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Forget PM Training, Get a 'Product Coach'

In 1997 when I was just cutting my teeth in Product Management (PM) and Product Marketing (PMM) there were few resources providing guidance on how to do my job. The de-facto standard was the Pragmatic Marketing (now Pragmatic Institute) Framework; defining in ‘cards’ all the things I was to be responsible for.

As a natural contrarian, I struggled to appreciate the framework’s value. Telling me what I was responsible for but not providing practical guidance on how to do any of the cards / responsibilities frustrated me to no end.

NOTE: I now appreciate the Pragmatic Framework’s value to help establish roles and responsibilities cross-functionally in a software organization… but I wanted more.

My frustration extended to most PM or PMM training classes I took or books I read. Most were broad in subject matter and theory yet lacked depth in how to accomplish the responsibilities. As an example, one of my all-time favorite books on Product Management is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, but when I first read it, I was again frustrated (forgive me Eric - you are a Rockstar). I appreciated the high-level concepts but was angry it fell short on how to execute the ideas. Fortunately, I then read Running Lean by Ash Maurya, which took the concepts and went in-depth on how to accomplish them.

I was hooked.

But of course, by this point in my career I had built out my own ways of accomplishing these concepts through iteration (many the same as Ash's, some different). I realized young PMs or transplants into Product leadership would not have the wealth of experience to pull from that I had built. This is when I realized ‘Coaching’ had a market. People need practical guidance, not just theoretical. So, I sat out to identify the best way to help my clients.

I personally view Product Management / Marketing professionals as a big family who like to collaborate, so my first step was to reach out to a local product guy who started his own PM/PMM training company hoping to brainstorm. He snubbed me. Apparently, I was now competition. This only strengthened my resolve that practical coaching is needed. So instead, I started to pull from personal experience with mentors. What had they done? What had they taught me? How did they teach me? Having lead Product teams for 20+ years, I also reflected on what worked when I would teach new PMs how to do their job. Here is what

I extracted:

  • Mentors listen “Keep talking, I am diagnosing you – Just Kidding”

  • Mentors give guidance, but give space for self-learning

  • Mentors empower, clear a path, then get out of the way

  • Mentors lift you up, not tear you down… Even if they need to tell you where you screwed up

But… how could I do this as a consultant… The relationship is a little different as a Product Consultant from being the “boss.” I would love to say I designed a “Coaching” offering and started to market it to potential clients, but this offering just sort of fell into my lap.

I was in discussions with two potential clients who had a project for me to do but needed something else as well. The CEOs of both companies said they had a new PM leader that had a lot of promise, but they had little PM experience. They both asked if during the project if I could “Coach” their PM leader up. Without much thought, I just blurted out the idea to make the project a joint project where the PM leader and I would co-lead and work on together. This way the PM leader would roll up their sleeves and get firsthand experience but have a peer who would be right there with them to help and drive the project to success. I would have deliverables and so would the PM leader. The project would have a strong outcome, the PM leader would have a win under their belt, and in the process learn and gain confidence.

While I followed the same approach with both clients, I experienced vastly different results. Both PM leaders were highly intelligent and capable professionals…. But attitude matters. One PM leader was eager to learn and saw the opportunity as the company investing in the future of their PM leader. The other PM leader did not think they needed help and was resistant in the effort. As you can imagine, the first was a tremendous success and that PM leader is well respected in their organization now.

The second PM leader did not last long at the company and to my knowledge is no longer in a leadership role. While disappointed because it was the only consulting engagement I have had that I felt did not go well, the CEO was pleased. It helped the CEO to quickly assess this person was not the right fit for their organization.

I learned from this experience and will only perform coaching if the person to receive the coaching is 100% on board. Since then, I have also refined my approach. I learned to provide a framework for each project we set out to execute. I am not talking about generic high-level frameworks; I am talking about laying out logical steps to execute to get from point A to point B. The project starts with us reviewing the framework and customizing it for their specific needs. Then we brainstorm on techniques to achieve the desired goals. As an example, one of my engagements was to work with a new PM leader and staff on executing a new Pricing strategy. No small task, but you can see the framework I laid out for the PM leader in my post Packaging and Pricing Strategy in Seven Complex Steps. For each of the seven steps outlined for developing a new pricing strategy, I was right there with the PM leader brainstorming and executing every step.

Look… books and certifications have merit. While I might come off as belittling them, it is important to have the big picture theory and to hear different high-level approaches – it stretches the mind. But there is also a place for practical, real-world experience working alongside an experienced ‘Coach.’ I would advise CEOs and investors consider finding Product coaches who can help your product leader achieve stronger outcomes / deliverables, become better next generation leaders, and build a foundation for faster, more practical learning of how to apply theory. And when you look to hire a PM Coach, check out my post on 'what to look for from a PM consultant'.

PS: A quick thought on the ‘Advisor’ approach to Coaching. With this approach the Coach is a sounding board for the PM leader. They meet regularly and the PM leader asks questions or the two brainstorm on a problem, but the Advisor does not get directly involved in the project. Like training, the Advisor is often limited to sharing 'Theory'. I have had clients that want this approach too and it can provide value, but from my experience the PM leader does not get as much value. There is something about getting your hands dirty together that provides better learning and establishes a stronger, more trusted relationship.


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