Leading consumer product orgs
Servant Leadership: Growing PM careers
This is the 3rd article in a series on leading consumer product organizations in which I discuss issues related to growing people & teams. The article is primarily based on my experiences while heading product management at Vudu/Walmart. The first two articles were on i) Strategy & prioritization ii) Organizing teams.
Heading product teams requires a thoughtful blend of product, process and people leadership. There are several resources that discuss delivering value for customers & business through product discovery, planning & execution. I prefer to focus this article on people leadership which I believe is most critical right now with hiring & attrition being such a major issue in PM (&other tech) teams.
What is your philosophy for leadership?
Walmart leadership principles required us to be servant leaders. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. I embraced this philosophy whole-heartedly and believe that Walmart, by a wide margin, is the best leadership culture in which I have worked in my career so far. This article is about how I put the servant leadership philosophy to practice.
What is your theory of growth for PM careers?
Let us look at growth from a scope and skills perspective. Growth from a scope perspective in consumer PM orgs at internet services companies could look as follows:
- Feature (Media eg: Disc+digital feature on Vudu) or (eCommerce eg: Collections feature on eBay)
- Vertical experience (Media eg: Android mobile app) or (eCom eg: Fashion or Motors experience on Amazon). This could be seen as being on par with managing a horizontal experience (eg: Family-friendly services on Vudu or Search Experience on Amazon)
- Portfolio of products/experiences (eg: Android+iOS mobile apps for Prime Video or Content Discovery (Search/Recs/Martech) experience on Fire TV)
- Brand experience for a customer segment (eg: Buyer Experience on Amazon or all consumer experiences at Prime Video SVOD)
- Brand experience for multiple customer segments (eg: Seller + Buyer + Advertiser experience on eBay or Prime Video SVOD+TVOD+AVOD+Live experiences)
- Experience for a portfolio of brands in the same industry (eg: Vudu + FandangoNow + Peacock + Xumo all owned by NBCU)
We could overlay complexity factors such as size of organization, competitive landscape, new markets/products or product line extensions, size of customer base, market size & organizational maturity (startup vs smb vs large corporation) to the mix. In my experience working at both incumbents and challengers in the same industries and in medium and large sized companies, I can attest that the PM challenges are quite different.
Growth from a skills perspective at internet services companies could look as follows:
Product discovery skills: Customer research, prototyping, surveys, interviews, synthesizing voice of customer, designing learning experiments, executing pivots.
Managing ‘the business’ skills: Business case development, PR/FAQ writing, financial modeling, resource planning, informing build/buy/partner decisions, securing funding & managing investor expectations.
Breadth of PM roles: Platforms, Mobile, Living Room, Web, Analytics, SaaS, Growth, MarTech, AdTech
Product lifecycle management: Building 0–1 products, optimizing during growth & maturity phases, integrating acquired companies/products, migrating services, A/B testing, phasing out products.
Stakeholder & partner management: Number and complexity of stakeholder relationships managed. This can include sister teams of the product org (marketing, merchandising, design, analytics, etc), external partners (studios, OEMs, etc), press, customers & boards.
How should we think about growth for each PM on a team?
Typically, leaders evaluate employees against goals, competencies and strengths/opportunities. While the strengths/opportunities assessment could help frame growth conversations, the process is still very company/organization-centric and not one that properly considers employee aspirations. Lately, there is a lot of momentum around companies wanting to be responsible to employees in addition to shareholders & customers. This is a positive development, but the tools simply haven’t kept up. We use customer journey maps, empathy maps, UX research methods, A/B testing etc to understand customers & achieve product-market fit. But the standard pulse surveys, annual reviews & other processes for “employee understanding” are not nearly as sophisticated. In fact, we put most of the onus of career growth on the employee. That is a hallmark of leaders who are too focused on managing up. A better approach to helping grow PM careers could piggyback on some of the tools of customer discovery.
