Product Leadership Marty Cagan

How Not To Coach

Nearly all of my articles are written as a form of coaching.  I’m trying to help product teams and product leaders become better at product.

Every once in a while, a good “teachable moment” comes along, and I try to use that to highlight where something could have been done much better.

In this article, that teachable moment is unfortunately coming at my own expense.

Recently I published a pair of articles that were trying to highlight root causes of some very problematic behaviors – the first talking about the CSPO pathology, and the second talking about the MBA pathology.

Both were pretty critical articles, but that wasn’t the problem.  The CSPO-focused article was fine; the issue was with the MBA-focused article.  And even there, the problem wasn’t with the message itself.  The problem was with the way that message was delivered.

My SVPG Partner Chris Jones published an article a couple of years ago that talked about the necessary coaching mindset, and that article evolved to become one of the foundational chapters in the book EMPOWERED.  In the chapter, Chris talks about the necessary foundation of trust.

The problem with the MBA pathology article was that it opened by putting those in need of coaching immediately on the defensive.  And many people just couldn’t get past that.

In fact, since that article was published, I talked to several people that told me they read the article, yet they couldn’t cite even a single one of the coaching points, and didn’t seem to catch that I continue to actively recruit out of top MBA programs.  

Once they saw in the opening that Elon Musk said to avoid hiring MBAs, nothing else I said mattered.

In contrast with the MBA article, in the CSPO article, the criticism was aimed at the “instructors” that have never done the job before, and the product managers were the victims of these people.  So the article was trying to coach those product managers and their managers in what to look for to avoid these pitfalls.

But in the MBA article, the people intended to be coached were those with an MBA that might need help overcoming some common misconceptions when they enter the product world.  

What the article should have done was simply point out that everyone has areas they need to be coached on, and for those that come via an MBA path, there are four areas that are often important to look closely at.

When I wrote that article, I was not in that necessary coaching mindset that Chris described.  I remember my mindset at the time because I had been asked my opinion of one of the top MBA programs in the world, and after looking into the specific curriculum of what was supposed to be a course aimed at future product managers, I was disappointed and more than a little frustrated to find such antiquated views persisting.

But of course, my audience is not MBA faculty, so I was directing that frustration at the wrong people.

In any case, I’m hoping those of you that are product leaders and responsible for coaching and developing your people can learn from my mistake, and keep in mind the necessary coaching mindset.