Managing Product Managers by Spotify Sr Product Manager

When transitioning to becoming a great people manager, it’s important to demonstrate that you have the abilities and skills needed for the day-to-day role!

In this blog post, Tiago Fernandes, Sr Product Manager at Spotify, discusses mindset shifts, feedback culture, and succeeding as a team. Also, he shares useful content including books, podcasts, and key people to follow on Twitter to help you adopt a leadership role in your career. 

Meet Tiago

Tiago Fernandes, Sr PM at Spotify

Tiago Fernandes is a Senior Product Manager at Spotify. Previously, he was a Lead PM at Farfetch. During his time there, he worked in the Payments, Fraud, and Catalog Product areas. He was accountable for the OKRs, driving the strategy, execution, and management of a group of Product Managers. Tiago started in Farfetch in 2014 as a Product Manager and quickly escalated to a Lead PM. He has experience in user stories, backlog grooming, and data-driven approaches and holds a Master’s Degree in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering.

The Mindset Shift 

Today, I’m going to talk about the mindset shift that needs to operate when you’re transitioning to becoming a people manager, the importance of creating a bidirectional feedback culture, succeeding as a team, and then I’ll share some useful links for people that want to learn more about managing product managers. 

So, some management lessons that we may have are: 

  1. Assume what the person needs
  2. Flex your hierarchical muscles
  3. Execute
  4. Diminish how hard something is 

As you may be figuring out already, all of this is plain wrong! However, there are some lessons that we can take from Michael Scott. What are those lessons? How could he have done things differently? First, he could have started by listening intently to the person talking to him. Then mentoring and coaching this person could be the next step. He could provide a space for team members to make mistakes and grow from them. and then he should acknowledge background and context. Now, let’s dive a little deeper into each of these separately. 

1. Listening intently 

Now let’s dive a little deeper into each of these separately. When you’re either listening to someone you really need to be focusing fully on the person that you are speaking with. You need to give them your full attention.  It’s crucial that you do not interrupt other people. To make the person feel comfortable speaking to you and to show to them that you are not distracted, don’t interrupt them vocally or even worse with your thoughts.  If you are interrupting the person with your thoughts, are you really listening? 

Be aware as well of your body language. Even though we’re living in this remote-friendly environment, body language is not as important, but it is still important. Try to make eye contact with the person that you are speaking with. Try not to be distracted by your cell phone, other applications or messages that you are receiving, or with people passing by. Giving someone your full attention is not only a mental exercise. It is a full-body exercise. And lastly, don’t just jump in and start speaking. Take time to absorb what you’ve just heard. Try to understand what that means and reflect before actually speaking. 

Check this out: Product Leadership Skills: Building a Strong Product Team

Audience listening intently to presenter

2. Mentoring 

It’s important to mention that there is a usual pitfall in leading by example. What this actually means is that leading by example is not often doing the work instead of the other person. You should see it as doing the work with the person. As pointing the direction or showing it in in a way that allows the person to understand and to learn from that. Don’t get the work done. Make sure that that is a lesson to be taken from that. 

Also, try to focus on asking more questions and providing fewer answers. There’s a useful book called Coaching Habit which mentions this a lot. When you are providing the answers, you are just giving the person something to go on, but they won’t really understand why they’re doing things in that way. I attended a coaching training some months ago. One of the exercises that we did was trying to ask questions to the other person but ensuring to never ask leading questions. Instead, it was asking broad questions that made the person think about what the actual problem was and helping them get to a solution without leading them to one.

An example of a leading question is ‘Have you tried this approach?’ This is a leading question because you’re basically giving an answer, but formulating it as a question. So that’s a bad question to be asked. A broad question to be asked is  ‘Why did you try this approach? What’s the advantage?’ When the person answers, you could ask a follow-up question like ‘What other approaches are there?’ You can continue doing this until you enable the person to get to the answers themselves. 

Something that’s extremely important to be mindful of is that you are dealing with people, not robots.  Even when you’re just nowadays having remote goals or even messages in slack or emails, it is always people that you are talking with and these people have emotions. So be mindful of those emotions. Be mindful of how they affect the people you are talking with and acknowledge them.  Lastly, take every opportunity to provide feedback. I’m going to talk more about this in the next session, but this is crucial that you take every opportunity that you can to provide feedback to the people you are working with. 

You might be interested in: Product Leadership Skills: Influence Without Authority

3. Providing a safe space for mistakes

About providing space for mistakes, if you go back and think a bit about the biggest lessons you have learned in your life, those would probably be tied to some mistakes that you made. Failing is crucial in ensuring that people learn and grow. One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve received at the end-of-year review cycles was ‘fail more, fail better.’ And I still remember this feedback vividly. Your role as a people manager isn’t to prevent mistakes from your team. It is to ensure that your team learns from those mistakes and takes valuable lessons for growth from those mistakes that they will make. Everyone makes them.  

