The arc of learning and curiosity

An interview with Rohini Pandhi, product lead at Square

Adam Grant in his book Originals, shows us that many of the people we consider great innovators didn’t just strike gold at the first shot — they were deeply prolific. Mozart composed over 600 pieces, Edison, over 1000 patents. Moreover, it wasn’t just about being prolific in a single style or genre: the prolific output of these famous artists and inventors tended to span multiple domains. Picasso was a painter, drawer, sculpture and ceramicist.

I’ve found that a penchant for “variety” is a common trait in product leaders I admire and I think it’s more than pure coincidence.

Rohini is a product lead at Square, and her thoughtfulness and warmth was evident the first time we met over a product dinner. But it was only over time that I learned about all the hats she wears — and how that curiosity is a core theme to how she’s grown as an effective product leader.

We “sat down” to talk about the range of skills great product managers have, the unique challenges of operating in a remote-world for PMs and the long arc of personal and professional growth. Some highlights:

Product managers can expect to take on not only greater scope over time, but also greater ambiguity. The ability to bring structure and clarity to strategic areas is a core skill to develop

PM’ing is a blend of art and science, and communicating why many great suggestions should not be prioritized — and doing so in an objective way — helps focus the entire organization around the few, important things

Learning a craft is often enhanced by looking at related spaces. In Rohini’s case, investing in early stage startups lets her see far more patterns across business models and product strategies, which gives her wider perspective even as she builds deep insight in her particular area of product.

On developing a range of skills as one grows as a product leader

One of my favorite visualizations of the PM career comes from a mentor of mine who told me that progress is like an S-curve. Imagine the x-axis representing “scope” and the y-axis “ambiguity”.

As you start off as a junior PM, you have 1–2 projects that are pretty well defined in order to get a handle on execution. Then as you continue on, you’re given more projects to juggle all at once to help you refine your process and execution skills. As you move into more senior roles, you hit an inflection point where you have 1–2 large problem areas or business metrics that you need to solve for, but it’s quite ambiguous on how best to get there. There could be a lot of potential paths and you need to define the strategy for your team to achieve success. And, of course, at a VP or C-level, all you focus on are numerous, large-scale, ambiguous problems that need great vision and leadership to achieve.

To be successful, you need to both be strategic and an excellent executor, but flex into specific areas based on where you are in your career and abilities.

How to (gracefully) say no to 99% of asks

Prioritization is one of the most important skills to have as a PM. We need to say no to 99% of asks that hit our desks every single day. Being successful in the art of saying ‘no’ requires a bit of knowledge on human behavior and communication, but it needs to be anchored in some level of logical reasoning. In order to know what is “critical”, we must define and agree on criticality measures.

Once you have a sense of the KPIs you’re attempting to move, you can then decide what level of impact the thousands of things in your to-do lists will have towards those KPIs. And that edited list provides clarity. It helps separate the signal of what is important from all the other noise that comes at you.

I use this framework in my product prioritizations as well as in my own personal to-do’s (along with Eating the Frog).

Getting “better” is a process of integrating lessons to make something of your own.

The skills I’ve learned in past careers and still actively use come from a variety of experiences. I always say that PMs need to have their own toolkits that they add to as they pick up new learnings or expertise.

From my consulting days, I learned to actively listen and ask questions with a beginner’s mind.

From my startup days, I learned the importance of action. So many products and solutions are left unbuilt because the “idea people” weren’t willing to put in the work to explore, create, or share. That’s why the “do-ers” are a group of people I have always admired.

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

— Bruce Lee

From my bigger company experience, I’m working on the skill of patience. To steer a larger ship requires influencing more people or entire organizations, all while being further from the central point of leverage day-to-day. So you have to know what levers you can pull or push, and be patient on the time horizon of your investments paying off.

Why adapting to this new world is particularly challenging for product managers

I find remote PM’ing difficult for a number of reasons. Creating relationships with people is an important aspect of the job and that’s harder to do over 30 or 60 minute structured video calls.

That schedule also makes random hallway conversations that lead to creative white-boarding sessions a thing of the past. You find yourself trying to organize calendar time for creative thinking or deep work. Plus, I just miss seeing people without a screen between us :)

How she got into investing and how that’s made her a better product leader

Transparent Collective’s mission to change these stats.

I got into investing after co-founding a nonprofit with friends called Transparent Collective. We help underrepresented founders get access to Silicon Valley resources including mentors, advisors, and investors. It’s been an incredible and humbling journey with TC. We’ve worked with 40+ founders who have raised $30M+ in venture capital over the last 5 years. During that experience, I started putting in small angel checks wherever I could, and then got more involved in the angel community in the last 1–1.5 years.

Selfishly, I think angel investing is a great way to learn and be a better product leader. Someone once put it to me: as a PM you see depth in your specific ‘functional’ areas, and as an investor you see different high-level ‘strategic’ trends happening in an industry. So the people who can connect those dots can become quite savvy leaders.

Founder at bento, formerly askSpoke, Intercom, Teespring

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