Product Marty Cagan

Coaching – Happiness

This article may seem an odd topic.  You may be thinking that it’s not the manager’s job to be responsible for her team’s happiness.

However, pretty much anyone that’s worked in tech for any amount of time knows that a manager can easily be responsible for a product manager being miserable.  That old saying about people joining a company, but leaving a manager, is unfortunately demonstrated every day.

It’s true that I don’t usually refer to this topic as “coaching happiness.”  However, I do emphasize how important it is that the manager focus at least weekly on whether the product manager feels she is doing meaningful work, progressing in her career, and building the necessary relationships with her team and with the execs that enable her to effectively and successfully lead an empowered product team.

With the big caveat that everyone is different and what’s most important is that you as manager get to know your people well enough that you understand what is meaningful to them, and what makes them happy, I have found there are some near-universal truths to coaching happiness: 

Meaningful Work

Most people in the product world want their work to be meaningful.

In fact, unless the manager is bad in which case that dominates, in my experience this is usually the largest factor in happiness, even more than compensation.

But it’s not always clear to the product manager how or why her work is meaningful, or how her one small team contributes in a meaningful way.  So, it’s important to very clearly and explicitly discuss this, and reinforce this frequently, both publicly and privately.

Personal Relationship

I will admit I have always wanted the people that work for me to like me.  But I want them to like me for very specific reasons.  I want them to believe that I am committed to helping them succeed professionally and personally.  I want them to trust me so that I can be honest with them, and give them the feedback that’s so essential to their growth.  I want them to be able to look back on their time working with me as among their favorite in their career.

These professional relationships are built on personal relationships.  I talk about my family and friends and interests outside of work, and invite them to do the same.  I have always made it a point to get to know them as people.

I have always believed I can be a much better manager and coach if I know what their aspirations are and what motivates them.

(My favorite story is that once when an employee was visiting a customer while his wife was pregnant, she went into labor and she called me looking for him, so while someone tried to chase him down, I rushed over and drove her to the hospital and watched their toddler daughter – all went well and the father made it to the hospital in time – but as luck would have it, the baby was born on leap-day, and the local paper snapped a photo of us all which managed to make it look like I was the father – so I did have some explaining to do). 

Personal Recognition

Lots of people tell me they don’t need recognition, but I rarely believe them.  What I believe they’re telling me is that they might not feel comfortable with certain forms of public recognition.  But in my experience, pretty much everyone wants to feel valued.  Especially from people they respect.

Promotions, compensation and equity are obvious ways to recognize someone, but beyond that, I’m a big fan of more frequent and more personal forms of recognition, especially once I’ve come to know their interests:

  • Tickets for two to a movie or a concert
  • A nice bottle of wine
  • A ticket to an industry conference or event
  • Dinner for two at a nice restaurant
  • A weekend getaway for two

Most of the time I’ve had sufficient budget to just cover these things, but there have been a couple companies I’ve worked where I had to pay for these myself.  But just to be clear, this was not altruistic. Any good manager knows that they are only as good as their people, so helping your people feel valued helps the manager as well.

Work Habits

It’s no secret in the product world that people sometimes work crazy hours.  But it’s critical here to point out that when people work long hours there are two fundamental and very different reasons: working long hours because you want to, versus because you have to.  This is a very different situation when it comes to coaching.

In too many companies, people either feel pressured to work crazy hours, or sometimes they are literally forced to.  If this is the situation in your company, then you very likely have teams of mercenaries and not missionaries, and this entire topic of worrying about your people’s happiness is probably not something you care about.

I’m talking about the other situation.  Where you have truly empowered product teams, and the teams believe they are doing meaningful and important work, and they sometimes get so wrapped up in that work that by the time they look up from their computers it’s late into the evening.  Or, a year flies by and they have taken literally no vacation (not so much a problem in much of the world, but a real issue in much of the US and China).

A good manager will notice this, and discuss at the one-on-one.  She will explain how easy it is to burn out, and how important it is to play the long-game, and how the job is essentially creative problem solving which requires time to recharge.  If this is an ongoing issue, then it’s very likely something that will need serious and active coaching.

It’s also true that occasionally something really big and important will come up and the team will have a big push.  So long as the motivation for this is coming internally from the team, these situations may turn into people’s proudest achievements, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But again, the manager can help by making sure this isn’t the norm, and when it does happen, I’m a fan of what’s loosely called “comp-time” where you make sure people take extra time to catch up with their families or recharge the following week. 

Modeling Good Behaviors

There are many managers out there that work crazy hours yet try to tell their people they don’t need to.  The “do what I say, not what I do” approach to management.

But, of course, many people feel pressured to work at least as hard as their manager, which of course can lead to this silly spiral of getting in early, leaving late, and responding to emails at all hours.

Again, if you truly care about the happiness of your people, your actions speak louder than your words.

The manager needs to be sensitive to this, and in fact go out of her way to share how and when she’s personally recharging, being conscious about when she’s sending emails, and how she’s managing her time. 

Career Planning

It’s also important to point out that sometimes, in order for the product manager to be truly happy in her life, it may mean helping her into a different job or even career.  If the product manager is not able to do the job then this may be uncomfortable, but it’s fairly straightforward.  But sometimes this isn’t the issue at all.

One of the most personally difficult situations for me was when I had an exceptionally strong product manager that was a close to ideal example of the type of person I try hard to recruit and coach.  She was so smart and so savvy with people, and she learned so quickly, that I had little doubt that she had a terrific career in front of her.

But eventually she came to trust me enough to admit to me at one of our 1:1’s that while she knew she was good at the job, and she felt she was making a real impact, she had come to realize that this was not what she wanted out of her life. It was hard for me, as I hated to lose such a talent, but I did encourage her to pursue her passion (writing fiction) which she did, and was able to beat the odds and make it her career.

More generally, I try to encourage managers to recognize and acknowledge just how important a role they play in the lives of their employees.  They have the power to make an employee’s life miserable, or to help them achieve their professional and personal goals.