On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Kate Leto, Author of Hiring Product Managers Using Product EQ to Go Beyond Culture and Skills. Kate and I talk about some of the trends and tactics needed for hiring the best product managers and why there needs to be more of a balance between technical and human skills in the process. Let’s get started.
Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger founder of Insideoutside.io, a provider of research events and consultant services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week, we’ll give you you’re a front row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.
Interview Transcript with Kate Leto
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today with me we have Kate Leto. She’s the author of Hiring Product Managers Using Product EQ to go Beyond Culture and Skills. Welcome to the show Kate.
Kate Leto: Thank you, Brian. It’s great to be here.
Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you on the show. Our mutual friend Jeff Gothelf suggested we talk, and you’re based in the UK. Is that correct?
Kate Leto: I am. Yeah, just outside of London.
Brian Ardinger: I wanted to talk more about all this concept of product managers and some of the new things that you’re seeing out there. Tell us a little bit about that. How you got involved in product management at the very first
Kate Leto: Probably like the majority of product managers, I didn’t intend to get into product management. Didn’t even know what it was. When I started out over 20 years ago, it was still very much a new and developing area and profession. And I fell into it really just before I joined Yahoo, but I was actually working in Chicago at the time at a startup. Back in the late nineties.
And actually, fell into product management, I was doing marketing, which led to product marketing, which led to product management. And went to grad school at Northwestern University and ended up at Yahoo directly after that, again, working with product marketing and slowly made this transition into product management. So, it was trial and error and it was by accident just as it is with many of us in product management.
Brian Ardinger: So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the changes that you’ve seen over the last 20 years in product management. And, you know, it seems to actually have become quote unquote profession now, and people actually know what that means, but maybe what are some of the big highlights that you’ve seen over the years that have really changed how people think about product?
Kate Leto: Number one is product has more credibility and a bit more clarity around what it is. I think a lot of that’s come from the different communities that have sprung up around the product world over the last 10 plus years. Groups like mind the product have been really powerful globally and encouraging, creating a space for product people to come together and talk about what is product management?
What is it? How do we do it? How do we do it? Well, like many product people. Still within my friends and family group, people have no idea what product management is. My partner just tells everybody that I’m a spy because he doesn’t quite understand it. So, we just roll with that. I think one of the best things that I’ve seen over the last 20 plus years within product, is amongst ourselves more clarity around what it is that we do. And to create a support system, really in a support structure to help us have a place to go to learn, to vent, to talk about what’s challenging us what our tensions are and how to do that in a different way.
And one of the things that I really latched on to I’d say over the last five plus years is the movement of product management from just being something that’s about what I call technical skills, which are the things that we focus quite a bit on, you know, the fundamentals of product management, how to build a roadmap, maybe how to do a strategy statement or a vision statement for our team or a product or an organization, how to put in KPIs or OKRs and while all those are essential and those are things that we’ve really talked about quite a bit as a community over the last five, 10, 15, 20 years, I’ve noticed this trend within product that we are starting to talk more outside of that set into more kind of a human aspect of being a product manager, because we are people, right?
Products are built by people for people. For the most part, bringing the concept of what I call human skills into the product management space is something that I’ve noticed a big trend in the last five, six, seven years. And I’m happy to say that’s something that I’m involved in and I’m happy. I’m really enjoying talking to people about things like self-awareness and resilience and adaptability and all of these great things that are just as essential to how we build a product as a roadmap structure or building OKR out for our organization.
Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. So, you mentioned that most people tend to think about the technical side of product management and product development. Your new book called Hiring Product Managers tries to talk about the move from the focus on technical to this balance between technical and human skills. Tell us a little bit about the book and how it came to be and what it’s all about.
Kate Leto: The book Hiring Product Managers using Product EQ to go Beyond Culture and Skills just started to come about probably five, six, seven years ago, as I started to look outside of the technical side of product management. So outside of the skills that we talk about, and I was coaching a lot of people on and working with organizations on things like how to have a better road mapping process or how to actually introduce OKR as into our organization or how to run design sprints, and integrate that into our product development processes.
