Strong Product People - Developing great Product Managers

Petra Wille was our guest on March 9th, 2022 at the Agile Insights. She talked with Sohrab about her book "STRONG Product People" and her work as a freelance product leadership coach. Petra explained how you can build strong product teams within an organization and how product leaders can become coaches and agile leaders. You can also learn more about her and Sohrabs favorite product, their experience in bringing a product focused view in companies and why you should always be curious a bit longer.

Picture of: Sohrab Salimi

Sohrab is the Founder & CEO of Scrum Academy GmbH & Agile Academy. He is a Certified Scrum Trainer® and Initiator of the agile100 conference series as well as host of the Agile Insights Conversation.

Photo: Petra Wille
Petra Wille

Petra Wille is a freelance product leadership coach. Since 2013, she has been helping product teams expand their product management expertise and ultimately build better products.

The Conversation about Strong Product People (Transkript)

Sohrab: Good morning everyone and welcome to our latest episode of agile insights conversation. My guest today is Petra Wille and Petra will shortly introduce herself. I got to know her through two friends of mine, one is Oliver Winter, a product coach and podcaster here in Germany who has been talking to me about Petra for a long time. He was like you should meet her, you should meet her. And then last time when I talked to Marty Cagan as part of our conversations he also mentioned Petra. So I said now it's really time to reach out to Petra and get to know her. Petra welcome to our show, I'm really delighted to talk to you today!

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Petra: Good morning Sohrab and thank you for having me!

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Petra: So my background and what I'm currently doing. Maybe that's the easiest way to start. I'm a product leadership coach. So I had people in a leadership role managing and leading product organization and product folks to get better in what they do. And so ultimately, hopefully the whole product organization gets better.
Over time so this is kind of what I'm currently doing. I'm focusing on the product leadership level the last three years. I always said two years but I think I have to update it to three years. Now I wrote a book about it. we will talk about it later… and the four to five years before that I was really working with the individual contributor product manager in one-on-one coaching situations mainly to help them for the day. And that was sometimes super high level one-on-one, monthly touch points or really deep. We needed to create a new strategy. And I was asked: “Could you really just come help us do that”.
So there were all sorts of engagements.
And I started my career pretty typical as a software developer some years back and then slowly via project management and requirements engineering back in the days I transitioned into the product management role at companies like SAP which was rather a big one and small startups that actually nobody knows about or knows of so that was kind of my journey.

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Sohrab: Yeah so you've been in the product space now for how long Petra?

Petra: More than fifteen years.

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Sohrab: More than fifteen years and you've been through the whole journey being a product manager yourself or actually being the developer?

Petra: For quite some time being a developer.

Sohrab: Being the developer impacted by the product manager, then being the product manager, then being the product leader coaching product managers.

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Petra: Yes

Sohrab: And now actually working more and more with product leaders themselves so this is quite cool. Now before we jump into the topic of your book and the motivation why you wrote it. As both of us are product people, what is your favorite product? And don't tell me it's your iphone or whatever like that.

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Petra: No it's not.

Sohrab: Is like a product that probably a lot of people don't know about, but you really like.

Petra: The two things that I really love so as a product person working on products, I really love complex process heavy things. Mainly b2b software and tools and so that's the product that i really like to wrap my heads around. So if it's logistics or if it's fintech or all these kinds of stuff so really processing heavy stuff that's the stuff that I always fell in love with and really love kind of. To find better, easier ways of doing things that are done for ages for example and then on the other hand I love super simple products. There is a great book that is called Calm Technology, so really devices that are not screaming without a screen or something like this. And I just brought one because that's a Tonies box. That's what my daughter uses and that is a lovely piece of technology so this actually is her audiobook and it causes this thing to play whenever she wants it to play so no screens and a great device so that is for example a product that i actually like.

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Sohrab: The Tonies box is a great product. Two of my kids also had them. We recently sold them because they don't use them anymore now when they want to listen to a podcast or something they just use their iphone and that works.

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Petra: On mobile phone. Yeah my daughter's four so…

Sohrab: She’ll get there, she'll get there soon.

Petra: Sure.

Sohrab: My favorite product is also something that has no screen attached to it. It's a cooker, it's a special type of tap like where you get your water out and it can give you regular water. It can give you boiling water, it can give you water with gas and it can give you cold water and all of that was a really simple mechanism. It's brilliant. You don't think about technology products like being a tap, but like i use it every day multiple times whether i'm making tea or noodles or whatever. I actually love it.

