwork. Not only developing the teams, bringing in coaches for the teams. Teresa Torres is somebody that I’ve worked with for awhile and she coached my teams at BeachBody. But it really starts with the individual. And if you don’t ultimately care that you’re working on something meaningful, that you want to do your job well, that you want to know what good looks like, there’s not much for me to do.
Holly: Yeah, that sounds like some real tough love there. I’m curious. I think one of the things that for newer leaders are newer managers, it’s not always obvious that they have to be so clear about that, for the people under them. Right? Did you ever struggle with that, or was that just intuitive and obvious to you that you needed to lay down this is what will happen?
Hope: I don’t know if it’s intuitive. I’m sure there’s 1,000 books written on it, but people don’t change unless they’re uncomfortable with the status quo. Period, end of story. So if there is no discomfort, if everything seems fine with the status quo, then people are going to gravitate to what they know, and what they’re comfortable with. And I find that time and time again that you have to be sufficiently disturbed. Even when I’m coaching and advising leaders or teams now, if everything’s kind of been going okay, they kind of are curious. THey’ll listen, but they won’t internalize it, they won’t put it into action.
Hope: And I’d much rather work with leaders and teams that are like, “Yeah, I do not want to deal with another failure. I’m so sick of working on projects that go nowhere.” And I think it’s largely about do you have respect for your time, and for your company, and your customers? If you do, there’s no other way to operate in my mind than having clear goals, making evidence based decisions, and getting alignment on those decisions and the consequences of making good decisions and bad decisions. So to me it’s really simple and clarifying, but I know not everybody is at that point.
Holly: Yeah. I love it. Seems so simple and clarifying to me too, but it didn’t always. So tell me more on the alignment side. So let’s say that you’ve worked whether it’s at BeachBody, or I guess let’s keep the BeachBody story going. So you dive in, you realize they need some clear goals. So presumably you help them, you do some evidence based strategy, research and such. And you help them come up with those are. Where do you go from there? How do you build alignment around them? How do you make sure everyone understands them? What does that look like?
Hope: Yeah. Well, I’ll give you an example. So I walked in. As with any new leader, you’ve got to figure out where are my quick win opportunities? And I’m doing this major change management. I walked into a bunch of groups of project managers working on stuff. I literally made everybody write down what they thought might be a product, put it on a sticky note, and put it up on a whiteboard. There weren’t predefined products, because everything had been a project. So I sifted through all that. And ultimately came up with three different categories of products organized around their users. So one of the categories was coaches. And so BeachBody has like 250,000 coaches. So they’re a pretty big sales engine for the company. And there was a team product and engineering and design working on a new mobile apps, a sales productivity tool if you will for coaches.
Hope: But they weren’t allowed to talk to the coaches, because the coach network team talked to the coaches all the time and they knew everything about what the coaches needed. “And if you want to talk to the coaches, well we actually have a market research group.” So you have to find time on their calendar to do the market research. And I was like, “No. We are not going to make any good decisions if we are not directly interfacing with these coaches.”
Hope: So the first thing I did was recognize that this was going on, create with the coach network stakeholders. “We are not going to make good decisions without firsthand knowledge and shared understanding of exactly what the pain points are,” based on what they’re doing today. Because again, there were no product analytics baked into the existing product that we’re using.
Hope: So we’re blind on usage data. We’re blind because we don’t have access to the customers. So I just want to throw a bomb in that right away because I know how clarifying it’s going to be once we start actually having these conversations.
Hope: So we clarified that we’re not going to have success with this new coach mobile app if we can’t get coaches using it and advocating for other coaches to use that. So we clarified that as the outcome that we were looking for. But the specific KPI was we want to get 70% of coaches using this new coach mobile app within the first three months after it’s launched. So that was our KPI.
Hope: So we aligned on the success metric. We’ve got direct access to coaches. This was our first … watching them, what they do with their current application was our best proxy for what it might look like if we’d had perfectly instrumented analytics in the product. And that helped us really define what the MVP was that we were going to release.
Hope: What was super powerful about that was as we were recording, I’m a huge, huge fan of recording your interviews with customers. Because if your stakeholders are not going to participate in all your customer research, you need to be able to hit the play button and point to the exact moments that your intended customers are struggling with or would value so that we can again, all quickly align on the most important things to do next.
