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Building a Culture of Safety as a PM with HubSpot’s Director of Product

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We got to chat with Louise Bernstein, Director of Product at HubSpot, about the product community in Dublin, some hot tips for public speaking, how to leverage marketing as a product manager, and what the average PM can do to champion equality and build a culture of safety in their teams.

Meet Louise Bernstein

Louise Bernstein is a Director of Product at HubSpot currently based in Dublin. She’s passionate about making sure that the company’s overall strategy and goals are linked with those of the products. And she says that her secret sauce is building teams that put the customer’s experience at the heart of everything they do.

Louise Bernstein Product School

Fireside Chat with Louise Bernstein, HubSpot Director of Product

How did you get started in the tech industry?

It started actually when I was about 14. I’d had very little exposure to technology when I was growing up. We had a home computer, but I went to an all girl’s school and we did not have a great technology track in our education. But there was one teacher for one term and she put on an extra class called, I think it was computer and information system, something like that. And for the first time I was really excited about this subject. I was like, Oh, this is amazing.

And she was also my math teacher and she didn’t like me in my class cause I didn’t pay attention and I didn’t really enjoy it. But she loved me in this computer class because I was interested. And it was from there that I really wanted to seek out something that would be as interesting, but I didn’t really know what that was and I didn’t have any career guidance.

So [at university] I did sports management first because I liked sports and thought why not. And then halfway through that, I found this course called management and information systems. I was like, Oh, that’s fine. It’s really similar to that little small class. I did in school. From then on, it was just love at first sight really. I started pretty early in software, and my first job was at a software company as a product marketing manager for a very small tech company.

I would just be sniffing around the engineering team quite a lot. Obviously I had a very strong perspective on what customers were saying to us because I was speaking with them quite often and we didn’t have a product manager.

You might also be interested in: Transitioning to Product Management From ANY Background

In fact, we didn’t even know what a product management function was. So they would just ask my advice and slowly but surely I would be meeting with them then quite regularly. When that company was purchased by a larger tech company, my new boss then said, Hey, do you want to join as a product manager? And I said, yeah, that sounds great. Because it sounded really cool.

After I said yes, I looked up what a product manager was, because I had no idea and it turned out it was what I had been doing, which is representing the customer’s voice and using technology to solve their problems, and working with the engineering team. And I’ve been doing it ever since.

So it was that teacher. I can thank that teacher for sparking the first interest.

We all know what the tech scene is like in Silicon Valley, but what’s it like in Dublin? Is it the tech hub of Ireland?

Yes, definitely, and I don’t think I’m being biased in saying this, I think we’re one of the tech hubs in the world at this stage. We have true tech giants who now have headquarters in Dublin because our scene is so vibrant. Google, Zendesk, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Slack, Etsy are now growing their team here, and it’s really exciting. It also makes it a fight to the death for talent because we have so many tech companies, it’s wonderful. We’re a small city, so logistically it’s easy to get around, especially when you’re meeting with different companies. And we have a really vibrant multicultural city. So we have people who speak all different languages. We have people from all walks of life which really adds to the diversity and the success of teams that people are hiring within Dublin.

Silicon Docks in Dublin

So I think we’re definitely on par with places like Beijing and London, I would even say Tel-Aviv and Amsterdam in the ability to drive real success. We have a lot of the tech companies close together just like in San Francisco and we’ve called it Silicon Docks, a bit of a copycat. It’s the dock land area in Dublin that’s being completely redeveloped to one, build these headquarters and two, house their employees. We have huge apartment blocks there even now. So it really is an exciting time and vastly different from even just 10 years ago. When I moved back here from Montreal where I lived for about eight years as a product manager, the jobs were few and far between if you weren’t interested in joining a telecoms company.

So instead of doing that because I wasn’t interested in it, I just worked remotely instead. But since then it’s now very exciting. We have a huge product management conference and product groups, where we have wonderful meetups. We have a thriving product community. So it’s very much on your doorstep, product management and the tech community, versus where it used to be 10 years ago, you had to travel. I used to go to London and San Francisco for all different events. I don’t have to anymore because it’s just on my doorstep.