And to be honest, I kind of got tired of thinking and just talking about those things. And I took a coaching course, something to help me help people I was working with beyond just these technical skills, because it was very interesting. I’d go into conversations with teams or with leaders about specific mastery of technical skills, and suddenly it would drop a bit further into an area of personal need.
I don’t think my team likes me or why can’t I get a promotion or why does this stakeholder, will they not have a meeting with me? Can I not get anywhere with them? I started to really focus on this area of what I now call product EQ, which is bringing in human skills into the conversation and helping people feel like they have the confidence to talk, talk about things like self-awareness and resilience and leadership and collaboration, and even how to deal with conflict. And giving them some words and tools to do that.
So, from that over the past 10, 20 years, I’ve done a lot of hiring within product management. And it seems like a very natural evolution to how can we actually build better teams and better organizations is to look at our hiring processes. Why are they working for some groups? Why are they not working for others? And applying this filter of product EQ and encouraging people to think about more than technical skills when we are hiring new people just kind of came together very nicely. I started doing writing and blogging about it. And wouldn’t you know a book comes out of that.
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Brian Ardinger: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting because you think about really good product designers that are very empathetic to the customer. And it’s interesting to see how they’re not always the same when they think about their teams and how you put that together. What’s your take on that?
Kate Leto: Yeah, I think that’s fascinating. We talk so much about human-centered design human-centered product development, but we don’t often extend the same conversation and the same view towards people we work with. We talk about having empathy towards our customers, and we really focus on that. You know, we, in a way grade ourselves on how in touch we are with our customer needs, yet the conversation doesn’t extend to being empathetic to my teammates or to people that I’m managing or to colleagues or people within the design group or whatever it might be.
I find that quite ironic, but I think it goes back to some of how we really do focus on technical skills. One of the technical skills, and one of the areas we’ve really tried to develop is customer interviews and keeping in touch with customers and understanding their needs. So, we do focus on that aspect and having empathy towards customers, but we don’t focus on bringing that internally. So, yeah, I think that’s fascinating.
There’s a lot of research out there that shows that organizations that do focus on building self-awareness within teams, and building self-awareness broader within their organizations, are higher performing, they’re better at innovating, and they do better with their products overall.
Brian Ardinger: So, let’s talk about some of the tactics and that you uncover and unleash in the book, one of them being this idea of creating a role canvas. And what’s the role that you’re trying to hire for in that? Talk us through some of the tactics in the book that you want to highlight.
Kate Leto: So, what I try to do in the book is to give some practical activities and tools that people can take away and work with on their teams right away, to actually help them hire for human skills as much as we hire for technical skills. And one of those tools is something called a role canvas. It’s based around this tension that I’ve noticed of product people.
And this isn’t just product people. This is pretty widely based. That, when we think about hiring someone, you know, when we get that head count announcement, you’ve got head count, you can go hire. Our knee jerk reaction is often to put together a job description. And that job description is usually based on cutting and pasting different pieces of job descriptions from industry leaders. I’ve done this before.
And actually, I saw a survey recently that said, well, 80% of hiring managers think that job descriptions are important. About 50% of us actually cut and paste that job description. So, we’re not giving it a lot of thoughts. It’s not coming from a place of consideration and collaboration.
So, with the role canvas, it’s something that asks four simple questions. One, what’s the purpose of the role and by purpose, I mean, going beyond going a level deeper than just the title to what’s actually the reason for having this role. Then what are the accountabilities that this role will be working towards?
And that could be OKRs. It could be KPIs, whatever it is, within your organization and then asking what are the human skills that this role will need to actually achieve the accountabilities and what are the technical skills? So, within the role canvas, It actually forces the people who are developing it to understand more about human skills.
So, this is a trick, a little bit by design. You can find a copy of the role canvas on my website. What we’re actually asking people do within the human skill section is to list out the skills that they actually will need in order to achieve these accountabilities. So, things like if there’s been a lot of conflict within the team lately, or there’s a lot of challenges with stakeholders, Maybe you need to find somebody with conflict resolution skills, or if there is a challenging stakeholder, maybe you need somebody with good social influencing skills.
