Sohrab: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of our "Agile Insights Conversation". Today I'm hosting Christian Idiodi and Christian will talk about himself a bit more in detail in a few moments. The topic of our conversation will be around product leadership. You see three nice books in the back of his room? It's the middle one that we're going to focus today written by his colleague, Marty Cagan, "Empowered". And those of you who have been following our show, I already had two conversations with Marty and I'm very curious to see whether Christian shares Marty's perspective. We're going to do a one-by-one comparison. No, I'm joking. I will focus on a few other things because I've seen some of Christian's talks and I've been impressed not only by his energy but also the way he shares these stories. And Christian for that I'm very grateful that you're taking the time and I am so looking forward to this conversation. Welcome to the show, Christian.
Christian: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Sohrab: Christian, as I mentioned, I would love to start out with a brief introduction of yours as probably most of the people in my audience don't know you yet but will get to know you. Walk us through your journey.
Christian: Sure. Well, I can walk backwards in some ways. As you mentioned, today I'm one of the partners at the Silicon Valley Product Group so I spend a lot of my time really coaching, advising and training product teams, product leaders and companies around the world on how to build products companies love. Prior to that, I led product teams in an executive role as a head of product at Merrill Corporation, now Datasite, at
Snagajob, an online job board and I did innovation and startup work at a startup back then, a growth stage company called CareerBuilder too as well. So really my part, I have been a product manager, I had been a manager of product people, I have been a product leader and I have led transformations of a large enterprise company into a modern-day product led company.
And so really what I do is really share a lot of my stories, my experiences, my failures, my challenges in that journey. Hopefully that I can convince many companies that they can build amazing products customers will love as well.
I'm happy to go deeper into my background if you like. We joked about having a medical career. I didn't make it as far as becoming a medical doctor but I was premed in college. I was about to start medical school and I decided to take a year off to travel the world and learn something else and I'm still doing that. It's a very long year off, about 20 years of a year off at this point. But I got into product, literature and innovation, competition, learning how to do it and I've done startups now. I do two new startups every single year. It's a way I keep fresh on the skills. It's the way I keep very humble on doing product work. I have started to do amazing work now in Africa, really coaching and advising teams but I just started a nonprofit that is for cost and accelerating the use of technology in Africa today.
Sohrab: Yeah, this is amazing, Christian. We were joking about this medical background. And so, you were teaching your parents a lot of patience because as you mentioned, this is a very long year off from a premed to a medical school teacher. Now I told my parents something else. I finished all of med school and then I made a big pivot into management consulting. They were like, "Oh, man. Now we have to deal..." Now it gets better, Christian. And then we dive into the main topic actually. My sister also studied medicine and after I switched, she got inspired to also switch. My parents have two kids, both of them medical doctors, none of them works as a medical doctor.
Christian: How do your parents introduce you? What do they say? Do they say, "I have a doctor that doesn't practice or a doctor that consults?" What do they say?
Sohrab: No. What they say is, "We have a son who runs his own business and he helps organizations make changes and build products in a better way," and all of that. But they're still happy that I at least finished it.
Christian: Yes. They can at least call you doctor.
Sohrab: Yeah, they do. They do. Next time you talk to your parents, you can tell them, "I can also do what Sohrab did. I still won't be acting as a medical doctor." They're like...
Christian: They know.
Sohrab: And as preparation for this conversation, I watched a great talk that you gave. I think it was earlier this year. Snooch [SP] nine or eight or something like that. And I will link that show to our show notes because I don't want to go through the same topics. It would be redundant. And the people also had great questions for you. But in that talk, you fundamentally talk about the responsibilities and the skills that is needed in product management. And what I loved about it is you show to people that most people that are successful product managers, they don't go through product management university. They have all sorts of different backgrounds like you, premed, and I think something as psychology. Like me, medical doctor. Someone's studying theology. Other people doing physics or computer science. And they become product managers because they are curious. They are problem solvers. They want to
comprehend a whole lot of topics of the customer, the business and the technology. Marty refers to value, viability, feasibility and usability.
All of this, a good product manager needs to comprehend. And you don't learn this in university. Maybe in design school like the founders of Airbnb but even there it's mainly focused, I think, on the useability aspect. Many of the other things they had to learn later on. And so, this was, I think, very, very good because you inspire people who have no clue how to enter that profession to enter that profession.
But what I want to focus our conversation on is product leadership because when these people enter a product management role, they don't know how to do these things. They haven't been prepared for that. And I believe also based on the conversations I had with Marty that this is then the responsibility of a great product leader to help them build these capabilities. Now before I continue, what is your thought on that?
Christian: I could not agree more.
They've not come out of any university. In short, if you even have a degree in product management, it's probably on
some antipattern in terms of how you work today. And it's probably already flawed or out of date in terms of the techniques you may have learnt at university because it's such an ever evolving, fast field.
You're absolutely right.
of the job.
I could not agree more fundamentally. That's the core
The best product managers I have met in my life or in
my experience have learned from great product leaders.
The single most important job of a product leader is to really
coach their people to get them to competency where they can do their job at a level
or the expectation of it and then to their potential to prepare them for what's next in
their career and in their journey.
Sohrab: You yourself at some point moved from product manager to product leader?
[00:07:55] Christian: Yeah.
Sohrab: What changed for you when you made that switch?