You can do this by being hands-off from the work that needs to be done by your team but being very hands-on in ensuring that your team has everything that they need to perform their best work. They don’t have any blockers. They have all the conditions that they need to be set up for success. To do that, you need to cast a safety net for your team. Obviously, you shouldn’t be allowing your team to make career-breaking mistakes, like sharing objectively false information, but you need to let them make small mistakes or wrong decisions that do no harm.  That’s the safety net. It’s just trying to understand where’s the tipping point and how to find that balance. 

Symbolic picture of growth

4. Acknowledge background and context

Acknowledging the background and the context of people is extremely important. Context is one of the most important elements in decision-making.  If you’ve ever watched The Office, Michael Scott has been at the same company for 12 years, four of them as a manager. Can you imagine the gap in the context that he has from a person that has just joined the company? It’s huge. We can assume that that person will take at least 12 years to reach the same level of context including historical context,  background, and an understanding of the dynamics of how things work. So acknowledge that and understand that each element in your team will have a different context and a  different background. 

Now,  you can use all of the steps that I mentioned before, especially listening intently, to understand each individual’s specific context. Are members of your team lacking some specific context that they need to have for a particular decision-making process?  Also, be very mindful of how different backgrounds play a role in dynamics. If you have a product manager in your team that has a technical background, he’ll probably be much more comfortable working with engineering peers. Whereas someone that doesn’t have a technical background might lack some context there, and you need to acknowledge those and tailor growth and learning experiences to be specific to each person’s background and context. Now, if you only have time to do one thing with your team, investing time in providing context is the best long-term investment you can do. 

Read next: What Is Product Leadership?

Feedback Culture 

Feedback is hard.  It’s hard to give feedback, but it’s also hard to receive feedback. So what can we do to make that easier? 

1. Create a safe space

To create a safe space with your team, you need to first start caring personally about the person. Kim Scott mentions in her book, Radical Candor, that it’s extremely important that you personally get to know them. Don’t just talk about work, but also don’t just engage in small talk about the weather. Truly care about how the person feels and what’s happening in his/her life. 

Also, build rapport. Try to understand what motivates a person professionally and personally as well. Don’t judge. It’s not your role. It’s not your place to be judging others. Just be judgment-free and listen to what the person your team has to share when they talk to you. Be open. Talk about yourself. Share what motivates you, what’s going on in your personal life, your hobbies, and your interests. 

When we look back at all of these points, they aren’t management-specific. They are actually about creating meaningful relationships with other people.  That’s what creating a safe space is about. Create meaningful relationships with the people in your team. 

2. Give immediate feedback

Immediate feedback is crucial. There are different periods to provide formal feedback. Most companies do a check-in at the middle of the year, and then at the end of the year. When I’m receiving feedback from six months ago, it’s hard to place it. So don’t wait for end-of-year or recurrent review cycles. When you have feedback to provide constructive or positive comments, take the opportunity to share that. There are no perfect moments to provide feedback. And a 10-minute chat between meetings is more than enough for quick feedback. 

Also, try to share feedback in person as much as you can. I know that nowadays we don’t have many in-person talks, but set up a call and speak with the person. Avoid giving feedback via messages or email. It is too impersonal especially constructive feedback. It makes you look weak as a manager that you cannot face the person but it also gives them the space to give their side of the feedback and understand it better. 

Two individuals sharing feedback with each other

3. Have a structure

The structure is also fundamental in providing feedback because feedback is hard. We already acknowledge that. But having a structure makes it easier for you to provide feedback, but also for the person that is receiving it. If it always comes in the same structure, it gets easier over time to understand the content. To have a better structure, two of the key elements are 1. Be very specific about which situation you are referring to and 2. Avoid broad feedbacks like not tying them to a specific situation. If you saw a specific behavior at the moment, use that as an example, so that the person receiving the feedback can tie it back to the situation where it happened. 

Also, be very clear about why that feedback is important. So for example, ‘when you were presenting to the CEO and missed to present some relevant data that had a bad impact in forming the final decision’. That’s a better type of feedback because you’re providing the situation. You’re saying why it is important. You can pick a framework that helps you like the Situation-Behavior- Impact model which is very common and useful. But there are several ones. Just use a framework that works both for you and for your team. 

Read next: Product-Led Growth Strategy for Product Managers

4. Practice receiving feedback 

Now, the most important part of feedback is to practice receiving feedback.  Your role is to provide feedback to your team and to help them grow. Even though it’s your role and it’s expected of you to do that, it’s already hard. Imagine how hard it must be for your team to provide you with feedback. It’s extremely hard. So acknowledge with your team members that it’s hard for them to give you feedback and don’t expect them to proactively come back to you with feedback. You need to make sure that the feedback cycle happens either by booking certain for them to provide you with feedback or even by acknowledging how hard it is and creating written anonymous feedbacks for your team to be more comfortable. But you have to work to get it from your team and to make it easy for them. 

