Following the perception that everyone is a teacher, working as a Product Manager, I’ve learned the most from my toughest bosses, peers and subordinates. Most of them were pushing me to higher standards, others behaved like children with grenades: sometimes we learn how to do things, sometimes we learn how not to.
Being thankful for all kinds of experiences I continuously reflect on how to build more effective and self-managed organizations. Let me share personal insights penciled while managing small teams and larger groups (up to 50 people) on what actions helped me to push the things to happen and facilitate the personal growth of each subordinate in the right way according to my belief system.
✅ Create a safe space
The “safe space” term is over abused these “new age” days (pun mode intended) yet there is a good idea behind it:
- When bringing tough feedback the last productive scenario is when an employee starts behaving defensively. Time and energy are valuable resources, imagine approaching a deadline or having a busy schedule — you’d like to align on something and move on to other activities fast and without friction.
- When asking an employee for an opinion, some tend to make their bosses happy. A “safe space” will allow employees to express their honest thoughts on what they think or what the real status of things is.
The more difficult the subject is the safer the space should be. Things to consider when aiming to achieve the desired level of mutual trust:
- A healthy foundation establishes when you are aligned on common interests and goals. In case gaps are discovered — mitigate them first.
- Keep the alignment with the company vision and structure (yes, KPIs/OKRs are a part of the pre-required knowledge), and make sure the subordinate is aware of all the necessary details.
- Talk in business terms, crossing over to personal issues only when necessary. Ah, I’ve found some elements from non-violent communication very handy.
- Remember you are a part of the leadership team, not just another angry boss :) Do not sugarcoat tough things, but minimize the “threat” feeling from the employee’s side, while staying respectful, honest and direct. Let the sportive drive lead, not to fear or guilt.
- Going deeper, try to recall moments from your own career path when your answers to the management were over-positive. Was it because you wanted to get a larger project or recruit more subordinates? Were you aiming for a better score just before the quarterly evaluation meeting? Sounds familiar? Then help your people to escape the trap :)
- Last but not least, look at what you project as a manager (both verbally and not verbally). Are you ready to hear the less pleasant answer? When you get an answer you didn’t expect do you have the patience to evaluate it compared with your original idea?
No, I don’t advocate for coercing everything for employees’ comfort, but I believe that when it comes to pushing to higher standards fear or guilt should not be among the driving factors. Stay positive and nurture professional excellence which is defined in terms of the pre-agreed career development plan (with personal KPIs/OKRs).
✅ Encourage self-driven decision making
In Israeli startups seeing the big picture (and acting accordingly) is literally called “being/behaving like a big head”. Delegating small pieces of work and frequent context switches won’t help scale the company. We, managers, need people that can decompose and lead the execution of complex missions on their own, proactively. Yes, also when coordination across the departments is required.
Things to consider when mentoring an employee to cultivate the right mindset to help the company to deliver its milestones in time:
- Do not share ready solutions, let him come up with a few options first. Then, patiently help to compare and evaluate possible alternatives, finding the best outcome together.
- Give a fishing rod not a fish. Sometimes I intentionally talk in riddles providing food for thought and influencing the employee’s reasoning and belief systems. (Sidenote: to me, this kind of developing brainwork capabilities seems natural, one could spot the resemblance with pilpul, the way to explore potential contradictions in Talmudic texts.) When people expect a direct answer but receive even harder questions or a seemingly unrelated piece of information instead, they are very surprised at first. But down the road, they understand the rationale behind my positive intentions and are more likely to embrace the learning technique.
- Encourage thinking in general terms such as guidelines, good practices, success criteria, processes and teamwork rather than just coming up with dedicated solutions.
- In some meetings, I prefer to start from the end, i.e. from the desired outcome (e.g. investors’ presentation, new feature release deadlines, resolving an interpersonal issue etc) and to figure out the right way to achieve the outcome by progressing step by step in reverse chronological order.
✅ Teach how to communicate
We all heard that “communication is the key” but do you or your subordinates know why? Explaining the difference between micromanagement and transparency can be a good start for fresh team members. Transparency is essential while micromanagement is a big no-no for a trustworthy working environment. As a manager, I’d like to monitor the activities from the bird-eye view but have an option to dive into details when required.
Communication in particular helps people to be perceived as a professional authority in the workplace. Good communication is not only about managing up but also sideways and down. The importance of communication skills grows exponentially with an employee’s role and the size of an organization.