Christian: And I was not as fortunate like many people. I said the best product managers learn from great product leaders. I probably learnt a lot of product management from a series of massive failures over times from just building products nobody wanted consistently for a very long time and then figuring it out in some ways. And then obviously having great coaches and mentors after that.
This is probably the single biggest fundamental shift in what the job is, that developing people is now the number one job, that the
outcomes that you should be measured by, the key outcomes that you should gauge your success by are no longer, "Oh, look at the great product I build, the great launch that I had, the great revenue that I did," but these are the people whose lives have gotten better professionally and personally because I have coached them and developed them. These are people that have gotten promoted, these are people that...if I look back on my career now, I have built over 200 products that I have touched in my journey. If you ask me what are my greatest successes, it's not any of those singular products. And some of them are iconic products today. But it's really looking at the person that joined me entering Excel spreadsheets as an intern that is now the chief product officer of a company or the person that joined me as an associate product manager that is now a CEO of Thunder in some ways.
Those things bring me more joy or sense of accomplishment in my career as a product leader than any of the products I have put out.
nother path of also getting good at product which is not the preferred part which is
doing bad product for a long time and realizing it doesn't work. You still kind of come to
terms with that. But when you make the shift from a product manager to a product
leader, your product is no longer the things you are building or creating. Your products
are now the people under your care.
Sohrab: Okay. This is really insightful. One of the big changes is the change in focus. Instead of focusing on the product, so what the customer facing thing will be, to focusing on the person who is going to build that product. Elon Musk refers to this as building the machine that builds the machine. Now in his context, it's building the gigafactory that can turn out the model Ss and model Xs, etc. In your case as a product leader, it's developing those people that then become great product managers that produce, with their teams, great products.
Now probably this awareness is the first step. Probably you had to build a few new capabilities yourself because developing a person is probably different to developing a product. How so?
Christian: Well, fundamentally, if you think about the core of the job...and I always personally differentiate the leadership component from the management component in some ways. And that's just because the bigger the company, you may have more focus on one or the other.
And the other aspect of their job now is to provide an environment where people can go do those things. We call those things contexts and we call those things culture. For me always the first core of the job is context and culture for a leader. For a manager of people, in some ways now your job is to say, "Okay. We now have some sense about where we're going and what we want to accomplish. I need to hire a group of talented people to go tackle the problems we will have, trying to accomplish those things. I need to coach them so that they are competent at doing those things, develop them, retain them. And also, you've got the staffing and coaching sides. And then I need to make sure I'm aligning them to the important aspects." Those things are in summary the rule of leadership and management in any company. The biggest challenge is that most people have not experienced good leadership and management. When people
In the sense that the core of a leader's job is to provide clarity
about why we're here, clarity about where we're going, clarity about how we plan to
get there and to provide clarity about what's important right now and how we will
say, it's like, "Why don't people get good coaching?" I'm like, "Well, because they have never experienced good coaching themselves."
Most people cannot give what has not been given to them in some ways. And you see several antipatterns in that behavior and I'm coaching an executive team and the CEO is screaming at the employees, just screaming and yelling in the meeting and I pull the CEO to the side and I said, "First of all, I don't think I can spend more time coaching you. This is just against my values of how you deal with people." But I'm like, "Why are you screaming at your employees?" And he said, "My manager screamed at me and look at me today. I'm the CEO. I'm executing at a high level and I get things done." And I said, "Is it okay if I show you an alternative way of doing that?" And he said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, tell me what you're trying to convey to the team and I'm going to go back into the meeting and I'm going to try an alternative way. And we're just going to ask for feedback if we still got the message across."
It was a very interesting session for the leader because kind of going through that and hearing his people have some kind of safety to say, "This is actually more effective. I actually feel safer to ask questions. I can actually do better work. You're probably screaming at me because I am taking what you're saying without trying to comprehend what you really need and just doing the task than trying to understand the problem." And this alternative allowed me to go a little deeper and I can give you better results.
And just to see you observing that changed your perspective because they've gone their whole career without knowing an alternative. You see? In some ways, when you talk about being a product manager, your job is working with a team to build products and... becoming a product leader is a very different job than that. Most people do not recognize that shift. What often happens is that most people are not prepared for that shift. You see? When I tell people this, "You are promoted to do the job, not to learn the job." Unfortunately, the second Sohrab becomes a manager, a director or VP, we are expecting him to do VP things. But who trained you, coached you? In short, when did you practice doing VP things before you became a VP? And so, what often happens unfortunately is that the second you become a manager in title, certain unfortunate dynamics start to come up. You can no longer say things like I don't know, I'm not sure, I
need help, you see, in some ways because you are a manager. How do you not know? How are you not sure?
People kind of carry this imposter syndrome, they carry this anxiety. And what do they do? They default to learning by what was given to them, how their manager treated them or they start to google things. They've never done an interview, the first interview they have to have, they go google how to do an interview. And they pull some random spreadsheet from some company or website that is not theirs with some culture or HR feedback and they use that [inaudible 00:15:43] That works. That wasn't too bad. And that becomes their new framework. You see? People start to observe that framework as maybe that's a good framework. We fail to prepare people for the positions that they are going to go into. And what they don't have when they are in that position is a safe enough environment to practice that position. Nobody's going to be like, "Let's do a mock interview." You're like, "I have a real interview so I have to do something." You see? But you need to do a mock interview or observe somebody do an interview before you do your [inaudible 00:16:13] one.
