Every few months or so, we will bring you a new interview with a featured 280 Group Consultant who discusses a number of Product Management issues.
Our second featured interview in this series is with Leslie Bixel, a seasoned PM veteran who talks about how she broke into Product Management and her advice for individual Product Managers and organizations
Be a great communicator. Product Managers are the hub for all the company functions contributing to bringing a great product to market.
What is your background?
I had lots of student loans when I graduated from Stanford University in the ‘80s. Not a lot of jobs at the time, so I made ends meet by taking temporary jobs in the Valley. One day I walked into a tiny software start-up and fell head over heels with the idea of desktop computers helping people to communicate. A week later I had convinced the founder that if he let me do the marketing, I could help him be even more successful. The company’s sales went from $0 to $5 Milion in just a year.
How did you get in to Product Management?
I got into Product Management at a time where it wasn’t required to be super technical in Silicon Valley. That said, the transition from a marketing role to Product Management did require that I show some technical chops.
Adobe Systems was a very small company, less than 100 employees, when I first saw a demo of the software program called Illustrator. I was so excited by the concept of digital tools for creatives. I was determined to work at Adobe. I took on a couple of desktop publishing gigs and learned enough to get me in the door as a member of the newly formed technical support organization. Within a year I had created one of the very first Product Management jobs at Adobe. I became the PM for all of Adobe’s application business in Asia and was charged with figuring out to deliver digital typefaces and desktop publishing to Japan. Having that experience allowed me to go on to many different roles within the Adobe product organization.
What general advice would you have for an individual Product Manager?
Be a great communicator.
Product Managers are the hub for all the company functions contributing to bringing a great product to market. Flex your leadership muscles and embrace the role of communicator. Have a standing team meeting that is limited to one hour (hard stop) and make sure everyone on the team is invited and encouraged to participate. Create and distribute a simple status report every week, on the same day, at the same time. Keep it short and include an open issues section with the hot topics for the week. Copy your direct management team, but don’t let the distribution list go crazy or else you will spend your days answering questions rather than solving problems.
Finally, have your elevator pitch ready at all times. You never know when you might get the ear of some senior manager who can aid you in resolving some tough product issue! Make sure you share recent successes as well as what you are currently working on. Feel free to talk about a hot topic and the solutions you are considering, just be clear that as Product Manager you own the solution as well as the problem.
What general advice would you have for a Product Management organization?
Don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter, more experienced, and/or just different from you. The best Product Manager I ever hired was an Economics PhD who had worked as a reporter for a national business newspaper. No direct Product Management experience, but a unique understanding of business and a talent for asking great questions. People have a tendency to look for very specific domain experience and skills and to hire folks that look like them. Look to add diversity to your Product Management group for the good of your products. Product Management is a role where a generalist rather than a specialist thrives. Product Management is the training ground for future general managers. Bottom line…Hire interesting, thoughtful people.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of being a consultant?
Helping our clients be successful.
I really love being a consultant and mentor to 280 Group clients. It is so great to be able to leverage my experience as a Product Manager and business development executive in service of smart, passionate folks who are trying to make their businesses grow and their organizations thrive.
I have a fondness for small businesses and start-ups. Especially those in the throes of a “success crisis”. Working with the leadership team to pull together a roadmap or product strategy can quickly get them from overwhelmed to focused.
I often work with very large organizations to help them sort out their product process through a comprehensive change management program. It’s very satisfying work when roles and responsibilities get defined, communication improves and product organizations really start to hum.
Is there anything you would re-do in your career?
Not really. I have always said that a “career” only makes sense looking backwards. It’s very hard to make a plan.
I would say that my biggest successes as a Product Manager came out of taking the biggest risks, being willing to not know all the answers, and to ask for help when I was lost. Being able to fail and recover without too much ego bruising was essential.
I am lucky to have worked on so many creative software products like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. that people actually love and use on a daily basis. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your hard work turn into something real. And when customers make beautiful stuff with your products, well that is just magic.
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