Hope: So the initial outcome of that effort was, so I started in April. We had this big coach network event of 50,000 coaches in Nashville in July. And we demoed on stage the MVP of the new coach network, or coach mobile app, and got standing ovation. Because again, we understood so much about what they needed from a mobile friendly dashboard to help them run their business. At least for the MVP that we had a super successful rollout and were able to actually hit that metric within the first two months postlaunch.
Hope: So again, this just comes back to like, it actually is really not that hard. You just got to get on the same page, and set a goal that’s important, and get direct access to the customers. And ideally you have data, and you can actually make a lot of good choices.
Holly: Yeah. Do you recall from that experience any hard choices? Were there parts where you were advocating for something or a member of your team was advocating for something based on what they saw, and other people maybe felt uncomfortable with it, but you had to make it anyways?
Hope: There’s always a desire for more. Because again, when you think about the types of complaints that come in to the coach network support line, it’s a lot of these edge cases, or a lot of these one percenters of the coaches that are incredibly valuable to the company, but are at such a level of access and need that it actually is not representative of the majority. So it’s not that we don’t want to do that, but if our goal is to get adoption from 70%, we cannot be led by the 1%.
Hope: So if it’s literally just breaking down that math, and again do we want to change the goal, or do we still believe in this goal so that we can make the choices? We’re not saying never. We’re saying not first.
Holly: Yeah. That’s fantastic. It’s not surprising if you follow those approaches, and you talk to customers, and you looked at data, and you ran experiments and everything that you could reach and exceed your goal.
Holly: But I think a lot of people that I talk to, there’s a group … people are all at different places, right? But I’ve certainly talked to people who think they’re doing these things, but they’re not hitting their goals. And I have my own thoughts as to why that happens. But I’m curious if you come across that. And if you’re looking back on your BeachBody example, if you have any things you can think about where it’s like, “Well, I’ve seen other teams struggle with this part. This is how we overcame it.”
Hope: Yeah. So I guess maybe not from BeachBody, but one of the things that … so again, my approach is clear, meaningful goals. Teams organized around a target customer or user. And providing full transparency to the rest of the organization about this is the goal. Here’s what we’ve missed. Or here’s what we achieved.
Hope: And what I’ve actually found is that not everybody, and this is just human nature, has the same level of comfort with objectivity that I do. So we would do these quarterly product reviews, and each of the product leads and basically say, “Here’s our goal for this quarter. Here was our goal last quarter. This is what we achieved. This is what we did.”
Hope: And even though that was the expectation in terms of the template and the structure, people find their way to put a rosy picture on the things that didn’t actually meet expectations. Because there’s a lot of personal pride tied up in the work that you do, and the product that you’re working on. And nobody wants to feel like we’re actually not performing, right? But unless you can get real about why we didn’t meet our objective, maybe we set the wrong objective. That’s totally possible. And then let’s say actually we think we had the wrong goal. And here now that we have a better baseline or a better understanding, we feel like we need to revise the goal to X. To me, I would prefer that to let’s just sugarcoat and pretend that everything’s fine. Meanwhile, everybody in the room knows that you didn’t meet that goal, and it’s a really awkward conversation.
Hope: So to me, I see that more often is just this general discomfort with being pinned down to an outcome goal. People just really want more shades of gray in their success, which is why I say this is objectively what we need to do to actually drive value to our company and our customers. We’re going to do a lot of activity underneath that. We’re going to learn a lot, we’re going to try some things. They’re not going to work out. And all of that is to get to this end result.
Hope: So if we have a goal that is meaningful for a longer period of time, we can make mistakes along the way. But at some point, there’s going to be this moment where we still haven’t hit this goal. And so we have to decide did we pick the wrong customer, did we pick the wrong goal, or do we just have the wrong team working on it? That’s what we need to really understand as a leader and be objective. Because to me, that is the critical part of the product role. You have to have deep empathy for your customers, your stakeholders, users, shareholders, board members, whatever. But you also have to have extreme objectivity in your decision making.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that you mentioned in there is something that I’ve in my own circles, which I’ve noticed that everyone has different experiences and paths. But in my own, I’ve seen maybe the fewest leadership teams get right, which is identifying whether it was the team or the objective that was the problem.