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Petra: That sounds great, maybe we should add it to the show notes and we can buy it as well.

Sohrab: Yeah, no. Then people think I’m doing advertising for them, which is not the case.

Petra: No it's just like a service announcement.

Sohrab: Maybe I'll do that. Maybe I'll do that. So now talking about your favorite product. What was your first product that you built? Because you mentioned you worked at multiple companies, large ones and smaller ones. But what was the first product that you were actually responsible for? and maybe it's even nothing that you got paid for, maybe it's something that you did when you were a kid I don't know.

Petra: Yeah that is a super interesting question. What was my first product? So maybe my first product was a website that I built in 1996 or something like that. Pretty early on when I discovered that html is a thing and that it can actually be creative and build things. It was a website for a youth hostel like thing and they wanted to have a calendar where people can actually book their rooms and something like that: So there was an early on product. Not the most beautiful one, but…

Sohrab: It was 1996 after all.

Petra: Yes. It was the first thing I built, yeah.

Sohrab: I mean Craigslist still looks like 1996.

Petra: That is true

Sohrab: So the first product that I built was when I was a kid. We had just come to germany my parents didn't have a lot of money and but I loved the game monopoly and I always played it in in kindergarten and then later on in hort, which was the place we went after school, and and my sister and I we memorized every single one of the roads and prices for hotels and everything. We memorized everything and then we built our own version of monopoly. And because it was our own version with paper and everything.
It was our version of monopoly. We called it Zim. We still have that. I showed that a few years back to my kids. They were like why did you build it? Why didn't you just buy it? I was like: “Yeah, we didn't have the money, we didn't have the money to buy it.” It was really cool.

Petra: Yeah you should have actually sold it.

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Sohrab: So um now that we've cleared this up. Let's dive into the book. I start with the question: What was the motivation for you to write this book? There are a ton of books in the product space none of them has the thing that you're addressing but what was your motivation to do this?

Petra: The repetition and scarcity maybe. So one thing I realized that I have to repeat the same concept over and over again.

Sohrab: Yeah.

Petra: In my one-on-one coaching, at some point I thought maybe I need to write a series of blog posts. Some of my coaching-people could read them before we actually dive into these particular topics in the coaching sessions. Because I've found it such a waste of time to explain the basics in a more or less expensive one hour coaching session. So I thought it may be nicer if we do this flipped classroom approach. They read something up front and then we really think about how they could apply it in their situation. Or, if they have more questions to ask we could clarify those ones obviously.
There was one motivation for doing it. And at some point I realized, okay, a series of blog posts will not do the job so it will be a bigger project. There's so many things that we usually touch in the coaching sessions. So maybe it is a book in the end and then they can read that. That's how I started to think about it and then did a bit of research on how many books are out there on product leadership and it was actually not that many and Power (by Marty Cagan) was not out at that point in time. The Roman Pichler book (How to lead in Product Management) was not out at the time. So there were not so many product leadership books and I thought why not add to that kind of niche. It is a super niche topic. I talk to publishers and it's not easy to convince them of publishing for such a niche audience because it's product people leading product people in the technology in the tech space. So to say. That's why I decided for self publishing in the end which was, I guess a good idea, a lot of work. But a good idea gives me a lot of freedom to make my own promotions and all these kinds of things. Yeah so that's why I finally decided to write that book.

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Sohrab: Yeah. And did you actually write blog posts prior to that?

Petra: Six

Sohrab: So the book became a compilation of those blog posts? Or after a few blog posts you said: “no no no I'm going to do the big thing. I'm going to write the book!”

Petra: I was always writing. It is a thing that I'm doing throughout my career. In the beginning I was doing it for my own reflection and learning and was not publishing any of the things that I wrote and then at some point I started to publish on a German product management blog. I started to publish at the product blog so I was always writing but none of the blog posts actually really made it into the book. So I started from scratch and really thought about leadership.
I ultimately had to prioritize and focus on one aspect of product leadership so I'm not talking about trading strategy or all these kinds of things. I'm mainly focused on people development. A bit of leadership and the coaching aspect. So none of the blog posts made it to the book but I was writing a lot before I started to write the book.

