leadership

1 Simple Change to Make Your One-on-One Meetings Instantly More Productive

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This post originally appeared in my Inc.com column on August 12, 2016

Why I Fell in Love With Walking

I’m the VP of Product at Fuze, a tech company in the enterprise communication space. I’ve been an athlete and fitness enthusiast for about as long as I’ve been a geek, and in a past life I became a certified personal trainer at my local gym during college. Over the years I have learned that there’s a science behind feeling better as a result of moving and being active. Working as a personal trainer got me excited to help my clients be happy and healthy–which ultimately resulted in them feeling inspired and excited. Nothing made me happier than to see my clients achieve their fitness goals and then get ready for the next challenge.

Several years later while working at Microsoft I remember getting restless during a 1:1 with one of my team members; it was a gorgeous Seattle summer day outside and I hated being inside the office. I decided to try something simple and different during my next 1:1. Instead of sitting in my office for the meeting, I asked my team to try walking around campus and talking with me instead. Microsoft had these wonderful soccer fields that made it easy to do some laps around.

Not only did this turn out to be a healthy activity, the resulting conversations were also incredibly more personalized and free-flowing than they’d be if we just sat around in the office going over the same content.

I quickly found that walking meetings served as a great way to merge my passion for physical activities with the needs of management, meetings, and other work tasks. There’s a benefit from a business perspective, and a clear benefit with respect to you and your teams’ healthiness.

Build a Healthy Team

Right around the time I started walking for my meetings at Microsoft, the first of the quantified-self set of companies launched and, being a data and gadget geek, I bought a Fitbit to start tracking my steps during runs, soccer, and daily activities. Sometimes after meetings I would share the step count graphs from my FitBit profile with my employees to celebrate that we hit funny milestones like “longest meeting of the week in steps” or “fastest meeting in mph.”

My employees quickly took notice. Many of them bought their own devices and we started to enjoy a fun little competition. One of my team members at Microsoft was so inspired by some of our conversations that she got a Fitbit and a nutritionist to help focus on her health and wellness. We talked each week about her progress and I shared tips and insights from my own experience to help. It was wonderful to see her achieve a number of her personal health goals while excelling at being a product manager.

If walking meetings aren’t your thing, there are a number of other ways you can bring your team together while encouraging healthy behavior.

During my Microsoft days, I organized intramural soccer events between different teams in our group as we had those soccer fields nearby. In almost every city there are soccer fields and parks where you can easily organize a pick-up game for your team.

When I was at Contactive, my team and I joined an intramural dodgeball league that played in the Lower East Side. Playing dodgeball as an adult was hilarious and exhausting, but competing as a team every week kept us active and was a welcome stress relief from the 20-hour early-startup-days we were working.

Now, at Fuze, it’s not uncommon to catch me and my team doing a group run after work through the Flatiron here in New York City. We hit a milestone last month when we ran from our office to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, celebrating the 6-mile run with some wings and a beer at my favorite pub.

Healthy Thinking

I challenge you to take one of the things you like about an activity, sport, or exercise that you personally enjoy and find a way to share that with your team. It can be soccer, dodgeball, or even a simple walk around your neighborhood. Create active cultures and you’ll spur healthy thinking in your employees.

We all spend 40 or more hours working in an office each week. To drive health and wellness–and therefore create a more productive organization–you can incorporate daily fitness- or health-oriented activities into your workflow. Not only will your team be healthier, they’ll also be more happy and productive–a truly win-win scenario.

Header image from Advanced Aquatic PT

What to Look for When Hiring a Product Manager

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Product managers can make or break organizations, which is why hiring managers must spend time landing the most talented PMs. Great hires help their companies level-up.

So, what exactly should you look for in a PM?

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who are what I call “smart chameleons.”

These people immediately impact a particular product. They adapt quickly and efficiently whenever new ideas or initiatives emerge.

To this end, a candidate’s experience—alongside examples that demonstrate his or her ability to adapt—are the key qualifications that I explore during the interview process.

No One is Born a PM

A master blacksmith teaches an apprentice how to shape metals. Similarly, PMs need to get their hands dirty while on the job to learn their craft.

At Fuze, we typically hire PMs with at least three years of experience. It’s great when that experience comes from places known for producing great PMs, like big software companies that have established PM disciplines and training programs. Amazing PMs can also come from medium-sized tech firms and often have very cool and interesting backgrounds that led them to Product Management.

Some of the best Product Managers I’ve worked with have the most amazingly diverse backgrounds: an art history major, a finance manager, and once even an astrophysicist. You can also often find great PMs inside of Sales and Sales Engineering teams; they often have amazing customer empathy given the amount of interactions they have with them.

I also seek candidates with relevant domain experience to our industry and technology. It simplifies the onboarding process when new hires have a basic understanding of our tech, B2B sales, and enterprise platforms from the beginning.  

Adaptability

Anyone who’s worked in the startup world knows how quickly things change. PMs need to be versatile enough to keep pace with those changes.

During the hiring process, I ask candidates to provide examples about how they’ve shipped their products. More specifically, I ask candidates to describe times when they had to get creative to ship something. Maybe they had to deal with missing information. Maybe there was no existing process. Maybe they were competing for resources.

Whatever the case may be, the more creative the candidate’s response, the more likely we are to proceed to the next round of interviews.

Great PMs Empathize with Customers

Those who know me have heard me talk about how important customer empathy is for a PM. Let’s reiterate.

