The Petra Wille Hypothesis: True Product Leaders Focus on the Development of Strong Product People

Petra Wille is an independent product leadership coach and author of STRONG Product People who’s been helping product teams boost their skill sets and up their game since 2013. Alongside her freelance work, Petra co-organizes and curates Mind the Product Engage Hamburg, Germany.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about why people development is just as important as product development, and how Petra works with clients to identify and improve on gaps in their skillsets.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Petra Wille Hypothesis: True Product Leaders Focus on the Development of Strong Product PeopleHow did Petra’s talent for talking to people lead her to transition from a programmer to a product manager? How did she learn about the role, and why did it describe the things she was already doing? How did she get connected with Marty Cagan? Why was a quickly-growing company the perfect place to learn solid product development principles?

How do you know when a product organization is working well? What tools did Petra work with to help with product in her growth-stage company? How did they structure product around sets of product teams with their own product goals? What was Petra’s experience moving to a new organization, and what realization did she have about the responsibilities of a product manager moving to a new team?

How did Petra get started in coaching product leaders and why was there a need there? What are the benefits of a group coaching setting? How did Petra’s coaching lead her to write her book, STRONG Product People? How do you create your compass as a good product leader, and how do you define what “good” means? How does Petra use illustrations to explain dense concepts?

Why is people development just as important as product development, and why are companies creating the role of product coach? How do you make the case for people development to leadership? How do you make time for personal development? What is the “Future Self Canvas” and how do you use it? How do you help someone identify gaps in their skillset?

What are the trickiest concepts Petra teaches for organizations to understand? Why do so many product leaders struggle with onboarding? Why do so many product leaders out there not have a product background, and what challenges does this create? How does Petra prep product leaders to work with her, and why does she suggest basic product management training as a foundation? Why do many organizations misuse training investments? What should a new product hire expect coming into an organization?

Quotes From This Episode

You should invest approximately the same amount of time in onboarding than you did on hiring somebody. Why should you be investing so much in hiring and then just leaving them alone at that desk? Click To Tweet For onboarding, my main KPI is first educated decision made. We want to speed up the time to when the first educated decision is made. Click To Tweet My key advice to product leaders is to create your own definition of what a great product person looks like. Make sure your people know about it and that you use it whenever you can. Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science podcast, where we’re helping startups, founders, and product leaders build high growth products, teams, and companies through real conversations with people who’ve tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host to Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science. This week on the Product Science podcast I’m excited to share a conversation with Petra Wille. Petra is an independent product leadership coach and author of Strong Products People, who’s been helping product teams boost their skill sets and up their game since 2013. Alongside her freelance work, Petra co-organizes and curates Mind the Product Engage in Hamburg in Germany. Petra welcome.
Petra Wille: Hi Holly. Thanks for having me. Thanks for inviting me.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I’m so excited to talk to you. So I always like to get started with just learning more about people’s journey into product. So how did you make your way into product?
Petra Wille: Oh, actually there was a pretty, I would say a pretty classical path. I actually did study something rather technical and started programming while doing that. And that’s how I actually earned the first years of money that I [inaudible]. It was a job back in the German publishing house on third in Germany where I, yes, work as a developer for two years straight. And people just really discovered that I have this talent of talking to customers and talking to clients and talking to stakeholders and they always put me in front of when there was some conflicts arising, or some things need to be explained a bit more. And it’s always like, “Can you please go to this meeting and just help them understand what we’re currently doing and why our priorities are not clear and why we need help from them on things like that.”
So I slowly transitioned into what was called the project manager back then. The term product manager was not around, at least not in Germany in the digital scene at that point in time. And I actually did this work with this company for two years and decided to join SAP at a later stage as a people was kind of a mixed role. So I did again some development, but a lot of consulting as well, so that helped me to get a bit more into the consulting side of things. I saw so many clients mainly European, large corporate companies that I was helping with knowledge management topics. And it all bought of course SAP is Standard Software. And I hated the fact that I helped each and every of those clients to change the exact same things or to customize the exact same things.