Sohrab: You send it as a reader, that it's not your first time starting to write, because writing is also an art or craft that you need to work on and I got that sense absolutely. I would just disagree with you on one thing because you said it's niche and then you said it's like only for the technical space. Because when I was reading that book and thinking about a lot of the organizations, a lot of the leaders that I work with are independent from whether they work in tech or not. Even independent from whether they lead products or not the people development. The thing that you cover in the book is so good and we'll dive into this because it really is helpful as any type of leader especially product and yes especially tech but even outside of like software when you learn about the things that you cover right. And if you only take out the principles and some of the tools you already get some great value from that. So after making some advertising for the cooker product now that was the advertising for Petra’s book! ;-)

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Petra: So it's an advertising show!

Sohrab: It's an advertising show, yeah.But now let's go into one of the first things that you cover in the book. And this conversation, just to set expectations for everyone listening to, it is not going to be a summary of the book, but in some areas of the book we will deep dive in and then we will also cover some things that did not make it into the book. For example communities of practice. I want to start with one of the first chapters that you cover and in that you talk about defining your product. For me this was about setting standards. Now why did you start with this specific topic and can you explain a bit about it to our audience?

Petra: Yeah, because to some extent that is a big time saver to all the leadership folks out there. So if you are defining what makes a competent product manager or competent designer or competent developer for example in your given context in your company's environment that really helps you with all the other things that might follow. Which is hiring onboarding personal development, one-on-one and it needs to be written so explicit that you need to have a standard.
You really need to reflect on: “okay what is my take on a competent product manager?”
And then there still can be a company's take because a lot of companies have role definitions and role descriptions and use it for career conversations. Don't get me wrong but I think it is important for each and every leader to take that even if it exists. And to really reflect on it, that might take and do I need to add to that list for example because it makes so many performance and feedback sessions way easier to prepare, if you really have your stance on what is your definition of a good competent product person. That's why I started with that and from there the book unfolds so to say to look at the role from various angles. I think this is kind of the starting point and I created something that people could use so that they don't have to start with a blank sheet of paper.
I always encourage them that they really need to come up with their own version and own definition of competency.

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Sohrab: And in the definition of competency you basically, and correct me if I'm wrong, you cover three elements or three dimensions. One is the personality traits the other, is skills know-how et cetera. And the third one is values.

Petra: Yes.

Sohrab: Now can you talk a bit about each of them and then I would like to deep dive in the topic of values because that is very uncommon. If I think about all the organizations that I work with. Not like they don't put any values out there but I rarely see them assessing their people based on values. Setting standards based on value, but let's start with personality traits and the skills first and then get into values.

Petra: Over the years I came to the conclusion that there are some things that you have to check before you actually hire people. Not everybody can become a strong product manager. A lot of people can. It's not rocket science. We all know it is something that you can learn but there are some personality traits that are hard to build or to coach for. It’'s not something that the people are kind of bringing to the table and that's why I always say like: “please reflect leaders out there. Reflect on what these personality traits are?” They may vary from company to company slightly. For me, for example, curiosity is something. If a person is not intrinsically curious about life and the world and about how all things are working together and is constantly learning just because of their curiosity, it's hard for them to become a product person.
Because you really have to deeply engage with people and be interested in their struggles and challenges and things they want to achieve in life, in general. And I said for example if you work for a shipping logistics company, totally other industry, then if you're working for I don't know a language learning app or things like that. So you should be curious and that helps you to become a great product person. So curiosity is always something that I would try to find in people when I'm interviewing for a product role and there are other ones like I call it intellectual horsepower in the book. So they have to have a good CPU to some extent to process all the information that we currently, that we are always surrounded with and these kinds of things. I have six personality traits described in the books. But it's as I said it's just like that's my six and I encourage people to find theirs as well. So what is important to be as a product leader to spot in people, when you're interviewing, once you hire them then it is not such a helpful assessment because then you're committed to your employees right and even if they're lacking maybe curiosity or something like this that might be a trigger for finding another seat for them. If they're struggling or if they don't like the role. That could be one of the reasons why they don't like the role um but it's not something that I regularly use in assessing people. It's more of a thing that I try to use while hiring new product folks.
Then the competencies and to know how that is actually the biggest part to it. So I created something that I call a PM-wheel. People interested can download it on my website it's free. For example, understanding the problem and finding solutions and doing some planning and all of these things come with a lot of questions. So is the product person able to conduct user interviews? Is the product person aware of human biases and what that actually means for conducting interviews? So it's really precise questions that help me assess product people and the people could use that to actually start assessing their product folks and that helps in the hiring process, in onboarding process. To set expectations and it helps when having performance reviews or sometimes even it helps as a self assessment tool for the product people. That's how a lot of people are using it if they want to find their next or the best next thing to learn. Or the best next thing to get better at so the next bigger challenge. Then they sometimes use it to find this wide spot as gaps in their competency landscape. So to say so that's what this part is for yeah and then last but not least it's the values and one thing sort of the easiest thing is if the company has company values you could use those and inherit them. Or you think about what a lot of companies actually don't have, even if we think it's a thing. But a lot of companies that I meet don't have values that they put on a post on the wall. So then really reflect what is the core of your product beliefs and product organization and even in heavy weather and storms will not be changing for you as a group of people. So they will remain true and that is another important thing so what makes us as human beings and as a group of people what unites us to some extent it's a bit of the glue to a product organization. That's why I think it deserves to be on that definition of good

