October 2nd, 2023 at 2:48:27 PM

Scaling Success: Insights from Žanis Jegermanis on Building and Leading Product Teams

Today we delve into Žanis Jegermanis’ approach to building and leading successful product teams. Žanis, an experienced leader in the tech industry, shares valuable insights on hiring, team dynamics, and the importance of trust, empowerment, and diversity in team growth. He also offers practical advice for HR professionals on identifying and attracting top talent, utilizing assessment strategies, and addressing HR-related challenges. Read on to discover Žanis's experience in nurturing exceptional product teams!

Zanis

Žanis, can you share your approach to building and leading successful product teams?

Creating and leading product teams is a learning and adapting journey. I built two product departments from scratch, handling hiring personally, which taught me a lot. Later, I led an existing department, which brought new challenges and learnings.

A mentor early in my career highlighted the importance of matching the right people to the right problems. This guided my hiring process, where I personally reached out to candidates, ensuring a good fit for the team both in skills and culture.

Even as our company grew from 100 to 700 employees, I stayed involved in hiring, collaborating with HR to ensure a smooth process from outreach to onboarding. When taking over an existing team, I focused on understanding team dynamics, building trust, and identifying strengths and weaknesses to tailor my approach to challenges.

I recommend "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni to understand team building. Its framework emphasizes trust as the foundation of a strong team, which aligns with my experience. Trust is crucial, whether forming a new team or integrating into an existing one.

Alongside trust, empowerment is vital. I think it's important to give your team the freedom to work, learn, and even fail sometimes. It’s through these experiences they learn and grow. And while they have the freedom, guiding them and setting the right goals and expectations is essential to keep everyone on track.

Continuous growth is essential. If your team is not learning and improving over time then they are only as strong and capable as they started. It's about setting clear expectations and working with each team member to help them improve their skills and grow in their careers. You are successful as a leader if you have provided your team with the right opportunity to grow. This is best achieved through clear competency and seniority matrices, regular feedback, and individual growth plans discussed in one-on-one sessions.

Lastly, I value diversity, learning from my time in the army special forces that diverse teams offer a broader range of solutions to problems. It enhances not only the work environment but also problem-solving and creativity, making the team stronger and more adaptable.

As someone who has hired and nurtured numerous product managers and engineers, what advice would you give HR professionals looking to identify and attract top talent for their organizations?

A successful recruitment happens when HR works in tandem with the hiring manager.

Start by understanding your team's unique needs and the specific qualifications required. Tailor your search accordingly. For instance, for a payments product manager you would likely need previous experience in the payments domain. For a high-impact and exposure product area, you will be looking for a more seasoned and experienced product manager who can better handle stakeholders. For a new product area where there is high uncertainty, you will be looking for a person who has more experience building vision and strategy for that area. 

Once you've identified the ideal candidate, sourcing comes into play. It is always easier to get high-quality candidates if your company has a well-established brand and people themselves are applying already. In my experience that hasn't always been the case and I have had to have a more hands-on approach to hiring. I've personally reached out to potential candidates on LinkedIn, finding personalized messages from a hiring manager to be more effective than generic recruiter messages.

A robust hiring process is crucial. I prefer a multi-step process, including an initial interview to assess general skills and curiosity about our product, followed by a whiteboard session for problem-solving skills. Subsequent calls delve into specific areas like analytics, UX, and technical knowledge.

While it may seem lengthy, this structured process ensures a good fit and genuine interest in your team and company. Being available to candidates for questions and ensuring a smooth onboarding process post-hire is vital.

I know that you’ve used whiteboard sessions in your interviews. Do you find it a successful tool? Why?

Yes, whiteboard sessions are a valuable tool in my interviewing process, highlighting candidates' communication, problem-solving, decision-making and critical-thinking skills. Here's how I do it:

The task in a whiteboard session relates to the product area we're hiring for, presented abstractly with minimal information in a limited time. It assesses how candidates navigate ambiguity, ask relevant questions, and uncover necessary details. It's not about finding the right solution, but seeing if they can deep dive into issues and understand their root causes. What matters most is their approach, curiosity, and strategic thinking. This mirrors a product manager's daily work – immersing in problems, engaging with customers, and analyzing data to develop effective solutions.

