Forming Your Voice by Google Product Manager

The contents of this talk and article are the opinions and experiences of the speaker, and do not reflect those of Google.

Product managers have to absorb a lot of information from many different sources and points of view. But they’re not just a conduit for the voice of the user, or the stakeholder, or the teams. It’s important that product managers have their own voice. But how do you go about forming your voice? How can you cultivate it, allow it to evolve, and use it in a way that matters?

That’s where Elsa Augustine comes in.

Meet Elsa Augustine

Elsa Augustine

Elsa Augustine is passionate about empowering people through technology. She is currently a Product Manager at Google. Prior to Google, Elsa spent 5 years as a consultant at Deloitte in the Technology Practice. Elsa holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Form Your Voice as a Product Manager

There’s a lot in here that’s less about new ideas. In fact, there’s a lot that I’ll chat about that are things you probably already know. What I’m hoping from this discussion, is that you will have a chance to think about your voice and that will provide a few practical steps on how to form your voice and use your voice as a product manager.

So a little bit about my background, I went to school for a degree in electrical engineering, and coming out of school I trained in consulting. I was at Deloitte consulting in the technology practice and spent about five years there. I loved a lot of aspects of consulting, but one itch that I had was to get a little closer to the end user.

So I decided to pursue my MBA and right after school, I joined Google as a product manager, and have been there for about four years. Outside of work, I love spending time with my husband and children. Before diving into the presentation, I wanted to talk about a story about my family to illustrate why forming an opinion as a PM is so important.

My son is very fortunate to be surrounded by a very loving family, and my parents enjoy displaying affection, they enjoy buying gifts and the joy that their grandson gets when he receives a gift. My husband feels pretty strongly that our son shouldn’t receive too many gifts and is especially wary about building a relationship that might be based on something that’s material. So in this scenario, I played the role of compromiser trying to consider everyone’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, values, and find the middle ground. And during this time I was talking to one of my closest friends about this, and she knows me really well. And she asked me what my opinion was.

I didn’t know, I hadn’t really stopped to think. It was then that I realized I hadn’t formed my own opinion about the scenario. I was too busy trying to find the right compromise or solution. And to relate this back to product management, you can find yourself in this spot if you don’t have your own voice.

That shouldn’t be the way that we drive products. If we don’t have a voice, you can be kind of caught up, just processing a lot of information, trying to make decisions, but not really listening or knowing what your particular point of view is to help drive and navigate those conversations. So in this scenario I thought about it, and it wasn’t just about making sure others were feeling good.

While that is important, it was about making a decision that would impact my son’s values and also make sure that he has a strong relationship with his grandparents. So it took me a moment to pull together my thoughts, but once I formed an opinion about what the solution should be or what we want for those values to be, the execution and the solution itself became much clearer.

Now let’s jump into the product management side. So your voice as a PM will help you have a direction. As you think about processing data and other people’s opinions, it’ll help you paint a vision. It’ll help you as you inspire and influence others, which is extremely critical. And it’ll help you as you’re making trade-offs, there’s a ton of tough, tough decisions that you have to make and having your voice can be that compass that helps guide you.

What does it mean to form your voice? I’ll take a step back to talk about my first meeting with a new manager when I was starting out as a PM and he told me it’s really important to form your voice. And I walked out of the meeting a little puzzled. What did that mean? Why was voice so important? How do I form a voice? Did it mean speaking up, did it mean saying something that would help my teammates?

I thought about it a lot, and it took me a little while, but I think he was absolutely right. And a few years into product management, here’s what I think forming a voice means.

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What It Means to Form Your Voice

To form your voice is to build a point of view. Having an opinion that’s guided by your core values. That’s using a lot of information that you’ll be gathering, and the experiences that you have both as a PM, but also what you’re bringing in coming into that role. Your voice is not static. It’s not that you find your opinion and that’s it.. It evolves, and it evolves mentally as you grow. And the last point here is that you need to use your voice. It’s important that you form your voice, but figuring out how to use it, when to use it, and using it to solve problems is also equally important. So here’s what I think about the forming of voices. I should check with my former manager to see if this matches what he had in mind during our first one.

Self-reflection

So to get started, let’s talk about self-reflection. It starts with you. Wherever you are in your PM journey or life in general, you need self-reflection. This is something that I learned about during business school, and I want to give credit to my professor, Harry Kramer, who really moved me to understand the importance of self-reflection.