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Sohrab: On the definition of good. I like that a lot. So you mentioned the PM-wheel already. There are a bunch of tools. So for those of you who haven't read the book. There are a bunch of tools that are really pragmatic and you can apply them directly to your daily work. Either as a product manager, Product Owner or as the person coaching. Working with them and those things, there are a bunch of tools out there.
But I found the ones that you mentioned and I think some of them you invented yourself or adapted from others they are also very well integrated. So if you go through the book you see that all the tools that you bring up there, are a good integration between them. Though so you don't have to use all of them but you can use them if you want to and collectively and you specifically mentioned this is not one of the books that you read from one cover to the other but like you dive into specific sections that you believe are currently relevant to you and that is actually helpful. Now I read it from cover to cover because I wanted to prepare for this interview. But it's still a good travel guide in the future.
Now at the values piece, you gave a few examples around personality traits like curiosity and intellectual horsepower. What are things that in your past and maybe with some organizations that you work with. You don't have to name them, but what are some areas or examples where you saw that the values from the organization and for the product and the person being in charge of the product where they didn't like really well connect where there were problems, were challenges and what was then the result of that?

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Petra: The result of that is always friction to some extent. And it is slowing down the speed of decision making, Often because then people have first pause and first of all identify: “okay this is because of conflicting values”. So my world view of the world is completely different from yours. Your view of the world is based on other things and there's nothing wrong in this. So we have different backgrounds, different experiences come out of different families and cultures and all these kinds of things and in some organizations it causes healthy friction so then we're talking about diversity and all the good things. But the underlying values usually should point in the same direction. For example, technology should not do harm to the world or something like that. That is a value that some companies have and others don't. Other optimize more for the shareholder value or short term revenues. It's just like they have a different operating model. So diving into their values and what actually drives these decisions and these operating models I think that is the interesting part.
It helps if you have understood these underlying concepts and values especially again in hiring. Because if storms get rough and weather gets heavy then it that is what everything boils down to and then it's easier to make a decision in kind of a chaotic situations if everybody at least shares the same values and then you don't have to discuss these basic things.

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Sohrab: Yeah, so as a product leader this becomes specifically important to first assess whether your organization has set out some values. In order to then also be able to assess people that you're hiring and then working with. Now you spend a fair amount of time on the topic of coaching and a lot of people look at coaching very differently and there are different coaching stances. I'd like to explore your perspective on that and then also understand the importance of coaching capabilities in every product leader.

Petra: Yeah, that actually is a really good question. The definition of coaching I published a blog post about the various coaches only in the world of product management. So even if you look at this small kind of planet, there are already many, many different flavors of coaching. So to say, the one that I try to use most is really not so much giving advice and pointing people into the right direction; it's more of a passive approach: Asking the right question at the right time is the way of coaching. But you have to be able to really adapt to the person you're currently coaching, because sometimes all they need is a bit of advice here or a bit of: “hey look i have this, or I see these options for you.” Even if they are really passive. A coach would say something like: “ok and tell me what options do you see?” And then it takes the people one or two hours to find these options and sometimes you need to shortcut these things and say like okay look I see these three options based on my experience from various companies and various backgrounds. And I think great coaches are able to navigate all these levels. So when do I really need to give advice, when do I need to help the people see their options and when is it my time to just really back off and let them do the work. Because that's when most of the change is happening. If the people do the work. And it's not so much change happening if I constantly tell them what to do so I always try to be a bit more laid back asking the right question at the right time. And let them do the work but sometimes they just need a bit of advice and a bit of inspiration. So I tried to navigate this really cautiously.