It is crucial that you do not react to the feedback when you are receiving it from someone on your team. Do not try to justify yourself. Do not try to find excuses. You will just be shutting down the door for future feedbacks. Don’t react. You can just ask a clarifying question, like  ‘Your feedback is that in this situation, my behavior was this and it had X impact. Just to confirm”.  But don’t do anything else. If you don’t know what to say, nodding is more than enough.  

After receiving the feedback and not reacting to it, act on it. Be sure to act on the feedback and go back with what you did, what your steps were, and what was the result of that feedback. Close the feedback cycle loop with your team to show them how valuable their feedback is to you. 

Succeeding as a Team 

When I said that the management lesson was from Steve,  you were probably thinking about the legendary CEO Steve Jobs, but actually, it’s from Steve Wozniak who goes above and beyond and faces Steve Jobs just to get selfless recognition for his team.  To make sure that you have a successful team, you need to set up your team to be successful. You need to celebrate achievements. You need to build a team and know that a group of people isn’t a team. So let’s dive deep into these and see what they actually mean. 

1. Set the team up for success

So if you’re a people manager, you will have more access to the strategy. You will be working more strategically on some topics. Provide visibility to that strategy and do so by sharing as much context as possible. Going back to what I said previously, context is crucial. Make sure that you are sharing as much context as possible. If you only take one thing from this webinar, it should be this one.

Set the direction and the action for your team. If that action is North, make sure that your team is going North. Your responsibility as a people manager is not only with your people, but with the company and making sure that your team is aligned with the company’s goals and strategy. It should be setting that direction, but giving enough space for your team to decide on how they’re going to pursue that direction. Be organized. How many people relate to having 30 different Google docs with overlapping and duplicated information? Well, that’s not useful. That’s a waste of time and that’s inefficient. So organization cascades down such as OKRs. So be sure to be organized and your team will follow. A perfect example of leading by example is being organized. 

Check this out: Set Up Your Team For Remote Product Discovery

Team building and success

2. Celebrating achievements 

Celebrating achievements is crucial in a healthy team. Like the last one you just saw from Steve Wozniak. So start by encouraging your team members to share their success stories. If there is a success story, it needs to be shared with everyone. And since you have access to other areas of the organization, naturally because of your role, make sure to share the team’s achievements across the organization. And remember, it’s the team’s achievements, not your achievements. It’s not ‘I’, it’s ‘us’ or “we”. 

If you don’t know how to share it, just say it.  “Hey, you did a great job. Congratulations.” That goes a long way in making your team feel appreciated.  Also, just a small piece of advice is to be aware of unhealthy competition within the team. If you feel that it’s setting the stage for people to show off, be aware of that and make sure that the achievements are celebrated in a healthy way that is creating the stage for everyone to be successful.

3. Build a team 

All of the previous points are important to building a team, but there are more steps that you can take, especially around diversity and inclusion, which should be very important topics. I believe that diversity means representation across a wide range of traits, backgrounds, and experiences. When we can connect and engage with coworkers with different perspectives than our own, we can more successfully achieve our overall goals. Inclusion refers to a sense of belonging in any environment.

For a company to really achieve the benefits of diversity, it has to work across the entire company in making sure there’s diversity. Employees in inclusive workplaces feel more comfortable sharing their unique ideas and perspectives because they can sense that their differences are genuinely respected and appreciated. It should be very important for you that everyone you work with feels safe, accepted, and valued, and has an opportunity to grow and succeed.

Gathering the values of diversity and inclusion will help create a workplace culture that drives the business forward. Also, try to create a team where the team members offer support to each other. You shouldn’t be asking someone on your team to help another teammate. You want a collaborative, cohesive unit working together to achieve the results. A healthy team communicates well with each other. They don’t need the manager creating bridges between them. They will create those bridges. They will be a self-organized unit. And lastly, try to have some fun. When people have fun, they are happier and more efficient, and productive in the long term. So the main takeaways from this chapter, if your team isn’t successful and you are, you are probably an individual contributor and not really a people manager. Be aware of that.  The keywords here are team and selflessness.

You might be interested in: Diversity and Inclusion in Product: Why It Matters

A team huddle to represent inclusivity and diversity

Useful Content for PMs 

Now the summary from what we discussed is that you need to change your perspective and your mindset. When you become a manager, you are no longer an individual contributor. You are a people manager. You need to create a culture of bi-directional feedback. Not only feedback for your team members to allow them to grow but also feedback for yourself to grow as a manager and learn how to be a better manager. Your team’s success is ultimately your success. 

Now, I just touched the tip of the iceberg with this presentation, but I thought of adding some useful content so that you can learn from the people and content that have inspired me and taught me a lot over the years including books, people to follow on Twitter and podcasts. 



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