October 26, 2022

So... product coaching - what is that?

And why we need it
What's product coaching letters with thinking emoji

Coaching is essential in various contexts - wellness, personal finance, music, career, etc. In fact, there are so many areas in our personal and professional lives where we want to improve, and access to quality coaching can accelerate learning and growth. Coaching is about potential.

That’s why, when I’ve led product managers or team leaders, I have heavily emphasized coaching as part of team member development and performance. Or, I have helped find coaches outside the organization who can offer more coaching support on specific topic areas or problems better than I could. 

Product coaching is no different. It’s about unlocking the potential of product people and product teams using the experience of a product expert as a coach for specific goals and needs. Building great products is hard, and sometimes you need additional support to help you, your team, and your products reach their potential.

Let’s break down product coaching and how you or your team would benefit from product coaching. 

  • What exactly is product coaching?
  • Why is product coaching important?
  • Flavors of product coaching
  • Who benefits from product coaching?
  • Finding the right product coach
  • When do you need a product coach?

What exactly is product coaching?

Product coaching is about asking more questions than telling you exactly what to do. A product coach is a product expert who works with an individual or a team on specific product skill development and advancement (or adoption) of new product-based approaches. Depending on the need, a product coach can provide feedback on things like plans for product validation, stakeholder management, go-to-market strategies, or product team design. Product coaching often happens as a one-on-one professional support relationship between an individual and a product coach. Product coaches are there to help challenge you, support you, provide a safe space for candid discussion, create accountability, and provide insights where appropriate. 

I’m with Ravi Mehta on this one - I believe a solid product coach knows when to have an opinionated perspective with a coachee. There’s a balance here, but for product-specific coaching, there are times when a coach can offer example perspectives or approaches that can help the coachee see opportunities and ideas in a new light. This should be an additional value add to those receiving coaching because product coaches should have unique experience and exposure to patterns across their coaching clients. Some of the most valuable coaching sessions I have had include opinionated discussion - but that’s still different than telling a coachee what to do. 

Product coaches can be great additions to new or existing product teams to offer direct support, provide coaching on best practices based on need, and help refine a team or individual's approach to product management or product leadership. Quality product coaching typically includes some of the following but varies based on circumstance, role, and background in product management. 

  • Listening, observing, understanding - understanding context, goals, needs, challenges
  • Facilitation - enable you to ask better questions or explore multiple pathways to a problem using different perspectives and structure
  • Guidance - in adopting new or different approaches, defining course of action, establishing follow-ups to reach follow through
  • Feedback - navigating outcomes, reflecting and evaluating progress, giving support

Why is product coaching important?

Product management is one of the fastest-growing areas in business. There has been rapid demand for product roles across sectors and companies over the past few years. This growth is a byproduct of three things:

  1. Recognition that digital-first product experiences are key drivers of value delivery
  2. Digital transformation across a variety of sectors seeking to build product practices
  3. Need for continuous adaptation to user needs and changing landscapes using insights and data to drive product decisions and investments. 

This rapid growth has also created a gap between education and hands-on experience. There isn’t a shortage of “how to” posts, on-demand courses, or product literature on product management theory. However, the gap between theory and application in a specific business culture, team structure, growth stage, and product(s) lifecycle is missing for many product managers, organizational leaders, and founders. Product coaching helps bridge the gap between understanding and confident application.

More is needed to learn about a product skill and why it might be necessary. You need reps applying this learning and access to ongoing support who can provide feedback on how you approach product problems in different contexts. You need someone who can help facilitate the development and use of your product methods and serve as a guide in helping you navigate plans, work towards outcomes, or test new concepts. 

Depending on the stage of your company or team, you may need temporary access to an experienced product leader who can help establish foundational product practices and product team development. Or it may be that you have a founder product manager or product folks at varying stages in their product careers who are out on an island with no functional help guiding them to their full potential. Lastly, your product leaders could be stretched too thin or have a specific need that requires some additional, short-term backup to help solve. Coaches help fill these gaps, enable best practices, and give individuals concentrated space and time for product skill development, ultimately leading to better outcomes for product teams, product users, and organizations. 