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Sohrab: I fully agree with you and prior to our conversation I told you that your perspective on a lot of things, based on what I was reading in the book, is very much aligned to how I see things. Because one of the courses that I teach is Agile Leadership now a lot of people think an agile leader is just a pure coach which I don't agree with. Because normally a coach comes from the outside. They don't have any skin in the game they don't have any responsibility within the organization but I do think that every leader should have coaching capabilities. As you mentioned right, from time to time, given the situation they can be more passive and more asking, You can actively ask, or they can just go back and say whenever you need me just pull me in, but there are situations where you need to be the person who either lays out the options or even takes the decisions given the seniority, the experience of the person that you're working with. The time or the criticality in terms of time all of those things are super important and what I try people to understand or get to his this a self awareness of what is my default way of interacting.

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Sohrab: And the situational awareness, right what does this situation require of me and then be able to basically deliver based on that specific situation. Now when you work with product leaders or leaders in general, how do you help them become better at this, what I refer to as leadership agility or your approach to coaching?

Petra: The answer is so simple that it's maybe even boring so the thing is I allow them to do so in a lot of cases in product. Especially allowing people to do so, allowing product people to struggle. because the job is complex. Really is liberating and helps them to have this kind of breeze of fresh air and then reconsider the situation. If applied for product leads you need to allow them to start wrapping their heads around coaching allow them to learn this kind of skill and then they need to realize that they need to make a bit of room in their busy schedule to become a coach because for becoming a coach you need the head space, you need the time to think about this one particular person and how you could actually currently help them best. And maybe, as you were saying, maybe you're talking to a rather junior product person and then you want to take the decision for them maybe but help them understand how you actually came to your conclusion. So I think that is important and often product leaders are in a really firefighting reactive mode and they have to actually step back and at least some time in a busy calendar dedicated to this.
Pause where we currently are. I need to be the one pulling out a bit and see what everybody needs at a given point in time. How could I help them be their best? And it's not always to our coaching session, sometimes it's just like one question while you're actually walking through the water cooler or these times a virtual coffee machine, but that is actually what is needed. So they need to allow themselves to become a coach and then they need to realize why that makes sense and how to make a bit of time in the busy schedule. It helps if they have some books that hand out some resources that actually just help them get going.
Because coaching is not a lot of people think like I cannot do any coaching because I haven't got a formal coaching degree. But that's not what it actually takes. It just, it takes the power of the right question at the right time and I think everybody could get better at that and then navigate this. Should they give advice? Should O offer opportunities? Should I just like ask the right question? And once that it is understood I think it's easy to kind of use it in your day to day work.

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Sohrab: Yeah. I fully agree with that so last year I spoke to Michael Bungay Stainer and he's like a very good coach.

Petra: Yeah, he has awesome books by the way.

Sohrab: His definition of coaching was: “stay curious a bit longer” and that summarizes it so well. Right, because when you're curious you ask questions, when you're curious you never give answers. So you ask questions. You explore what the person is going through, what their perspective is, that just sometimes by asking these questions, you already helped them.

Petra: Yeah, exactly.

Sohrab: Right, I remember like, twenty years, twenty five years ago, when I was teaching math to my little sister. I just asked I'm like, so how do you get there, how did you get to do what you do here and then she's like ah now I get it. Not I solved it. So staying curious a bit longer. You don't need a coaching degree.

Petra: It's a great definition.

Sohrab: Be aware to stay curious.

Petra: Yeah I love it

Sohrab: YeahI like that a lot. All right, so this coaching piece, when someone is a product leader and you look at their schedule, what percentage of their time, and i'm sure you get that question, and that's why i'm asking it as well, what percentage of their time, do you see a good product leader spending in coaching?
And what do they usually coach their product managers on? Is it mainly the key product manager skills like prioritizing and stakeholder management or do you also see a lot of coaching in the space of like conflict navigation and so on and so forth.

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Petra: So regarding the time investment, that is super hard or impossible to answer because it really depends on the current state of the product organization and company.
If it's a startup, they're searching for product market fit and there is no product strategy, then the product lead usually invests most of their time into finding this directional clarity. Coming up with a strategy for all these kinds of things. And the team is not that big so the time to invest in coaching is rather small. If it's larger organizations then it is really heavy on the calendars, especially the hiring and onboarding the people development. The annual reviews are hopefully quarterly or even more often feedback sessions. All these kind of things that you can take up. I don't know, I even saw people doing fifty percent of their work only because of having, too. Many direct reports, that's another problem by the way. Too many product leads have too many direct reports. But so it is impossible to answer that question. What I usually say you can look at it from an employee perspective and I think they should have the air time of at least a solid hour on a bi-weekly cadence with their line manager or if they have a strong community of practice.