You might also be interested in: The European Product Scene + 7 Cities Product Managers Love

While at HubSpot, you made the transition from senior product manager to group product manager. How did your responsibilities and day-to-day tasks change when you made that transition?

That’s a really great question, and I get asked that a lot. From my perspective, I see from a product leader perspective, very little changed because in a smaller company a senior product manager is a product leader who is very much responsible for growing the people around them, setting a vision, building best practices and really amplifying those around them to get more success. In bigger companies, you have a little bit more scale and how teams are organized.

people inside room

So I would say in smaller companies, the senior product manager acts like a group product manager in a larger company. Now I have the title, not a lot has changed from the building best practices standpoint. What has changed is that now I’m an official people manager, which means I’m less involved in the day-to-day of building products as my team are really the ones creating the value.

I’m more removed from that, but I’m guiding them along the way. It does mean that sometimes I have to peak over the wall at some of the cool workshops that they’re in, that’s definite FOMO. But it means my team are my product now. It’s really thinking about how they think, how I can amplify their work across the company, how I can help them drive change. And then also the admin that comes with being a people manager, that’s the biggest change as well.

Did you experience any kind of learning curve when moving to a more people leading role? Were there any stumbling blocks or was it a smooth transition based on what you were doing before?

Did I find the transition natural from the product leader standpoint? At that time I’d been doing product management for 12 years, so I had set the stage for how to build products in quite a few places by them. But I definitely had fun. The biggest learning curve was more, very definitive feedback…more definitive mentorship, where you may have to have more difficult conversations and make harder decisions about someone’s path forward. You’re the one who is now making those decisions instead of advising their official monitor on perhaps what those decisions should be. So really the buck stops with you on how that person progresses, which is a huge amount of responsibility that you can’t take lightly.

And you need to think very deeply about some of the choices you make, because the choices you make impacts the fuller team, and impacts the company’s success. So there’s a domino effect to how you grow your team on the targeted advice and mentorship that you give. So being timely in how you do that is a real, very early learning curve, because you’re not working with other people to grow this person. It really is your sole responsibility.

You mentioned that you were previously a product marketing manager, how important do you think marketing skills are for product managers? Do you think that’s something that people with no marketing experience need to work on, or is just having a good set of tech skills significantly more important?

I would dial up marketing. Absolutely. And really it’s the communication side of marketing, the PR side of marketing. It’s how to tell a good story. I really rolled that up into marketing because it’s about, how do you make the right people aware? How do you talk in the language that they’ll understand? Because you have to operate with multiple different teams, marketing, sales, customer, success, legal as well as engineers and designers. You have to tailor the conversation depending on who you’re talking with. I really would definitely roll that up into marketing because they know you can’t have a one size fits all targeting campaign. You have to tailor it depending on demographics. It’s the same thing as a product manager to operate within a company, especially a large company, you have to be very, very good at finding what those nuances are between people and then working with them.

Check out: What Is Product Marketing Management?

And so that was one, speak the language of people that you’re talking to, as well as knowing how to network, knowing the public relations side of your work, because sometimes you have to negotiate difficult situations. You have to see situations coming and know how to act on them. The PR side is even how you brand your work, so you help some of those difficult situations. We had one even just a couple of weeks ago, we were working on something that was very security and privacy based to protect our customers’ information. And it required a lot of work across multiple teams to make it go through. So to make it more exciting and to get people on board sooner so they could put the effort in, we rebranded it, we just put the word smart in front of it, which made it say, yes, this is tailored. It’s all very intuitive. Customers are really going to benefit for X, Y, Z. Suddenly just the branding of it made it sexy.

Even small things like that for how you market your work can aid the success of your work. So I would definitely say a PM has to know how the full business operates and know a little about marketing, about everything and use a little bit from everything to make their role a success. And definitely marketing is part of that just, as knowing how to sell. 

You’re an adept speaker for the Ada Lovelace Foundation. How did you build up your public speaking skill set?

person discussing while standing in front of a large screen in front of people inside dim-lighted room

Practice practice practice is how I got started. Being thrown in at the deep end is really how I got started in my first product roles. I also played the role of being a subject matter expert in the area, so I would speak on the topics at that time. It was like chemical compliance and environmental regulations, because I needed to be an expert in those areas in order to solve the problems that were within the area. And it’s a world where there’s not a lot of experts. So my company kind of put me out in the world to talk at these conferences about these topics. It was great as a product manager, because then I also got to talk to everyone at the same time. So I got a dual benefit from being there. And it was very intimidating to talk to chemical engineers about chemical compliance when I’m essentially a tech person.