And I wanted it to be embedded in the Standard Software. And at that time it took ages for SAP to change something in the standard. So that’s why I had this idea of maybe I can go somewhere where I’m much closer to the developers and where I really could work on the software. And that’s when I stumbled upon a job ad for Zing, which is the German version of LinkedIn, I’d say. And they were searching for a product person. It was the first time that I’d really read the job and thought like all the things that they actually searching for, the things that I’m doing for quite some time already, I just didn’t know that it is called product management. So I applied, they hired me, I ended up in Hamburg and worked with the same for four and a half years. It was a pretty small startup back at the time. Now it’s a large corporate company as well. But I joined them with around 80 employees.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Uh, that sounds like a great journey. Tell us a little more about that. So you joined them at 80 employees, you’re there for four and a half years. What was the growth like while you were there?
Petra Wille: Massive. It was a bit on steroids. So I left the company when they had something like, I would say 700 employees. So it more or less doubled each year. And I was responsible for various products they had, as it is a social network I first of all was taking care of the events marketplace. Then I transitioned into creating the company profiles for them, which is more like a B2B product and ended up being responsible for the whole e-recruiting part of the platform, which was B2B and obviously job seeker marketplace. So that was pretty cool. And I had really the pleasure to work with several great product managers back at the time. So Zing really invested a lot of money in our personal development as product managers so that helped a lot. For example, Marty came and helped us for several years, so that was nice. And my product leads have been really strong. Men and women really learned how product leadership can be done and how it is to work in an empowered cross functional team.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I bet it’s not a coincidence that you got to learn that and see that in practice at a place where things were growing so fast.
Petra Wille: Yeah. That’s the thing. And that’s what helps your personal development journey. If you find a company where one, the leaders are strong and are some people you can learn from and two, you get the chance to try as much of the things you learn along the way, and really put them in practice and see what works and whatnot.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. So what was the product organization like there? How can you look at it and say, “Oh, this was an empowered workplace.”
Petra Wille: First of all, it was a nice time to be there because we were about 20 product managers I’d say. And each one of us was super dedicated, really willing to move things forward, really outcome-driven. There was a strong reuse of research focus already, so that definitely helped, so that wasn’t nothing that we had to massively convince the leaders there to be a nice idea. Several of the leaders came from eBay, so they brought some of the things they learned there, obviously. And that’s, I think, where they met Marty and so that’s how much it came along. None of us were the same. We were pretty heterogeneous team, many discussions, many arguments, but always for the better. So I really enjoyed working there back at the time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome.
Petra Wille: So everybody was always super open trying new methodologies and tools and freely sharing what they learned and what worked. Even if I could not try all the things I at least had colleagues that could try new things and see what works. So we really built a nice toolbox along the way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. What were some of the tools that you got to try out there?
Petra Wille: So many. I worked a lot with personas. I’ve totally fell in love with Jeff Patton’s Story Maps. So that was something. I’m using ever since all the time. Was trying to jobs to be done, user journey mapping. Oh, so many things. The interest assumption mapping, experimenting with a lot of experiments obviously. So what kind of landing pages can we do, and what can we do with a prototype and a usability test. And what works if you do an AB test, and when better not to do an AB test. So all these kinds of experimentation was going on as well. We were starting to work data-driven back at the time as well so that was super nice. And with a social network, you have the traffic you need to do this as well. So that was super cool.
Holly Hester-Reilly: What was the user base like?
Petra Wille: Back at the time, around 30 million people, I guess, if I remember correctly mainly from Europe. So it was strong of course, in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. And then there was a pretty big user base in Turkey, Spain because of acquisitions mainly. And then we tried to roll out internationally, but we were super Europe focused.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Got it. Awesome.
