Amateurs do it themselves, professionals get a coach

Adrienne Tan

Me: “Erica should my feet be lifting when I do a sissy squat?”

My fitness coach: “Adrienne your squats are too low and you’re losing tension at the bottom”. “Adrienne slow down each movement and pause.”

This is a small sample of the riveting chatter between my fitness coach and I that occurs almost every couple of days.

You see, I’ve had a fitness coach for close to 20 years. After all this time, it would be fair to ask why I still need one. You’d think I’d get it by now. Yet every time I train, my fitness coach course corrects my weight training movements ever so slightly and offers valuable advice to perfect my technique. I can now deadlift 1.5 times my bodyweight by the way…

Why do I have a coach?

Without a fitness coach, the body automatically takes short cuts to mitigate the pain. Without a fitness coach, the mind will tell me to skip the movement entirely, or reduce the weights because exercise is difficult. Without a fitness coach, the results I get during each session may not be the best I could get for the time I spend.

Who am I kidding — without a fitness coach, I may never turn up to the gym 😉

My behaviour is not uncommon. As humans we’re hardwired to avoid pain.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect suggests that “responses closely followed by satisfaction will become firmly attached to the situation and, therefore, more likely to reoccur when the situation is repeated. Conversely, if the situation is followed by discomfort, the connections to the situation will become weaker, and the behaviour of response is less likely to occur when the situation is repeated.”

To mitigate my natural tendencies and behaviour, I hire a coach to push me beyond my discomfort and help me improve. I liken my Fitness Coach to a microscope, a tool that looks at my finer training performance.

In addition to my Fitness Coach, other people help me achieve my life goals. I have a personal coach as well as a Board of Advisors at Brainmates. My personal coach and my Board of Advisors give me support at different levels. Much like my fitness coach, my personal coach offers me microscopic support, helping me steer through the day-to-day trials of running a business. The Board of Advisors however, are like a telescope, illuminating the big, often complex pieces I may have overlooked in my plan to achieve my big business goals.

Do Product Managers need coaching?

It struck me that as Product Managers, we’re often left to work through complex problems without someone to review our work, to offer advice or to suggest a different approach. And the work that we perform is not insignificant. We’re not administrators, methodically going through someone else’s task list. Instead, we make decisions about how to spend the company’s resources — either in time or money or both.

The work Product Managers do has major implications for the success of the business.

Making a decision about designing a new feature, entering a new market, or retiring a product has significant ripple effects across the business. Yet, I rarely see Product Managers and Product Teams get coaching. It’s almost a slight, an embarrassment, if they even consider augmenting their decision making with the help of a coach.

A recent article in the Financial Times explains that previously, a coach may have been seen by the business as a sign of weakness but these days, there is no shame in having a coach. In fact, quite the opposite. These days a coach is a “pragmatic tool”. Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, gets to the heart of coaching, saying, “the one thing people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them.”  How many very successful sportspeople do you know that don’t have a coach?

Marty Cagan’s business, The Silicon Valley Product Group, has penned numerous articles about coaching, advocating for the Product Leader as the coach. I agree with him that the single most important job of a Product Leader is to coach his or her team. But in reality, how many Product Leaders actively and consistently coach their teams? This isn’t an attack on Product Leaders, we all know most of them just don’t have time. They’re usually imprisoned in meetings and don’t have enough time to spend with their team, let alone coaching each individual. And yes, we can try to change this situation and push Product Leaders to coach their team. But, usually, this won’t stick. If it won’t stick, you can either ignore it, or find another solution.

What coaching solutions are there for Product Managers?

Whichever coaching solution you try it’s important to ensure that it’s formally implemented, consistent and safe. Otherwise, it won’t be treated seriously and any good intent you have will backfire. Here are some practical solutions that you can try:

  1. Peer review
    Organise a peer review program. Bring in external expertise (outside your team that is, it can be from elsewhere within your organisation) to teach the team the basics of offering useful feedback. Offer instructions including do’s and don’ts. Set boundaries so team members do not overstep during the peer review sessions. Assign each person a peer reviewer and set up a regular time where peer review occurs. Rotate the peer reviewers each quarter.
  2. Get an external product coach
    Bring in external experts to help carry the coaching load. Again, set up a time every fortnight or month when coaching occurs. This sends a signal to the team that coaching is important and enables each person to prepare for the sessions. As the Product leader, you might participate in the coaching so that you demonstrate that coaching is important for everyone in the team. 
  3. Run practice sessions
    Identify a number of activities that the team wants to improve and set up regular sessions where everyone can practice and improve. Practice means doing, not just talking about doing. For example, an area where many teams need help is customer interviewing or customer learning. Organise regular customer learning sessions where the team can identify the types of customers to learn from, prepare for the session, conduct the session, analyse the results and develop the insights. These sessions will raise the confidence of the team. 
  1. Share work
    Set up a weekly session for the team to share their work and the good and bad results gained from their efforts. You can share documents, meeting outcomes, a new technique used to solve a problem or customer stories. People are often curious to see what ‘good’ looks like — even better the good work comes from within the team.
  1. Learn from role models
    As a team, identify Product Management role models and observe, and potentially imitate, their “good” behaviour. They can either be from your company or external. Social media makes it easier to observe the way folks approach a problem, and then look at alternative ways to reframe or reconsider solutions. John Cutler from Amplitude is a great role model who explains concepts succinctly and honestly. Videos can also be a great way of seeing people in action (here’s quite a few from our Leading the Product Conference last year). When reading or watching someone speak, don’t simply ingest the content — consider how you might reframe what’s being said to tackle your own work differently.

The right way to coach is the way which works for you

These ‘solutions’ above are only suggestions. We all learn in various ways — verbally, visually, socially, aurally — so find an approach that works for you and your team and try and stick to it. But don’t fall into the trap of one and done. Coaching is not something you do once and then you’re set up for life. Like life, it’s a long journey.

Remember: you can do things yourself and you may end up being successful. But with a great coach you’re much more likely to get there: and much more quickly. Great people and great teams get coached — amateurs think they have all the answers.

In my next blog I’ll talk about the different types of coaches there are and how and when to get one.

What’s next?

If you would like help solving your Product problems or accelerating your career, enquire about Brainmates coaching.

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Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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