If you ask anybody that's ever worked for me...they come to me and say, "I want to be a manager or a director." They're always telling my answer
is always the same. I'll say, "Okay. Go be a manager or a director." You don't need a title to be a manager. Let me tell you what a manager or a director does and I want to expose you to doing...I am not going to promote you to a manager so that you can learn how to be a manager. If you want to be a manager, come hang with me. I'm a manager. You're going to see everything I do every day. You're going to learn the stuff because then when you're a manager, I want you doing manager things. You can see the shift.
This is one of the fundamental observations of [inaudible 00:17:28] many companies in the world. Product companies too. Most of them that work as feature teams, that the
What needs to happen is that to be a great product leader or make that transition or
shift, you have to observe good product leaders, learn from good product leaders and
practice product leadership.
Unfortunately, what happens is that the product leaders in many organizations never
stop being individual contributors because they know how to be product managers,
not product leaders. And so, this is the most common origin story of a concept called
micromanagement. It's the most common origin story of the insecurities managers feel.
best product managers, product designers, engineers are actually the leaders. Actually, the leaders. Because they were great executing in product...they got promoted into it. They didn't know their job has changed and so they keep doing individual contributor work. They are in every meeting. They are in every decision stuff. They are in every standup. They are...you see? They are going out in discovery. And I see it all the time and I still...if you're doing that, who is doing the leadership work? You see? What is the leadership [crosstalk 00:18:04] You see?
"What do you mean who is doing the leadership work? I'm here to drive outcomes and I know how to get it done, I know the customer well so I'm going to tell the team what to do." I say, "Well, your job is no longer to do the job. Your job is to get people better at doing the job." It doesn't scale when you are doing all of those things. It only scales when Sohrab trains five people to be not just as good as him but even better than him. That's how you scale an organization. You see? And the alternative unfortunate part of this is people who use process as a substitute. You see? Because they are trying to scale. Well, Sohrab is a great [inaudible 00:18:44] Write down all of the ways you work and we will force everybody to do the same thing so that we can get the same kind of value. You see? Rather than coaching other people to be as good as him. Oh, boy. You've got me on a soapbox on this one.
Sohrab: That was great. There was so many things in there. I will pick up on them one by one. Now you mentioned...and it aligns really well with a storyline...with a framework, let's call it this way for the lack of better words, that I'm working on which is number one, it's the leader's job to provide clarity. Where do we want to go as an organization? And how do we or can the products that your individual product managers are responsible for deliver towards that organization of vision, mission, strategy, whatever we want to call this? The second thing is to build the competence for people to make those daily decisions on their products so that you as a product leader don't have to sit in every meeting, don't have to do the product discovery, don't have to be at the daily standup and all of that. And the third thing...and I call them the three things that are required for good decision-making, clarity, competence and finally courage to provide the environment and a culture that people feel safe to make those decisions. And part of that is having the right feedback loops in place. Teach the people thinking in increments, in small decisions instead of big ones.
When we talk about Amazon, it's the type one, type two decisions. Create an environment where more and more former type one decisions become type two decisions because there is a less costly way to reverse the decision. And I think that fundamentally aligns with what you were talking about. Now when we think about each of these three things, clarity, competence and courage, let's look at how concretely a product leader can help people get those things. And let's start with the clarity piece. When we talk about this clarity about the organization's goals and how the different products are connected to that, what would be the job that the product leader does and where is the cutoff or the handover for the lack of better words for what the product manager does? Because you also want to give them the space to own the product.
Christian: That's right. That's right. Clarity, we kind of say clarity of context in some ways. You've used the phase strategic context. And I always like to use simpler words because I don't want people to focus on terms like vision, strategy, OKRs. Those are all ways to provide clarity about why we're here, where we're going, how we plan to get there, how we measure success. Those are the things teams need to be clear about. It's kind of the leader's job.
And these are faucets and elements that we use to help do that. Now creating a vision is not good enough if nobody knows it.
You see? Creating a strategy is not good enough if it doesn't inspire...drive good work or provide focus or help people with prioritizing the things they do. It's important that people understand that the job is not just in creating these artefacts or answering these questions. It's to ensure that the teams can leverage this to actually do good work. Clarity for me means...let's say we do the work or creating a vision.
And I tell people, "You're trying to answer two questions. What problems are we trying to solve? Why are we solving those for?" Now there's a question of how do we get to that vision while making money or making our goals of today. That's answered by something we call a strategy, your chosen path to get there with the essence being you're focused. You have vision insights on certain things you want to leverage to help you get there. Most companies...strategy is really the way the handoff happens from product leadership to teams. If you think above that there's a mission, nobody comes into a
As a leader, your key responsibility is to champion the values
and direction of the company in some ways.
company as like, "I will carve the mission statement." The company already exists. [inaudible 00:23:22] Teams don't touch that. It's kind of...there's a mission statement. They don't cut the vision. That's for your leadership. It's a role of leadership. It's not the role of the product team or the individual. It's the role of leadership to cast the vision. They can also carve out values. These are the things we believe. Principles, things to guide us along the way. Those things also inform the culture.