Petra Wille: It was a B2B. It was always so many marketplaces. So the events part where the market plays on its own, company profile, job platform, and then the main social networking part was more B2C focused product. And all of this under one brand, and one user experience.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It must’ve been a lot to coordinate.
Petra Wille: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So what were some of the ways that the leadership there coordinated across all of the different products in the portfolio?
Petra Wille: In a startup that was growing that much back at the time, it was like everybody was learning at the same time. So there were not so many proven ways of how we were orchestrating this. And I think we reinvented the way we collaborating and the lining every other week, maybe, not that often. But at least in the quarterly cycle we tried to create a bit more transparency. When I joined the company was actually a pretty marketing-driven environment, and it was managed by a 600 lines Excel spreadsheet with a lot of product wishes, I would call them.
And then we slowly transferred this into, okay, now there are teams, they have their own goals and their own purpose, and hopefully their own product vision and mission for a part of the platform, and can we aligned the spec looks around these product missions and product visions and goals. All the free stuff. So we were really like creating this company that has to strong empower teams with strong goals. And that helped a lot. And alignment in the end, it was taskforce. It was a clever stacking up of taskforce in various ways and stand ups in various ways and different frequencies. And a lot of people that were just dedicated to make things work.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That makes sense. So what did you do after you left there?
Petra Wille: Decided to join a small company. Again, 60 people back at the time and the name is Tolingo and it is a translation agency. And the idea was to automize a lot of the translation agency work to see what we can do though digitalization wise. I joined as head of product and after several months was asked if I want to act as a Managing Director there as well. And I did. And there was a massive learning curve as well, worked a lot with the investors, with the board of the investors in that case, learned a lot from them. What are they looking for? What are they aiming for? What are their main goals? But also for how do you really deeply care about 60 people you’re then ultimately responsible for, because that’s the big difference.
As long as you are a product manager, you’re not ultimately CEO of anything because it’s not that you, deeply worry about the people and their salaries and you do once you are Managing Director of a company. So there was a steep learning curve there. But I really liked it Built the product team obviously there and for two years, we’ve really recreated their whole infrastructure of how they actually were dealing with translation jobs. It was a bit too early if you would ask me again. So maybe if we would have started this two years later, it would have been technology wise, much easier to get all of this done. So in the end we were running out of money and the hockey stick was not happening more or less. We were making good money, so the company still exists, they’re still in the translation agency. But we didn’t find a product market fit that was big enough to really have a product organization that was that big than the one that we have created because of them investment.
And after that two years I said I was spending there, I decided to just try if Product Management is something that works in a freelance position because I wanted to have a bit more flexibility and that worked pretty well in Europe. I had this discussion once with Marty, if it would. And it’s really like an international thing because in the US it might not, in Germany it’s pretty common that companies are hiring you for nine months as a freelancer to just help them with one project because it’s super hard to hire people here and it’s even harder to fire them once a project is over, it’s nearly impossible.
So that’s why it’s pretty common that people have long-term freelance gigs here. And that’s what I started with. And then it super quickly became more of an interim’s leadership freelancing thing because people knew I did product leadership before. So they asked me, “Hey, can you come we have, I don’t know, I did several things for incubators where they said like, “Look, we want to run this five to 10 people team, and it’s a new topic we want to look into. It’s not yet a company. Could you just help us build the first product and see if there is a product market fit?” So I did several gigs like that. And then slowly, four years ago transitioned into coaching for product people a bit more and not working on products that much. And the last two years I mainly was focusing on coaching product leaders that are either first time leaders or they just need somebody to talk to.
Sometimes it’s such a lonely position to be the product leader in a company. And it’s so nice to have somebody who just, you can walk through some of the ideas you’re having when it comes to the structures you’re creating, the processes you’re looking into, and especially how to develop your team deliberately, and how to develop each individual on your team.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Absolutely. So and is that where you’re at now? What is your business look like in terms of coaching and other things?
