Culture Building for Product Leaders: From Data to Diversity

Contrary to popular belief, culture doesn’t just happen by itself. It has to be guided and encouraged by leadership, and then built by every person in the organization. As a Product Leader (whether that’s the CEO at the top of a Product-Led company, or a Product Manager in the trenches) you’re a key component of your team culture.

We’re going to look at the different types of culture that you need to be building in your organization and in your teams. We’ll also give you the debrief on hiring for culture fit, and give you the tools you need to find the right people that’ll help you create a strong product culture.

Product Team Culture: It All Starts With Hiring

Culture has to be at the top of your mind when you’re building Product teams. Yes it’s important to find people with the skills and experience that you’re looking for, but you need people who are going to be a good fit for the culture that you’re trying to create.

Interviewing For Culture Fit

No one likes to make an interview process longer than it has to be, but consider adding a culture fit interview to your process. This can be the final step, once you’ve decided that someone has the skills needed to get the work done, conducted by your talent team. Or, you could arrange for an informal culture-fit meeting between the candidate and the teammates they’d be working with more closely.

Alternatively, you can pepper culture questions throughout the rest of the interview process. As we go through the rest of the article, check out our advice for how to conduct an interview with an eye for culture.

The Culture vs Talent Conundrum

Throughout your time as a hiring manager, you will likely find yourself facing a choice between a candidate who is 80% equipped for the role but is a fantastic culture fit, and someone who is 110% equipped for the role but would be an awful culture fit.

Depending on the nature of the job, it may make sense to hire the latter. Let’s say it’s a temporary contract and you just need the job to be done well and fast.

But the majority of the time, you’ll benefit more from finding someone who is a great culture fit and letting them pick up the few skills they’re missing on the job. You can learn skills and you can gain experience, but if a candidate doesn’t share a company’s values from the beginning, they’re going to be a friction point.

people riding carnival ride under blue skies

The Build-a-Culture Guide for Product Leaders:

Building a Data-Driven Culture

Data sits at the heart of all things Product. Data helps you to make informed decisions, identify new opportunities, and is a key tool for stakeholder management and influence without authority.

Data needs to be the blood that flows through your operations, which means you need team members who understand how important it is, and know how to weave it into their work to build a great product.

As a leader, you also need to be data’s biggest advocate. When someone comes up with an idea, be sure to say ‘let’s take a look at the data and see how well that would work.’ When there’s a problem to solve, turn to the data and encourage your teams to always do the same.

Creating a culture of data-driven product people involves making the data they need available to them in real time. Consider reviewing the tools you use for product data management. Data tools need to be the perfect balance of powerful and usable. Your data tools should be powerful enough to be helpful to your data scientists, but if the majority of your teammates have a lower data literacy level, a more complex tool will render your data inaccessible to them.

Alternatively, make an effort to extract the most valuable data and communicate it in a way that makes sense to everyone. Good Product leadership means empowering teams to come up with their own ideas, so give people access to data and not just insights.

Data-driven interview questions:

The key to identifying which candidates are data-driven, is not to ask them questions that are explicitly about data and see how well they answer. That’s just a quiz on their general data knowledge. Instead, ask broader questions where data is one of a few answers, and see how often they bring it up of their own volition:

  • “How would you go about prioritizing the backlog?”
  • “How do you measure success?”
  • “If you have the final decision on whether Feature A or Feature B gets built, how do you go about deciding between the two?”
  • “A stakeholder has requested a feature/task that you think is the wrong move. How would you handle that situation?”

Building a Customer-Focused Culture

Great Products are built for the customers they serve, and not solely based on the highest-paid person’s opinion. Building a customer-focused culture will help you to build the right thing, at the right time, for the right person.

Start by encouraging the people on your teams to get to know their customers, even if customer research isn’t something that falls under the umbrella of their role. Make the data from your own user research available and easy to understand for anyone who wants to look at it.

Most modern agile Product Management practices put the user at the forefront of everything, like user personas and user stories. So the processes you use to get your product build should already be customer-centric. This gives you an advantage, but it doesn’t automatically create a customer-focused culture across your teams. You can always go a step further. 