Holly: So I’ve definitely seen places where on the one hand, I’ve been places where what I saw was too quickly saying it was the team’s faults when it seemed like no one could have ever achieved that objective. Or maybe more accurately, someone could have achieved that objective if the right foundation and support were in place around them, but it wasn’t..
Holly: Then on the other side, I’ve also worked with leadership teams where they were so hesitant to ever say it was the team’s fault. And it seems that people were never let go or they were never redirected to other things. And it was always just accepted. Then that I think had an effect on the rest of people’s desire to strive for the best.
Holly: I’m curious if you’ve seen, how do people figure that out? How do they know or how can they reach for the right information to figure out what needs to change if they haven’t reached those goals?
Hope: Yeah. So for me as a leader, again, my job … so now, this is what I advise other leaders. You need to create the right environment and expectations for good decision making from your product teams. And that is doing regular discovery, having clear goals, making sure the team is doing a lot of considering multiple options for how they’re going to achieve those goals. Finding out which is the best potential opportunity to hit that goal for the least amount of investment.
Hope: So assuming you’ve created the right environment where you know people have access, knowledge, and are sufficiently resourced, and have a clear goal, then it really is up to the team. So that’s where if the team … and this is something I’ve had to work through with a number of orgs. Just having somebody in the product manager role or in the dev lead role doesn’t mean that they are sufficiently the right type of people for the specific stage of opportunity. There are products that are more in the incremental maintenance mode, cash cows still creating value. But it’s not the focus of the sales team. They’re not actively trying to get a lot of new customers, really about retention.
Hope: And there’s people who are really good at the tweaking and optimization. And then there are other products managers who are much more, “I want to be exploring out in the wild and figuring out what the opportunity is.”
Hope: I think your job as a leader is to find out where people’s natural comfort and ability is, and try to make sure that they are responsible for the products that are leveraging their strengths. So this is where, is it about the team? That’s to me, the crux of it. Is if you don’t have a good strong partnership between UX product and engineering, and they’ve got the right mindset and the right skillset for the stage at which their product is in terms of the life cycle. It’s emerging, it’s established. Maybe we’re milking it or it’s time to retire it. You’re going to struggle to get your goals met because you might not have the right people in the right roles.
Holly: Yeah. So did you ever find that you’ve worked with say a coaching client or maybe someone who was on a team you inherited, that thought their team was sufficiently resourced and had the right access, but actually they didn’t?
Hope: So I have worked with some product leaders recently who recognized that their teams maybe were not doing the discovery that they needed to. Maybe they were again, being too directed by other parts of the company. So that’s now creating this discussion of, so what actually do they need to be doing? Because some of it is just changing how you spend your time as a product manager. And sometimes you have real practical blockers internally. They could be cultural blockers. They could be how we manage customers and who’s allowed to talk to them. And there might just be we don’t have great databases to keep track of the things that we need to know about our products.
Hope: So to me, that’s part of what I try to help product leaders do is really break it down. Is it people, or process, or I’ll call it product. But essentially the fundamental things that you need to have at your fingertips so that we can focus in the areas that are most likely to create some wins around.
Hope: I would say for a lot of product leaders, they care deeply about being great at their job and creating value for customers. This is a hard job. If you don’t have a strong love and passion for doing the right thing and creating value, you’re never going to weather the storms that are going to becoming your way with the opinion wars, and the lack of easy obvious market opportunities to pursue, and competitive threats. There’s just a lot that you’re going to have to face.
Hope: So that to me is where I try to figure out do they have the right mindset? Because we can do all the blocking and tackling. Maybe I have to get on the phone call with the CEO, and try to open their mind that there’s a bunch of fundamental things that just aren’t true. So if you don’t think this product leader is successful, maybe we should be looking at some of the other things like the fact that you just made 10 promises to 10 customers that completely conflict with what you’ve asked to be in the roadmap. So how are we going to resolve that conflict of interest?
Hope: So every product leader has a slightly different set of circumstances that they’re inheriting. But I think most of these problems are solvable with a preference for truth, healthy dialogue, and clear goals.