And then there is the question of what are we going to work on, who's going to work on...which problems are important right now? Those are [inaudible 00:23:51] strategy because it's important that when you give teams problems to solve...the idea of a team is that we cannot accomplish things as an individual so we put people as a team. It's a team sport. You're giving them something to go do, right. The idea now, what is a problem to solve. Where do those problems come from? Because what empowers a team is not just the clarity about what we should work on but why we're working on it. What are the people working on? What's coming next?
The strategy becomes super important and what comes out of that are what people might call objectives and OKRs, problems to solve. And you now hand those problems off to the team. From the clarity, vision, mission, vision, values, principles, strategy, all leadership work. What comes out of that are problems to solve. The team's job now is to discover a solution to those problems and then to deliver it.
Now super important...because when people talk to me about like, "Oh, we give a team an objective." And I tell people all the time, "It's not good enough to tell people what the problem is." What's really [inaudible 00:25:05] understand why it is an important problem and how we will measure success in solving it and how we will know if we solved the problem. This requires some really deep leadership work because I'm not just telling you, "Go increase profit." I'm explaining to you a little about how a business works. You are clear about what profit means, how it is calculated in our company and the impact of it on our business. The leadership work is beyond checking the box on I communicated this or I created an artefact. There's an important aspect of communicating not just what that is but why it is important. A core component for me on clarity is clarity of context, communication of context and there's the coaching of context which is often one of the biggest misses in companies. I see leaders all the time will tell me, "We had an all-hands meeting. I announce to people all the time our top
priorities. Why is it not sticking? Nobody ever...and I ask people. They say they don't know it."
And I say, "Well, because people communicate differently. You have to coach it. The most effective way of communicating what is important to people is a one on one." I know it is hard for people to hear. "Well, that doesn't scale. I want to inform everybody." I say, "Well, if a CEO informs his director reports and explains to them the most important things and [inaudible 00:26:36] and they take it and communicate to the other...they ask their questions, they get the clarity, they communicate it down, that is the most impactful way. You can have an announcement but in the next one on one as a manager I say to you, "We just announced this is important. Do you understand it? Do you have any questions? Do you know how we measure success? Do we know your role in it? Are you competent to execute at it? You see? You are coaching the clarity. You are coaching the context. It is not a one-time thing. It's not a check the box thing. It's an everyday thing.
Sohrab: Yeah. No, I think this is very important. John Carter speaks about under communicating the power of vision by a factor of 10. And this is mainly related to the person who crafts the vision for change. But the way you mentioned it, it's on every single level because in many cases, the people that are further down in the organization, and I don't mean this in any way or form disrespectful, don't speak the same language as the CEO does. But they do speak the same language with their direct report or with their supervisor. And if they have a conversation about that context or where the organization wants to go and how they intend to go there, especially focusing on their area of the work, this is going to be very impactful for people in terms of aligning them behind that shared vision and then helping the organization to move forward.
Now this was clarity. For me it became more clear where the line is for product leadership and then where it's for product management. But I think it's very important because some product leaders that I've observed not knowing what their responsibility is, in many cases they're like, "Yeah, but we need to delegate more and more decision-making authority," so they move that kind of clarity to the product managers
or product owners, whatever. But they don't know how to take the organizational vision and make it connected to their product because they haven't had the interaction with the C level. And everybody is frustrated because they're not creating that match. But let's go to the competence part. There are so many things...and you highlight this really well in your other presentation. The product managers need to be good at, for example, product discovery. To some extent, business modeling. To some...understanding a P&L. All of these things. And at the same time, a lot of technological things. They don't have to be the programmer but they need to have an understanding and imagination what can be done with technology.
As a product leader, how do you help these people build these competencies?
Christian: Yeah. This is part of product leadership...why I think many leaders don't even know what these competencies should be. I often joke with people, "Nobody does their job description." And I see so many product management job descriptions written by HR or some group that has never done product management. And there are many things you cannot disclose in a job description about what the job is. And most job descriptions are written by a manager or HR and not by the person actually doing the job. If you actually ask a real product manager of the company to write it, it'll differ from what a manager writes because the expectations of management in the job often differ from the realities of doing the job.
Competency for me is not just the reflection of the skills you need to execute but also the skills you need to execute at the level you need to execute and the expectation you need to and also the perceived level of competency by others. This is an interesting dilemma because you might think you're awesome but if other people do not think you're awesome, they will not trust you and as such they will want to tell you what to do, then ask you to help them solve problems. I describe it like if I threw the ball to you and you keep dropping the ball, I will stop throwing the ball to you. Or if I don't trust that you'll catch the ball, I find somebody else to throw the ball to. It's the perception of your competency or your skill. The only way many people know people are competent is by testing them. You might make sure we test people every day. It's subconscious in some ways. We kind of say, "Hey, what's one plus one?" You answer two, I know you know
how to add, math. I don't care how you learned. I don't care. But I now have some perception that you know that one plus one is two.
The more I ask you questions like that, the more I am sensing your competency in your work. It is super important that product leaders understand the core competencies needed to the work. Going back, as you're a medical doctor, I always say I like looking at product managers as medical doctors because all doctors in the world...today you're a management consultant. I can almost guarantee that if somebody has a headache, you can probably think of something to tell them to help them with their headache. If somebody is passed out beside you, you might be able to do CPR or help. At the very core of being...you just have the same fundamental tenant. I can see a problem. I can try to diagnose. I can do some test to quickly validate what the issue is and maybe come up with some prescription or solution to that problem.
