Product Coaching Marty Cagan

Good Product Coach / Bad Product Coach 

With the release of TRANSFORMED, the good news is that we are hearing from more companies than ever before that believe they need to begin the journey to the product operating model.  

The challenge is that many of these companies need help, and are asking us for introductions to product coaches that can help them with their transformation.

Hence the need for strong product coaches.

The Need for Strong Product Coaches

As some of you know, we have been working to build our informal network of product coaches around the world (“informal” refers to the fact that we don’t have or want any form of financial relationship with any of these coaches – we simply want to have people we can suggest that we know are strong), and today we have strong product coaches we can recommend in most regions of the world, and we are actively working to identify strong coaches in the areas where we don’t yet have coverage.

But this is harder than it sounds. 

Easily 90% of the product coaches and especially “product management trainers” that we meet all around the world – including in the US – are deeply vested in what we refer to as the feature-team model.

And if you know anything about us, you know we’re all about helping companies move away from that model.

We don’t blame the 90% because a) that’s what the vast majority of their clients are expecting; and b) that’s the model that they personally have experience with.

But hopefully you can appreciate that if we engage with the C-suite of a company, explaining to them what the product model is, how it’s different from what they’re doing today, and why it’s important to change, the last thing we want to do is introduce a product coach that does not have the necessary experience to help.

So we look for those product coaches that have real experience working for a strong product model company, and that have convinced us they understand the difference.

We have written other articles trying to help identify and develop these coaches.  This article discusses the main types of product coaches, and this article shares what we’ve learned about becoming a product coach.

But we continue to hear from many current and aspiring product coaches that are trying to get a deeper understanding of what we believe it would take for them to be truly helpful to a company transitioning to the product model.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to try and highlight what we consider the meaningful differences.  This is what we describe to our clients, and these are the standards we try to hold ourselves to as well.

Note that we are utilizing the behavioral job description format, made popular by the famous “good product manager / bad product manager” by Ben Horowitz.  Be warned that this format is not for the faint of heart, as the purpose is to not only encourage the good behaviors, but to shine a bright light on the bad.

Good Product Coach / Bad Product Coach

– Relevant Experience

First and foremost, a good product coach has relevant experience in the product model.  

They have seen product done well, and they have personally done product well.  This relevant experience is the foundation for trust, and for effective product coaching.

Most coaches can only give you what has been given to them; they teach you what they have been taught; and they work to transform you into the best version of what they have personally experienced.  But unfortunately, many will have little to no experience with what good product looks like.

If a product delivery coach has never actually been an engineer on a product team setting up the test and release automation for continuous delivery, they simply won’t know how to provide the necessary delivery coaching to the engineers.  

If a product discovery coach has never served as a product manager or product designer on an empowered product team responsible for solving for value, viability, feasibility and usability, they simply won’t know how to provide the necessary discovery coaching to product teams.

If a product management coach has never served as a product manager on an empowered product team where they were responsible for solving for the business, and they don’t understand the diverse and complex constraints of sales, marketing, finance, legal, compliance, and more, they simply won’t know how to provide the necessary coaching to product managers.

If a product leadership coach has never created a compelling product vision, or an insight-driven product strategy, or worked through the trade-offs involved with an effective team topology, they will be unable to provide the necessary coaching to product leaders.

And if a transformation coach has never worked at the C-suite level helping key executives and stakeholders in finance, sales, marketing, HR and legal to understand how to constructively engage with a product organization operating in the product model, they will lack the experience necessary to coach the company leaders.

To be very explicit, without this hands-on, relevant experience, none of the additional strengths discussed below are likely to be enough to overcome this lack of knowledge.

If you are a product coach, but you don’t yet have the necessary relevant experience, then we would strongly encourage you to first work to get that relevant experience.