Holly: Yeah. Definitely. So I think that makes a lot of sense. If you focus first on having the right mindset and then getting the right things unblocked, if you’re still having trouble after that, then there’s probably something going on with the team itself.
Hope: Yes.
Holly: Yeah. So I want to hear a little bit more about what you’re doing these days. I know your consulting is called Fearless Product, and I want to hear a bit more about why Fearless Product Leadership. Why fearless? Why was that a thing?
Hope: I know. Why is that? So part of it is I find that a lot of people, again, at least the people that I talk to, are doing product for the first time or in a situation where they’re being asked to do something that they’ve not encountered before. And just to give you some clarity, there’s three components to my coaching and consulting business. One is doing hands on product leader work. Could be a mix of discovery, go to market. Right now I’m working with a multinational company that they’ve acquired a number of companies. But yet, they haven’t actually brought these products to market in a coordinated way. So it’s a mix of discovery and go to market, and how to actually create time and space for people to actually create new integrated product experiences that deliver incremental value and growth. So I do hands on product work. I do coaching for product leaders, and then I’ll do product team coaching that I work with Teresa Torres on using her curriculum.
Hope: The product coaching, which is to me some of the most fun work that, I do is people are responsible for product, but they didn’t grow up through the product management function. So former heads of engineering, former heads of design, former consultants that are now in a product leadership role. Or, they’ve been a product manager and now they’re at say a start up, where they are now expected to head product. And nobody else in the company has really got any product leadership experience. So there’s nobody else that they’re going to learn from. They’re expected to come in and know it all, and they don’t of course. How could you?
Hope: So that’s the work that I’m doing now is really trying to say what is it that you are trying to achieve? Because [inaudible] what’s your goal, what does success look like? And what are the either skills gap, knowledge gaps, different perspective, different ways that other people have solved the problems so that I can help accelerate your learning curve, and make you successful? But I do that as a hands on coach with you and the work you’re trying to accomplish.
Holly: Awesome. I know that there’s a lot of need for all of those things. So do you find that there are people that you work with who are feeling some fear around the things they’re being asked to do?
Hope: Yeah. Oftentimes, the fear comes from a couple of places. It comes from, “I think I’m doing the right thing. I’ve read Marty Cagan, I read all the blogs. And yet, I feel like I’m in a weird alternate universe where nobody feels like those are the right things to do. So am I crazy, or am I working with crazy?”
Holly: Oh my God, yes. I’ve heard that so many times too. Yeah.
Hope: That’s one. So I’ve got to gauge what do you think is good, and let me tell you what I think is good. The second is I’m working with a startup founder, he’s a wonderful man. He’s been building for a couple of years. And when I met with him I was like, “Who’s used your product?” He’s like, “Nobody because we just need to do one more thing.” And I’m like, “No, we’re actually going to talk to people like now.” And we were talking about the user interviews. He’s like, “I’m kind of nervous. What if they say that’s not what I want or I don’t need that?” I’m like, “Exactly, this is why we’re going to have”-
Holly: That’s the point. Yes.
Hope: He’s super self aware, and humble, and desperately wants to make this successful. He cares deeply about the problem space. So we just got to rip the bandaid off and get some feedback.
Hope: Or other people, they’re nervous that it’s like the imposter syndrome. I presented myself as somebody who can do this job, and I’m not totally sure. So they just need a sounding board and somebody to like check their work or give them tips so that they can competently proceed feeling like yeah, I’ve actually got a good base of understanding to feel confident in these decisions. So that’s to me why I call it Fearless Product, because everybody has that feeling of I’m not really sure I’m doing this the right way. Because every company is different. The people who you’re going to be partnered with in the company all are coming from very, very different and likely insufficient backgrounds to know what good modern product development practices look like. And you have to steer the ship, which is largely going to be a ton of change management or discomfort, challenging the status quo bias, challenging people’s confirmation bias. And unless you have this body of evidence, you’re not going to be able to competently say, “I reject the notion that the CEO should decide everything in the product roadmap.” That’s the reality.
Holly: Yeah. Well I love it. Actually, I think before you and I talked the first time, I had seen your stuff. And just seeing Fearless Product Leadership, it spoke to me. I was like, “Yes, we need to create more fearless people.”
