Can Building Great Products Help You Build Great Teams?

Silicon Valley was built on amazing products, not on stellar leadership skills. In fact, veterans of some of the world’s most successful tech companies often look with skepticism, even disdain, on efforts to build strong management skills. The premise is that all energy should be focused solely on turning fabulous ideas into hyper growth. It’s true that if a start-up fails — or is sold — the need for enduring leadership may never arise. And in the earliest stages of a company, the need to organize, motivate and inspire large groups of people to accomplish shared goals may not be obvious.

But neglecting the art of people management has significant costs for any company that aspires to be around for a while. Despite employment woes in many sectors of the economy, the talent wars are alive and well in the tech field. Recruitment and retention take up significant mindshare for most leaders. It’s well-documented that dissatisfaction with a manager is a top reason for employees to leave a job. Great managers can help improve job satisfaction and employee retention by leading their organizations with a strong vision, strategic execution and opportunities for career growth. My prediction is that in the next five years, we’ll see a focus on people management catch on with the same enthusiasm that product management has in Silicon Valley and beyond.

In my 20 years leading product and user experience teams at several world-class companies, including LinkedIn and Google, I’ve come to adopt what I call my “Seven Principles to Product Bliss.” Every new member of my product team at LinkedIn gets a personal review of these principles delivered by yours truly. In the course of giving the review many dozens of times, I’ve realized that the seven product principles have direct corollaries to principles for being an effective people manager, and I now work to make sure the managers on my team and I adhere to these corollaries. Below you’ll find my seven product tenets and how I see them connecting to managing people.

Rule 1: Know your audience. For managing products, this means getting out of your office to figure out who your users and customers are, and what makes them tick. This may require opening up meaningful dialog with perfect strangers, and then building their feedback into your product.

For managing people, this principle means getting out of your peer group to really get to know your employees and team members–what they care about, what motivates them and what bothers them about the way things are done. Start with a regular cadence of internal communications–skip-level meetings, town halls, meals with star performers, on-boarding sessions for new hires and team offsites are all good. When you meet with people, listen carefully. Share values and principles that are important to you and your company. Then ask big, open-ended questions about what your team members think–or have seen elsewhere–so that you can interpret and address common challenges together. There’s no better way to get to know your team than to jointly tackle a hard problem.

Rule 2: Simplify. Successful product managers know that customers respond best when the only product features are the ones they want. It’s more important to spend time deciding which features to omit than which to add. A canonical example of the dangers of complexity is the trajectory of Microsoft Word. Between 1984 and 2003, this once-popular software application went from 40 features to more than 1500, with 35 tool bars! Users were overwhelmed, and many turned to simpler alternatives.

Simple is a feature of great management too. Employees of today’s flat organizations are more empowered than ever to gather insights, pursue ideas and make decisions, but they’re also often overcome by choices–how to prioritize their day, whether to go to a particular meeting and which emails to read. Superior people managers can draw a clear mission for their teams–articulating group goals and conveying a strong direction–and then get out of the way to enable their people to make day-to-day decisions.

Rule 3: Embrace constraints. Warren Buffett famously said: “Happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you have.” When it comes to product management, constraints on time, resources and attention spans can actually make us more creative and responsive to user needs. I love the story of how Napoleonic-era Swiss chocolatiers made hazelnut the most popular flavor of chocolates by using it as a filler during a trade embargo imposed by France. More recently, when moving from web-based to mobile-ready products, the most successful product managers didn’t just scrunch products to fit a small screen–they completely rethought and reinvented their products around mobile users and their usage patterns.

When it comes to leading people, you can actually unleash their creativity by providing a few well-chosen constraints. At LinkedIn, employees sometimes pitch a “venture bet”– a long-shot idea that they’re passionate about. We give them a set amount of time and resources to build that idea and report back periodically. In this context, constraints are necessary safeguards that help simulate real-world constraints faced by any seed-funded startup. The successful bets go on to become part of LinkedIn’s product portfolio.

Rule 4: Data is your guide. The classic example of using data to achieve product success is the multi-step e-commerce checkout process. Amazon’s famous “1-click buying” system materially reduced the buying funnel dropout rates. While you can’t control what users will do with your product once it’s in their hands, you can learn from their interactions and build on this data to improve the product experience.

Data is becoming increasingly relevant for people managers. With tools like LinkedIn, organizations are recruiting, retaining and grooming talent with unprecedented precision. Social tools can enable coworkers to collaborate and build relationships, creating and maintaining a positive culture. At LinkedIn, periodic employee surveys and employee-only networking groups on Linkedin.com allow us to track employee sentiment in a measured, data-rich way. As global leaders, we can’t be everywhere at all times, and we can’t allow ourselves to be swayed by rumors or anecdotal feedback from a few voices who happen to be proximate. Instead, we need to deploy data-driven methods to make the best global decisions.

Rule 5: Innovation is not instant. The beauty of the iPhone is how it combined the best features of its predecessors–the Blackberry’s email features, the Razr’s design aesthetics, the iPod’s music capabilities and the Palm Pilot’s touch screen. Don’t chase brilliant one-offs when seeking innovation–it takes lots of lead bullets to make a silver bullet that enables a step change in user experience.

Similarly, effective leadership takes time, tenacity and regular engagement with the people you’re leading. Gone are the days of “command-and-control” leaders. Today, it’s essential to build an ongoing relationship of trust and authenticity based on open and transparent communication and collaboration. This process of relationship-building takes more time, but those moments of the day are well-spent.

Rule 6: Be fast, flexible and ready to adapt. Some of the most popular tech products today emerged as a result of a major strategic pivot. YouTube got started as a video-dating site. PayPal was created to exchange money between two Palm Pilots. It’s best to be very open-minded when launching a product so that you can build in customer feedback and adapt as necessary. Netflix is a great example. This company that made Blockbuster irrelevant has reinvented itself to move from DVD rentals through the mail to an online streaming and original content entertainment company. Now one-third of downstream internet bandwidth in North America is used by Netflix.

As leaders, we need to continue to take the pulse of our teams regularly, and change our behavior when necessary. We see US presidential candidates go through this process during campaign season, reacting to the input they get from polls. Recently at LinkedIn, a senior executive learned from an employee survey that people were unclear about how their performance was being measured. The executive took immediate corrective action. Within a week of receiving the data, he had pulled together a clear and detailed explanation and held a town hall to explain the performance management process clearly and transparently. The team’s results are now on the upswing.

Rule 7: Build for scale. In the tech world, we talk about creating flexible architectures that can “scale,” or grow quickly: “prototype for 1x, build for 10x and engineer for 100x.” The truth is that technology companies can become obsolete quickly–95 percent companies listed on the NASDAQ don’t maintain an independent existence after 20 years.

If you want to build a company that lasts — especially a tech company — you need to focus on establishing culture and values that are strong and flexible enough to endure changes. And you need to hire people who are at least as focused on building amazing products as part of a team as they are on their own personal star trajectory. As I like to say, never hire anyone whose blast radius will be bigger than his or her impact radius.

As successful companies mature, investing in strong leadership skills can help create and sustain a culture of innovation by empowering teams to make better decisions, take intelligent risks and execute on a winning business strategy.


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