High Performing Teams Are Like Families

Diane Sexton

  • Technical Skills – Skills that get better with practice and repetition of the same problem or activity.
  • Adaptive Skills – Skills that allow us to deal with new situations, change and complexity that cannot be predicted.

Product People have always been good at seeking out and improving their technical skills, while the adaptive skills were considered “soft”[1] or “people management” skills that were treated with a lower priority.

With the pandemic-induced changes in work practices Product Leaders are finding that these adaptive skills are increasingly important to maintain and develop high performing teams and deal with the massive changes that rocked the marketplace in recent years. (See references [2],[3],[4])

The “World Economic Forum – Future of Jobs Report (2020)”, looked at the top skills that will be required by 2025[5]. The top 8 out of the 10 skills of the future are adaptive skills:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation (Adaptive)
  2. Active learning and learning strategies (Adaptive)
  3. Complex problem-solving (Adaptive)
  4. Critical thinking and analysis (Adaptive)
  5. Creativity, originality and initiative (Adaptive)
  6. Leadership and social influence (Adaptive)
  7. Technology use, monitoring and control (Technical)
  8. Technology design and programming (Technical)
  9. Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility (Adaptive)
  10. Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation (Adaptive)

So if you are a Product Leader trying to recruit and build a high performing team for the future, it is clear that you will need to find people with both technical AND adaptive skills.

Where can we find people who have developed adaptive skills?

If you are looking for skills like communication, time management, mentoring, prioritisation, crisis management and influencing skills then the answer may be closer that we imagine.

Every day, working parents are faced with these challenges and their experiences could be the secret ingredient that a high performing product team needs.

Everyone knows their role and their contribution, and further, accepts that disruption is a way of life. The high-performing family and team have this in common: they know how to adapt to disruptions. With problem-solving and creativity, technology and critical thinking, parents and children work together in much the same way as teams in the workplace.

Working parents bring skills like:

  • Efficiency improvements – working parents pack fruit, recess, lunch, homework, devices and school bags – all before breakfast
  • Multi-thread impact analysis – if the shoes aren’t found for one child the night before camp then will the other child still make it to their music lesson on time the next day?
  • Focus on outcomes – micro-observations of daily change don’t give you the full picture, it is not about whether your child’s first word was Mama or Papa, or “give me more broccoli”, what matters is that they are communicating with you.
  • Diplomacy and negotiation – ask any parent how to divide the last piece of cake, or trade screen time for chores and homework.
  • Relationship management, particularly with difficult stakeholders – a tired two-year-old can’t see past their immediate problem (bedtime) to their OKR (a good night’s sleep leads to vast benefits).

As a product leader you might not have thought about it, but the qualities you seek in a high-performing product team sound somewhat similar to those in use everyday by working parents.

In particular it is worth considering the Adaptive Skills of women returning to the workforce[6] after having children as these articles from Seek[7] and Skillroads[8] highlight. They agree that these skills are learned in the home and applicable to the workplace, and are an exact match for the adaptive skills[9] so much in demand now.

Hiring for adaptive skills

So as a product leader, what can you do?

The first step is to recognise that not all skills are written out on a CV and you can encourage both employees and prospective hires to share and elaborate on their non-workplace skillset. Knowing that a good product person will be creative and adaptable, use scenarios to tease out a candidate’s flexibility and resourcefulness.

For an existing team member, in 1:1s and mentoring, ask them to critically analyse situations they were not involved in, to see how they might respond to a more intense or more senior position. Take the time to recognise that while traditionally promotion is sought out by those with ambition, the quiet working parent in the background may be a better fit.

As we are seeing more emphasis on diversity in the workplace bringing tangible business benefits, maybe we should be considering that one of the reasons for that is the diverse experience and creative approaches that working parents are bringing back to the table – and start engaging them in senior management.

Lockdowns and working from home – An opportunity in disguise

Before the pandemic many working parents we ignored or sidelined for senior roles as they balanced their work and life commitments, creating a bias towards people who were visibly in the office with their colleagues. This “Presenteeism” is a manifestation of bias towards people with no commitments outside work and has little to no direct influence on true performance.

As the pandemic forced everyone to see inside other peoples’ homes and see how much juggling is involved in the so-called “work-life balance” we started to see that there was more to a persons skill set that just being in the office. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) latest report on the influence of COVID-19 in the shift to flexible work[10] emphasises that the curse of “presenteeism” lifted for 2 years and should never come back. Further, the increased accessibility of digital workplaces has seen an increase in participation rates for women and older cohorts, both of which benefit workplaces seeking to improve diversity and bolster decision-making at senior levels.

Building high performing teams for the future

Product Leaders should make the effort to call out the value gained from adaptive skills (using the World Economic Forum’s handy list, or the APP’s framework) in assessment and review.

When looking at a team member’s prospects for promotion to senior positions, employers need to value performance and adaptive skills over presence in the office.

And then cement workplace flexibility – remote work, time-of-day flexibility, technology innovations – to ensure retention of these most valuable resources even after the children have grown up.

Want more great product reads?

Check out How to Get Customers to Fall in Love with You: A Guide to Being the Perfect Partner.


[1] https://medium.com/digitalthinktankictc/a-hard-look-at-the-term-soft-skills-91bedc71348
[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ulrikjuulchristensen/2020/11/09/the-importance-of-soft-skills-in-a-post-pandemic-world/?sh=1ec3d9765c26
[3] https://www.asme.org/topics-resources/content/7-high-demand-skills-for-a-post-covid-world
[4] https://www.humanresourcesonline.net/the-most-sought-after-adaptive-and-digital-skills-in-singapore-amid-covid-19
[5] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020/in-full/chapter-2-forecasts-for-labour-market-evolution-in-2020-2025#2-3-emerging-and-declining-skills
[6] https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/women/publications-articles/economic-independence/the-leadership-challenge-women-in-management?HTML
[7] https://www.seek.com.au/career-advice/article/5-killer-work-skills-youve-honed-as-a-mother
[8] https://skillroads.com/blog/skills-for-stay-at-home-mom-resume
[9] https://productprofessionals.com/product-proficiency/
[10] https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/flexible-work-post-covid

Diane Sexton

Diane Sexton | Author

Product Management Training