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Sohrab: Which we'll get to.

Petra: Some things could happen there, which we get to. So they need to have peers to talk to because we all know right. Daniel Pink's mastery and purpose is what people are thriving for and they tend to stay with our company if they're improving on all those three. So if they really can work in an autonomous way with the teams and setting their own agenda to some extent then the master is getting better at their craft and that is what a product leader could trigger and it's not what they need. Like lengthy conversations with the product leader, sometimes it's a bit of a budget, sometimes it's a book club which is a super cheap thing and not enough companies are doing this, so go get ten copies of continuous discovery habits. And then just hold your book club with your team because that helps you learn new things and hear what colleagues are thinking. It helps team building and all that kind of things so it's not, it's not work harder. It's really working smarter, that applies to the product leadership people development bit as well. So get creative and involve the team. I think that is kind of the trick here and then what was the second part of your question?

Sohrab: It was what type of topics the product lead spent coaching mostly on. Now is it like the product manager skills or also other things like the human skills?

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Petra: It's actually a lot of the typical product management things but where I see having more impact is really storytelling, managing conflict, expressing emotions and needs to the rest of the team. Reflecting, taking a pause where are we currently at? So all these kind of things usually have a bigger impact. So to say, but a lot of coaching needs to happen on thing like: “okay that's how prioritization works in our company” or “that's how we set up the discovery environments” and that's the people you should actually be talking to so it's a lot of helping people to navigate the company, helping people to navigate how actually the product parse process actually looks.
Cadence and rhythm but the other topics usually have more impact in the long run for most of the product people.

Sohrab: I absolutely agree with that. Now a few things based on what you mentioned on having too many direct reports that can also have a benefit, because then you cannot micromanage them.

Petra: Yeah that's true.

Sohrab: Which is quite cool and some organizations make particular use of that. And regarding Teresa, I'll speak to Teresa as part of these agile insights conversations in april (sign-up) that's going to be cool now. I want to elaborate a bit more on um the skills that are not the key product manager skills. Right, that’s the heart skills and the soft skills. Do you see product leaders having or engaging with other coaches that can help the product manager become better at conflict navigation et cetera because maybe those are things that the product leader is not as good as themselves? I mean nobody can do everything really well. So what's your perspective on that?

Petra: I think first of all about communities of practice. They're always product if the product organization has a certain size. Let's say like five to six people and then or bigger than you already have this kind of one person really is interesting storytelling and a better storytelling creates great presentations so everybody could learn from them. The beauty in that is usually people that are good at storytelling naturally never reflect on how they're actually doing it and how they could actually help others do the same thing daily.
That helps them to get better and it helps the others to get better but it is a time investment so I totally understand that and if you already have worked with these things within your product organization you have worked on the storytelling with some colleagues or you have worked on other soft skill things. For example non violent communication is something usually I find an expert in that in a product organization somebody just like because of their part of another organization out of their job have had have had a training in non-violent communication and that could be super beneficial for a product organization. So go, find those people and you could make use of what they what they already know and then making them a teacher helps them to come become even better um so that is a nice thing but once that is done and you work with all these capabilities it makes sense to get a bit of input from the outside world here and there and I would actually love to see companies working more with external coaches on particular topics. It's even if you would ask all product folks if they ever got formal training and storytelling and giving presentations. It maybe is twenty percent and most of them say like yeah but it was a pre-recorded master class about how to use powerpoint somewhere, so not something that really made a difference for them. And some stuff is just like formal training. Other things are really like being challenged being coached on one particular skill and I think it would be beneficial for the whole organization to do this every once in a while but only if they then take it and run with it to some extent. So learning never stops at the end of the training. Then again the community should kick in and they should share what they learned while applying these methodologies. So plan time for people to apply the things that they learn in training and coaching that's, I think, an important thing.

00:38:49,920 --> 00:38:56,800
Sohrab: Yeah so what I'm hearing is that if you as a product leader based on your capacity but also based on your own capabilities cannot do the coaching, the development in all areas relevant and it's a lot of areas where people need to develop in order to become great product managers. Create structures that can help people on board on that really like also sustainable journey it's not like I send you to a training for a day right and then you come back and you already know everything but I create a structure where this can happen sustainably and for the community of practice you need a certain size but maybe if you don't have that size internally you can pair up with another organization and together you create a cross organization community of practice.

