Lessons I’ve Learned About Product Managers, with Delibr Founder & CEO

We sat down to chat with Delibr Founder & CEO, Nils Janse. Delibr is a startup app working to help Product Managers write feature documents.

Nils talks about his journey as a Founder, and the overlap between CEO skills and PM skills. We also got into the many, many things he’s learned about Product Managers through building a product specifically for them, and what he considers to be the marks of great leadership.

Meet Nils

Nils Janse

As well as being the Founder & CEO of Delibr, Nils is also the author of “Epic Alignment“, a book that goes deep on how the best Product Managers work with feature documents. It also touches on building a shared understanding and focusing on outcomes within one’s organization and team. He is also a Board Member at Storytel AB. He is a past Board Member of FixClip and worked as an Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company.

Nils earned his Master’s in Industrial Engineering and Management from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. During his studies he also focused on Political Science for a year at Stockholm University and took place in an exchange studies program in Engineering and Business at the University of Melbourne.

How did you get started in the Product world?

Before I started with the Product side of things I was a management consultant. I’ve long had a passion for democracy and I’ve been been to the top and the bottom countries of the Economist Democracy Index. It’s one of my real passions. So I had this idea, as a management consultant, that when managers come together to have a discussion the role of the consultant is to say ‘OK this is the question we’re trying to figure out, and these are the different alternatives, and it sounds like we agree on this one.’

So when you imagine a political leader in a debate, nobody is agreeing on what questions they’re trying to answer. They’re throwing around different arguments and they don’t even pick them up again, and it’s just all over the place. So I came up with the idea to make a solution that would help to add structure to the questions and decision making, and to help put everyone on the same page.

I quit my job at McKinsey and coded up a small solution for this. I wish I had been aware of Design Thinking back then, this was eight years ago. I only figured out that nobody was interested in that kind of solution when I had the first prototype, and the project collapsed. After a few months of absorbing the defeat, I got back on my feet and a few pivots later we’re in a much better situation!

Can you tell us a bit more about your mission at Delibr?

We help companies to figure out how to make better decisions together. We found that the best use cases for our product were in fact Product People (PMs, etc). They make a lot of decisions and they want clarity on why they’re making those decisions, and they want to really dig in and understand the decisions that they make. Our goal is essentially to help product teams connect strategy and deliver all the way through.

We’re many pivots away from where we started, but now we have something that really helps teams to be successful, and to pull all this mess together into something that’s really structured and coherent, and makes sense, and gets everybody aligned.

As Founder and CEO, what’s a typical day to day like for you?

By now I have a routine. I get out of bed around 5am and go lock myself in my office until maybe 8am or 9am when everyone else gets in. And I use this time for what Julie Morganstern calls ‘legato’ work, the slow kind of work that takes a long time to get into. For example, sometimes I write for the blog, as that’s something you really need to immerse yourself in. I’ll also prepare materials or review something that I really want to dive into.

Throughout the day I have a bunch of different interactions. I love whiteboards, so I do a lot of whiteboard problem-solving. We have a lot of meetings, some externally on Zoom but since most of our team is in the office. Between all of those interactions it’s just kind of churning away, answering emails and getting small stuff done. On a weekly basis I set my top priorities and take some time to rethink them.

man in gray crew neck t-shirt standing near whiteboard

What’s something that you do for yourself even if it doesn’t scale?

As I mentioned, writing is one. I think it’s important in helping me learn about Product Management, and it helps me to think about what’s most helpful for our customers. It might make more sense to hire someone to write our blogs for me, but I enjoy it.

I also spend a lot of time talking to customers. I still do follow up and coaching calls, and even a few demos with completely new customers. I think it’s always good to keep your ear to the ground, to know what’s really happening and what people are saying.

You might also be interested in: How to Write For Product People with Product School Blog Expert

What are some things you’ve learned about Product Managers through building this product for them?

It’s like inception, building a product for people who build products! One thing we’ve noticed is that when we ask PMs what they spend their time on, refinement comes up as a really big one. Working out the details of how to actually do something and capturing that in documents, making sure it’s clear to developers. They spend a lot of time on the nitty gritty.

But when you ask PMs what they like about their job, that’s never at the top of the list. So there’s a weird discrepancy there. Everybody likes to do strategy, everybody likes to do discovery, but everybody’s being pulled into spending a lot of time on the nitty gritty. Also, nobody wants to do it by themselves, everyone wants to work on it with other people.

