4 Key Takeaways of Building a Product Team

By Timoté Geimer

Elium Team

About 18 months ago, Elium raised 4m€ with the ambition to scale its teams and revenues. To sustain this growth, together with the executive team we decided to restructure the company and double its size. As a direct result, I became Head of Product Management and Product Marketing. I wanted to share what I’ve learned after doubling both product and engineering teams.

The first value expressed in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” In my opinion, this is absolutely key for a product team. There’s no standard academic path for product people. This is especially true when your product team is composed of different roles such as product management, product marketing, and product design.

Here are my 4 key takeaways:

When you hire a person for your team, it’s because they have something to bring to it. It’s so your team can work faster, harder, be better. It’s to address tougher challenges and add more value. Yet, it can be very difficult to let go. It certainly is for me. It wasn’t about trust. I actually took a lot of time to hire my teammate to make sure I chose the right one. It was more about my self-esteem and my fear I would have less control over things or not do enough for the company.

Suddenly, people were doing parts of the job that I was doing. So, then what should I do?

I quickly learned to let go. I accepted that I shouldn’t be part of every conversation. It’s much more productive to delegate roles and responsibilities. The key is to make sure everyone knows what’s expected from them and what they should do.

Here are a few techniques that really helped me on with this.

Any head of a product team had one day to build their team and they have a lot to teach. Sometimes, just having a good conversation helps to do a step back and look at situations from a different angle.

My favorite book is “Inspired — how to create tech products customers love,” by Marty Cagan. It helped me structure the product team and how our team interacted with the engineering team. There’s also a ton of very useful articles published every day on Medium.

Developing your management skills requires a lot of self-discipline, but also support and advice from people you trust. I find really important to build relationships with a few people with much more experience than you because they can guide you when needed. Not every mentor needs to be the same, and they shouldn’t be, they just need to be people you admire for who they are and what they do professionally.

Right after our series-A round, everything went by faster. At the beginning, we (the management team) were meeting every week where we made important decisions, from hiring to firing to changing tools and processes.

These new decisions impact everyone, so it’s crucial to remain transparent with team members and answer any questions they may have regarding these decisions. It was (still is) really challenging.

We all learned a lot from this rapid growth (we went from 18 to 42 people in less than one year). One of the key lessons was that we needed to take more time to conduct research and accept that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Whatever we put in place would take time before generating an impact we could see, so we should be thoughtful in our decisions.

This led to two strategic decisions:

The PMF research was based on 50+ semi-directive interviews with non-clients and hours of desk research for three months. This initiative was led by our Head of Customer Success, Head of Marketing and me.

This is, by far, the best decision we made. The purpose of this framework is to help the entire organisation stay aligned with a common objective everyone understands. This company objective is then translated to department objective. Every objective has “Key Results” attached that describes how the company/team will reach its objectives.

These two initiatives helped bring much more transparency to any decisions the management team made.

As Tom Conrad, CTO of Pandora said in an interview:

“Force yourselves to get everyone on the same page about what’s important for the business right now.”

Even though the OKR did a great job of bringing everyone in the company together, it did not maintain that unity daily. It’s necessary for everyone in the company to focus on a common goal, and it’s important to understand how every department/team is addressing that common goal. Yet, every function/role in the company has its own pace. An SDR or marketing initiative may have a faster visible impact than the development of a new feature, which can sometimes cause some tension.

This need for alignment was key for the team as well. As you probably noticed in my introduction, all team members have a different role. Consequently, sometimes team members may go days before they collaborate with each other. (Though, this is less true for the Product Manager and the Product designer.) Yet, everyone is a part of the same product team, and all their actions have an impact on the team as a whole. I didn’t want to have boring weekly/bi-weekly meetings, so I decided to use alternative techniques:

The whole team is invited to participate in objectives-related working sessions and the objective owner should send a quick report in our “Slack channel” in case someone missed important information.

The product manager shares what’s coming in the next sprint, explains the plan and we discuss the all the actions that must be take (internal/external communication, documentation, etc.).

This is the simple principle I’ve implemented in the team that has had the greatest impact. I’ve asked to all my team members to share their plans at the beginning of the day, and their achievements at the end of the day in a Slack channel. Thanks to this, everyone can see what others are up to, and they can give encouragement and support, ask questions and celebrate each other’s successes.

I quickly realized that my role in the team, beyond sharing my knowledge and keeping everyone in sync with each other, was to empower and support them. Most of the time, they just need that small kick in the pants to feel energized and launch an initiative, while other times they simply need to be listened to. I feel that my role in the team is to be there when they need me, to help them to give their best.

Here are the few techniques that I use:

I try to schedule working sessions with my teams, at least once a week. I let them choose the time and the topic. We plan for 2–3 hours where we can explore their topic of choice in depth. Sometimes they choose more timely topics while other times they choose topics that are centered on preparing for something in the future.

Randomly, but often, I ask my team members what they’re up to. The responses vary and are usually very interesting; mostly in how they answer. It helps me gauge their moods. Are they excited about what they do? Are they frustrated? Are they angry? All their feelings and expressions are key elements to engage conversation further.

It’s essential to know what your team members feel, what they may be struggling with and how to help them reach their career goals. Organising a weekly/bi-weekly 30-minute one-on-ones will help you to understand these things. You can find here a really good article on the topic.

Being the head of a product at Elium and CEO at Talentsquare have, by far, been my best experiences. I can’t compare both to each other as they are very different roles with different experience, but the essence remains the same. In both roles, I aimed to build a robust solution to support the most critical processes in an organisation with amazing people around me.

If I wish you’d retain one thing from this publication, it would be the following: Whatever your role is within your organisation, the most important thing you can do as a manager is to empower your team, support them when needed and foster togetherness.

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