Petra: Which is even better

Sohrab: Right. Exactly right. The people get completely different perspectives and they can learn now. We talked about communities of practice and we wanted to dive into this a bit more.
What are the key things from your perspective that a product leader or maybe someone else can put into place that this community really becomes a living organism, right?

Petra: That is my learning goal for 2022, to say so I have a take on that because I help various clients to sort and run a community of practice because usually when I don't see there is a community of practice. When I am actually coaching them I strongly encourage them to sort a community of practice. And then they do so I have a bit of experience. It's more like anecdotal and it's maybe like five or six companies I was helping in total to pick that off and I'm observing several other ones over the years. How they are actually doing it, that they have like a vibrant community or communities of product practice. Plus I'm to some extent part of the “mind the product” community so I see how the external community is actually something that could be beneficial as well. So there is not no knowledge about it but I want to understand it more systematically this year so I'm really dedicating a lot of time to talk to people that think they have a community of practice. What works well for them formats and rituals and all these kind of things and currently it looks like so one super important thing is really leadership by him granting the people the time to do so so because communities of practice where people constantly have to invest their time after work hours to actually run the community of practice are usually not something that is successful over a longer period of time so first of all grant them the work hours to dedicate to their community of practice and then it needs a bit of a rhythm and cadence. So that is something and formats that work well for your particular community of practice and for some it is really we just have brown bagging sessions where we actually look at our data dashboards just we have a protected time slot where we actually do. So everybody looks at their product dashboard and really dive deep into the data and then the last twenty minutes of this session we share what we learned today. So for some that is enough, adults really focus on onboarding and personal development but other ones really like to have peer review sessions, where they say: “hey look that's the new product strategy that I created!” Could you just like poke holes into it so I think this is really what is the purpose of the community of practice. And it is not the leader that should be driving it actively so the content and the rhythm and the formats that I think is something that actually the participants should should drive and decide on and see what works for them but a bit of budget helps because maybe sometimes it's nice to bringing in external speakers to bring a bit of inspiration or the book clubs or something like this. It could be part of a community of practice as well. So I think it's granting people to do it in work hours plus a bit of budget plus really kind of being outspoken. I want you to share your learnings and help others to get better in what they do. I think this is the crucial bit at the moment. Let's see if I learn better throughout the year.

00:43:13,360 --> 00:43:17,840
Sohrab: I can actually like put my signature under every single point that you mentioned because working with the clients that i've worked with what I see happening most of the time is communities of practice are not taken seriously on the leadership level and then they lack the time commitment or availability they lack any budgets etcetera. Like even if you want to get books it's ridiculous in some organizations. It's difficult for an employee to buy a book that costs like ten to twenty euros. This is really ridiculous. Like if you want and I always tell people like if you want your organization to become agile, for me the key to agility is the ability to learn right whether you're learning about your customers' preferences or whether you're learning about how you can technically implement something. There is no cheaper way to learn than reading a book.

Petra: Exactly.

Sohrab And if people are motivated…

00:44:06,427 --> 00:44:08,747
Petra: Yeah maybe blog posts, but yeah.

00:44:08,640 --> 00:44:12,800
Sohrab: Maybe blog posts, right. But even then you need to give them the time to do it because you cannot expect as an organization that people always put in their free time. The time that they have with their kids with their family with whomever they like even if they don't have kids and family.
Like just for themselves with their hobbies that is their free time and if you expect them to do all of that outside of work then at some point they will look for another employer. That's a very rational thing to do as an employee. So I think that's it. I can actually really put my signature under everything that you mentioned. So what I take from this community is like as a leader be aware that communities are a great way to learn and they are. They distribute learning or decentralized learning from you. They take a lot of work off your shoulders as a product lead. It's a time saver so that you can do a bit more of yes it's a time saver. That strategy and all of that right and dive and like do your one on once with people on dedicated topics it increases motivation a lot and compared to a lot of other things organizations do it is actually fairly cheap.

Petra: Yeah it is super cheap.