Elaborating on how to develop the soft skill won’t just take a bulleted list. Therefore, reading a few bestsellers on corporate/office communication is the best way to go (DYOR!). I believe that setting the right track for communication skills is one of the core manager’s responsibilities from the very first talk with every subordinate.
✅ Expect the reasonable and be patient
This one is simple: dig a hole, plant a seed, pour periodically and let it sprout, no need for extra digging to see how the seed progresses.
- Always push to higher highs but exercise patience and consider the professional and cultural background. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took 40 years for Moses to lead Hebrews through the desert to let the old habits die. In one company it became clear to my fresh eye that ~30% of the headcount need to be let go, but these teams worked together for a long time and we didn’t want to shake the overall confidence by firing so many people at once, so the performance measurement process was established with all the necessary steps to make the painful procedure more results-driven and by no means personal.
- Let ’em make their own mistakes! That stage cannot be accelerated. People rarely learn from others’ what-if analyses. Let them leave through a cycle (e.g. few sprints from one milestone to another), reflect on how the things could’ve been done better, live through the suggested changes, integrate the knowledge and… well, you get the idea :) When continuous improvement brings its fruits — just keep the process on track.
When I came to advise a blockchain media company on helping 50+ people (6 teams) to start delivering features weekly. From my first meeting with the middle management, the problems were clear yet it took about 2 months to restructure the teams, redefine domains of responsibilities, mentor the newly built leaders and finally witness the first fruits! Exciting, but happened slowly, yet still exciting!
✅ Keep ’em challenged, expand the comfort zone
It’s hard to manage people even on a regular day with their regular missions pool: personal issues, project and interpersonal dynamics, cloudy weather on Mondays — you name it. Yet, as a manager, you’ve probably conducted the career development talk with your subordinates and it’s one of your duties to come along with them through improving and expanding their abilities. Be brave and optimistic and pass the feeling on! Also, be sensitive, patient and supportive: remember that pushing people through something they never did (and maybe were always afraid to do) requires a lot of mental effort from their side.
A few years ago, one of the designers I enjoy working with till the present day was a bit too shy, she always praised for the best quality and insisted to collect the requirement first, think them through and schedule another meeting to see some sketches and check if they are good for something. Nowadays, all we need is a 10–20 minutes session of screen sharing to quickly draft the possible options and to decide whether some of them should be passed to the devs. It took some time to build that level of confidence together with her but it paid off fairly well.
✅ Redefine the meaning of “failure”
One more personal story: when I came to work at a large corporate company in Bangkok, I had that urge “to shake the dancefloor” motivating the team to speed up the delivery of a few long-awaited features. It felt like there was a space for improvement.
After a few sprints, the reason became clearer: in Asian culture, a failure is considered as losing a face, not something one will go through willingly. Therefore, the sprint capacity had some buffers and in general team members preferred to take lower risks and take a longer time to verify and accomplish their tasks. I’ve suggested increasing the sprint capacity and told that it’s not a failure to have some tasks carried over to the next iteration. The team agreed and the fun started.
Voila! In 2–3 sprints the team velocity increased by more than 30%! Also, the daily meetings became livelier and the members started to communicate about handoffs and deliveries rather than just reporting to the scrum master what they did yesterday and what is planned for today.
Always encourage to experiment and look for better ways to become more effective and to build great products. Bugfixes, redesigns, production hiccups etc — are a normal part of the technical team life. My main message became that the only real failure is to stop trying to experiment and innovate.
✅ Set up (and co-own) the mentoring framework
Mentoring is a long and exciting process, so setting a framework to provide feedback and facilitate continuous improvement is important. Good practice would be weekly meetings when an employee prepares a presentation that includes the lanes under his responsibility, their status, items to discuss, personal findings, learned insights etc. The manager, in turn, coaches the employee on both routine and personal development tasks. When I worked at Agoda, these presentations took a lot of effort to prepare yet they allowed me to stay on top of things and monitor my progress in a well-structured way.
Building self-regulating organizations is a fascinating win-win mission for every participant. When you help others grow, you grow yourself and become a better professional, more sensitive person and more conscious human being.
There’s little which can compete with a feeling when you see your subordinates implementing their own patterns out of those learned from you. The ultimate success for us as mentors is to see our mentees become even more successful than us, so it will be our turn to learn from them. According to Kabbalah, we all are parts of the self-comprehending Creation teaching itself again and again :)