So that threw me into the deep, deep end, but what it meant is I just had to try, I had to give it a go. I had no other choice and that, that was fantastic. It was just give it a go, give it a go, give it a go. And there were definite times in my early career where I would stumble across my words, I would have anxiety, which would make me forget what I was talking about. And I just learned techniques over time that would keep the conversation going. Even if I was forgetting things at the same time. And one of those techniques was not talking too fast. If you don’t talk too fast, your brain has a chance to think at the same time as you’re talking. So if you are forgetting what you’re meant to be talking about, if you talk slow, your brain can catch up and hopefully remember, or come up with a different track.

So I have definitely used that when I’m on a stage, because that’s when it’s the most intimidating. Um, and also before going on stage, I’m a big believer of the power pose in the bathroom stall. Find a corner, get your arms up, get your arteries open oxygen into the brain. It works every time.

Check out: 10 Powerful TED Talks To Make You a Better Product Manager

The Ada Lovelace foundation aims to get more women into science and tech. Something like that has to happen at a managerial level first, and it has to be embedded in the company culture. But what do think the average person can do to encourage more gender equality in the workplace, particularly in product management?

I love that question because so much of diversity and inclusion and belonging is thought of how well the company needs to make a policy. ‘We’ll just wait for management to do X, Y, and Z’ is just all about hiring. Most of what drives change for how people can bring their full selves to work is just the day to day conversations that are happening and how you treat your colleagues, and individual PMs can do so much there.

First and foremost, think about your wider team, doesn’t have to be just your tribe or your pod or your scrum team, whatever your name is. And just look at, okay, how is recognition given? How are people rewarded? Is it by being very vocal, by being brash, by being well-connected? And I say that because people from minority groups or women are usually not those things.

Check out: Women Product Leaders 2021

So hence, it’s the same type of person who is amplified and given recognition, which then again, amplifies people from other groups not doing that themselves because they feel, gosh, I’ll never be like that. So I just won’t even dip my toe in. So look across how you recognize work and think about how to change that to be more about the contribution each person has given and change techniques of how to raise people up.

PMs can do this in a few different ways. A rule of thumb is never think that a lack of confidence equals lack of ability. So someone’s lack of confidence can be attributed to just lack of trust within themselves. Whereas they have all the potential in the world to be this amazing contribution to the team.

So pass off lack of confidence, and also think about how you can bring up that person’s confidence by how you can be their wingman. How can you work with them maybe on a one-on-one basis? How can you coach them to feel better about their work and talk about their work more in a group setting? I’m a big believer in psychological safety sessions, which is where a team comes together and thinks about, okay, how do we see ourselves as part of this team? How do we build a culture of safety where we know we have each other’s backs, we know we can take risks. Everyone has a say, and people can contribute to a conversation and if they’re wrong, that’s okay. You’re not going to be shamed for being incorrect about something. And that builds confidence within the team setting. If you add recognition to that, then you build up confidence for how people operate outside of your team as well.

three women sitting on sofa with MacBook

This is very powerful from people from minority groups, as well as women, because they’re usually the ones with the least confidence, even though they are amazing contributors. So I’m talking more generally about diversity instead of just women, because the techniques are all the same on a macro level. I also want to talk about hidden diversity – differences in social backgrounds, differences in political opinions, differences in religion, things you can’t necessarily see.

And this is all about recognizing and amplifying that differences are good and also normal, unless you’re Dolly the sheep versions of each other, you’re all different. And that’s cool! And that’s why your team is a success! A PM talking about normalizing those differences by just talking about them will really help instead of people feeling like they need to be like one another.

It’s more about, ‘Hey, I’m an individual. I contribute to this wider team and here’s where our differences actually are additive’. There’s a few different sessions you can do about recognizing people as individuals, a few different workshops you can run there, but I think just even at a very everyday level, talk about yourself. As a woman, the way I’ve done that is, after I had my son and I came back to work, I spoke about needing to pump. So blocking out times in my calendar, normalizing that it was normal that as a woman, who’s just had a child, I need to go off and pump a couple of times a day for a while.

