I first met Petra Wille, a fellow product coach, at Mind the Product and was immediately impressed with her work.
While I tend to focus on helping teams, Petra’s work centers around helping product leaders—the people who manage product managers. The people in these roles don’t always come from a product background, so they may need guidance to understand the essentials of product management and what best practices look like in the real world.
Petra is open and generous with her knowledge. She’s put together a ton of useful resources, including her “product coach in a box” deck of cards.
And she also happens to be writing a book (like me).
There was no shortage of topics for us to cover in our recent conversation. You can watch the video or read an edited version of the transcript below.
Hello everybody. I’m here with Petra Wille, who is also a product discovery coach. She has a big focus on people development, helping product managers and product leaders get better at their craft. I’m talking to Petra today because she has a book that’s coming out—hopefully by the end of the year—designed for new product leaders. And I’m really excited to help her get the word out and explore who she is and what she’s doing. Welcome, Petra.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Let’s dive in. I know we’ve met a few times at different Mind the Product events. I admire your work from afar. You have a number of things that have been really fun and interesting, including your card deck, which we’ll get into later. But I know a lot of Product Talk readers may not be familiar with you or your background, so why don’t we just start with you telling me a little bit about who you are and what you’re doing?
That sounds like a great question to start with. Who am I? I’m based in Hamburg, Germany, which is on the European side of this whole product community thing.
I actually have a pretty common career path. I studied computer science down in Southern Germany and then I started in a big German publishing house doing mainly concept work—it was called project management at that time. I was not the best developer in the world, but I was really good at writing concepts and talking to people.
So the talking to people bit was immediately something where I saw my potential could come into play for those companies. Talking to people was something I loved to do—and I still love to do. And then I just followed down this rabbit hole of how I could do more of the talking, more of the concept work, inventing more on behalf of the user.
I always felt if the software was bad, I had this physical pain and I really wanted to help.
I always felt if the software was bad, I had this physical pain and I really wanted to help. – Tweet This
My next career step was to a proper company. I decided to join SAP, which was great, but there was a lot of user pain to observe. What I really liked there was the pretty open company culture. That was really helpful as my first stop in a corporate environment. There were so many seniors to help us juniors learn how to be an employee and how to be a good consultant. I was a technical consultant back then, traveling to a lot of clients all over Europe. That was nice, but I learned how long it can take to really help the user if you’re working for such a big corporation. And that drove me nuts.
And at some point, I just couldn’t stand the traveling and all the user suffering for such a long period of time. I decided to join a smaller startup, which was a company called XING. They’re doing something quite similar to LinkedIn on an international scale, but they’re more known in the German or the European market. It was an 80-person startup back then. That was my first real product management role.
I learned a lot from Marty Cagan. He was one of the coaches there, so that helped a lot. I could pick up the craft from some of the thought leaders. And since it was such a small company, we were quick to experiment and I could try a lot of frameworks and methodologies and tools.
And then I went on a product leadership journey—head of product in a small startup, then being general manager at this startup, and then finally, I decided to launch my coaching and consultancy business, which was seven years ago.
I love that we started with this question because I see a lot of parallels. I don’t have the big SAP company experience, but I did spend most of my career at early-stage startups. I started in product, I moved into management roles, and then moved into coaching. I definitely heard in your story the why behind going from SAP to the startup. Tell me a little bit about what motivated your shift from product into a GM role.
Actually, investors forced me to—or they talked me into it, more or less. Again, it was the communication and talking to people bit, which was missing at that point in time for the company. When they grew to the scale-up phase, the founder was no longer the perfect person to be in that role. They needed somebody—maybe the corporate background helped here as well—who was able to talk to all the people in the company, align them behind one shared goal, and rally them to get there.
And that was something that I was good at, or at least better than the founder was. That’s how they motivated me. I had this female imposter syndrome as well, so the shareholders really had to convince me to do it. And actually, it worked out pretty well. I learned tons of things, like the fact that you don’t need to motivate people, you just have to prevent demotivating them.
You don’t need to motivate people, you just have to prevent demotivating them. – Tweet This
We were using something like OKRs, but we didn’t call them OKRs back then. That helped tremendously to get alignment and transparency on what we were after. I learned a ton in the two years that I was doing this.