To form a voice means that you have to know yourself. You have to know what your core values are. What motivates you, what is your expertise? What are you really good at? What are your soft spots? What are the things that you don’t know? And I was really fortunate during business school to have a lot of time to do this and build a habit of self-reflection. And I want to give a couple of concrete examples of what helped me.

One thing I’ve learned is that I’m at my best when I can be vulnerable.  So I tend to have a pretty vulnerable tone as I speak to a lot of folks just being really open about what I don’t know. And one thing that I learned, especially from talking to one of my close friends, is that that can be a superpower. I had never thought of it that way, but understanding that and building that awareness has allowed me to use that as a tool in forming my voice.

Another thing that I know is a soft spot for me is I tend to be risk averse. So I tend to have this risk mitigation type reaction to a lot of things. And for me, this can be a soft spot. So this is something where I know I need to actively find accountability and find the things that will give me that courage to take on the risks in a very thoughtful way.

And the reason that I want to actually mention and call out soft spots is that when you are building products, you’re not going at this alone

And that brings me to my next point in forming your voice. Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.  I love this quote because it highlights that while you have a number of responsibilities, you’re not building anything by yourself. You’re leaning on many smart, passionate people around you that have different experiences, information, opinions, and I think putting all of that together helps you build a stronger product.

So for me personally, the way I would use this…I had limited breadth of user research when I was going about my first PM role, and I loved pulling in UX research counterpart to early stages of problem problem definition, because they can give us this breadth and this other lens that I just didn’t have.

Listening and talking

Your voice, I would say, is to ask and listen. Talk to a lot of people, ask them questions, be really curious, and in here, try to dig below the surface as well. You may ask, “how do you want to work with a PM?” and find patterns of what would be really helpful that you may not have been as aware of without having those conversations. 

So don’t take anything at surface level. Make sure that you’re asking these questions and even just getting a lot of history and context on the work that you’re doing from others. As you’re doing this, try to find patterns and themes that’ll start to come up as you’re talking to different people and gaining different perspectives on the same problem and topic. And the last piece I’ll talk about is, as you’re doing this, try to look for your future board.

Your future board

And what I mean by board is your personal board of directors.  This is something that I leaned into a lot on and have found really, really powerful. Who is the person that’s going to be delusionally optimistic that you can go to with that seedling of an idea to help it grow? Who is going to give it to you straight and poke holes at the question, ask the right questions to make sure you’re stress testing that particular project or idea you have?

Trying to figure out who are the right people to go to for those different things is also something that will be really helpful as you’re shaping and strengthening your voice, and as you’re solving problems. So for example, one of my go tos was one of the analytics leads on my previous team, who just had really strong product insight and had this perspective that was really unique. Because this person just saw a ton of data and saw user behavior and patterns in a way that  was really unique to the team.

Being new is your superpower

If you’re new, that’s great, you have a superpower. You’re going to be able to see things that become difficult to see when you spend a little bit more time. When you join a team or you, you start out on a particular product, you have the ability to really see what’s difficult to use. What surprises you about the product? What do you think the user value is of that product? What makes you take delight in the user experience? There’s a lot of these things that you’re able to provide as input and perspective when you come in. So write all of those things down when you’re brand new.

One of the great ways I’ve seen this done is there was a particular team in which a writer joined. And that person did what was called a tear-down, and that was my introduction to that concept where you walk through that product and you actually go piece by piece and write down what are the things that surprised you, what didn’t work, what did work?

And it was extremely valuable because over time you’ll find that things like organizational structure or limitations or constraints that are very real, that you have to deal with. Or several other types of reviews that happen can start to muddle a little bit of the decision making and have influence in a good way on your end product.  But that may not make complete sense as a user going through the product. And so coming in with that new lens is a really, really valuable thing.

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Product managers have deep care

When you’re new, you might think things like, how will I ever catch up? People know so much, there’s so many years of history, knowledge, context…where am I going to come up with these insights? If these are questions that you think about, I think the thing that helps you get through them and helps you see the other side of this is deep care.

A close friend of mine, Ronnie Regev, who has great insights on product management (definitely check him out on LinkedIn) has put together this one paper on leadership and at the center of it all, he puts deep care, which he describes as doing small things with extraordinary care. And I think this is what really helps you make that leap into catching up or coming up with insights. Because the more you care about your product, the more you will start to see about your product. And you’ll be surprised at how much you can glean and be able to lead from having deep care.

So literally one of the things I would do is go through product flows in great detail and just pay attention to every little bit of it. You start to build that as a muscle and just care very deeply about the things that you’re working on.

