Recently, I was asked about how to assess the culture of a new organization before you join. As I mentioned in a prior post, it's really hard to figure out whether you are joining a place where you'll thrive and grow or if you are joining an organization with a toxic culture.
A former colleague reached out to me earlier this year with a situation. She found herself in a position at a company that didn't quite measure up to her expectations in terms of work/life balance and culture. It's really hard to assess these things upfront and especially difficult for folks early in their careers with less ability / means to be choosy when job hunting.
Her question for me was: do I really need to stay at this position for 2 years to make this look good on my resume? Or can I start looking for a new position now?
In 2018, my husband and I embarked on buying our first home. We purchased an older home (built in the 1920's as far as we know) and it was in pretty decent shape. We knew there were some cosmetic things that could be updated (we dreamed of adding a new kitchen and finishing the attic) and that we'd tackle them over time.
What we didn't realize was the tremendous iceberg beneath the surface: the water line to the house was lead and needed to be replaced for health reasons because at the time, we were planning to start a family; the gutters needed to be fixed because the holes led to puddles that froze over and became ice skating rinks in unfortunate places (like our front door); the home had zero insulation and would need some blown in because otherwise we'd be paying for more natural gas than we really need. I could go on and on. You get the idea.
And you might be wondering, so what does this have to do with digital products?
In the past, I’ve heard folks say that a Product Manager is the CEO of their product. This kind of thinking creates a strange founder-like mental model where folks feel work will simply fall apart without them so they can’t take a vacation. You can also sub Product Manager for any other 'Lead' role within a digital product team (think Lead Engineer, Product Owner, etc).
In short, this line of thinking is not sustainable.
As product folks, we are asked to drive value and in order to do this we need to be somewhat ruthless about what we do, and consequently what we do not do. I always refer to this as 'ruthless prioritization' but it's not quite as antagonistic as it sounds.
Why does it feel ruthless?
I want to address why it often feels ruthless or downright "icky" for us to prioritize work this way:
You are saying no, possibly a lot: you might feel like a killjoy as you constantly re-focus your peers on the less fun stuff that you might need to achieve. Or, this could lead to difficult conversations and/or escalations (depending on the type of company you work at).
You are ignoring known customer or operational pain points: this one took me a while to overcome; you know your customer, you empathize with your customer and so when you see something wrong, you desperately want to fix it. In this case, you can't — and that's okay, you will run yourself ragged if you aim for perfection.
Many of my best life decisions were made by saying, "Let's see where this goes!" When my husband and I started dating, for instance, I thought, "This will be fun for the summer until we break up; we'll go off to college in different cities and never see each other again." And then that never happened: we were both in New York and the rest is history.
I can say something similar happened when I decided to apply for the Smartly Quantic program. I had just finished paying off 27K of student loan debt and the prospect of going back to school (read: more debt) was not exactly tempting. And the truth is age is a major factor; going back to school in my 30's was going to put a major cramp in my life goals of owning a home and having a child.
I saw ads for what was then marketed as "Smartly" on the train (specifically their fee-free MBA program) and figured it was worth at least throwing my hat in the ring. What happened next was unexpected; I was admitted to their Executive MBA track given my work experience. This track normally comes with a fee and I was offered a full scholarship to cover the one year program.
Let me preface this by saying that I strongly believe in free-flowing discourse and dialogue. I believe that we should question our assumptions and seek solace in facts and figures. I also believe in seeking out patterns in our past behavior to help predict future actions, or break out of them. But first and foremost, I believe that we owe it to our fellow humans to empathize with their experiences on this earth.
I wrote this piece on Medium first about my work as a Product Manager:
I work in a large room that’s offset from a larger and more public area. The room is locked, so that only people who work for my company can enter as long as they have an ID badge with the appropriate permissions assigned. There are two doors through which one can enter the room. These doors can be opened by anyone from the inside of the room, but you must first push a red button adjacent to the door.