Product Culture Chris Jones

The Coaching Mindset

Over the past months, SVPG has published several articles on coaching product managers. Many of these have focused on how to cultivate the right PM mindset: things like customer-centricity, true collaboration, and thinking like an owner rather than an employee, to name just a few.

In this article, I’d like to focus not on the PM’s mindset, but rather on the necessary mindset of the coach.

The wrong mindset may lead you to apply these tools in ways that actually undermine their intent. For example, you may be committed to having regular 1:1’s with each of your team members, but if these meetings consist primarily of you allocating and prioritizing tasks, they are not helpful, and likely even harmful as a coaching tool.

A coaching mindset provides a foundation of intent. It is the framing that directs your application of coaching techniques, and your guiding principle for taking action and making decisions around developing a team.

If you are an experienced coach or manager, you may have already developed your own set of principles. If not, or if you are new to management, or if you are responsible for developing a new manager, this article attempts to describe the most important guidelines for coaching and management.

(1) Developing people is the single most important part of your job

It’s amazing and distressing how few managers actually subscribe to this principle. Most say the right things about the importance of the team, but their actions tell a very different story. They see their accountability for aggregate product outcomes as their most important job and treat their teams as a means to an end.

If you are a manager, you should be spending most of your time and energy on coaching your team. This means spending real effort on things like assessing your team, creating development plans, and actively helping them improve and develop.

You should measure your own job performance on the successes of your team members, even more than the success of your products.

(2) You get the best results from empowering your people, not micro-managing them

Many new managers see their job as driving the task list of their team. This may result in a few short-term tactical successes, but your product will never reach its potential if the team is only asked to execute your ideas and actions. More importantly, you will find it very hard to retain strong people when they have so little sense of ownership over their work.

Empowering means creating an environment where your people can own outcomes and not just tasks. This doesn’t mean less management, it means better management. You must step back to create this space, while stepping in to remove impediments, clarify context, and provide guidance.

Remember that we need teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.

(3) Your own insecurities can stifle your team’s development

Insecure managers have a particularly hard time empowering people. The insecure manager is so worried about being recognized for their contribution, they can see their team’s success as a threat to that recognition, rather than the confirmation of the contribution that it truly is. They may deal with this by closely controlling how the team works, or by controlling the team’s visibility to leadership. Truly bad managers may actively undermine their own team.

Be aware of your insecurities and understand how your behavior can interfere with empowering your team.  This article provides techniques that might help.

I want to be clear that this is not about being arrogant. If anything, arrogance itself is frequently a manifestation of insecurity. Most good managers have a healthy level of humility, and are always exploring and working to improve their own performance and growth. They can have these feelings without micro-managing or undermining their team.

(4) You need to actively cultivate diverse points of view

An insecure manager may suppress opinions that are different from her own. This obviously impedes the development of the team, but it also stifles her effectiveness as a leader. Good leaders know that they will get the best results when they are able to consider diverse points of view. They also know that they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, and that the best ones may come from others on the team.

Nurturing a team that allows for diverse points of view begins with the hiring process where you consider your team as a portfolio of strengths and backgrounds. It continues with creating a space where alternative points of view can flourish. In some cases, this means empowering a product manager to approach her work in a way that is different from yours.  In others, it means collecting a diverse rnge of opinions so that you can make the best decision.

Note that I’m not suggesting you encourage consensus of opinion within your team. Rather, as a manager you are helping your team to learn how to make good decisions collaboratively, leveraging the skills and expertise of each person.

(5) Constantly seek out teaching moments as ways to guide your people to reach their potential

Most people are not aware of their own potential. As a coach, you are in a position to help them see it.

Reaching potential requires working through adversity. As a coach, you are always looking for opportunities that encourage your people to stretch beyond their comfort zone. Use judgment to right-size the opportunity for the person and development area. You shouldn’t ask someone to try something that you know they aren’t ready for, but you need to find things that create some discomfort. It’s through pushing through the discomfort that people overcome their fears and realize what they’re capable of.

Reaching potential doesn’t just mean addressing gaps in competence. It also means recognizing and developing inherent strengths. This is particularly important for more seasoned product managers who already have a good grasp of the job.

(6) You must continually earn the trust of your team

None of your coaching efforts will be effective without trust. This is not something you can demand or expect to happen on its own. It comes from continually demonstrating through your actions your genuine commitment to their success and development.

Of course, it’s important that you support team members both privately and publicly. Even more important is being honest with them in both praise and criticism. Don’t hold back if someone is doing particularly well. Similarly, don’t sugarcoat areas that need improvement.  Always remember to praise publicly, but criticize privately.

I have found that it helps to establish a personal rapport and trust by sharing some of your own personal challenges. Trust also comes from expressing a genuine interest in the person as a person, and not just a member of the team. Of course, you must use judgment here and not pry or insert yourself where you’re not wanted. That said, I’ve always found that trust grows whenever a working relationship is humanized.

(7) You must have the courage to act when someone is not working out

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t find a path for a team member to become successful. When you reach this point, it’s important that you act decisively.

For many managers, this is the hardest principle to follow. Coaching is about development, so you are necessarily looking at people’s problems as opportunities to develop.  More than this, telling someone they are not working out is one of the most painful conversations you can have. It’s much easier to just avoid it altogether and soldier through.

This hurts you, your team, and the person herself. First, you are likely spending much more time on this person than you should, at the expense of others. You’re also signaling to the rest of the team that you’re willing to tolerate mediocrity while at the same time asking them to work hard, a reliable path to undermining trust and killing motivation. Finally, the person with the performance issue is not getting the opportunity to move to another situation where she may have a better shot at success.

Note that I’m not suggesting you be cavalier about firing people, or moving people into different jobs. You should always treat these decisions very seriously. I am saying though that when you know, don’t wait. You’re not doing anyone any favors.

I was fortunate in my early career to work for a company that was deeply committed to the values of coaching. The founders didn’t just “talk the talk” about team development, they took real action every day that communicated their commitment to these ideals, baking them firmly into the culture of the company. This meant that as I grew into progressively larger management and leadership responsibilities, I had a solid framing for approaching my job, and I did my part to pass the ideas along both in words and actions.

Unfortunately, today most companies are not so committed to coaching and development of their people, and you may have to be the one who models this approach. This starts with having a clear understanding of, and commitment to, a strong coaching mindset.