Petra Wille: That’s actually what I’m currently doing. So I do a solo sessions with individual product leaders and still some PMs and am offering crude coaching sessions. So that’s more like a group of five to seven people learning from each other and learning from me when it comes to the people development part of product leadership mainly. So it’s not so much me talking about vision and product strategy. It’s more about how can you tackle topics like onboarding, hiring patterns, where do you find them, are there any clever alternatives to the things you’re currently already doing, one-on-ones, how to coach your product people, all these kind of things is part of the group coaching sessions and individual sessions as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And are the group coaching sessions, people from different companies or people from the same company?
Petra Wille: Yeah. They’re both. So of course corporates can just have their own small group coaching session, do the several companies a year. And I do, but it’s just I will offer the first one in March public sessions. I never done mixed groups and public sessions so far. So really looking forward to that but pretty confident that it will be as helpful for the people than the corporate and closed session. Maybe even more helpful because you have people from different backgrounds, maybe different countries.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m part of a group where we come from different companies and organizations, and it’s really fun to get to hear regularly from people in different settings. So I’m sure it will work out well.
Petra Wille: Sometimes it’s just that you share some struggles and see like, okay, it’s not only me that is actually having this challenge or something like this. So I think that’s why it’s so beneficial to be in a group.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I think so, too, for sure. So your book came out recently, right?
Petra Wille: Yeah. Yesterday.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yesterday. Very recently. I was going to say, I was like, is it even out yet? Yes, it’s out.
Petra Wille: Since yesterday.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Well, congratulations.
Petra Wille: Thank you.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So you wrote Strong Products People, tell us more about the book.
Petra Wille: So I wrote the book because I wanted to sum of the concepts I’m having in teaching over the last few years, and it was all in my head and I used it for all of my coachings, but it was not structured enough. So that was one of the first reasons why I thought it would be nice to put it up in a book. And the other reason is I don’t scale very well. And I think there’s so many product teams out there, so many especially product leaders that could benefit from some of the concepts that I’m using since years in my coaching practice, because some of them are super easy to explain. And sometimes it’s just like a metaphor or a thought that really helps product leaders to, “Ah, okay maybe that’s a way how I can explain this to my product people.”
And that’s why I actually decided to wrote a book, how to coach product managers. And it’s not only the coaching part, the book is actually tackling its more of that. It’s kind of creating your compass as a product leader. What do you think a good Product Manager needs to bring to the table? So I call it this, define your good. So really make it explicit. What are you expectation when you’re talking to your product people? Because if I ask leaders, that’s often something that is missing. If I ask them, is there a role description, a solid role description? And did you talk about this role description to each and everybody on your team? And the answer to either of those questions usually is no or yeah, we have something, but it’s dated or all these kind of things, right?
So the first part of the book is what Product Managers do and from what Product Managers do creating your definition of what you think a good product person needs in your company, in your context, in your industry, making this explicit, and then being ready to share it with your product people. And the very is canvases and structures and data that help you to come up with this. So you don’t have to stare at a blank paper and think about, what do I need from a product person? So I have some frameworks you could start and I always encourage people to really make it theirs. So just use mine and tear it apart and put it together in another way or something like this. But I wanted to leave the people with something to start on or to build one.
And then one defined what they’re good is I have several concepts of how to do this coaching, how to approach the coaching sessions with their Product Managers, how to explain them, what good is for them, and how they can actually run super helpful motivating coaching sessions, where people end up with a development plan more or less. So a clear focus development plan. I talk a bit about how to find the time for that, because that’s what a lot of leaders struggle with as well. So how do I find the time for all this coaching and development of my Product Managers? So part three is just like a short part three chapters talking about where to find, how to hire, and how to onboard product people. And then the fourth part of the book explains all concepts.