You could specialize in different areas. You could be a heart person, a brains doctor or a general doctor or emergency room doctor. Just for me, I like different technical aspects of product management. You could get...that would require different competencies when you do so. Because you're now focused on the heart. You need to learn more things deeper than maybe a general MD.
How would you know it works for the business if you don't know the business. You need to have a deep understanding of the data to inform your decisions, a deep understanding of the industry so that you could understand those trends, the competitors, understand where things are going. And you need to have a deep understanding of the product itself because, my gosh, your job is called product manager. You've got to manage your own product.
This is almost like the baseline for core competencies a product manager has to have. There are these deep knowledge aspects that will help inform the decisions they make. Now getting to that deep knowledge require a whole lot. There are product discovery skills, customer discovery skills, solution discovery skills you need to get good at,
At the very baseline for all product managers to be able to make a decision on what is
valuable for our customers and what is valuable for our business, you need to have a
deep understanding of the customers. You need to have a deep understanding of the
working...understanding the business, the stakeholder management, there's communication. There are all of these soft skills and all of these core hard skills. What I always do is I want to make sure I understand the core competencies or way somebody is at their job that they need. If you are an entry level product manager, these are the core baselines like coming to doctor. If you're a senior product manager, a platform technology product manager, there may be different things at a different expectational level like what...you need to have better presentation skills. You're talking to CEOs, you're presenting data. You're talking to customers in a different way.
First leaders have to be able to do an assessment of their people. If you fundamentally want to coach people to be better, you need to know it is that. I get it. We hire professionals. It's like hiring a professional sport...they are good. You're skilled in some ways but working with a team, their dynamic changes. How do they fit in? They don't know your culture, your environment so I need to assess them. Get on the field and play. But I need to create a safe space to practice and say, "Whoa. You are not very good. You're good at passing the ball but not good at passing the ball in this culture. You see? We have to coach you on that. We've got to do a little more kicks...some practice passing in that way."
The only way to get people better is by coaching them. I have not found any substitute for this. I hear many people all the time. They will say, "Oh, Sohrab, you are terribly at communication. Go get better at communication." I say, "Well, if he could get better by himself, he would've already done it." Well, it's not like he has bad intention and doesn't want to be better. But first of all, who's coaching him to be better? Because taking a communication class doesn't get you better at communication. Communicating better is what is better at communication. The only way to know you're communicating better is to practice communication and know that you've improved from where you were communicating before. You can take all the classes but if you don't practice better communication, you won't get better. That's why these are kind of those dynamics that require a coach. You cannot get better on your own. I get it. People talk about the motivation of the individual. They have to want to get better and stuff. I'm like, "We are playing a professional sport. I don't know of anybody in this sport that would not love to get better at things."
It's just by the very nature of the work we are doing. This is not one of those I want to be here for life. These are all ambitious, entrepreneurial, driven people. You have to be able to assess people, understand the gaps. I like to understand gaps not based on just what I also feel but what is also perceived by others. If you need to be at a nine in communication and you're at a four and if you need to be at eight in discovery and you're at seven, more people will perceive the gap you have in communication than the gap you have in discovery. I am now prompted because of that gap to focus more on communication in the short term because it's the biggest perception of your lack of competency. It's what's going to hurt you during your work.
I do an assessment of people. Then I do a gap analysis to understand the biggest gaps so that I can know where to focus as a manager. And then it's my job to create a coaching plan. Not your job. It's my job. I'm going to say to you to...and the plan doesn't look like...people is like, "Oh, Sohrab, yeah, three communication classes you should go take." I have never sent people to a class I have never taken. If your employee comes back the next day and slaps you on the face, you say, "Why?" "They told me in the class to slap my manager. You paid for me to do it." I will say to you, "Let's go take a communication class together." Are you seeing? Because when we take the communication class together, I now know what you learned. We learned together. We can practice. I can say, "Hey, remember that exercise we did in the class? Let's practice it here?" Are you seeing? I am working a plan for the next 90 days to get you better at communication. I will connect you with other people that are great within the company. I will provide the environment. I'd be like, "Hey, I have an all-hands meeting. Let's start with five minutes so that you're not nervous. Why don't you try to communicate on my behalf? I will give you feedback. I'll ask somebody else for feedback. We'll do that again maybe the next meeting. We're going to give you 15 minutes."
Are you seeing? This is a very deliberate plan to get you to competency on communication. It's not outsourced. It's not delegated. I am accountable for your personal and professional growth. The biggest indication of my failure when other people see you communicating poorly is not you. It's on me. It's a reflection of me if you don't communicate well. You see? But most managers believe it's a reflection of the person. One of the biggest flaws in corporations is that...when you think about professional sports, for an example, when a team is not performing, who gets fired? The coach, the manager. Corporate America is the only place where we're just like, "Oh,
you suck at this. Fired." And I'm like, "Who hired them in the first place? Whose job is it to get them better in the first place? You see? And the manager is protected. We just keep firing people and throwing them away and trying to bring people...and we're wondering why it's never sticking.
In that dynamic, we have to change our mindset. It is the core job of the manager to get people to competency.