– Boundaries of Credibility

Good product coaches know the limits of their relevant experience.  A skilled product discovery coach can help coach the product teams on product discovery, but unless they are also a skilled product leadership coach, they will be very careful in their feedback and interactions with product leaders, and especially company leaders.  Good product coaches know what they don’t know, and when to call others for help.  Bad product coaches think they can fake it, or are oblivious to the differences.

– Ask Good Questions, Genuinely Listen

Good product coaches seek first to understand.  Whether that’s an assessment, or the art of the right question at the right time, but in all cases, they know how to genuinely and intensely listen.  Good coaches realize there is real context behind every question.  Bad coaches are just waiting for the person to finish speaking so they can begin their lecture on their favorite topic.

– Dedicated To Developing Others

Good product coaches are passionate about developing others. They genuinely care about you personally and your professional success.  While they know how to do the tasks themselves, and it would often be easier – and more profitable – for them to do the task for you, they know that their role is to enable you to do these tasks for yourself. Good product coaches teach you how to fish.  Bad product coaches want to do the fishing for you.  But this is not coaching; this is consulting. 

– Business Savvy

Good product coaches understand the nature of business. They know they are there to help the company succeed. They are also fluent in the language of business, which is finance. They know that product must solve for both the customers and the business. They understand that being unrealistically idealistic or dogmatic would just confirm their naiveté to the company’s leadership.  Bad product coaches believe that all a product team needs to do is please their customers, and everything else will follow.

– The Best Technique For The Circumstances

Good product coaches know many different methods, tools and techniques, and they recommend what they believe is best suited to the particular situation.  Good product coaches emphasize both the strengths and weaknesses of every technique.  Bad coaches try to force their favorite framework/method/process/technique onto every situation, no matter whether it’s the best solution or not.  They do this either because they don’t know other techniques, or because they are religious about a specific technique.

– Space and Time for Practice

Good product coaches know that learning occurs best in the safety of practice.  It’s simply the best place to try new thinking, ask questions, and get feedback.  Practice environments are lower stakes, and provide the ability to test new ideas, concepts, and techniques. Good coaches recognize that getting better at anything requires practice, and that space should be created for iteration, testing, and feedback. Bad coaches put your reputation and growth in jeopardy by pushing you to learn and take risks in high-stakes situations.

– Provide Honest, Constructive Feedback

Good product coaches are willing to provide the timely, constructive, specific and relevant feedback – both positive and critical – that so many managers avoid, but that we all depend on to truly develop and improve.  Good product coaches understand that this honest feedback depends on first establishing genuine trust.  This includes the willingness to share openly and honestly, admit mistakes, maintain confidentiality, and speak with good intent (no gossip).  Bad coaches just tell you what you want to hear, because they fear they’ll lose you as a client.

– Empower and Enable 

Good product coaches help you realize you are capable of so much more than you think.  They understand that everyone has worries and insecurities, but that they are there to help you overcome these obstacles and doubts.  Good product coaches help you see the signal in the noise. Bad coaches think they are there to validate your fears and inadequacies. Bad coaches just add to the noise.

– Principles over Process

Good product coaches quickly recognize when you are tempted to fall back on process, or the creation of an artifact, rather than tackling the hard work of thinking through the problem and choosing the best course based on the data, the circumstances and the relevant principles.  Bad coaches encourage and even facilitate this behavior.

– Defining Success

Good product coaches define their success by your success in achieving outcomes.  Whether that’s solving a tough problem in product discovery, or coming up with an effective product strategy that delivers the necessary business results, or preparing you for a successful promotion.  Moreover, a strong product coach directs the recognition for the success to the people they are coaching.  Bad product coaches try to define success as the completion of the set of activities that they can help with.

If you are a product coach, we hope this article makes clear what we believe is important in an effective product coach working to help a company transform to the product model.

If you are looking for a product coach to help you, we hope this provides you with a deeper sense of what to look for, and what to expect, from a strong product coach.

Special thanks to SVPG Partners Chris Jones and Christian Idiodi for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.