Product Management specialists Intelligent People interview Chief Product Officer Randy Silver. Randy is a product leader with experience from Amazon, Sainsburys, HSBC and Global Radio.

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What do you love about Product Management?

I think I’ve been doing it my entire career, even though I started off as an editor, a project manager and a producer.  It’s basically the same idea, that you’re working with a group of people to create something that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

And being a generalist and getting to talk to lots of people who are much smarter than me about any given thing, but helping them all be better on a daily basis and never being bored is probably the most fun.

What do you look for in a Product career opportunity?

I look for two things, really.

One is – is this a problem that is interesting to me?  Is there some way that I can add value to this? Am I gonna wake up in the morning excited to have this in my head?

And the other is – are these people I want to work with? Is this an environment I want to be in every day, working with these people and trying to solve that problem?

What’s the most challenging situation you’ve encountered as a Product Manager?

I’ve worked in a few very big corporations, and in those cases you don’t have a single product strategy, and sometimes there is no clear stakeholder.

And when there is no clear stakeholder, and no clear definition of success, it’s very, very difficult to succeed.

I don’t have a problem with the size of the organisation.  The most fun I’ve ever had is when I was at Amazon and Sirius Radio, both of which are very large companies now, but I joined them in the early days.

I like scaleups the most, that’s the most fun for me because it’s the right period of time where I think I add the most value.

I don’t have problems with big companies as long as they have a clear sense of mission and understand what they’re trying to do, where they’re trying to do it and the area that I’m working in has a clear definition of what “good” looks like.

Can Product Managers easily shift to a new sector or domain?

It’s a hard question. Absolutely they can, doesn’t always mean that they should…  

So I’ve got a very diverse background. I’ve worked in retail, media, in financial services and I’ve never been that concerned with the specifics.

But that only works if I’m surrounded by subject matter experts.  The value I’m giving is to ask the right questions and help them shake things up.

It’s very difficult if you’re a small company in a regulated environment and you bring someone who has no idea of who the customers are, what the problems are, what the terminology is and what the regulatory environment is.

So yes, you absolutely can (shift sector).  You have to be open to adapt and you shouldn’t be the only product person, if you’re changing that radically.  But you can really help round out a team and change somebody who’s been very insular and help them consider new ways of doing things.

The jump between B2B and B2C can be really difficult.

There are certain customer segments that are incredibly difficult to identify with and get the empathy for and those can be really tough ones.

But for the most part, being able to bring the advantage of your background and apply it in a different area, look at things through a slightly different lens, ask really good questions and be willing to learn, it’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity.

If everyone’s asking the same questions, then you’re not going to do anything ground-breaking or new.

Actually the best thing I’ve ever read about product management is by an American television writer and he calls it his “11 Laws of Showrunning”.  The parallels between writing a TV series and working with other parts of the company and how you plan out strategy and communicate are uncanny and incredibly valuable.

What attributes must a good Product Manager have?

You obviously like having someone who’s got some experience, there’s no substitute for that.  But the best product managers I’ve ever hired, had no product experience whatsoever.

We talk about hiring for attitude and teaching aptitude.  I can’t teach you to care about people.  I can’t teach you to be curious.  I can’t teach you to have decent interpersonal skills. I can help you refine all of those things.

There’re lots of things in the management toolkit that I will give you and help make you better.  But if you care about your customers, if you care about the problems, if you’re the type of person who is curious and likes to make connections between other people, then I can make you a great product manager.

I’ve had jobs where I’ve had to take teams of engineers and relationship managers and changed the way they work towards being product managers.  I’ve hired people out of support desk and people who were PAs.

And again, these are people who, without naming names, a couple of them very specifically, they cared very deeply about the problem.  They understood the domain, they cared very deeply about the customers and, more importantly, they also had good connections within the company.

So, they had the domain knowledge.  They cared. They just needed to learn how to actually go about starting to fix the problems.  And it’s not something you’d throw them in and say “Okay, you’re leading a team”, on day one.

But as a junior product manager and starting to work with one or two people and then starting to build up their domain, their expertise and working with larger teams. It was amazing to see some of them thrive.

One of the easiest things you can do is to help facilitate workshops and things like that.  The best workshops happen when the leader is not an active member of the team.   And if you can help with that, volunteer to be an associate facilitator on things and be in the room, watch how these things go, that can go incredibly well. Also, just going over to teams and saying “What do you need help on?”.

Almost no-one who’s in Product did it on purpose, we almost all did it by accident.  There’s always 90 other things that we should be doing at any given point.  So, somebody who’s got expertise in one area – like I said, we’re mostly generalists.  Let’s leverage the bit that you’re good at, and start helping us out.

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