That’s so great. I spent two years as a startup CEO and it’s a really similar story. I joined the company as their director of user experience design. Within three weeks, I was running their product and design group. I then became their VP of Operations. And then, during the ’08 economic downturn, I took over as CEO for a couple of years. And it was for a lot of the same reasons. It was, how do you get everybody aligned? And even your comment of, “We don’t need to motivate people, we just need to not demotivate them” resonates so much. Especially as we get into alignment, when everybody’s going in different directions, it’s really demotivating.
It’s so stressful for everybody. That’s the thing. It’s so much energy wasted and it doesn’t make any sense.
Very stressful. What’s interesting to me about what you’ve shared so far—and this was my experience as well—it seems like the skills that you relied on as a product person, whether it was when you were a technical consultant, product manager, or product leader, those same skills really helped you in your GM role.
Yeah. That’s actually the thing. It’s all about communication. It’s all about empathy. It’s all about really caring for human beings. But on the other hand, making sure that this organization is earning enough money so that everybody can pay their rent next month. And that’s the magic, right? When you strike the balance of creating a work environment where people love to work, that makes sense because you’re earning money and solving people’s problems so well that they even want to give you some of their money. So this is the balance I’ve always tried to instill wherever I am.
The magic is when you strike the balance of creating a work environment where people love to work while you’re making money and solving people’s problems. – Tweet This
The other thing I love about your story is how early in your product career you were introduced to Marty Cagan’s work and really got a strong foundation from the beginning.
I really hope that more people have something like this experience. When I coach businesses, I always say, “It makes sense to coach the junior product people, because if they get a great start from the beginning, that will be really helpful for their careers and for the company they’re working for.”
I believe it makes sense to coach junior product people, because if they get a great start from the beginning, that will be really helpful for their careers and for the company they’re working for. – Tweet This
That’s great. So tell me about the shift from full-time employee work into coaching. What motivated you to move into coaching?
I started doing freelancing. I did product discovery work for companies. I built up the teams, I worked on the product for a period of time, and then I handed it over to the other people. And we were discussing the same things over and over again. I thought, there is this pattern, so maybe I can talk about this a bit more. That was the first thing—I tried to help customers with a more structured approach for how to do the discovery bit.
And then at some point, I stumbled upon your work, and I thought, “Okay, how she’s setting it up, it’s so clever. It’s more focusing on not being part of it, more helping—like a midwife—helping the teams to actually do the work.” So you were the inspiration, and that’s when I started to transition to doing more coaching and not doing the actual product work. Even if I miss it a lot still—there is no week when I’m not like, “Ooh, sometimes I want to work on a product again”—it makes so much more sense to help people understand how to do it and enable them to do it on their own when I’m long gone.
That’s exactly how I viewed it. I actually started out consulting, doing discovery work for companies. And I really didn’t like it. I mean, I loved the work, but I didn’t like that when I left, the company had learned a little bit about their customer, but they were no better off. I didn’t really feel like I was serving my customer under that model, so I just started saying, “Okay, I will do these interviews for you, but I want you to send a product team with me so they can start to learn how to do it.” And then eventually, I said, “Okay, I’m not doing this for you. I will train your teams on how to do it.” I love hearing that I was an inspiration and a part of what motivated your switch, so thank you. We’re both writing books this year…
Best year to write a book. Not.
The best. Exactly. A very bizarre and stressful year to be writing a book. I know we’ve been a little bit of book writing buddies here and there. Writing a book is a ton of work. Why are you writing a book?
Actually, I just needed to do it. The thing is, I have so many materials just sitting on my hard drive that could help people to actually work a bit better, help their product people. And I have so many trainings, and the material is already there, but currently it’s just buried somewhere on my hard drive. I thought at some point in time, I would write all of this up. I thought about blog posts, but then I realized pretty quickly that it’s too massive for a blog post and it would take me nowhere. So I decided to write a book.
