Leah Tharin on strategy, leadership, and impact over certificates
Product State Q&A
EC: As companies triple down on sending the right signals to the market, how important is it to be share a compelling product strategy - and what is critical to getting it right?
LT: Any strategy, not only for product, is essentially a communication tool to align people. It is to make sure that we’re running in the same direction. Many teams are great at running fast nowadays but making sure they all are aligned (efficiently) is becoming increasingly difficult.
Critical things to get right:
Any strategy or vision has to be simple. It is a thing that is retold often. The more complexity you introduce the less likely you will reach the same impact every time.
Focusing on meaningful customer outcomes — instead of feature deliveries — lays the foundational work for teams to be incentivized the same way:
On customer success outcomes, rather than feature delivery.
If we rally around a customer outcome or problem, it gives us the freedom to pivot in the feature in case we learn something new.
There is less of a chance of siloed responsibilities. Instead of sales vs marketing vs product, we should have a strategy to emphasize collaboration between the three.
As economic pressure increases we typically see a rush in safer, more optimization bets. That usually translates into strategies that aim for retention or cost saving measures to drive ROIC (return of invested capital).
However, any company in a commoditized segment that competes with product-led growth companies may be forced to do the transition themselves to product-led growth as a distribution channel. The CAC for PLG is unbeatable: The times where you could ‘afford’ not having PLG is over in certain markets.
These companies do well to think long and hard about their distribution models. This means something different for different sizes of companies. For very small startups it might be the last moment to do the jump to product-led growth before it becomes difficult (and expensive) to transition away from a sales-led approach.
EC: With less margin for error, and reduced teams, how can product leaders consistently motivate their teams and influence stakeholders amidst much uncertainty?
LT: I believe firmly in 3 core principles:
Unconditional transparency. We expose each other to customers, context, data, and business metrics. Only if people understand the purpose of what they are doing their creativity can get a grip and product innovation. This gives understanding.
Autonomy. We need to accept that our operational layer — the teams — probably better know what’s going on with the customers than we do. We might have a better bird’s eye view of the market but what the customer really wants, day-to-day, is with the teams. Especially if we empower them with information by being transparent. Let’s trust our stakeholders and become coaches instead of dictators that tell them to deliver.
Accountability. Software development is incredibly difficult, not just for the technical complexity but to deliver anything that has a meaningful impact. It’s normal that we fail with our predictions regularly. Therefore, honesty in progress and honest assessments are crucial. The goal is to learn, not succeed. It is very difficult to not succeed if you keep learning. Think about incentivizing learning rather than pure success. That (success) will follow inevitably.
In more practical terms when resources are scarce I prefer smaller overall team sizes, rather than having to downsize headcount uniformly and keep average team size. Smaller teams are easier to manage and are surprisingly more agile than bigger teams.
Product agility is — in a pressured market where we expect a recession — all the more important: PM’s tend to be able to focus on research and business opportunities the smaller teams are. There is less alignment friction and overall noise.
This is where product leaders can step in; team size is only one lever to free up time of teams for meaningful experimentation. It is a good incentive to go over processes, spot friction and maybe even get rid of obsolete baggage.
EC: To stand out in an increasingly competitive job market, what should PMs be considering and diving deeper into?
LT: T-Shaped profiles are great. It can box you in, so be careful before you box yourself in as a ‘payment expert PM.’ You might do that for a long time if you do. Looking outside of just product management skills can be very beneficial.
It helped me a great deal to branch out to marketing, sales, and business valuation as a product leader. Our roles become increasingly interdependent with other departments (especially sales & marketing) - developing an intimate understanding of what they deal with is a great asset.
Generally speaking, any experience related to ‘leadership’ is good for any product manager. What often is missed in how it can be achieved: you can gain leadership experience by simply coaching others for free, for example. If you’re doing a great job it will turn into a paid side gig, but more importantly, you gain applicable experience for your job. Exposing yourself to other people’s problems is the best balances check that you can possibly do. You learn quickly where your gaps are, this allows you to get a sense of the market and what you should learn next.
Whatever you choose to learn, make it visible. Don’t write ‘Studied 2 years topic X’ in your CV. Hiring managers care little about what you learned; they start to listen when you tell them what you achieved with that knowledge.
Someone with a strong growth mindset and proven track record in that regard almost always catches our attention:
Good managers don’t care whether you made mistakes, but what you made out of them.
‘Impact over certificates.’