Sohrab: Yeah. Now you brought up sports. I don't know to what extent you are into football. And I mean not the American version of it.
Christian: There's the real one [crosstalk 00:39:35]
Sohrab: The real one. The real one. Now one of my favorite coaches is Jurgen Klopp from Liverpool FC. And there was this beautiful scene where he was putting on an 18- or 19-year-old player for the first time in a Premier League match. And before he got onto the field, this young boy, he hugged him from the back and he whispered into his ear, "If you mess up, it's my fault. If you succeed, it's your achievement. It's my job to make sure I put you in the right game into the right place and that you succeed. We're doing this together. I got your back." And then this young boy...and you see how his face changes the moment his coach tells him this, gives him this safe environment. And I fully agree. It's not only corporate America. It's the same in Germany. If the people don't perform, nobody looks at the manager. I'm like, "Why not?" Because in hospitals, it immediately goes to the head of the department. If you look at surgery, if a surgery goes wrong, it goes to the head of the department.
And while you were speaking...there are so many analogies. And I had this conversation with Marty as well between how you look at, as SVPG, at the role of a leader no matter whether it's in product or technology or design or product marketing
managers and medicine because what we had there, we referred to it as see one, do one, teach one. And every single attending physician was measured by how they are developing the next generation of physicians because we all know...in mad school all over the world the smartest kids make it into med school. It's one of the most desired jobs. Finishing med school is tough. But we all know no matter how smart they are, how much they worked, they're not finished yet. In order to specialize...and you brought up it could be a heart specialist, a brain specialist. You could be a general practitioner. Even that is a specialization. Someone needs to coach you. They need to show you how to do this. And it goes procedure by procedure. It's not like, "Oh, he can do an appendectomy so he can also do pancreatic cancer surgery." No, no, no. That's a completely different thing. He needs to see it multiple times. The one is just a replacement for any number. He needs to do it under supervision and then he needs to become a teacher of that thing to other people.
And when I work with leaders, one of the questions I ask them, I was like, "How much time...look in your calendar. How much time do you spend on consciously developing people? We can call it coaching. We can call it teaching, whatever. How much time do you help people build up new capabilities?" They look at their calendar and usually the response is zero. It might sometimes happen. But consciously dedicating time to this the way you laid it out with the example of becoming a better communicator, going together to a workshop, seminar, training, whatever, coming back, creating a plan, putting that plan into place. Almost zero.
Now I wonder whether your experience...if you would ask your clients...maybe you ask that same question. Whether your experience is similar.
Christian: Absolutely. Not as many are near zero but definitely not enough. Maybe they are coming out...a one and [inaudible 00:43:34] they may use the one on one as a status update.
[00:43:38] Sohrab: Exactly.
Christian: But [crosstalk 00:43:39] the same thing with strategy. You meet an executive and I'm like, "You need to have a strategy." "I don't have time for a strategy." I'm like, "Yes, that is why you don't have time because you don't have a strategy." It feeds itself. The manager is so busy in meetings, in decision-making, in tax, in reports, in all of those things and is like, "I don't have time to get people better." I say, "If you actually got the people better, you will actually have more time because you're not going to be riddled down in having to make every decision because nobody trusts people, having to communicate everything because you don't trust your people to communicate, having to..." Are you seeing? All of those things, it doesn't scale. It is key. I actually...thinking on the see it, do it, teach it, I actually have to take that from the medical field and try to force people into that similar thinking. Most managers don't provide good coaching because they've never seen it. Most people outsource their strategy to someone at company because they've never done one before.
And once you start outsourcing it to other people, you keep it outsourcing it because that's what you've done. You've outsourced it or you've seen it outsourced so you never learned how to do it. And it so tough because you're like, "I'm so busy. When will I have time to learn, get good at it so that I can go do the strategy?" We are always under pressure. You used that example with the sports person. We want you to get better. We want you to...I hear people complain about their employees all the time. And I say, "Have they seen an alternative before?" "No, no, no. Oh, well, I told them...I showed them how to do it." Where did you have the safe place to practice doing it?" Because when you showed it to them, it was in a nice...it was safe for you but not safe for them. And you only get to competency, to your point, when they can teach it. I love that. That's actually when you know you can promote somebody to the next stage in some ways.
Competency for me, you have to see it. That's why I said the best product managers have learned from product leaders because they've seen good product management and they've practiced good product management. If you cannot create an opportunity to coach people and demonstrate good values of competencies and provide an opportunity for them to practice those things, they won't get better. I've
never seen any professional arena where they put people on the field of play without having them practice.
[00:46:09] Sohrab: Yeah.
Christian: Just think about it. But we do that every day. Oh, well, that resume speaks great. Yeah, wonderful in this. Go solve the problem. Jump in. It's like that all the time. And we are always acting surprised at the outcome. Well, that didn't go very well. [inaudible 00:46:25] Did you practice in a good way? We learn a whole lot from wartime scenarios. It kills effectiveness and productivity in so many companies.
Sohrab: You mentioned practice. If you think about the world of sports, what percentage of their time are athletes spending in practice compared to the game, the competition? For football players, if they have 1 game, let's say 2 games a week at max, Champions League and Premier League, that's twice 90 minutes and let's say they have a 30-hour work week so they're 90% of their time in practice, 10% in the game. Let's look at sprinters like Usain Bolt. This guy's 99.9% of this time in practice, 0.1% of his time in the game. Now I don't expect organizations to provide you with 90% of your time practicing stuff but man, there needs to be some time to practice.