And I want to do a reflection on what I actually created throughout my coaching. Is this still something I buy into? Is this canvas still helpful? I did a lot of rethinking of my own material, and I wanted to give it a bit more of a structure. I was really interested in and curious about the process of writing this big piece. It was pretty fun and intense. Currently the manuscript is done and in peer review, so we’ll see what other people say about it.
Congratulations! That’s a giant achievement. I have a whole new appreciation for how hard it is to get to a finished manuscript, because I am not there yet.
But you will be soon.
Hopefully. So tell everybody, what’s the name of the book? Who’s it for? Tell us a little bit about the book itself.
The title is Strong: How to Develop Great Product People. It’s for heads of product, product leaders, the people who are actually managing product people. It’s maybe not so much for a CPO far up in the hierarchy.
It might be interesting for HR people or agile coaches or aspiring product managers as well. But this is more like the secondary target group.
It tries to explain why product people development is such an important topic, how you can get better at it, and how you can find the time for it. There are some of my canvases in there. For example, one for assessing product people, to help you have structured conversations.
It talks a lot about feedback and closing skill or knowledge gaps. I have several—I think it’s 10 of the 28 chapters—that talk about small summaries of the biggest topics in product management. There’s one on hypothesis-driven product management, which mentions opportunity solution trees. There’s one on iterations and increments. I really want to have these chapters that focus on specific topics like roadmapping or productization and people can read it and then have a proper coaching one-on-one session with their product folks. That’s the idea of the book. It helps you prepare for your one-on-ones and have better one-on-ones.
That’s great. So it sounds like the primary audience is maybe for a new product leader, or any of that middle management layer—the people managing product managers?
That’s the important part. So even seasoned ones are saying, “Oh, this is such a nice summary. It’s like a shortcut, and I just use the chapters that I need.” That’s what I want to achieve.
It also sounds like it could be a really good roadmap for an individual product manager, in terms of how to level up or really master the craft of product.
For sure. But it’s not Inspired, talking about how to be a good product manager. That’s totally not the thing. It’s more how to be a good head of product or product leader focusing on people development.
I love it. I feel like this is a gap that’s really missing. So I know Melissa Perri talks about this in the opening of The Build Trap. She talks about how a lot of her work was with product teams and she was doing all this great product team training. And then she started seeing it’s not enough for just the product teams to change, but the way that we manage them needs to change. And I see this in my own work. Last year, I spoke at Business of Software and my talk was all about how leaders need to make the mindset shift as well as their teams. And I actually think the challenge at the leadership level is even harder than at the team level. Because at the team level, everybody reads the blogs and the books, and watches the videos, and is really eager to work—
And there are books, blog posts, and videos.
Whereas I think for leaders, it’s a little bit more threatening. “I’ve worked my whole career one way and now you’re asking me to work a new way?” It’s really helpful to say to them, here’s how we understand the world is changing and how your role in the world is changing.
Marty’s new book, Empowered, will be talking about all these concepts on a more philosophical scale. And my book is more the hands-on things. If you need a canvas, a tip, a trick how to do it with your product manager in the next one-on-one session—it’s super hands-on. And they both go well together.
If you need a canvas, a tip, a trick for how to do something with your product manager in the next one-on-one session, that’s what my book will cover. – Tweet This
It’s actually pretty cool that we are publishing books at the same time, talking about the same topic. Because he’s talking a lot about how it’s important that all the people managing product people get smarter in what they are doing. And that’s the next big thing all of us should be focusing on.
Let’s give a little context for readers. Marty Cagan has a new book coming out in December called Empowered, and we were both early reviewers for it. You actually can preorder it on Amazon. We’ll go ahead and give Marty a plug there. It’s as good—if not better than—Inspired, I think. What Marty Cagan and all of SVPG excel at is the what and the why. They’re our missionaries. And I think a lot of the work that I have done has been how to fill in the how for teams. And it sounds like you’re trying to fill in the how for leaders.
For the heads of product. I love how you put it.
That’s what I want to do. Because sometimes they just struggle. So many product leaders have never been product managers. A lot of them are just business folks, or coming from the marketing side, or whatever. My book explains super basic product concepts to them and helps them coach their people on these kinds of things. Because this is super hard to do. How should you coach somebody on something you’ve never done? And I try at least to explain the concepts that product managers are using so that you can help the ones who are not senior product people already, or tips and tricks on how to connect them with peers.