So for example, if you figured out that one of your product people is lacking a bit of privatization, know how to explain privatization to them, or how to explain the concept of iterations and increments, or how to explain time management to product people. So it’s just like a super dense essence of what I’m usually teaching. I put all my drawings in there enough to draw and do a lot of illustrations and some of them might be helpful. You could just draw them on a digital whiteboard or a flip chart once this pandemic is over and use it for your coaching sessions. So that’s part four and that’s the biggest part of the book. So talking about all these concepts.
And the last part is how you as a product leader can create this environment or this culture where product people can actually grow and prosper. It talks a bit about where the product department is located in the org chart, for example. So all these do’s and don’ts and things you could easily track. And if you’re not aware of that that’s something you need to handle or there is a chapter about how to handle conflict and how you can help you people to understand how they could handle conflict on their own.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. It sounds so very meta since it’s all about how to coach the coach, that’s in the org.
Petra Wille: But I think we will see this a bit more often over the next years. I already see some of the larger companies creating this role of a product coach because of the product leaders sometimes need to focus a lot on the product itself, which is a great thing if somebody focuses on the product itself. So totally I loved it, but then people development is so often just a totally underrated thing, or they just don’t find the time. And several larger companies already started to create this role of a product coach for, I don’t know. And then they try to help 20, 15 Product Managers with their development and their careers. Not sure if that’s still to mid last thing an answer to the problems that the product organizations are currently having, but we’ll see.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yap. Time will tell, right?
Petra Wille: Time will tell.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So speaking of time how do you how do you recommend people find the time to do that much coaching? Where does it fit in the schedules of your clients?
Petra Wille: So what I have is I call it Why Should I Care Canvas and I ask them to fill this and it’s reasons. So why should I care for them? Why should I care for us as a product organization? Why should I care for us as a company? And why should I care just personally for me and my own schedule. And for example the NDP, always try to investigate things, maybe you’re just a parent and the baby has been born three months ago and you really want to spend more time with your family. And then that helps you to be more focused in your work. And when we take it from there and really discuss like, but if you want to have more time for the family, what of the things you do you could be ditching?
And the same we are doing, why does it matter to your product people to work on their self development? What is the gain for the company if they do? And that little exercise already helps tremendously to refocus this out. At least sometime off my busy weekly schedule should go into this. And then my recommendation is always start super small because there are things that are easy to use. I’m talking about the future self canvas and I’m sure we can put it in the show notes. I wrote a blog post about it recently. So everybody can read how to use it. It’s super easy. So you could use this right away and it doesn’t require that much preparation for you as a product leader.
You need to find first a coaching topic. So let’s say somebody says like, “I think my privatization skills are not where they should be because people are constantly arguing about my privatizations. I always have to explain why my backlog items are in that order. And that kind of sucks. So can you please help me with my privatization skills?” And then you could fill the future self canvas, which says like, “Describe your assets?” So for example, this, I need to argue about my privatization a lot. That could go into this assets bucket and many other things. So what do people tell you about your privatization skills? So that all goes to the what’s the current state, the asset statement. And then you need to create this to be statements. So how would other people tell that my privatization skill improved? How could I tell my privatization skills improve? And how does it feel?
So that’s super important as a coach to always have this. And how does it feel if this is not longer a problem? Do you will feel relieved and we will have less of this discussions. So that’s something you put in the to be part, and then it’s actions. And so many things in leadership is just like actions and followups. So that’s the third part to the framework, justifying small actions, three to five, and then just make sure you follow up with your Product Managers on how they’re doing on that. There’s a bit more to this. You could think about things like how you think they learn best because some of them learn best by just consuming what other people read.
So then maybe like to read books and blog posts or watching talks, but some of them need to really apply what they’re learning. Otherwise it’s not a really sustainable learning experience. Some may be need to go a training and be in a group for some it’s okay if you paired them up with somebody else from the company and say like, “Hey look, you both have the same topic. Maybe you can explore privatization together.” So all these kinds of things could be helpful. And that’s not a massive amount of time at first.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Right.
Petra Wille: You can become more strategic with these things over time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So how did they do the first part? How do they figure out? Or how does the product leader help their team figure out what they need to improve on?
