The Journey from Consulting to Product Management
Hi all! I had an interesting sit-down yesterday with the former VP of Product from Jinn, Carlos Silva, we spoke in depth about his career and his advice for other management consultants looking to move to product management. Carlos worked at Accenture, Deloitte Digital and Ernst & Young before making the transition into Product. He understands the scope and hardship most people at consultancy go through trying to make the move and was kind enough to share his wisdom and experience with me.
What’s the biggest challenge moving from Consultancy to Product Management?
Specifically, when moving to product management, there is a fundamental mind shift you have to go through: you have to stop thinking “my client” and start thinking “my market” or “my customer segment”. As a consultant, your job is to help a specific client, either through advising them on a strategy/plan, or through delivering a project to achieve a concrete goal. So when you do that, you get used to listening and being very aware of your client’s needs and addressing them. As a product manager you have to solve a problem for an entire market, otherwise your product will not succeed. You still have to listen – but seeking the patterns that will help the largest amount of people in your customer segment, as opposed to the one client that you are serving. It’s not a very difficult mind set to shift, but one that I’ve had to go through myself, and one I still see other product managers with a consulting background struggle with. Being aware of this distinction is the first step to dealing with it, because with time you will start to realise when you are falling into the trap of serving one client instead of the market.
What do you feel is the biggest learning curve for someone working at a startup coming from a corporate larger business background?
Accepting “good enough”. In a larger business, you usually have a lot of support and process around you: HR, Finance, etc. In a startup, usually that’s not available. For example, before hiring new people at Accenture I went through training on how to conduct interviews, how to structure them, what type of questions to ask, etc. Interviews were always booked by HR and there was a clear process around interview stages and decision-making. There was nothing like that when I joined Jinn for example, so I had to come up with the interview process myself, find candidates, interview them and decide who to hire. If you have high standards (which you should do), you might be drawn to doing each of these missing pieces really well, and especially if you have some previous experience in the subject, to want to help others in the company adopt the high standards that you bring from the corporate world. Although this sounds good on paper, you risk getting involved in too many battles and losing focus of your main goal. The best way I have to describe how to deal with this is accepting “good enough”. In a startup, you are really trying to match a product and/or service with a market, and you’re not sure whether that will be successful. Your focus needs to be on achieving that success. For everything else, take it to a level where it is “good enough” and move on. There will be time to have a second pass from “good enough” to “high standard” when and if the business survives.
What advice would you give to individuals in consultancy looking to make a move into product?
There’s a lot to say on this subject! Here are some tips based on my own experience:
1. Do your research
My first steps into product management involved a lot of research about what was happening in the community at the time. I signed up for newsletters and events, read blog posts, got in touch with a few friends who, in the meantime, had moved into product management themselves. These steps were very important to validate my decision and teach me about the trade. By the time I started to look for a PM position, I already knew what aspects of my previous experience were transferrable and what common mistakes I needed to look out for. This knowledge was invaluable to help me through interviews at first, and even more important to make me successful on my first job as a product manager.
2. Use your network
If you are planning to change careers, it is very difficult for an employer to justify getting someone with no previous experience in the role. Except if you have someone you know vouching for you. This is exactly how I managed to get my first product management job; a friend who in the meantime had become a product manager introduced me to his manager, who was hiring. I was able to demonstrate knowledge and passion for product management in my interviews and was offered a job. So in this case: network + doing your research = results.
3. Have a side project
Still, when I was a consultant, I started working on a side project with the intention of bringing a product to life (the Connector App – try it here). It started as a very small idea and grew into an app that is now live and in use by quite a few people. Through Connector, I ended up learning a lot about product design, analytics, agile practices, the wonders of Slack + Trello + Git, etc etc. No matter how small the project, don’t underestimate what you can learn from it. Many of the principles that I’ve used in my Product roles come from what I learned with Connector.
What would you say are the biggest challenges dealing with C-suite stakeholders?
Working with C-suite is very interesting since you become involved with top decision making and are able to influence pretty big decisions that can make or break the company. There are multiple challenges that come to my mind, I think these are the two most important ones:
1. Being comfortable with not knowing
A CxO is going to be a smart person. You really need to be on top of your game. So you think we should make changes A and B to our product? How much revenue are those going to bring? How did you get to that number? Why did you estimate revenue in that way? Have you considered this competitor? I heard about company X that tried the same thing and failed (and so on).
Planning sessions with CxO’s can be very intense and in many cases you will be making decisions that are based on incomplete or estimated information. You need to be comfortable telling CxO’s around the table “I don’t know, and this is our best guess because [whatever the rationale is]”, and drive the conversation towards decisions.
2. Dealing with disagreements
Your CEO thinks we should make this huge advertising campaign ahead of Christmas to increase sales massively. Your CTO thinks if you do that, infrastructure will not cope with the peak in demand and not only will you miss the sales opportunity, you will also lead existing customers to abandon us due to a bad experience. What do you do? These disagreements are frequent and they are healthy (only through debating the issue will you get to the best decision), but they do require a good amount of stakeholder management experience to deal with. The good news is that anyone coming from a consulting background will typically be used to these scenarios and will have ways to deal with them.
Managing a team, how do you keep your team motivated? As this tends to the biggest challenge moving into a Senior/Executive role?
Rule number one when moving into an executive role is – stop being a product manager. If you are a product manager, you will be passionate about your product, the vision, the roadmap, etc. But when you step up to manage a product management team, you need to have people who will be as (if not more) passionate about the product as you are. This means that they need to own the product and have their own opinion. You role now is to coach and direct your team to ensure that the vision remains consistent.
For individual motivation, I like to use Dan Pink’s model that focuses on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. If each individual in your team has each of these factors, they are more likely to remain motivated. On a more pragmatic level, there are a few items that I can’t live without when managing a team:
– Frequent one to one meetings. This is time for you to listen and learn what’s working and what’s not working for that person
– Team retrospective meetings. Same principle, but applied to the team, which highlights a range of different issues you will have to work through as their leader.
– Periodic career planning. This is related to Mastery – ensure that each individual is clear about the skills they want to learn, and that they have a plan to progress in the next six months to one year.
What do you enjoy most about product management?
The variety of skills and activities you have to do. Product management is a pretty holistic discipline: you need to understand a bit about human psychology (What is a typical person in your customer segment like? What do they like to do? How is your product going to help them?), research (How do you know if people will like your product? If they say yes are they lying?), user experience, marketing, analytics, software development. You need to be able to communicate clearly between CxO’s who care about “revenue this week” and developers who care about “React vs Angular”. This means that you are always learning new things and there’s never a dull day.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“If you need to make a decision, keep it to a maximum of three people. If you have more than three people in a meeting, make it a communication instead”.
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