Perhaps it’s self-awareness, perhaps it’s self-management, whatever they are. But I ask and challenge people to do when they’re filling out the section on the role canvas is to actually list out the skills they need and prioritize them just as you would for technical skills. So that’s one of the tools that I relay in, into, in the book and offers some additional information about how you can do this role canvas on your own, perhaps of your hiring manager, but then bring it to a workshop setting, actually, something you can even do virtually with the rest of your team, including recruiters, including stakeholders, whoever it might be to actually have a collaborative session on thinking through what is this role before we put together a job description.
Brian Ardinger: One of the things that is interesting to me is like trying to understand what are those human skills. And I think we have a pretty good idea of what makes a good Adobe Photoshop Designer or things along those lines. But what are the human skills that I guess make a good product manager? Or are there any kind of superpowers that have stood out that you’ve seen over the years make good product teams and good product people?
Kate Leto: Yeah, I think there are a couple and actually what I’ve been working on recently is creating a human skills wheel, actually, that identify as some of the popular human skills that I’ve seen within product managers. The baseline is self-awareness. Self-awareness itself is something that helps us have a moral compass in a way. It helps feed whether or not the decisions we’re making per perhaps are good for us or good for our team or a good for our organization, are good for our product.
Self-awareness as a baseline that a lot of people think they have and they’re like, Oh yeah, I’m self-aware. I get myself. But it’s actually something that it’s really challenging because the way I think of self-awareness is it’s not just understanding my own emotions and my own reactions, but it’s how others see me as well and how I’m impacting others and how that has a greater impact on the world.
So, I’d say as a baseline, self-awareness, it’s something that if you want to start somewhere, that’s like the Meta skill or focusing on building some self-awareness. And then for product people also, I do think things like conflict resolution skills are super important because we’re always going to run into tension and conflict. Be it putting together a roadmap or having a conversation about prioritization.
I do think when it comes to something, even as basic as building a roadmap that is so fundamental to baseline product work, it does require things like having self-awareness, having conflict resolution skills, having social awareness skills, and leadership skills to bring our team along with us on whatever that roadmap might be.
The more I dig into the human skills that are important for product management, the more I see how many of them are. Because it is such a complex role to have within an organization. And many of them build upon each other. They’re compounding.
Brian Ardinger: Is it something where you need a diversity of skillsets, human skill sets as well as technical skill sets within that team? Or should you be looking at hiring well, this person’s great at conflict resolution, but I need to hire somebody else that has a different human skill or what are your thoughts on that?
Kate Leto: Yeah, I think it’s a balance. When it comes to building teams be a human skills or skills, I think we need to be careful that we’re not just replicating what we already have. You know, and this leads to a conversation around diversity within teams, diversity in thought diversity in background, diversity and experience. I think that applies to human skills just as much as technical skills and realizing what we often do when we hire product people or even outside product people is, we kind of create a stack.
If you think if there’s puzzle pieces, right. What I often see is that people are just kind of, they’re hiring people that look like them, that act like them, that talk like them that think like them and you create a stack. Whereas what we really need to do is to actually have the variety of pieces so we can put together a jigsaw puzzle. Adobe uses, or they used to use that kind of thinking and metaphor and coming up with what they’re actually looking for within their teams overall. You don’t want to build a stack. You want to build a puzzle, which means you’ve got to have people with different ways of connecting and different ways of coming together.
Brian Ardinger: So, you understand, and you put together your technical skills, you’ve thought about your human skills and that now you’ve got to actually go out and find those types of people. Do you have any recommendations or in the book or otherwise about how do you go about finding these skillsets and the interviewing process and tips are along those lines?
Kate Leto: The interviewing is something people are starting to become more aware of that we do need interview look beyond technical skills. So, one of the, the things that I talk about it in the book is behavior based interviewing. And that’s actually asking people about how they have behaved in the past, in certain scenario, a certain type of work situation. And understanding if they’re going to behave the same way going forward, or if perhaps they’d be looking to make some changes in their behavior.
