Managing Mental Health: Product Leaders Should Put on Their Oxygen Masks First

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

One of the biggest challenges as a Product Leader is bringing your diverse internal and external stakeholders to align their focus and resources behind the North Star you have defined in your Product Vision and Strategy.  Product teams and their stakeholders working remotely during much of the pandemic has meant we’ve had to do our jobs differently. In addition, we’ve had to cope with uncertainty and change in our work and relationships.

During Mental Health Month, I took the opportunity to interview 2 Product Leaders working at leading organisations that make a positive difference to people’s mental health. I was curious about how they thrived as Product Leaders whilst supporting their Product teams delivering critical products and services that help people during the extraordinarily stressful times of the pandemic.

While most of Australia’s population has been in lockdown, I’ve been working with Tish Tambakau, the Head of Product and Service Development at Beyond Blue, Australia’s leading mental health and wellbeing support organisation. Beyond Blue has seen a record number of Australians reaching out to their telehealth counselling services and accessing their digital resources. Whilst managing a remote team, largely based in Melbourne in the midst of one of the world’s longest lockdowns, Tish has been steadfast and strong; a calm, warm and supportive presence throughout these tough times.

Jeff Birkeland is VP of Product, Consumer Experience at Headspace Inc, one of the world’s most popular meditation apps, and is based in Silicon Valley. California was setting new records almost daily for COVID-19 infection rates and staggering death tolls during the summer of 2020. Jeff related that when you layer on the anxiety and stress of a pandemic with remote working and product management “you’re taking all of the intense collaborative team-oriented work that is normally intense in a regular setting and taking it to the next level of intensity.”

Product Leaders of high performing teams put on their oxygen masks first

A leader’s ability to support others relies on them maintaining their own well-being by supporting themselves. Having a balanced routine that includes exercise, social connection and their beloved dogs were key to both Tish and Jeff maintaining their mental health during this incredibly stressful time.

Tish says, “It’s been tough – I am not going to sugar-coat it. What’s been helpful as a leader is to understand that I’m not going through it alone and to learn that others are all facing the challenges around the strain that lockdown and this pandemic has put on our mental-health and livelihood”. 

“I make sure I create balance in my day by having time to do things that calm me, empower me and relax me – whether that’s dawn walks with my dog, exercising in my backyard, doing work that I’m passionate about or watching a crime series on Netflix”. 

Similarly, Jeff shared the top 3 things that helped him during the pandemic:

  1. Take a few minutes meditating on Headspace in the morning before the onslaught of the day
  2. Enjoy breaks throughout the day, such as having lunch with his wife and boys, going for a walk in the sun at the same time as a colleague and reading for about 20-30 minutes
  3. His Labrador Retriever.

Purpose-driven Product Leaders understand their staff’s circumstances 

Jeff and Tish felt that the best way to support their remote product management teams was to be kind and empathetic to their colleagues.

With the pressure on the product team at Beyond Blue to develop critical products and services at a time when there’s been a surge in people requiring mental health support and resources, Tish says, “We all want to do our best to make sure we can provide and meet the needs of the community in a timely matter. But at the end of the day, I remind myself, and the team, that we are all human and we can only do as much as we can, in the time we have and to just approach it day by day. Looking after our own mental health is just as important as everyone else’s”. 

In addition to stepping into empathy to display an honest, authentic means of thinking about his team, Jeff notes that some meetings at Headspace begin with 1-3 minutes of meditation. Over video conferences, they use the Headspace desktop app. Not only does it help them get centred for the meeting, but it is also a good way for the product team to eat their own dog food and test the product.

Build a culture of joy in your product team every day

Even when the Beyond Blue team are under the pump delivering a critical product that’s very much in demand, Tish prioritises time for her product team to reconnect with each other in creative and inclusive ways that can still be done virtually, such as trivia and drawing.

Jeff recognises how seriously his team take their jobs, and the enormity of Headspace’s mission, but enjoyment is also key. He likes the team coaching philosophy of Steve Kerr, an American professional basketball coach whose key principle is to build a culture of joy every day. He shares, “It’s as simple as just laughing and telling jokes – often at your own expense. As a bald man, that’s easy for me to do. But some way of disarming people on the way into a meeting like getting ready for a big Product Review, you’re smiling and laughing maybe on the way in, or out of that meeting. Those little moments go a long way, particularly if you’re being consistent over time”.

Purpose-driven product organisations attract and retain the best product talent

There are multiple benefits to creating a purpose-driven work environment where your Product Managers can sustain their physical, mental and social wellbeing. When product and personal visions are aligned,  you can expect higher levels of job fulfilment to reach the North Star for their products,  and by encouraging your team to maintain their health and wellbeing, you may also lower the risk of burnout and chronic ill health. 

Lead by example. Maintaining your own wellbeing habits and routines will allow you to do your best work, be there for your team and family, and attract and retain the best product folk.

At a time when there’s a war for the best product talent, Jeff is building his pipeline of new Product Managers to join his team. There’s an immediate recognition of Headspace by job applicants and a strong connection to Headspace’s mission. The responsibility that comes with that big, bold vision is attractive to the best Product Managers who take pride and care in their work.

Jeff with dogTish with dog


Read more on mental health in Product Management. 

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky | Author

Nat is our resident dreamer, who loves to wax lyrical on better ways of creating companies, culture and award-winning products. Nat has been working in Product since 1999, across various stages of the product lifecycle, including new product development and growing existing products and services. She worked at IBM and Yahoo! in the early days of digital, and has worked alongside numerous brands, including Cochlear, Fairfax Digital, and News Ltd. More recently she worked on the rollout of the New Payments Platform (NPP) and applies product management practices to her startup. Nat is expert at gathering customer insights and facilitating teams to generate product ideas from those customer insights. She loves helping build things that links the unmet needs of customers with design and business capability to create value, and make a positive difference in the world. When not consulting with clients, Nat loves rolling out her yoga mat or rolling on the Brazilian Jiujitsu mats.

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