Petra Wille: That’s part one and two of the books. So you as a leader really need to figure out what is important to you. So your definition of good, what do I need from my product managers? And the fraternization is on that list. And you’re talking about privatization every once in a while. Then it’s easier to recognize maybe there’s something I need to get better at. Or for example, is running red customer interview something you expecting from your product people or not. If you do, then you should edit to your definition of good and you should make sure that they know that this is a skill you want them to pick up. And then you can reflect every once in a while, if they are competent in that skill, or if they lacking some information or want to learn more about it, or want to experiment a bit with that.
And that’s what I said about you don’t have to start from scratch. So I’m created this, I call it the PM wheel. It’s just like a wheel with eight dimensions. And each of the dimension has, I would say 15 to 20 subcategories to it that ask things like, does this product manager know how to run insightful user interviews? So that’s just one example out of many, many in the PM wheel. And that’s something that people could start to use and build on and reflect out of the things that they need. And then it’s easier to talk about it, right? If you have, let’s say, even if you just use the PM will without any customization, I’ll say better than not doing anything like this. Because if you go through this with your product people, they reflect on what they think they’re capable of. You are giving them an idea of what you think they’re capable of. And then you already have some gaps.
Maybe you can motivate them to ask their team or the agile culture around to gather some more feedback. And then we have a pretty nice overview of what other think, what they think, what you think. And that’s how you identifying these gaps, like privatization or something like that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Tell us a little bit about like a difficult situation where, have you ever come across someone who doesn’t acknowledge that they have a difficulty where someone else sees a gap?
Petra Wille: It depends. So what I always making the difference between Product Managers that have reached competence level and Product Managers that are still rather junior and tried to figure out how all of this works. And so most of the people start first as what I call the team focused PM. So they are able to work with the team, they are able to pray the backlog for four to eight weeks, oh, they’re to able to prioritize this. They may be able to do a bit of user research, but they would not be able to do a longer term product strategy and really execute that. And maybe not that good in aligning across teams already or playing all this political piano that you sometimes need to play. So then there they are team focused PM’s and that’s what I call them. They’re have not reached competence level.
And competence level would be, if you would be able to do all these things I was mentioning. So you could do your own product strategy for at least your product, right? And it depends if they’re below competence level, then I never had that because these people are always super eager to learn, happy if somebody’s pointing them at what they should learn next, curating some of these learning experiences for them. Sometimes it’s really just pointing them to your podcasts and the nice talk and the nice blog posts. And then they already have enough information to apply it to their day to day product challenges. It happens once every competence level, because sometimes companies just send them to me because companies think they need to be coached on a particular topic.
And that’s something situations that I’m ending upon. And I try to always make this super clear to the companies that coach that’s not so enforced or force coaching is not something I believe in. So I always try to either not take the client or convince them that they can, I’m happy if they pay me for a coaching this person, but we will be discussing whatever this person actually wants to discuss and not what you have to do is actually dictating. But sometimes it’s helpful if I know what the company thinks. And it surely is helpful if their land manager told them what the company thinks they should actually learn next. And then sometimes still, or most of the time still ending up discussing that topic, but from the angle off the person I’m coaching and not so much from the company.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah that makes sense. I mean, it’s really hard to drive growth from outside, right? It has to come from within the person.
Petra Wille: Yeah. Maybe I would say it’s impossible to. But sometimes it helps that they just have get in contact with me and we have a first session because that can be inspiring. And then some people really opening up and really embracing this chance to actually work with me over time. So that can be. So even if people say like, “Oh, I don’t want to work on this topic right now.” It can be we both have one session and see if something clicks and if not, then I can’t tell. So I can’t help in that case.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah that makes sense. So I’m thinking about the different topics that you’ve covered and I’m wondering are there particular ones that you find you get asked more often than others or that are harder for people to understand.
Petra Wille: From the concepts that I usually explain to Product Managers or to Product Leaders?