Sohrab: If you connect with a book club or if you bring an outside speaker. I see so many people. So when I get invited I tell my clients, I'm like don't worry about it. We don't have to go to procurement, I just do it. I come for an hour and we speak and I can give you a presentation or whatever it's an investment into our long term client relationship. It is cheap for the customer. Now one thing that I would like to add, based on my own experience, is that I like communities where there is someone and it doesn't have to be the leader. I fully agree with you, that has a plan for that community.

Petra: Yes, to and agree.

Sohrab: There are ad hoc sessions where we talk about things that came up etc. But I like there to be some kind of development backlog. So what are we? So that people can come prepared like different people can like to prepare sessions etc and that again requires time and resources and all of that. So if you have someone leading the community or even multiple people given how big it is but you also need to make sure that they can't spend time on it the community itself becomes a product.
And every product needs someone to take care of it.

00:46:32,987 --> 00:46:36,267
Petra: exactly, yeah so that was actually what we did with the customers last year. We helped them create this. There was an organization of about two hundred fifty product people. Twenty five product leads so it was a larger product organization and they installed three to four people that were actually looking over the community of practice. And that everybody is sharing and caring and all these kinds of things. That was the ratio and they work pretty well yeah.

Sohrab: And it's a great way to learn. So we're getting to the end of our conversation and I asked you earlier this morning. Yesterday was International women's day. Now I want to spend a few minutes like the final minutes of our conversation to talk about your experience as a woman and product person. You've been in this space for fifteen to twenty years you started out as a software developer. Where not a lot of women were in software development. So my assumption is and correct me if I'm wrong that in most scenarios where you were working it was mainly man driven you still managed to to like build a great career and all of that like so what was your experience and what would you tell younger women. What would you say, what would you say to people that are just starting their career in the space of product. What would be your advice to them?

00:48:04,907 --> 00:48:10,267
Petra: Yeah so the system… still I'm big in feminism. I was publishing and there are the books that you should be reading if you want to dive into this topic and I think by the way everybody should read some of those books. Not only women by the way. So we need allies to eradicate some of the gender pay gap and all these kinds of things. So I was experiencing all these downsides of being the only women in the workplace to some extent and I think I would not have made it that far without mentors along the way. They were male and female mentors so it's not that it was always, that it always took a man to pull me up or something like that. That is not a case but I think it is really important to find people that actually believe in you and help you believe in yourself to some extent. And that you can actually really do it so that is an important thing and then I think we just have to demystify the whole tech jobs to some extent. Because it's not that female brains are not or if it's impossible for us to think about a lot of this text stuff. It is not. And empathy is an important thing to have and storytelling is often something that women just practice more and that is a great skill to bring to the table and as said with all the diversity topics I really think every team benefits from diversity in all sorts and forms because it helps us to build. Build products for the world and not only for our small niche market um so yeah i think that is a super important thing and go find a mentor and for those ones who are in a position that they can support and pull up others. Please do so um give a shout out to the women that you like or to people of color and all these kinds of other groups that they still need help and are still kind of discriminated against by the system we all live in. And maybe one thing so one one really practical thing is if you kind of in in the in the majority group of people so to say then just like call out things like i'm a conference organizer for example for my product engage in hamburg and a lot of male speakers really tell us that they only come speak at our conference if we try at least get to thirty percent women on stage ratio or something like that. And that really forces event organizers to come to that kind of at least thirty percent women on stage. We always tried to do fifty five on all sorts of kinds of buckets but it's not easy. It is a lot of time investment that we have to bring. But it really helps if male speakers for force us to do so and force us to reconsider our choices such as like be an ally and these small things really make a big difference in the end.

00:51:10,720 --> 00:51:13,280
Sohrab: Yeah. I love that there are a lot of things that can be done.
So this final piece that you mentioned right asking conference organizers to have at least a certain percentage of female speakers this is something that I will take away with me. But I can fully agree on the mentor thing. Being a minority myself in this country I had great mentors and you don't need to have one you can have multiple and those mentors can change over time and sometimes it's a more formal mentor. Many relationships and sometimes it's informal like you just reach out to them and you ask them questions and I have rarely, I think never since someone who said no to help you.
Every time I reached out people were willing to help, sometimes they didn't have the time and then they said come back a bit later but every time even people that Inever knew I mean I reached out to you we didn't know each other. I think I interacted with you through linkedin and immediately we built that connection and we decided to do this and I think if you ask questions and if you reach out to people there are a lot of good people out there that are willing to support us.

Petra: Exactly.

Sohrab: Petra thank you so much for this conversation!

Petra: Pleasure was all mine.

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