Blog

Inspiration Overload: Lessons from Women in Product

Originally published in May 2017 on Medium — see it here.

Women in Product’s panel event last week gathered an impressive crowd at Facebook to discuss “Building Product and Careers at Scale.” With a supportive walk-up-to-anyone-and-introduce-yourself atmosphere, the event facilitated a great environment for getting to meet countless influential product managers, in addition to a hugely inspiring panel discussion.

Ami Vora (Director, Ads) moderated a panel that included Deb Liu (VP, Platform and Marketplace), Naomi Gleit (VP, Social Good and Core Growth), Fidji Simo (VP, Video, News and Advertising), and Mary Ku (Director, Marketplace), all of whom have significant hours (read: years) clocked in at Facebook. There was so much good stuff covered in this conversation; I couldn’t possibly cover it all, but I’ve attempted to summarize some highlights here!

“Care less about being nice: Instead, be respected.”

Leaders need to have an opinion and be ready to back it up to push things forward, but being conditioned to be accommodatingly nice and agreeable is one of those classic women-in-leadership problems. The panelists also seemed to agree that some of the particular challenges of being a woman in business means that while for much of our careers we’re told to be nice and smooth out our edges, at a point later in your career you’ll be told you need to be more bold and out there (a stark contradiction; “but you just told me not to…!”). This requires you to reconnect with “what makes you you” and find your voice (again). Of course, being a good person is still key; Fidji continued, “…but we usually don’t respect jerks!”

“Believe and internalize that you have more power than you give yourself credit for.”

This followed a revealing exchange:

Ami: “When was the last time you felt strong and confident?”
Fidji: “When I didn’t know any better!”

Fidji told the hilarious story of how she brought her boss with her to all her meetings for the first few weeks after a promotion she worried she was not prepared for; her manager eventually said instead to imagine the ghost of him there sitting there in the room, giving her support and authority, until she felt confident standing on her own.

Deb described too how it took her years to realize how she was editing herself to her own detriment. It’s absurd to hear that any of these brilliant leaders ever experienced imposter syndrome, so it came off as somewhat hilarious (and encouraging) to hear that even such intimidatingly successful women have also struggled with this. Deb’s advice: “Just go. Stop editing.”

“Reframe failures as experiments.”

We’ve all heard this advice before, but how Ami contextualized this sentiment really hit home for me: The panelists described times they’d messed up — big responsibility means big opportunity to make the wrong call — and how they often felt bad about this. However, by realizing that these failures were actually “opportunities to learn something about the company and the world that’s useful,” and especially by being intentional about doing a post-mortem, these experiments become something truly valuable for the company.

Naomi described how perfect execution is key here too: “You can have the right or wrong strategy, but if you have only imperfect execution then you won’t know if your strategy was right or wrong, or just a flawed execution.” This also requires a learning mindset to work: Mary powerfully explained how it’s important to “have conviction about what you’re doing but also openness” to learn from these experiments.

“Myself? Who is that? I haven’t seen her in a while!”

Clearly, Fidji is overflowing with fantastic one-liners: This was Fidji’s response to a question about how she makes time for herself, describing how she felt lost in her identity after her first child. This theme of losing and reconnecting with oneself came up not only in the context of having children but also again in the context of retaining your unique professional identity as a leader: In both career and growing a family, leaders are constantly challenged to remember who they are (what makes you you) as they define and grow their unique strengths.

Fidji found that art helps her reconnect with herself, and Deb — who does this by working out every day—told an unforgettable story of how she found a way to incorporate working out every day into her new-mom routine by using time on the elliptical as a way to make her daughter fall asleep (eventually her daughter started holding her accountable: “When are you going to work out so I can go to sleep?”).

“Don’t take all feedback seriously. Become un-objectionable; trying to satisfy everyone else will make you lose yourself.”

Ami explained that when people are giving advice to others, they’re often only saying what made them successful; what makes you successful may be completely different — and it’s okay if not everyone likes it. Deb said a key realization for her was that “the thing that’s worked for you your whole career is probably what’s going to end up holding you back.”

“How do you manage a career how you manage a product? Be intentional about what’s really important. What are you optimizing for?” (PM your life!)

Throughout these diverse career and life conversations, this kept coming up, nicely summarized by Ami. We all know how to use our PM toolkit to “product-manage products — why not apply these principles/processes to your life?” Just like products, our lives have goals — set KPIs, define strategies, reflect and measure your progress. The first step is defining what you really want (vs. your nice-to-haves that may be worth sacrificing), whether you’re optimizing for domain expertise, finding your people, having a breadth of different experiences, or whatever it may be. Deb continued that this also has to do with knowing what you bring that’s so unique that only you can do it, and also with acknowledging that if you lose your passion for what you’re doing, it’s best for you and your team for you to move on.

Overall Takeaways

Beyond these nuggets of wisdom, I think what was most inspiring and refreshing for me was the supportive vibe of the event itself. Lately I’ve found some women-in-tech/leadership groups to be in existential crisis mode, trying to figure out if they’re meant to be a support group to share stories of workplace harassment, a place to discuss what makes women different from men, an attempt to substitute the ‘boys clubs’ that men may benefit from, etc.

While none of those models are what I need right now, WIP nailed it by hosting an authentic, real-life conversation focused on navigating the product world, while touching on all the quirks that complicate things as a woman in the field, and — most of all—giving me a whole new set of awesome product icons to look up to as models for how I want to lead.

If there was one overall theme that I most want to carry with me from this event, it was this sense of mutual support. Naomi epitomized this at one point, saying, “I have lots of models for who I aspire to be like, and — other than Beyoncé—many of them are on this stage with me.” Both as an intentional practice (sharing their experiences, starting Women in Product) and in the more subtle ways they boost each other up (crediting one another, backing each other up in meetings), there’s a very apparent culture of strong mutual support amongst these women. I was just as impressed and inspired by everyone else I met at the event too; the sense that we’re all in this together and are here to support one another resonated through.

Thank you so much to Ami, Deb, Fidji, Mary, and Naomi — your openness and honesty was appreciated, and it was so meaningful to get to hear your insights on so many aspects of work and life (and share in some laughs about all the absurdity we all encounter, too).

Thanks also to the event organizers for putting on a great event, and to all the other attendees — I have learned so much from you already, and can’t wait to continue learning with you!

Follow Women in Product’s awesome newsletter for event announcements and other great resources: http://www.womenpm.org/ (There’s also a very activeFacebook group!). A few more other women-focused groups that have also had a big impact on my career and life include Women Who Code (great newsletter and meetups interesting for non-coders too, chapters worldwide), Women Techmakers (Google-sponsored network with great event hookups), TechLadies(newsletter with lots of job postings), XX+UX (events for women in UX, local chapters) and OKREAL (stories and inspiration from creative women).

I hope attributed the panelists’ statements properly; please let me know if you have any corrections, and please share any other feedback or thoughts on these topics!

Allison Marie Cooper