Nate Walkingshaw on capturing the approaches and techniques of successful product managers

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Leadership, the design of product teams, and hiring optimists.

By Mary Treseler
April 27, 2017
Paths. Paths. (source: Pexels)

This week, I sit down with Nate Walkingshaw, chief experience officer of Pluralsite and co-author of Product Leadership. We talk about hard and soft leadership skills, building cross-disciplinary product teams, and why it’s important to use the layover test when hiring.

Here are some highlights:

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Hard and soft skills for product leadership

The two different paths are hard skills and soft skills. From a soft skills perspective, don’t be a jerk. That’s the first thing. Aggregated data wins a lot of debates around the workplace. So, come prepared. Kindness, humility, living in reality—I think those are simple things that continually come to the forefront that need to be restated all the time when you’re working in a cross-functional environment.

The way people experience you and the way you experience others really has to do with two things: conflict versus context. I think great leaders have an ability to back away, look at how you work on the business instead of in it, and then really find a way to collaborate with others to come up with the best outcome for the company, the users, the customers, and everyone that’s working together.

We spend a lot of time around the soft skills because it’s the nature of product development work, design work, and engineering work, requiring those teams to be cross-functional. We can’t ship an experience without all of those teams working in concert together. We spend a lot of cycles investing in people, investing in the culture, investing in the soft skills of individuals.

From a hard skills perspective, it comes down to you needing to have the hard skills in product management and design out of the box.

The design of product teams

The perspective we want to share is that we have a great mission and vision, and people are connected to it. From an organizational design, what’s the strategy that lays underneath the foundation of that? That each individual who drives into work every day can see their role, the strategy, the mission, and the vision of the company, and they feel really connected to it. The reason they feel connected to it is because of the way we designed the teams.

Everyone who sits inside the experience organization—which is the product management, user experience design, and content teams—could recite democratizing professional technology learning or closing the technology skills gap to you. The goal, the mission behind that is really creating progress through technology that lifts the human condition.

Using the layover test when hiring

The first thing that comes to the front of my mind is attitude and eternal optimism. Really great leaders, great product managers, look at a problem as an opportunity to unlock something they have never discovered before. When you interview folks or when you work on teams, you can smell that attribute pretty quickly, even in the interview process. You get a pretty good sense for it right out of the gate.

The other thing is the old layover test. Does this person pass the layover test? That is, if I got stuck in the airport with Mary Treseler, after 24 hours would we still be friends? The layover test is a big deal. Is this someone I could hang out with, someone I would want to go out to drinks with and socialize with? Would I want to introduce this person to my family? Would I be proud to work with this person? All of those things really matter. It goes back to the fact that we spend more time at work with these people than we do with our families. Are you fun to work with? From a cognitive perspective, can you unlock complicated problems? Are you creative? Can you come up with creative solutions? I think those things really matter a lot.

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