Strong Product People – An Interview with Author and Product Leader, Petra Wille

There are plenty of books about leadership. There are plenty of books about product management. But how many books are there about product leadership?

Petra Wille, independent product leadership consultant and coach, is on a mission to help leaders to up their people-development game. Her new book, Strong Product People, is packed with advice, tips, tricks, and frameworks to help leaders to invest in their teams.

We got to chat with Petra about her views on the product management industry, and we dove deep into the process of writing a first book, and how leaders can help their teams to grow.

Strong Product People

What got you started in the product world?

Colleagues of mine actually. I was a developer when I started my career, and colleagues always said, “Hey, you’re so great in all the things related to communication. And it’s so easy for you to talk to the stakeholders and our clients and our customers. Could you do this a bit more often, because somebody needs to figure out what we need to build!” So actually, it was them pushing me a bit to the front lines of project management, as it was called back in the days.

And then I started to do a lot of this specification work and came up with requirements and all these kinds of things, and I figured out that it’s actually something I love doing. And that I’m pretty good at too! I was never the fastest programmer in the world, so actually that was another reason why product management seemed to be so appealing.

What has your experience of working in the European product scene been like?

As I’m working with many international clients, and most of my friends and fellow product coaches are based in the US or abroad, I’d say that there is not such a big difference between the European and the American product scene.

There is a big difference in the startup scene, in that there’s way more money and it’s easier to get funded in the US. 

I’d say other than that, the struggles are the same. So even the fancy companies in the Valley share a lot of the struggles the companies in Europe are having. So everybody’s fighting the reflex of hierarchical thinking and still being trained in command-and-control-management ways. And now you want to learn how to use openness and communication to trust in your team.

These are struggles that all companies are sharing, and are in our ecosystem.

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What personality traits of yours lend themselves to great product leadership?

I think curiosity is something that always helps if you’re a product leader, especially in my role as a consultant and coach. I’m working with so many companies, so many different industries, so many different products, and I love all of them! I’m really interested in whatever comes up. So it might be shipping logistics, data, healthcare stuff….And it might also be hardcore engineering, automobile industries. So whatever it is, I’m always curious. I think that’s the main personality trait that helps product people to cope with their job.

And for sure, it’s emotional intelligence. If you somehow even feel physical pain when you see users and customers struggle, that helps a lot to make you really want to help them. You’ll want to ease this pain and to create software that actually helps them in their lives. 

I want to have an impact and I want to really change something. So I actually really want to release this stuff and to see what it actually can do for people when it’s out there. Um, so really this, I want to ship something, I want to change something.

Product management has grown within the tech industry so much in the last few years. Where do you see it going? What do you think the future of the product management world is?

Hopefully there will be more companies considering hiring product people. Marty Cagan just published a blog post some weeks ago about ‘the best and the rest’. And he said that there’s how the best companies are working and how most companies are working. And I really hope that we see a shift in how many companies do belong to the best, and not so many companies belonging to the rest. That’s a long journey, one that I hope more and more companies will do.

As a product leadership coach, what would you say are the main mistakes that people make when they’re trying to be leaders?

Not taking people development seriously. Because if you stumble into a product leadership role, the first thing everybody focuses on is fixing some of the processes, and on improving efficiency. Hiring is usually something they all take seriously as well, and that consumes a lot of a product lead’s time. And then of course they’re thinking about ‘what is the direction of the product?’

But what is often neglected is the people development for those already in the company. And that’s what I think product leaders should focus on a bit more, just because there is so much more potential. If you invest in them, if you prepare your one-on-ones well, and you really have a vision for each and every person on your team, you’ll discover what they could become.

So they should actually think about how that will change their one-on-ones, as they’ll no longer be only status updates. I really think it is beneficial if you think about the personal development of each product manager on your team.

And if there are more than just product managers on your team, maybe designers as well, then make sure to make some time and invest in their personal development as well. Because if every person on the team gets stronger, the whole team gets massively stronger over time.

Research shows that if you fire somebody and you need to bring in someone else, on average it costs knowledge workers $62,000 USD. That is massive. So you could invest the same amount of money in your team, training them, and making sure that they want to stay with the company and learn new things.

Strong Product People Book Contents

What inspired you to write Strong Product People?

For years I wanted to write a book, just because of that’s what you do at some point in your career. But I couldn’t find a topic that stuck with me. I always was like, ‘okay, one day I will write a book’. Then, several years into my coaching practice, I realized like that it doesn’t scale if I only help and coach the product managers. I thought about maybe focusing on helping product leads. And then that’s what I did.

So the last two years, I mainly focused on helping product leads to up their people development game. And while I was doing this, I thought why not put all of the things that I’m teaching them in a book. Because I found myself explaining the same things over and over again. So by putting this in between two book covers, I could make it all available to way more people than through coaching one-on-one individually.

You describe this book as a travel guide for PMs, something they can dip into at different points in their career. Do you think that’s more impactful than a book that you just read front to back?

Actually I think a product community needs both books. So there are books that you need to read front to back and then say ‘ah OK, that’s how everything should work.’ But my book is more of a workbook. It’s a lot of tangible advice. And it’s dense! It’s so dense with metaphors and tips and tricks and things you could try and frameworks you could use. So I think it’s massively overwhelming if you’ve read it front to back.