When I’m hiring, I look for candidates who have extensive experience talking to customers. I seek out people who can provide examples of turning those interactions into products and feature improvements.

Empathy is one of the most important skills for anyone in any industry. Candidates who can place themselves in their customers’ shoes and see problems (and solutions) from their perspectives tend to succeed in PM roles.

Communication Skills are Critical

If candidates can’t communicate effectively, how can you expect them to ship on time?

One part of our Fuze interview process involves homework. We give candidates an assignment and ask them to present their response to us. Topics change periodically, but they always focus on a real business challenge that we’re facing.

Forcing candidates to prepare presentations in a relatively short period of time is a great way to ascertain how well they think on their feet and whether they can communicate content clearly and concisely.

Thanks to this component of our interview process, we can gauge whether candidates have the communication skills that are necessary to thrive.

Although different candidates appeal to different companies, strong PMs will be experienced and quick on their feet. They are empathetic and communicative. Keep this in mind and with luck you’ll make amazing new hires.

For more on the topic, check out Steven Sinofsky’s post on hiring your first PM.

 

4 Things Every Product Person Should Do

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

It would be a shame if growing in your career took you further away from having an up-to-date perspective of what’s happening with your product.

You can quickly forget what life is like in the trenches. If you want to be an effective product manager, you need to actually work on the product. Some people estimate you should spend 30% of your time with hands-on work in engineering roles.

I would suggest that it’s paramount for product managers of all levels to be do-ers.

It’s crucial for managers in the Product space to:

  • Get out of meetings
  • Walk away from product roadmaps and strategy
  • And lead by example by consistently getting into the weeds

How to get your hands dirty

Write a Spec

Product Requirement Documents drive the efforts of the entire product team. Its hard to come by a more important, higher leverage piece of work for a company. Every quarter I make sure to take one project or feature and write the entire PRD and spec for it.

This includes writing up wireframes, mockups, business case, scenarios, technical discussion, and timeline. I also put it through the same process  my PM’s need to go through: review, iterations, sign-off, etc.

Teardown a Competitor

When I see a competitor that seems interesting or a technology that could be useful to our products, I will spend an hour on a Friday performing a teardown.

A good teardown will involve – where possible – getting hands on time with the tech or product in question, taking relevant screenshots, and writing up evaluative feedback. I then provide some ideas about how we can either beat the competitor or, failing that, integrate with them. I post these ideas into our wiki and share with the team. 

Triage Bugs

About once a week I will jump into JIRA, pick a product, and review the Priority 1 and 2 bugs. Do they match my expectation of priority? Great. If there are any questions, I will sit down with the individual PM and ask them about it.

Attend Individual Scrums

There are too many projects on my team to go to every scrum, so instead I pick one day each week to attend a different product’s meeting. I usually sit and listen quietly, then afterward will use my one-on-one with that PM to ask questions about what I heard. Theres a lot you can tell about a team just by occasionally showing up to their daily standup.

Why would you do this?

Respect

Students in my Product Management class at General Assembly this semester heard me start every lesson with some form of “This stuff is so cool! I love building products.” One of the first things I look for when hiring PM’s is their raw passion for wanting to build cool stuff.

Doing individual work like this shows your team, your peers, and your management that you are fired up about building products. You’ll earn their respect, which can be especially helpful when onboarding into a new team.

Improved efficiency

The first time you write a spec as a newly promoted manager (especially if you haven’t written one in a while), youll instantly discover what in the spec process needs improvement. Fixing these issues will make your entire team more efficient.

On our team, I realized that we had four different flavors of PRDs. I worked with Alex (one of our Directors of Product Management) to unify them into a single format. We then came up with a template for the new PRDs and put it into our wiki. That’s the spec process we use on all of our products today.

A Dose of Realism

It’s easy to think projects and products will execute extraordinarily well. As a manager in the Product organization, your goal is to balance your optimism for completing a project against your pessimism, your previous experience telling you how complex it is going to be.

Periodically writing a spec, attending a scrum, and triaging bugs can help you stay much closer to what’s actually happening inside your products and code.

Spend your time wisely.

Which will be more expensive: time spent on non-managerial work, or the risk of failure stemming from a knowledge gap between strategy and execution?

High performers hold themselves and others accountable not only for results but the methods to achieve those results. The end does not necessarily justify the means with these people.

In the early days of LearnVest, von Tobel put everything involving her business before her own health and needs. A lifestyle that’s based on little sleep, long workdays of drinking nothing but coffee, and forgetting to squeeze in doctors visits obviously isn’t sustainable for the long term. Now that von Tobel has been running a business for four years, she says she goes to the gym almost everyday and stays healthy.

“Advice for startups from LearnVest founder Alex Tobel” via Business Insider.

Maintaining a healthy and somewhat-balanced lifestyle while working at an early-stage company is hard. I use my calendar to make sure I block off time for crossfit, date nights, and spending time with my family. It never feels like enough time, but by regularly blocking off time and only cancelling if it’s absolutely necessary, I find I can maintain the energy needed to put in the time at the office.

10 Signs You Have (Or Are) A Great Boss

I still remember many of the lessons my first manager at Microsoft, Aaron, taught me during our first tour of duty together in Office. The one I remember the most? Having him stop by on a casual “drive by” during the day to say thanks for something small, like a successful meeting, a solid email, or kudos for helping out a co-worker.  

Never underestimate the power of simply saying “Thanks, nice work.”

10 Signs You Have (Or Are) A Great Boss