Borrowing ideas from customer empathy maps, ‘feelings’ of an employee & their root causes can be mapped in a 2*2 as follows:
One of the primary goals of PM leadership should be to keep PMs in the growth zone wherein they feel challenged and have properly aligned incentives. Borrowing another product discovery tool, we could think about product-PM fit as a guiding principle where the fit is not just optimized to existing skills, but also considers scope & skills growth. This means first working with the PM to figure out where their growth opportunities lie in the scope and skills matrix. Considering the product vision & capabilities that we need to build in the next 12–18 months, the leader could then come up with the right assignments for each employee.
Growth in scope can be easily appreciated on a career ladder. There is a high correlation between scope and titles such as Associate, Product Manager, Senior PM, Group/Lead/Principal PM & Director+ at many companies. But, more scope does not always mean more skills. New skills can only be developed by throwing new challenges at PMs and coaching them appropriately. This part of career development is under-appreciated. It is important for PMs to grow in both the scope & skills dimensions to be truly world-class PMs who can be effective across companies/industries/managers. Otherwise, you get one-hit wonders.
How did we grow the PM team at Vudu?
I had a team of 3 when I took charge. We hired new people that checked at-least 2 of 3 boxes: i) Industry experience ii) appropriate PM experience for the level iii) Relevant skill-sets in related areas, in addition to demonstrating desired Walmart behaviors in interviews. New PM hires came from FAANGs, other streaming services & device manufacturers.
While I present a static view of the org, the structure was dynamic and evolved over 3 years. The key though is that it was informed not just by business needs, but also by employee aspirations. 3 of the 4 group/principal PMs were promoted from within Vudu ranks when they’d demonstrated goal achievement and readiness to go to the next level. Each group or principal PM took ownership of a vertical experience (living room, web, mobile, partner integrations), a tier 1 (ambiguous and high priority initiative) horizontal experience & a set of existing products & experiences that were in the growth phase. Group PMs had direct reports & developed people management skills. Principal PMs had dotted line reports. Every PM on the team had individual contributor responsibilities including me. I suppose we could have hired more people, but I don’t believe in leading to ratios such as 1 PM to 5–7 engineers or in carving out very narrow roles that place people in the stagnation or mercenary zone quickly.
This approach to organization allowed every person on the team to grow both in the scope & skills dimensions. When PMs on my team felt burned out or fell into the stagnation zone, I was able to make adjustments pro-actively. The group PMs developed new skills such as pitching new products to internal/external stakeholders, helping negotiate deals, financial modeling & scenario planning. A principal PM that expressed interest in Growth tech got to develop related skills. The other PMs on the team launched several new features & app upgrades and developed portable skills. Some PMs on my team had no consumer PM experience having previously worked in infrastructure teams. One such PM worked on infrastructure components but also launched his first consumer apps at Vudu.
Achieving Sustainable Results
Overall, with some thoughtful planning and effort on part of the PM leader, customer, business & employee goals can be exceeded. As stated in my first article, our team consistently delivered double-digit annual growth rates, competed successfully against Prime Video, iTunes & launched new products & product optimizations quickly. This was achieved with no attrition in PM ranks for 3+ years and steady growth of the team & the business. As tech leaders, let’s recognize that we are lucky to be working with really bright & motivated people and exercise the privilege responsibly.
Appendix A: Employee ‘Feeling’ States
Stagnation zone: Not challenged, no incentives. This could be due to 2 reasons: i) The leader/company believes you’ve reached your maximum level of incompetence ii) The leader lacks vision for your growth or the company is not growing. The former phenomenon requires introspection by the employee. Employee options include up-skilling via education, moving laterally or switching industries. The latter phenomenon is due to failure of leadership at various levels and the employee’s best option is to leave.
Mercenary zone: Not challenged, but financial or other incentives exist. Some manifestations include waiting for green card, awesome perks or other financial incentives such as RSUs, bonuses. Having lived through the boom and bust in the late 90s, I believe this is risky. When busts happen, perks and other financial incentives are the first things that get cut. The opportunity cost of long-term stagnation is just too high for your career.
Burnout zone: Challenged, misaligned incentives. Some manifestations include long work hours, being asked to take more responsibility with no clear guidance on promotions or commitment to increasing wages, frequent reorgs, lack of consistency in leadership. We’ve all been here.