Write it down

And so the last piece is write it down, write it down, write it down. And the reason it’s important to write it down and not leave it up here, is its commitment when you write it down on a piece of paper or on a doc. It forces you to commit something to paper and that act in and of itself, starts to help you form a voice.

So some very tactical tips, I just have a doc that’s a scratch pad where I can throw notes and the word scratch pad makes me feel like it doesn’t need to be perfect or fully, fully formed yet. If you have a journal or a notepad, the act of actually writing is also helpful in synthesizing and processing the information that you’re getting. And if you’re up for it, create a point of view doc that doesn’t even need to be shared with anyone, but just to start forming that point of view. It’s really helpful to have, and it’s a good way to start thinking about these things.

Check out: How to Write For Product People with Product School Blog Expert

How to use your voice in practice

So to recap, we talked about self-reflection, ask and listen, if you’re new – you have a super power, have deep care about your product and your team, and write it down. All right. So for the next piece, let’s talk about using your voice in practice. So the first thing I’ll say is don’t wait. This might be very specific to me, but I tend to hold onto my opinions until I feel a lot more confident about what I’m about to say. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you’re going to be a little uncomfortable at first. If it’s your first time expressing your opinions or points of view, you don’t want to wait for too long because it gets shaped by the experiences of being able to share them.

The other thing I will mention is, the point of not waiting and expressing your voice or using your voice is, it’s not about trying to wow anyone or to prove yourself, but it’s to really cultivate that voice. The goal is to build and get better and to offer something, and then see the response and be able to cultivate based on that response. So think of it, I would say as an experiment. Try expressing using your voice in a meeting or with someone else one-on-one, gather the response, reflect and update as you gain more information and experience.

Let your voice evolve

The next piece that I want to stress is that you need for it to evolve. Nurture and cultivate your voice as you’re gaining more experience on your team and leverage that board. This is where you go back to the board and use them as a sounding board and help build your voice over time.

So it’s not something that you’re trying to nail right away, and there’s no shortcuts to it. It’s something that grows. And if you don’t actively work on it, it’s something that can get really stale. The same idea that didn’t work when may work the next year, just because context has changed. And in order to be fresh with that and be able to see that you need to keep evolving.  There’s a quote that connects both the wait and evolve really well for me, and that is that anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year, probably isn’t learning enough. This is to say that things will continue to change. And that’s a good thing. It reflects that you’re learning.

You might also be interested in: 10 Powerful TED Talks To Make You a Better Product Manager

Amplify the voice of others

And the last bit I like to mention about using your voice is, amplify the voice of others. Just because you have a voice, doesn’t mean that you’re a solo artist. You’re part of a bigger team and you don’t build products by yourself. As you start to gain momentum by using your voice, find opportunities to help others form and use their voice. Help them express what’s top of mind in their point of views and amplify their voices. 

selective focus photography of woman wearing black cold-shoulder shirt using megaphone during daytime

Mic check, one, two

The last piece we’ll talk about is how do you test and make sure that you are actually forming and using your voice. So I called this mic check one, two.

To think about this, we’ll look at a couple of questions. One is how do you feel making decisions? Going back to the example of my son, when I was making decisions, gift by gift, I felt like I was kind of stumbling through these decisions and it didn’t feel quite right. I was just hoping that this was the right decision. And once I formed that point of view – that voice, that framework – I felt a lot more confident and the outcome was a lot more consistent. There was a very strong consistency and groundedness in the decisions we were making 

So there’s one more question to help determine whether or not you’ve formed and are using your voice and that is, can you have a healthy debate?

I am someone that loves consensus and bringing people together. Debate is something that I tend to shy away from, but forming a voice actually gave me a lot of confidence around having healthy debates. I think my products and teams are better off for it. This is where, if you have a strong voice, it’s something where you would be able to have a conversation and convince others of a particular topic.

You might also be interested in: Product Management Skills: Influence Without Authority

Similarly, when you have a voice, and it’s something that you’re evolving, you should be able to be convinced of something and be able to kind of update and evolve that voice. Can someone poke holes at a particular discussion, discuss a discussion or topic without you running the defensive? Can you hold your ground, but also be open and willing to listen?

Also, how clear is your rationale as you’re going through this? If it’s something that is evolving as someone else’s presenting a different point of view, are you able to absorb and be flexible and nimble and be able to process whether or not your particular voice needs to have some update?

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