Building Strong Product-Engineering Partnerships

Building Strong Product-Engineering Partnerships

If you’ve played the role of a people manager, you know how rewarding it is to mentor, coach, and groom the next set of leaders. But coaching people is hard as your direct reports come from a diverse backgrounds, experiences, aspirations, and their is no one-size-fits-all approach to coaching. Hence people coaching ends up being a lot of art and then some science, and often an exercise in patience and perseverance.

Although I’ve done a fair amount of people coaching over my career span, in this article I will share some learnings from a recent experience working with 4 direct reports (all in product management discipline). My intent for sharing my learnings and perspectives is to help make you more aware and effective in your people management responsibilities. There may also be a few new tips/tricks for you to takeaway. Hopefully, you will find my experiences relatable and valuable. BTW, the names of people I am using are completely fictitious but they will make it easier for you to follow my narrative.

People Leader, Your People Are your product

Lets start by briefly introducing my direct reports –

  • Adam was newly hired into the company but was an experienced hire coming from a smaller setup. Adam came with a fairly technical background but was at a senior level at his prior org. The opportunity I had with Adam was to help him learn about the org culture and how he could leverage his leadership and technical strengths to charter a path for success.
  • Bruce was a rising star in the org and had been moving up the ranks steadily. He was a fast learner and at times anxious/restless. My opportunity with him was to help him learn how to manage and channel his ideas and energies in the right way and at the right pace.
  • Charlie was an experienced manager who had been in the org for a fairly long time. He was highly analytical but had a bit of a laid back style and was often playing catch up relative to others in his peer group. My opportunity with him was help him discover and implement an effective approach for staying organized and meeting objectives in a timely manner.
  • Dave was a SME (subject matter expert) in his area and a long term employee at the org. He had been in his current role for many years and my opportunity with him was to not only help him grow as a product manager but also find ways to share his wealth of knowledge with others.

Every direct report comes with their own unique personality and opportunities that their manager must appreciate and amplify.

Lets now get to the people coaching approach I took for each of my direct reports, along with some outcomes –

  • For Adam (newly hired but technical ), the approach I took was to help him learn the ropes of the new environment and empower him to bring a couple of his proven ideas into our org. There was a delicate balance we had to strike here between him drinking (learning) from a firehose but also championing a couple of concrete ideas that would deliver value and allow him to shine. Over a period of time, Adam was successfully able to do both and really stood out amongst his peers. It was important to me that he was able to bring his authentic self to our new setup and minimize any feeling of the dreaded imposter syndrome that often haunts people in that onboarding stage. He kicked butt and I was eventually able to make the case for his promotion after a year and a half.
  • For Bruce (rising star but anxious), my approach focussed on helping him throttle his pace without stifling his passion, while making room for him to contribute and feel good about the outcomes he was driving. We worked on identifying an opportunity where he got to partner with another platform org and create a version of one of our critical products for them. Along the way, Bruce’s team worked with legal to file a patent on the product’s IP. Bruce and his team were recognized at the company level and got to hang with the CEO. I also asked him to kickstart a product CoP (community of practice) for our PdM community which further allowed him to channel his energy and ideas in a new way. Finally, Bruce got a well deserved promotion as well.

There are times when you may need to help slow things down for your direct report in order for them to see the larger context.

  • For Charlie (experienced but casual), I had to be a bit more intentional given that he had already had a long run at the org. Charlie had direct reports and I had to be mindful of this as well. My approach with him was to find a way to channel his analytical strength so that it complemented the work the broader platform org was doing. We decided that he would own the “well managed” metrics reporting of our platform and also identify a couple of product ideas to prototype. The metrics reporting took a while to stand up as it required working with the other product managers/owners, looking at their OKRs, and agreeing to a set of MVP intents. Charlie also worked with his peers on identifying two interesting analytical use cases (observability and forecasting) that his team felt really good about getting started on. The collection of these intents were able to instill a sense of purpose and urgency within Charlie that had been missing. Eventually the analytics function of all platform orgs was consolidated under another leader which led to better growth and experience for Charlie.

People leaders must take on the responsibility of instilling the sense of purpose within their direct reports.

  • For Dave (SME but untapped), the opportunity was to find organic ways for him to share the wealth of his domain knowledge with other team members and internal customers. Democratizing domain knowledge is not just valuable for the organization but can also be empowering for your direct report. Dave and I worked together on identifying existing product ceremonies, customer interactions, and creating a few new forums where he would be able to share his knowledge in a meaningful, impactful ways. As we were doing this, I also encouraged him to introspect some of his people engagement and communication “niggles” that could be improved and ironed out over time. Finally, we took Dave’s customer engagement framework, which was resonating really well with audiences, and made it a standard across all of my product managers. These actions took some time to play out (which is typical) but aggregate of all of them resulted in improved product NPS and significant progress on our platform OKRs. Later Dave found another compelling opportunity in a different org within the company to continue his growth journey.

Just like we bring high curiosity for our customer and market needs, we must bring the same curiosity for our people and really understand their motivations and needs. This way we can help design the best professional experience and outcomes possible for our direct reports. This, in essence, is the true calling of an effective people leader.