Use positive user feedback as an important measure for success. This can be a great motivator for teams, and it makes hard work feel easier when you’re able to see the positive impact you’re having. Set up an automation that shares 5-star reviews of your product in a dedicated Slack channel, or send screenshots of the best reviews of the week with your teams in your weekly standup.

Customer-focused interview questions:

  • “How do you get to know your customers?”
  • “We want to make our flagship product more delightful for users. How would you go about researching what delights them?”
  • “If we wanted to break into a new market, what would your research process look like?”

Building a Diverse and Inclusive Culture

Diversity starts with hiring, but it’s only a third of DE&I. As a Product Manager, there are parts of company culture that you may not have much control over (eg, how diverse your leadership teams are, how equitable salaries are). But you do have control over how inclusive your teams are. So how do you go about making sure that your workplace culture is inclusive, and that you’re building safe spaces for your teams?

Don’t be afraid to talk about DE&I topics with your teams. Consider running an anonymous survey to check in with how everyone is feeling and how they’re being treated. When you see that someone is being interrupted in a meeting, be sure to circle back to what they wanted to say.

But the biggest danger to Product teams is unconscious bias because it can seep into your product if left unchecked. A successful product is one that is made for all the types of people within a target market. Potential customers notice if your product is leaving them out, and they’ll run off to a competitor that makes them feel included. Make a conscious effort to have uncomfortable conversations with yourself about unconscious bias, and encourage the rest of your teams to do the same.

It’s a big topic, and we’ve only scratched the surface here, so check out these resources for more:

Hiring diverse candidates:

This isn’t so much about the questions you ask in the interview as it is about inviting the right people to interview in the first place. To do that, look at the talent pools you’re advertising your new roles to. Larger tech companies have a habit of creating relationships with certain universities, which only opens the doors to a select group of people. Look into broadening your horizons and finding diverse pockets of talent.

For more guidance on hiring diverse teams check out this talk by Walt Disney’s Head of Product, Kasha Stewart:

#ProductCon: How to Attract, Hire, and Grow Diverse Product Teams by Walt Disney Head of Product

Building a Culture of Learning

Product People love to learn, that’s common knowledge. As a leader, encouraging a culture of learning in your teams works to your advantage in a number of ways. When teams feel like they’re always learning something new they feel challenged and engaged, which means you’re much more likely to retain them long-term. They could also be learning skills that will make them better at their jobs.

Encourage this culture of learning by always sharing interesting information that you learn, which could be as simple as getting into the habit of posting links to cool blogs in your Slack channels. You could also organize a monthly or quarterly workshop by an expert in a certain topic.

If you have a budget, funding employee education is a great way to invest in their careers. Not only will it help your employee retention rates, but it sets your teams up for success.

Interviewing to hire learners:

One important thing to do when you’re trying to build a culture of learners, is to think outside of the box when looking at the educational background of your applicants. Don’t just choose the people who went to top universities, look at the people who taught themselves everything they know through short courses, bootcamps, and certifications. These people have shown entrepreneurial skills in pursuing education outside of the traditional routes, which is very commendable and will boost your culture of learning.

Building a Culture of Experimentation

Experimentation leads to innovation. If you want to build innovative and disruptive products, you need to allow your teams to experiment, and sometimes that means they’ll fail.

To build a culture of experimentation (and innovation as a byproduct) encourage teams to try something new, and be gentle on them if they do fail. Recognize that failure is part of the process by running retrospectives that turn failures into learning opportunities. As a leader, you can always find a positive spin to a flopped feature.

How to Build a Culture of Product Experimentation by Optimizely PM

Interview questions for experimentation:

  • “Tell me about a time that you failed? What did you learn from it?”
  • “What do you do when something you’ve worked on doesn’t have the impact you expected?”
  • “Have you ever had to axe a feature before? What was that process like?”

Building a Product-Led Culture

The most important culture you can build as a Product Leader is a Product-Led culture. This means that the success of the business depends not on how savvy your sales team is, or how creative your marketers are, but on the quality and customer-centricity of your product.

As a leader this means choosing teams who love what they do, and making a serious investment in Product Management as a function within your organization. Give Product a seat at every table in the business, and bring Product Thinking into everything you do.

Product School can help you drive the Product-Led culture in your organization. Check out our brochure or have a chat with our Enterprise team.

Product Management certification

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