Holly Hester-Reilly: The ones that you explain to product leaders.
Petra Wille: So what most of the people do Well, maybe that’s the easier part first. Everybody knows how to find higher and higher product people. So some massively struggle because if they cannot pay what other companies do or something like this, but in general, they know how to do this. Onboarding is a topic a lot of product leaders struggle with. And I have this rule of explain to product leaders. You should approximately invest the same amount of time in onboarding than you did on hiring somebody. Just as a rule of thumb, because why should you be investing so much in hiring and then just leaving them alone at that desk? That doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what a lot of product people experience when they’re joining a company. They may be even get a nice marketing materials set of things with the company name printed on, but then that’s it maybe a notebook with a company name on.
And so that’s one thing we’re talking about a lot onboarding of product management and that’s not rocket science, it just needs to be planned for and scheduled in everybody’s calendars. So that’s actually an easy one, but it needs to be done and a lot of companies don’t do it that much. A lot of product leaders don’t have a product back from themselves, and then they struggle with explaining core concepts of product management. And that’s what I hope that the chapters are helpful for us so that they get the super dense version of how to balance product discovery and product delivery and how they can explain this to the product managers, for example. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I have to ask, it sounds counter-intuitive, I mean, I’ve come across this some, but why, why do you think so there are product leaders out there who don’t have a product background?
Petra Wille: They are so many of them. They’re so many product leaders that come from a marketing background run, from a business development background, from physics backgrounds. I saw all sorts of product managers and it’s counter intuitive, the question is why are companies doing that? But that’s not a question I can answer, but companies are doing that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: They’re doing it a lot.
Petra Wille: They’re doing it a lot and maybe it can work under some circumstances. Because if this leaders acknowledge that they have no clue about product management and it just for example, then they can get a product coach helping them with these topics, or some have super senior product people and the great product culture, and just needed to have a new way of managing that or somebody who is A’s in alignining amongst, I don’t know, departments of the company or something like this.
So it can make sense, but it’s super hard for the Product Managers in this company. If there is a product leader that has no product background. And even if they have a product background some of them never took the time to reflect on how they work as a Product Manager, what worked for them, and that, that does not necessarily mean that it works for others. So I think a bit more, one step back reflecting about what did I do? What did I learn? What of the things that I learned are helpful for others? What of the things that I learned are maybe just biasing my product managers too much, or something like this? And we’re talking a lot about this reflection as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That makes sense. What do you do? Like do these people usually come to you ready to learn or like what is it like when someone comes in and they’re like, “I’ve got this job as a product leader, but I wasn’t a product person before?”
Petra Wille: So for all of them came ready to learn, mainly because of, I tend to advise the companies first on maybe they could send them to some basic training first. So that’s something I don’t do. And then I point them in some other people’s direction that runs standardized basic product management training. So that helps a lot to get going if you don’t have a product background. It’s hard to convince product leaders to take a basic product management training if they’re seasoned managers, but the ones that do always come back and say like, “I knew 80% of the things somebody was talking abouT, the trainer was talking about, but I’m so happy I did it because now I have the latest vocabulary everybody’s using I know how to explain some of the concepts, I am using this 10 illustrations the trainer I was using.
So they never came back and said like, God, it was a massively lame training and I did learn anything. And when they are coming back with this, “Hey, I learned something, and now let’s follow up with the coaching because I have some harder problems to tackle and I need to talk to somebody who really helps me on my particular individual problem.” Then I’m super happy to help and start coaching with them.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah that makes lots of sense. And I know in general coaching is really great after training. When you have a training, I’m sure a lot of us have been through the experience of having a company bring a trainer in and then not having any follow-up afterwards. That’s just like-
Petra Wille: It’s like a super expensive, I don’t know. But some companies just want to tick that off the list. Okay, they have training budget, the private managers, or everybody at the company needs training, so let’s send them to a training. And the companies that do reflect and think like, okay, maybe a training first, then let’s see how it goes. And I would always be like, and then let’s see how it goes is a super okay-ish period as well. And then if they think like, okay, now it could be helpful. I have harder problems to tackle. I need somebody who’s really working with me on that. Then it makes totally sense to bring in a coach, even for rather junior people sometimes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That makes sense.