Developing a seniority level and competency matrix for PMs is an intriguing initiative - can you share more about this?

I developed a seniority level and competency matrix for my current organization. I think every organization when growing from startup to scaleup ends with a problem that you have quite a few people hired, but there is no clear understanding on how people can grow, how they can get promoted, how to get higher salaries. The company ended up in the same place and we understood that we needed to work on a framework that would help our product managers to grow and to set expectations on how to grow professionally. It also helped understanding the seniority of candidates that we are hiring.  These are the steps we took::

1. Identify Key Skills: We pinpointed essential skills for product managers and drew inspiration from various frameworks, including Reforge's product competency toolkit.

2. Establish Seniority Levels:

  • Associate Product Manager

  • Product Manager

  • Senior Product Manager

  • Principal Product Manager

  • Head of Product

3. Define Competencies:

  • Product Execution

  • Analytical Mindset

  • Customer Centricity

  • Business Understanding

  • Product Vision and Roadmapping

  • Stakeholder Management

  • Communication

Now we have mapped the Product Managers to their seniority levels and we use the framework to determine the strong areas and areas for improvement for each Product Manager. It is my job as a product leader to constantly provide feedback to Product Managers in relation to this framework. We sit together with each Product Manager and discuss how we can strengthen their strong sides and how we can work on the areas of improvement. Together we set individual plans for the next two quarters. 

I think this is a very good way to share feedback and give clear and transparent guidelines on how people can grow and become better product managers.

You mentioned introducing a Product Manager assessment process. How can HR teams adapt similar assessment strategies to evaluate candidates effectively in various roles?

Based on our experience, I suggest implementing a PM assessment process that has proven useful for both our current team and the hiring phase. Here's how it works:

1. Identify Key Skills: Determine the essential skills and knowledge required for each level of seniority within a role.

2. Create Questions: Develop a list of tailored questions for each level. For instance, for senior to principal product manager positions, have about 10 specific questions with defined expectations for good answers.

3. Streamline Hiring: Extend this approach to other roles. Collaborate with departments to understand skills and knowledge requirements. Create questions and guidelines for different role levels, from entry-level to senior positions.

By setting clear criteria for evaluation, HR teams can efficiently assess candidates, ensuring a good fit for the job while establishing clear expectations from the outset. It's about defining needs, establishing standards, and evaluating candidates accordingly.

In your journey from startup to scale-up, what HR-related challenges did you encounter, and how did you address them to foster growth and innovation in your teams?

Mostly, these relate to our prior discussion. Initially, we faced a hiring challenge with many open positions and limited recruiter support. Hiring managers, including myself, had to actively engage in LinkedIn outreach to attract talent, which, despite being time-consuming, resonated well with candidates.

As our team grew close to 20 product managers, we realized our seniority levels were vaguely defined. This led to confusion around job titles and growth pathways. We addressed this by rolling out a clear competency and seniority level matrix, which outlined the expectations for each level, making it transparent how one could progress and what salary ranges to expect.

Touching on leadership, it's common in startups for early hires to ascend quickly to managerial roles, many of whom are first-time people managers. Acknowledging this, we implemented a comprehensive leadership training course at Printify. This course, spanning eight days over four sessions, hosts both seasoned and newly promoted leaders, delving into expected leadership styles in alignment with company values. Through discussions on various leadership topics, we created a collaborative learning environment, enabling less experienced managers to learn from seasoned ones. This action not only improved our managers but strengthened the alignment with our organizational values and expectations.

Thank you, Žanis, for sharing your valuable insights and experiences! Your perspective on building and leading successful product teams, as well as your advice for HR professionals, is very helpful for anyone looking to foster talent and drive innovation.

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