Is there a lot of overlap between the skills needed to be a Product Manager and the skills needed to be a CEO?

Absolutely! You need to have intimate knowledge of the customer, a perspective on marketing, to work with storytelling to explain how it’s all going to fit together. There’s a lot of collaboration skills, you need to think about strategy. I think all of these things are basically overlapping.

If I think about my founder friends, they have less of a design and tech depth, that’s something that’s more relevant for PMs than founders. Founders and investors tend to have to think a little bit more on the business side. You have to think more broadly than a PM, even though they already think quite holistically.

Also when it comes to authority, although PMs lead people as a Founder/CEO you need to be the direct manager for a lot more people. So you need to have a handle on that. But for sure, it’s no mystery why so many CEOs are ex-Product Managers. There’s a lot of overlap.

You might also be interested in: 6 Product Managers Who Became CEOs—and How!

So you wrote a book, Epic Alignment. What led you to write a book?

There’s a saying that goes ‘Before you die, you should write a book, plant a tree, and raise a child.’ So I guess that’s one out of three I can check off the list!

But seriously, when we did our work to develop Delibr we interviewed a ridiculous number of Product Managers. And we really dug into it, we had over 300 interviews where we tried to figure out ‘how are you working, what are your problems’ etc. And I thought that I needed to start sharing or articulating everything we were learning. So I started to write a blog, but it was clear that I had too much to fit into a series of blogs. So it ballooned into a whole project that eventually led to the book.

What are some of the marks of great leadership?

So for me, there are three. First there’s vision, which is kind of an obvious one, but it’s about being that weird person who sits along and thinks about things and spends time coming up with a perspective that’s maybe a little contrarian. You have to be a bit stubborn.

The next one is integrity, which is so important. I was maybe 18 or 19 years old when I decided that this whole lying thing was just too complicated, so I stopped. But that’s also problematic because people know that about me, so if they ask me something and I say ‘no comment’, I’m totally busted! But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

And the last thing for me is communication, both expressing yourself and being able to listen. Understanding the thought model of other people and wondering ‘what are they thinking now’? So you’re able to get all of the insights from your team but also get your story across.

Check out: What Is Product Leadership?

What are some of the new skills you’ve gained since growing into a position of authority?

Storytelling is the main one. I’ve learned how important it is to constantly be working on the story, both for the investors and your teams and the customers. Like, what are we doing? What’s it all about? If you tell your story on repeat then everybody knows the answers to those questions about you. Storytelling is more important in a leadership role than as an individual contributor, because there you’d just be a crazy person talking to yourself! But as you move up the ladder you become more and more a weaver of the narrative.

Rapid fire question time! When does it make sense for Product Managers to work with feature documents?

Ideally, never! Try to get everybody together in front of a whiteboard at the same time. But if someone misses out on that session or somebody else wants a quick-glance version of what happened, then it’s really valuable to write that feature document.

What can Product Managers do to avoid becoming just a feature factory?

That’s one of the biggest traps. You have to be able to elevate yourself from the chaos and messines that goes on when deciding features. You can do that by understanding and aligning themselves with the business goals, and taking the time to do discovery and work with the customers.

Then they’ll be able to say ‘hey wait a minute, this isn’t the goal we agreed on’, and it gives you the authority to be a thought leader, and avoid just becoming a feature factory.

What advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?

Design Thinking! If I’d known about all the great discovery techniques that are available and how to kind of validate and think about the solution, and how to approach use testing and the value of design…I would have saved myself two years. Maybe more.

What’s something you’re excited about in Delibr’s future?

We’re extending and helping customers with their whole journey, and we have templates to help them throughout the process. The feedback we’ve been getting has been phenomenal, so just for me right now, going through this is so exciting.

What are you excited about in the future of the tech industry?

There are so many collaboration tools that are attacking all different sides. Software eats the world, so all different parts of the economy are becoming kind of SaaS-ified. What I would like to see is this collaboration that’s inherent in these SaaS tools bubble up to democracy. I think it’s going to be amazing to see tools allow whole countries and populations to come in and have their voices heard. That will make for a much more vibrant democracy.

Product Manifesto

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