Christian: [crosstalk 00:47:33] my friend. To show you how dysfunctional it is, as a percentage of time, if you ask any person how much...you look at [inaudible 00:47:43] it makes sense. But every scenario in a corporation is a competitive, wartime, real world scenario. You can [crosstalk 00:47:51] your revenue, your stuff and I say, "Well, when did we create the space to practice?" I don't know what the number should be. I think boy, if we can start as a culture with 20% of practice time in our work week, we would be significantly better environment for it.
Sohrab: And if you look at it, Boss, 3M and Google and probably many other organizations that are not as known have this 20% time or had this 20% time which is an environment where people can practice because they're spending it on projects that they decided to work on. Those are not business critical. Sometimes they turn out to be great like Gmail but they start out as a hobby, as a practice opportunity. And they still can result in some revenue for the business, some other outcomes. But the practice in itself would be enough of an outcome. It just takes, I think, the level of awareness for organizations to get there.
Now this practice leads me to the third piece. We had clarity, competence, now courage. So having the availability or the ability to practice obviously makes you more courageous to take those decisions on a daily basis when you are in the game. What else do you believe is important from a cultural perspective so that people can act from a position of more courage?
[00:49:21] Christian: Yeah.
. I've been in meetings where I would roleplay as like, "Oh, I'm struggling with conflict or things like that," and I'll go prep a person in a
meeting. I say I'm in the meeting with everybody and I want you to get up in the meeting and scream at me and be like, "That's a stupid idea." He's like, "In front of everybody?" I say, "Yes." Because what most people are curious on is what happens next. They don't understand what should we do if that happens. They make up their things in your head. What I want to demonstrate to everybody is what I want to see happen.
They see that scenario and I say, "Oh, tell me why you feel that way." We go through that and they see that person and saying, "You know what? I disagree but I understand why it's important and I'm going to work hard with you to make it happen." I just taught everybody it's okay to disagree but to commit. Are you seeing? And people see that model and are like, "Okay. That's okay." And see you and be like, "Can I have a
Leaders have to roleplay and demonstrate the attributes they want to
see or the values they want to see exist in a company. Leaders are the best window
and role model for what the culture and environment looks like because they define
what is acceptable within a culture
meeting with you." I say, "Is it a HR personnel issue?" They say, "No." I say, "Let's talk about it right here." They say, "Right here in front of everybody?" I say, "Yes." You see? Have you ever seen your manager and your manager's manager in a small room? Is there anybody that ever thinks, "They are about to give us bonuses." Everybody thinks the worst thing possible. Oh, my goodness. What's going on? Two executives in a corner room talking about things. It must be bad. It's all that whispering.
But when we see the two executives talking in front of the floor, you are demonstrating to everybody we have a culture of transparency plus oh, the leaders are talking to each other so they are sharing information. Are you seeing? What you're doing in a culture to create courage is by demonstrating the behaviors that people would be struggling to find the courage to do as acceptable behaviors. You see? And that is what leaders...you have to model out the behaviors you want people to be courageous on, the mistakes you want people to make. You have to be able to say to people, "I am in a terrible decision. That was messed up. I am sorry. I was not thoughtful about that. I needed help. I need your support. I am having a bad work day. I need to take a break." Saying those things, they provide the courage for other people to do those things. But if you never see your leaders do those things, if you never see your leaders say, "Are you going to be the first person to try something here that has never been done before?" You see?
Sohrab: I love the fact that you emphasized so much on actions, on things people do because one of the answers that I usually get when I ask this question, how do you create an environment for people to feel courageous, they're like, "You create a culture of failure or of learning." Okay, so what is this culture? Yeah. It's a set of beliefs. I don't think that's the case. I love two quotes when we think about culture. One is from Edgar Schein, culture is how we do things around here, focusing on actions. The other one is even more, I think, radical and it's from Tom Peters. It's the next five minutes. What do I do in the next five minutes? And when you were talking about these two
Leaders have to understand. When you provide clarity, you provide competence, you
coach, you provide practice. You have to model out and demonstrate the behaviors
you want to see people have the courage to take within the organization.
executives, they approach each other like, "Oh, we have something to talk about." We do it here. We don't go into this room. And especially if I were one of those executives and you put me in a room and it's a topic, it could be not even a serious issue but the moment I start thinking, I usually look like this. And people might think, "Oh, something's bad going on." If you're like, "Hey, next five minutes. We are here. We talk about it openly." You demonstrate through your actions A, we're transparent. B, that conversation can result in more clarity for the others. You connect all of these things by the actions that you demonstrate.
Now Christian, you mentioned the term coaching or being a coach several times. I'm not aware to what extent you have had encounters with people from Europe in terms of this topic or definition of coaching. Marty, a few months ago, in conversations with me, went on a huge rant. I loved it. How do you look at this? What is your definition of coaching?