I’m really excited about this book. For readers, is it available for preorder? Can they join a waitlist?
It’s strongproductpeople.com. You can sign up for a waitlist. There will be a pre-ordering at some point, but as I will be self publishing, that won’t be for a few more months.
And your goal is to have this available before the end of the year?
That was my goal. I was told that right now it takes 22 days to get it printed on Amazon, which is kind of a bummer, but that’s due to COVID-19. So we’ll see. But that’s my goal.
I understand. I tell people my book’s coming out early next year and I’m not even done writing. So we’ll see what happens. At least you have a full manuscript and you’re ready to work through the mechanisms of how to get it out in the world.
Some concepts are already on this website. So for example, the assessment for product people, which I call the PMwheel, is already on the website to download.
Okay, so readers should definitely go to strongproductpeople.com and check out those resources. Get on the waiting list. I’m very excited for your book.
When we first met, you showed me this deck of cards. Can you tell us more about it?
That was my first attempt to write a book, and then I figured out it needed to be a different format. It’s 52 questions for product folks. It’s more for a self-coaching purpose. Some of the people who buy it use one card a week, and they just put it on their desk, and it’s pretty philosophical questions like, “What difficulties do you see on the horizon for you and your team? Is it important to deal with them now?” They come in all shapes and colors. There is a bit of a color coding here. First is understanding the problem and then finding a solution. That’s how the questions are structured.
It’s eight buckets, and you can draw a card and just answer this question for you. So it’s for self-coaching purposes. But a lot of heads of product—the clever and lazy ones—are using it to prepare for their one-on-ones. And it works really well. I have teams with no product person at all, so just pure development teams, and they are using it to make sure that they are not screwing it up product-wise.
A lot of heads of product—the clever and lazy ones—are using my deck of product self-reflection cards to prepare for their one-on-ones. – Tweet This
A lot of teams use it in the team lunches, just as a conversation starter. I’m currently working on a digital version because shipping got so horribly expensive internationally. There needs to be at least a do-it-yourself, print-out version. That will be something coming in September–October this year. And maybe there will be a Slackbot someday. Some of my clients ask for permission, which is super cute, to post one of the questions on their company’s Slack channel every week, and then they just discuss it in the product team or with the development team.
I love this. One, it sounds like it’s almost like a little coach in a box product.
Yeah. It’s a super small coach in a box.
Regarding the Slackbot idea, I will tell you that I set up a Slackbot to support my courses. It is dead simple. I write all of my content in a Google spreadsheet and then I use Zapier to connect the Slackbot with this content in the spreadsheet.
And I thought it was super complex. Then there will be one in September or October.
There’s no programming at all. You literally just connect the pieces. That’s my little tidbit for you. Because this idea of a Slackbot that just asks a reflective question for your team is amazing.
Why not? Yeah.
Petra, I have to say, I meet a lot of people who call themselves coaches. And I actually think they’re doing good work, but they still have that “consultant as expert” mindset, and they haven’t really internalized this concept of what it means to be a coach. I’m really impressed that throughout this entire conversation, from the story that you told about how you got to where you are, to your process in writing your book, to the way that you’ve developed these cards, it’s really clear that you’re a coach. It’s really clear that you value reflective thinking and that a lot of your work is how to help people slow down and take time to reflect. I’m a huge fan of John Dewey, who’s an American educational philosopher, who writes about how we actually don’t learn anything until we take time to sit back and reflect. So I’m really curious, where did this come from? How did you adopt this mindset?
Time boxing was a big concept I was introduced to early in my career. And that helped me realize I don’t have to be on this hamster wheel all the time. I can time box and say, “Okay, this is time for doing things. And this is time for reflecting.” I needed to do this to get my concepts written in the first term, before we actually did speculations. But the same thing helps you as a product person all the time. You need to allocate time to use the research and conduct the interviews. But then you need the time to sit down, digest, and reflect on what you learned.