Hope: Well, I’ll say, I just want to say this. One of the things that I find challenging is again, this is a role. It hasn’t been around that long. And even less are the people who’ve had sufficient amounts of years of experience doing modern product management, going through all the trial and errors, putting different techniques into practice, confidently releasing product and creating value. And yet, what I find is a number of times people who contact me, and I’m going to say this with love and respect.
Hope: But oftentimes, there are women who really want to do great in their job. So you have these women who want to be a great product leader, want to create a great environment for their teams, want to create success for their customers. And yet they’re in an environment where they feel like they have to pay for this type of coaching out of their own pocket.
Hope: And I find that heartbreaking, because I don’t think the learning and development approved course list has really got a lot of helpful resources for people to learn how to do this well. And at the end of the day, people are making this investment in themselves for the benefit of their company and customer success. So I think that’s just a tricky state in terms of this profession and the options available to people. Yeah, you can go to conferences. They’re awesome. You can read a lot, you can listen to podcasts like yours, which is fantastic. You can watch the video series that I have. But there’s a lot more hands on work that I think benefits more product leaders and teams, and doesn’t fit the learning and development budget model that a lot of companies have. And I think that’s a shame and a mess.
Holly: Yes. Preach it. I definitely agree. I also, similar to you I do coaching as well. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had somebody really want this and go to their somebody who’s making a budgetary decision. Then they go and try and find if they have the learning and development budget. Then something that I’ve had happen recently was they said, “Okay, we can buy five sessions.” But then the same person who agreed to do that told me they have three open positions for engineers. And I’m like, “You’re not putting your money in the right place. You’re going to waste that engineering money if your product leader doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
Hope: That’s actually the first place I tell people to look. Odds are you’ve got unfilled headcount either in your team or in the organization. And rather than that going back to the bottom line, start getting real value now. And so yeah. It’s where we are in this product leader role. The fact that it’s new and emerging, and there’s not the budget enablement to help people learn. And that means that there’s going to be more people learning through trial and error at the company’s expense.
Holly: Yes, absolutely. But it comes back to the newness of the role, and the evolution of the industry as a whole, and all of these things. I’m sure, I don’t know how many years ago. But many decades ago, this was probably true for roles that we now take for granted, that there’s just so many resources, and coaching, and training models for.
Hope: Right. And people don’t think twice about bringing in sales trainers and other things, because they say, “That’s going to directly help the productivity of my sales team.” They I think assume that the product role is pretty simple. And if you hire somebody with a product manager title or a product leader title, that they come with a lot of experience and expertise. Which they probably do, but product by its very nature is doing things the company has never done before, with people who’ve never created that very specific product, or feature, or whatever for that specific customer. So there’s going to be a learning curve. And so how do we shorten that so that we get the team increasing its probability of success for the benefit of the customers, the benefit of the company?
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. I always like to end to find out if there’s anything else you want to share, or a final message for product leaders. What else is on your mind?
Hope: I think for me, I always try to break things down in a couple of different categories. And for me a mantra, it’s easy to sell, easy to renew. I just feel like that helps create the right balance between we need to do things that bring in new customers, that help us evolve our offering to be more competitive, to tap into new markets, new TAM. But we can’t do that if we’re also not making our products easy to renew. Things that you can make sure that our customers continue to get value or get increasing value, so that we can renew for higher price points. So that we’ve got a lot of love and high NPS scores. I think that it’s important for all product leaders and teams to think about what is the framework that it’s going to help expedite good decisions in their inevitable prioritization battles and opinion wars that are going to happen. And so I think the more that people have a framework that is linked to their goals and linked to the company’s success, it helps take some of the pressure off of trying to come up with the perfect prioritization system.
Hope: And that’s part of the reason I create these videos where it’s product leaders speaking from different industries, different stages of company. Because there is no perfect, you just have to figure out what’s going to be the type of system and process that’s going to help you, and your team, and your decision makers at your company make good choices so that the products deliver value.
Hope: And you can go to to get information on my video series, soon to be a podcast, and all my coaching and consulting resources.
Holly: Wonderful. Well thank you so much for your time today Hope. It was a true pleasure to hear more about your journey, and I hope it won’t be the last time we get to hear more about some of the things you’re up to.
Hope: Excellent. Thanks so much Holly. It’s been a lot of fun.
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