With a travel guide, you say to yourself, ‘I need to come back to this chapter about Rome once I’m in Rome.’ And that’s what this book is like. ‘I need to come back to this chapter about time management when my team needs a coaching session on time management.’

Some people misinterpret ‘strong’ leadership as ‘tough’ leadership, and being very hard on employees. How do you see this book as contributing to that conversation?

Strong Petra Wille Banner

To me, strong leadership is more about having a stance on several topics within leadership. So in the book, for example, one topic is motivation. If you want to become a leader, you need to have your take on motivation. So what is my take of motivation? Do I need to motivate people? Are people coming to work motivated, and I just need to not de-motivate them?

And that’s what I think strong leadership is all about. You have deliberately chosen the topics you really think are making a difference, and think about them with intention. And you shouldn’t be afraid to change this opinion every once in a while, if you learn new things. That’s a huge part of strong leadership, to admit mistakes and change your opinion when presented with new information. That’s how I think Strong contributes to the conversation.

How much of a responsibility for a product manager’s performance is on them and how much of it is on their leader? 

I think all of their performance is on them. That’s actually what I always try to make clear. But they need help to reveal what is called the unknown unknowns. Because it’s super hard for people to see what things they should learn about if they don’t know that they exist.

For example, user interviews. A lot of product people don’t know that training their user interview skills would be a really great addition to what they’re already doing. There might be a situation in which a product manager has been working on a technical team for a few years, and they haven’t had the chance to do many user interviews. That’s when a product leader could say ‘when you’re ready, we could assign you to a team that’s more customer-focused, and you could learn the interview techniques and skills that you’re missing out on.’

In my opinion, it’s the responsibility of the product leader to help people see what they could learn next, and assigning them bigger challenges that help them to grow.

But even so, it’s up to the individual to actually live up to their potential, and the expectations of the role. It’s up to them to fill the dance floor they’re on!

What inspired you to add do-it-yourself activities to the book?

I think simply because that’s how learning works, right? When people do the work, that’s the moment that they’ve actually learned something new. By applying the techniques I’m teaching and doing something practical, you have the chance to figure things out for yourself.

It’s not as easy to do in a book as in a workshop, but at various points in the book I say ‘OK, now go grab a pen and paper and write down your top five personality traits of a product manager,’ or something like that.

And I actually get a lot of emails from people telling me they tried out a methodology or a framework from the book and they say ‘that was amazing! It was fun, it helped out my team, or it helped me to reflect.’

What’s your advice for people who want to write a book? How should they go from having the idea to actually writing it?

So for me, I used a developmental editor. I’d never written a book before, so I had no idea what the best format would be. I had a few outlines, but I needed someone to help me to shape the book, and that’s what a developmental editor is. 

Peter Economy helped me to get my outline straight, and helped me to organize everything and shape the storyline of the book. Most authors have some kind of editor, so if you’re going to self-publish it really helps to have someone helping you. It would also have been very intense for me to write a proper book in English (Petra’s first language is German).

I’d also say that you need to block a decent amount of time to actually write your book. It’s going to potentially take you one to two years to write your book, and then you’ll need to factor in the extra time to get it published. Self publishing is a lot of work and takes a completely different skill set if you’ve never done it before.

You specifically mention in the introduction of the book that you’ll be using they/them when referring to product people. How do you think strong product leadership can contribute to a more diverse and inclusive industry?

Massively. So, first of all, as we are talking with so many people in the company, if we start being more conscious about these topics, everybody will become more conscious about these topics. And let’s face it, the software we create is often massively biased. We know about all these cases where software does weird things, because we’re kind of coding our own biases into the software. And that just happens if we’re not reflecting on our biases.

And it’s not only the biases we hold towards gender. It’s important for product people to also think about the neurodiverse people out there. For example, people with dyslexia, or those who struggle with their vision, who struggle to use products in dark mode. You could say ‘it’s just a color’, and it’s primarily an energy saver. But if it makes that product more difficult for them to use, it’s not serving its purpose for them. Diverse people would love to use our products, but we have to make them for them!

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That’s not to say that it is an easy thing to do, it’s a lot of extra effort. So maybe if you’re a small startup, then you cannot deal with all of these issues in the beginning, but at least you can openly state that you care about them and that you will work on it, slowly but steadily. I think that’s way better than not saying anything about it, not being outspoken and upfront about it and just ignoring that we are living in a complex world.

Petra Wille Workshopping

What do you hope is the main insight that people will take from Strong?

Product leaders need to come up with your definition of what makes a great product manager in your company, in your context, for your team. Most companies have an idea of what they’re looking for, but it’s usually a list of soft skills, because of course we all know we need soft skills!

But there isn’t often a specific criteria or framework. You need to set your own compass for what a great product manager looks like.

Also, invest in people development. Always have a vision for every product manager on your team, and make sure that they learn, and prosper, and create awesome products.

Aside from Strong, what other books do you recommend for product leaders?

Everything Marty Cagan writes, but especially his book, Empowered. I’ve actually compiled a list of my favorite product books and PM Library team published them.

Finally, if you could tell people one thing to convince you that your book can help them, what would that be?

So this is the book you should buy if you really want to up your people development game as a product leader. And you want a book that is targeted to product leadership and not just a random leadership book.

📕 Grab your copy of Strong Product People.

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