Let me give an example. If we go back to the idea of conflict resolution, and let’s say your team is looking for somebody who has this skill, who is good at figuring out how to move a team forward in the midst of conflict intention. So, you could ask them about how they have handled a tense situation or somebody who’s pushed back on some of their suggestions or some of their thinking in the past. Really simple questions, like tell me about a time when somebody disagreed with what you had said. Really baseline behavioral question around conflict resolution.
And as the interviewer, your job is to listen to what the person is saying, of course, and the narrative that they’re sharing with you, and to be able to identify what are the patterns within their story, that’s telling you how maybe they have behaved in the past and if put in the same situation again, if they’ll continue to behave that way in the future, or maybe they decided last time I did that, I was so frustrated when somebody pushed back on me I shrugged my shoulders and I just walked away, which is not the way I’d like behave going forward. This is how I’d like to change my behavior. This is how I’d live to do it differently.
The onus on asking that type of question is really on the interviewer to be able to nudge and prompt and go into thinking, you know, thinking of our customer interviewing skills to follow up, to get to some level that makes conflict resolution, such an intangible thing. Make it more tangible, you know, to understand how would somebody react? Do they engage with conflict or they just walk away? If they do engage, how do they engage? And do they want to make sure everybody feels like they’ve won coming out of this tense situation? Or do they want a winner and loser? And then it’s just going back to what you know, your team is looking for and needs to perhaps move and deal with conflict in a different way.
My goal is to help organizations start to think of behavior-based interview questions versus what we traditionally do. What I used to do when I was a product person and that’s to go online and find some really good brain teaser questions from like a Google or an Amazon or a Yahoo in the day and make somebody really squirm in an interview. Which Isn’t going to tell you much at all.
Brian Ardinger: I think one of the things that’s coming out of the book and otherwise is you got to develop your hiring process and everything for you and your company and what you want to accomplish, not what Amazon’s doing or what Google is doing or something along those lines. It’s very much an important decision in the life of a company is making these particular hiring decisions. And so, they treat it as if it’s important decision and make it personal to what you’re trying to build.
Kate Leto: And treat it as we do our products, you know building products as a product person, it’s never a linear experience. Right. We all know we go in a lot of loops and we’re continuously looking back and learning as we go along and we’re changing direction based on what we’ve learned and we’re iterating. And the same could be said for thinking about our hiring processes. So, in my mind, and the way I talk about it in the book is it’s a learning loop.
Just like anything else we do in product. So, I think it’s really important and I encourage organizations to actually put retrospectives into their hiring process. To actually build in time between rounds of interviews, or maybe even after you put a job description together before you start interviewing to be able to bring your hiring team together and take a look back and say, how are we doing?
What are the things we need to change to create a space for reflection, because there’s also research out there that shows that teams that actually stop and reflect will do a better job and actually make decisions better, coordinate their work better and have less tension because there’s more communication. There’s more collaboration and there’s more alignment going forward.
Brian Ardinger: So last topic is, we’ve talked a lot about the past of product management and design and that. What are some of your thoughts on the future? What are you seeing out there?
Kate Leto: Well, I think the focus on human skills, again, is a trend that I’m hoping to take forward, it’s something that the reading that I do from the World Economic Forum and some broader industry leading organizations shows us that, while the technology that we’re building and products is interesting and it’s complex and it’s challenging, it also very quickly becomes ubiquitous. The challenge that we have before is that as organizations, our competitive edge is really coming from our people and it’s the way they think and the way they behave. And it’s their emotional intelligence around that. It’s their adaptability and their ability to be resilient and be creative and innovate all these great things that you talk about all the time on your show.
The trend that I am hoping we continue to take forward is focusing on human skills and is coming from various directions on how we can talk about it in a very safe space. And make it something that’s not awkward. That’s not weird. It’s actually more of a human focus type of product development with the human focus actually being on ourselves and the people we work with and the organization that we’re creating.
Brian Ardinger: Well, Kate, I thank you very much for being inside outside innovation, to share this with us. If people want to find out more about yourself or your book, what’s the best way to do that.
Kate Leto: Go to my website, kateleto.com and you’ll find all sorts of information.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Kate, thanks again for coming on the show today. I wish you well, and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.
Kate Leto: Great. Thanks very much, Brian.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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