Petra Wille: Just helps them to speed up massively in their career.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Another question that I had for you is I recently was talking to a person who’s taking a new job. So a Product Leader who’s coming into a new role. What plans do you help them make, or what do you think are good goals for a product leader in a new job as a Product Leader? Maybe they’ve been a product leader before, but at this new company what kind of timeframes should they expect to be making what kind of impacts?
Petra Wille: I think it depends. So I always say it at least takes you 90 days to get into the first basics of your new role and to company and especially the users had, you need to, I don’t know, volunteer and take some hotline calls. You have to do some user interviews. You have to get as close, read a lot of app reviews, whatever it is, but you have to surround yourself with a lot of user feedback plus user data to build your gut feeling and to become a valuable product person. And my main KPI for that is first educated decision made. So we want to speed up the time to the first educated decision made. And then we just talk about what do people think they need to actually get there? And that’s our weekly thing. In the beginning, even maybe daily.
So I recommend Product Leaders to do a super quick daily catch up if somebody is joining in the beginning. So that’s something a product person could ask for us. It could be have super short daily check-ins for the first week, maybe. And then we could do it twice a week, and then maybe once a week and continue with the usual one-on-one rhythm. But make sure you have really short iterations in the beginning because they have to understand how the company works, how your product team works, how what the people there yeah, what they can do and what they can’t, and put the current state of the team is emotional wise and team building ways, all these kinds of things, and you have to understand the product and what it can do and what had cancels.
A lot of things you need to think about. And I wouldn’t say if after three months you have this feeling of, okay, this was a really educated decision I made. I had all the information, you never can have to perfect all information at hand, but at least you had a lot of information at hand and it was an okay-ish decision for you. I think then Daniel did great on your onboarding process. And be sure that 20, not so good decisions following that first one. But slowly over time you will be more confident in what you’re actually deciding as a product person. So that for sure is something I recommend people to do. And then it’s more like, how could we call it, soft fact. So really build supportive alliances, really figure out what other people you need to talk to, what are the early warning people that have really advocates of the user. So that’s often Customer Care colleagues or something like this.
So really make sure you’re connecting with them, connect with your team, connect with stakeholders, outside of that, maybe if that’s possible create your own customer program where you have several customers you can call every once in a while and ask questions about new ideas you’re having. Then make sure that you focus on learning in that first period of time and make sure that everybody knows that you’re still learning. And that will inform good decisions. And then you can make some early wins, and they will hopefully, increase your street credibility within the company. And then slowly, slowly, slowly, get there where you can actually make a bit more strategic decisions and not just like the day to day and nitty gritty details decision.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s really helpful. Thank you for laying that out. I think we’re probably about out of time. So I’m going to ask my last couple of questions. One of the last things I always like to ask people is just if you could sum up what is the most important piece of advice that you have if you could leave people with just one thing?
Petra Wille: So for product leaders it definitely is create your own definition of what a great product person looks like. And make sure your people know about and make sure you use it whenever you can. So you can use it in hiring and onboarding situations in one on one situations, maybe even if you need to hire somebody because then everybody has the same structure and the same treatment kind of and they know what the company expects from them or you are expecting from them. So that’s mainly the key advice. It’s a big time investment I know. But it’s just an upfront investment. Then you have this definition ready.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s awesome. Alright, well, where can people find you if they want to learn more?
Petra Wille: So on my website, which is And on Twitter, which is at Loomista, L-O-O-M-I-S-T-A, that’s maybe the biggest channels to follow and the book is available on Amazon.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you, Petra.
Petra Wille: Thank you Holly.
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