Product Leaders

with Adam Nash

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Product Managers are responsible for things that they cannot control.

Adam Nash

CEO of Wealthfront, Product Expert, Founder

Lessons Learned

"The smarter you are, the easier it is for you to rationalize whatever you want to do." -Dan Ariely

Every smart person you hire will bring more ideas with them than your ability to implement.

The Product role has limited authority but great responsibility.

It is okay to fail, as long as you learn and succeed more next time.

Successful product managers are great at strategy, prioritization, and execution.


Lesson: Product Leaders with Adam Nash

Step #1 Producters: Product Managers are responsible for things that they cannot control

In school, you can take design classes and get a pretty good idea of what a designer does in the commercial world. You can take classes as an engineer and actually learn to project what a software engineer might be likely to do.

Product management is different, it's a little bit empirical in its training. It's almost like a doctor, you have to do a lot of cases to learn the ups and downs of how you make decisions and how they play out over time.

The number one question I had as an engineer was "Who is this product manager and what do they do?" Cynical engineers tend to ask even harder questions like "Why are we paying this guy?" and, "Are they even accountable for anything? What do they do? They don't design, they don't write code, what do product managers do? They just look at numbers? They're not even the data scientist. What do they do?"

It turns out when you become a manager and then a director and then a vice president executive, you better have an answer to this, because you're trying to hire people and hold them accountable for doing great work. At LinkedIn I put in a policy where I was very clear with every new hire, about what was expected of a great product manager.

I transitioned from engineering and design into product management. That's a very common path. I would say, though, I've helped enough people transition from engineering and design into product, to know that most people don't like it. It's because they don't actually like a world where they're responsible for things that they don't control. They don't write the code. They don't do the designs.

They are held accountable in a competitive market with competitive actions that they can't control. It's almost like swinging without a net, a little bit. You make decisions with incomplete information and everyone says that they love them and that's fine. People get a little twitchy when they are held accountable for the results.

They say, "It's okay to fail." And it is okay to fail as long as you learn and succeed more the next time. It turns out there isn't a lot of reward for product managers who fail consistently. What you find is a lot of great product managers have a common streak in them, and by the way, a lot of great entrepreneurs do as well. I think it's a general leadership trait which is, they don't shirk that responsibility. They know that in the end they want to win games. I'm using that sports analogy again, despite the fact that I don't play sports or watch them that much. Just humor me if you know more about sports than I do.

The role itself has limited authority. It's kind of like being a coach. You know, a new coach takes over a team. You can tell the team, because you are the coach, "Hey, we are going to run these plays. We are going to train this way and do these drills." It's amazing how quickly the coach is evaluated based on whether the team is winning or losing games.

In my experience on-boarding a lot of new product managers is that if they join a software team and within just a matter of months that team doesn't ship something that moves the needle, the team loses faith in that product manager's leadership. You will see this in start-ups as well. You'll have founders who push in a certain direction. The team will lose morale if it turns out within a certain period of time, you don't start winning games.

It's really hard on start-ups to even define success because sometimes it can take many, many months or even years to get something live to market. So I think what founding teams do takes an incredible amount of cohesion and dedication.

Product leaders don't get to play the game. They don't actually write the code. They don't do the design. They can test everything. They can vet everything. They can be up till 3.00 in the morning worried and paranoid about every possible outcome but the truth is, in the end, they set the framework for success. They get a lot of control over things like prioritization and strategy but then they are judged by the success of the team. What I found is great leaders don't shirk that responsibility. They embrace it, even in failure.

There is that old saying that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. Not when there's a great leader involved. Usually, the great leader takes responsibility for the failure, even though it's a team sport.

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