Christian: Well, I described coaching from the mindset of developing people, the mindset of the job of the coach is significantly all about the personnel and professional development of an individual. The job is to get people to competency meaning getting them to the things they need to succeed at the jobs or the roles that they are in and then to their potential meaning enabling and preparing them for the next opportunities or the next things that they need to go and accomplish. That is fundamentally what coaching means to me. It is a trust-based aspect meaning the social contract we have is not that my job is to whip you to ensure that you do the things you are hired to do. My job is to get you better at your job. Your job is to do the job. My job is to get you better at doing the job. And that's the core dynamic. It's not like my job is to ensure that you're meant to deliver three products, to make sure you deliver three products. You deliver three products because you are a product manager. If I get you better at product management, three products will pop out as a result of that. You see?
I understand you kind of do the machine that builds the machine. My job is to build you. You are my product. My investment in coaching is that investment in getting you better.
Sohrab: Yeah. And not only three products pop out but three better products.
Christian: That's right.
Sohrab: Because I've done the...and in order to do that...and I think this is the fundamental issue that I see in Germany but almost also in the rest of Europe is they believe that a coach could do that without being an expert in that field by just asking smart questions. Now when I look at SVPG who support, and correct me if I'm wrong, many organizations in implementing great product management, great product leadership, all of you have been product managers and product leaders before. And I believe that it is this fact that allows you to do that. How do you look at this? Do you believe someone without your background...not exactly your background but with your skillset, expertise and war stories could do the job?
Christian: Okay. Well, do the job and being good at the job are two different things.
Sohrab: Be good at the job. Be good at the job.
Christian: The reason most of us are good at the job is because we kind of know what good looks like. Are you seeing? It accelerates our assessment mindset of being able to differentiate between the best and the rest and what good looks like. I mentioned most people don't even know what good...they might think screaming at you is good because their manager did it to them. Are you seeing? Because we've experienced what good looks like, it accelerates our ability to do that. However, I have met several great coaches that are great at getting people better because they have this astute awareness of what they do not know. I will the use the example of taking a
communication class. [inaudible 00:57:58] technical class. If I'm an engineering manager, my employee knows I don't know maybe Python and that was not my background but now he's working on that kind of stuff. He doesn't feel like he can come and ask me a question about Python because my manager doesn't even know it in some ways. But if you are a good coach, they will come to you with that because they know their job is to get you better. And what do they say? You know what? Let's go both take a Python class together. Let me hire a Python coach. Let me bring in somebody that knows Python. It's why you see professional sports teams. They might have conditioning coach, defense coach, offense coach, people that are skilled at certain areas but there's an overall coach that is caring for the whole team.
Great coaches have this astute awareness of the competencies they may not be good at and they bring that to the team if it's needed to help people get better. It's not about being an expert in all of those things. Now does it accelerate the fact that I have been a product manager and I have been in your shoes to know what good looks...absolutely. It's great. That's why you see many former coaches that were players do well. But you also have coaches that have never played that are also doing very well. But they do have people on their team that have played. Are you seeing it?
Sohrab: And like Jose Mourinho, they are students of the game. The tactics of the game, they are amazing at this and they are great team builders. When you listen to interviews of former Jose Mourinho players, they absolutely love this guy. Yeah. No. I have a final question if you still have time for me, Christian.
[00:59:43] Christian: Yes.
Sohrab: Maybe five or six more minutes. You go into a lot of organizations today as an external. You're with SVPG so organizations hire you as an external. How does that differ when you want to implement these kinds of concepts compared to when you were the product leader internally?
Christian: Oh, boy. Are you suggesting we're like missionaries in some way? Well, the good thing about what we do is we don't operate like consultants where we're trying to do the work on your behalf. We want to teach you how to fish in some ways rather than do some fishing for you or advise you and coach you in some ways. One of the things I do back to the principle I'm trying to demonstrate is that I want to show you what good looks like. Kind of the see it and do it aspect of it while I'm teaching it. I want you to see what good looks like. I am telling you stories of what good looks like. I'm showing you how people have done it and I'm providing opportunity to practice what good looks like. That is really the core of what I can offer companies today, is the ability to see and [inaudible 01:00:56] of what good looks like and to practice good product work. As a manager if I were within the team, I have accountability to [inaudible 01:01:06] doing it in the real world. And that's a very different ballgame because I now have to take what I have seen and done in practice and actually go do it.
That part probably is the hardest part for me in my job because those things take time. You are also building courage for people. Some people can see things once and jump on it. Some people need three practices to pick it up. Some people need two. You don't have that luxury of giving that individual attention to how much practice people would need before they get the courage to do it.
But to the very extent that I leave everybody with an example of what good looks like, I have planted a seed. And a big chunk of our work really is in grounding people on those seeds of meaningful transformation. I love to do more work with product leaders because if I can coach them on seeding and practicing, they can create more environments for people to practice and do it and teach it. That's kind of that core.
I am biased towards product leadership because it's scalable. I would love to train more and more product leaders to see and do good product work because that will help more companies at training product managers.
Sohrab: Yeah. Absolutely. And I love the fact...and Marty emphasized on this as well. Not scaling through process but scaling through people. And that...for me, my deepest passion is this enablement coming from the medical world. And yeah, you enable people and you scale through that enablement. Christian, I really enjoyed this conversation. I knew I was going to enjoy it and when we met prior to this conversation, we already laughed so hard I knew this was going to be great. But it was even better than I expected. Thank you so much for taking this time, answering all of my questions. I would love to host you at some point again. I will reach out to you by email. And yeah, really, thank you so much.
Christian: Thank you for having me again. Thank you.