You need to share this with all the people around you, to make sure that they have this experience as well. All these things of learning something, then reflecting on how it fits into all the other things that I’ve learned, and then sharing it with other people. The sharing bit is so important. That’s what I explained in my Mind the Product digital talk (requires a Mind the Product membership) the other week. I was saying, executives, if you want to learn something, you need the time to reflect and then to share it with other people. And it can be junior product people down the hall. But you need to explain it to somebody. If you do this, then you have really learned what you think you have learned. I think it was just a natural transition into this coaching thing.
If you want to learn something, you need the time to reflect and then to share it with other people. – Tweet This
That’s fantastic. Are you familiar with the physicist Richard Feynman?
He talks about how you don’t really understand something until you can explain it simply to somebody else. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
Product management is already all about this. We want to have these features out there, and they should solve problems people are actually having. You need to find a simple solution. Otherwise, it’s not a good solution. It needs to be a sufficient but simple solution. And I think coaching is just taking this to the next level.
This has been fantastic. Petra, is there anything else that you feel like Product Talk readers should know about you?
I already mentioned the resources on the website that are free and that may be helpful for product leaders to do an assessment with their product folks. And it may be even more helpful for people that are product managers to do a self-assessment. I know so many of you are in this self-progression desert, and there is no head of product doing good people development with you. At least you could be using my framework to do a self-assessment and ask your peers to do the assessment with you. You could ask developers, your QA person, and maybe some UX folks to help you see more clearly what you are doing well, where your strengths are, and what you could be improving. That’s something I would recommend. It’s free. You can download it. You can use it. You can share it.
Let’s dig into this a little bit. You have tools that help people do self-assessment and get feedback from peers. I’m sure as a coach, you’ve seen it’s actually hard for people to receive feedback. What advice do you have for people that really want to get better, but it’s hard for them to see where they have room for improvement?
I’ve experienced that it’s far easier if they get the feedback in a structured way, because then it’s not so likely that they take it personally. So if you are asking the developers for super open-ended feedback, that may be harder to take than handing them this framework and saying, “Can you please fill this out, and let’s discuss what you actually did?” Because then it’s more about like, “Okay, you rated me a five here. Why is that?” Then you are talking a bit more about why this was, and you can take it on or you can just leave it like this. And if you ask several people, that helps a lot to get your… I hate this 360 degree thing, but that’s actually what it does. It structures the discussion and it makes it less personal.
It makes it even easier for the other person to give feedback because the questions fall into one of eight buckets. It’s not so much personal feedback, but it’s more like, how are they seeing you and your role as a product manager. When feedback is behavioral or really personal, it’s harder to take. And that’s just something people need to learn over time. I still struggle with this massively, all the time.
I have a course to help teams practice customer interviews. And one of the things I encourage when I’m working with a team is that they rotate who does the interview and have the other people give the interviewer feedback so that they’re all continuously getting better. And inevitably, this is hard for them. Nobody wants to give their peer critical feedback. I have a video of me interviewing somebody, and then I point out my mistakes. I remind them that I’ve been interviewing for 20 years and I’ve nerded out on all the books and research on how to interview well, and it doesn’t matter. I still make mistakes and I will always make mistakes. There’s this mindset of you’re never going to be perfect, so this feedback is just getting you a little bit closer, 1% better.
It always helps to tell them that they should tie it back to their bigger goal. They should think about, “Okay, what do I want my career to look like?” And then feedback needs to happen for them to progress. And this helps if you get negative feedback. If you get negatively connotated feedback, tying it back to your bigger vision will help you get there. Not all feedback is equal. You can still decide to totally ignore it. That’s perfectly fine. You don’t need to react or act on feedback that is given to you.
That’s the other really important piece—you’ve got to consider the source. Does it support your personal goals? There are plenty of things that we’re all not going to be very good at that we don’t necessarily need to get better at, depending on where we want to go and what we’re doing. Well, Petra, this has been absolutely wonderful. For everybody reading, I strongly encourage you to visit strongproductpeople.com, check out Petra’s free resources, and sign up for her book’s waitlist. I am eagerly awaiting her book, and I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic.
Working hard to get this together.
Petra, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.