In a perfect world I would love to make it normal, to talk about periods that are tough, pregnancies that are tough, menopause…because these are hidden. These are topics that we don’t feel confident talking about as women, because we fear if we talk about them being difficult will be seen as lesser than and weaker. However, these things are part of our lives and you know what, we’re doing an awesome job. So by talking about them, it doesn’t make us weaker because we’re already dealing with them and we’re doing amazingly by talking about them. It just makes it more normal that these things exist. And 50% of the world needs to know that the other 50% of the world are dealing with these things every day. And we’re going above and beyond through those things.

We should be seen as superheroes for doing things through difficult periods, through menopause, through difficult pregnancy. That’s grit, that’s a strength, and that’s awesome to have on your team.

What do you look for when hiring people for a product team and what, for you, makes a really strong candidate?

I want to start answering that question with what I look for least. And that is subject matter expertise in the area that the product is solving for, because you can learn that.

I think a lot of people tend to hire for, does this person know this area really well because that’ll actually fast track their onboarding and get a serving value faster. That’s an absolute false economy, because anyone can learn a topic. That’s easy. What people can’t learn overnight is curiosity, empathy, knowing how to facilitate a conversation that ends in a positive action plan forward, their soft skills, which are absolutely crucial for long term success. So while that person may need to learn the subject matter area, which may make another hiring manager think, that’s a negative, it’s actually a positive because the soft skills are way more important.

And two fresh eyes are a superpower. I like when someone comes in, who doesn’t necessarily know this area, it goes, why is that done in that way? Because it’s too easy to go, well, that’s just the way it’s being done. It needs someone to say, why are we at a point now where we can think about things differently? So the fresh eyes are wonderful. And you only get that for so long because soon they’ll know about the area, so in that first 30, 60, 90 day period, those fresh eyes are absolutely wonderful. So in the subject matter area, what I look for first is being more interested in the problem than the technology used to solve it.

woman in gray sweater holding gold iphone 6
Image by Airfocus

It’s really about being really, really, really obsessed about the problem and the pain its causing, and also the value of solving it. That’s really where you’re leveraging your engineers, you’re leveraging your designers, et cetera. Because that’s their area of expertise. A product manager is wasting time and effort if they’re just duplicating engineering thinking, where you need that resource is up front in defining the problem and what it means solve it. So that’s where the curiosity is. The empathy is the knowing how and when to work with the right people, to find out the information you need to make informed decisions.

And also not being ego led because, if someone comes across an interview as just all about them, and getting accolades early...I’m not that interested because they’ll also want to fast track to a win, which may actually not be a win. They’ll be more about just wanting to get something out the door as soon as possible. ‘I just want to build code’. That’s more of interest to them than actually like peeling back the onion as to the why.

Confidence while being ego-less is what I’m interested in. Confidence, but not arrogance. Because a product manager needs to be able to instill confidence in others, so the way they hold themselves is very important. The way they articulate themselves is very important, so people feel confident in their ability to help solve a problem. Especially when working with customers and working with influential stakeholders across the company. That person needs to have confidence, not necessarily having all the answers, but knowing how to get the answers and what steps to take to get there.

Oh, and hunger. You need hunger because it’s a difficult role. So you really need to love it. You need to have the hunger to drive value, find value, overcome those roadblocks. So hunger is also a great attribute.

What is the greatest lesson product management has ever taught you? 

Oh, beyond a shadow of a doubt, assumption is the mother of all f*** ups. Yes. I have fallen at that first hurdle many a time. I would like to think I fall at it a lot less now I’m quite tenured in the area. But definitely early on, I’m thinking I know all the things and I’m finding that I don’t.

Not knowing which risks to mitigate, and just driving forward, because I think it’s the best way…was burned pretty badly a few times early on. So assumption is the mother of all f*** ups. (I hope cursing is okay!) It’s one for product management and also life in general, it turns out.

If you enjoyed that chat, check out even more fireside chats and events over on our YouTube channel!

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