Who can benefit from product coaching?

Product managers 📝

From newly minted associate PMs to Senior PMs, product coaching can provide individuals with dedicated, consistent coaching on skills and product career development centered on their current role and product contexts. Product managers often benefit from product coaching, especially if:

  • Product leadership needs to be added to their existing company.
  • Current product leadership is missing the skills or experience needed to effectively help product manager achieve their potential.
  • Product leaders lack the bandwidth necessary to provide hands-on coaching.

Product leaders 🗺

Product leaders face new challenges in their roles as they broaden their aperture and participate in driving strategy and teams toward organizational outcomes. The skills of a product leader require a change in perspective and language, and product coaches can help a product leader develop towards this broader context that requires them to find leverage through their team members and their efforts. Product leaders benefit from product coaching, especially if: 

  • They are new to product leadership. 
  • They are part of a high-growth, scale up organization.
  • Their previous roles (such as engineer, data science) have evolved into product leadership roles. 

Startup founders 🚀

(especially non-product or non-technical startup founders working in the software or technology space)

We’ve all heard the stat around startup failure rate. Much of that failure can is linked to crucial product principles such as:

  • validating product-market fit
  • understanding the market, customers, and channels
  • testing the validity of the business model
  • Prioritizing investments in product development
  • etc. 

When starting, especially if you are new to startups, these concepts and how they can make or break your startup may be new to you. Product coaches can help you navigate this, especially if you lack a product/technical co-founder and/or you aren’t yet able to have product represented on your team due to funding limitations. Also, founding is hard (like product) and can be lonely. Product coaches can provide you with the sounding board you need with a backdrop of product experience you can leverage.  

Teams 🤜🏾 🤛🏼

Whether the team is a cross-functional team or a leadership team with a product challenge, team product coaching can help adopt and align product practices to broader organizational product needs. Product coaching can help teams overcome challenges and quickly provide feedback and support on how to adopt new product skills together - such as aligning product and organizational strategy or the shared expectations of the product development process. 

Flavors of product coaching

Depending on the circumstance, there are different times when different product coaching will happen, and that coaching will look slightly different based on need. Here’s a brief overview of different flavors of product coaching. 

Flavors of product coaching - product discovery and validation, scaling and growing products, product manager and product leadereship coaching, product organization and product ops coaching, and product-led, org wide product coaching.

I offer a range of product coaching and support services to address these flavors. Depending on your specific need, it may warrant a combination of coaching, advising, and even on-the-ground interim support. 

Finding the right product coach

As with the high demand for product roles, a clearer understanding of the need for product-based practices, and the growing resources for product management, there is also an increasing pool of product coaches. But like one organization isn’t the same, neither are product coaches. When looking for a product coach, here are some things to consider to find one that is right for you and your team:

☑ Your learning style
  • consider how you best learn and what structure you want/need based on your learning style. If you are a visual learner, ensure the coach helps you visualize and work through problems. If you use writing to express your ideas or weekly challenges, make sure your coach creates a shared space for you to do this. Ask how a coach adapts to your learning style.
☑ Coaching style and skills

There are two ways coaches might approach their coaching with you.

  • Coaching style and skills - there are two ways coaches might approach their coaching with you.
  • Coachee-centered (actively listen with a conversational approach to the individual learners by asking questions to understand and guide learning).

This will vary from folks who take a purely Socratic approach to coaching, while others may operate more as a consultant giving you answers based on your questions.

  • Consider what goals you have and the type of outcomes you want, and look for folks who know how to balance both. People who have coached - as product leaders or mentors, as a trainer, or with other clients - will have the experience to know when to engage in an opinionated discussion, ask probing questions to lead you to an outcome, or prompt ideas in methods. 
☑ Product background and experience
  • product coaches should have tangible experience working as product managers - full stop.
  • In addition to product experience, and based on coaching needs, look for product coaches who have held different product roles (from IC to leadership) in different types of companies and different company stages (startup vs. growth stage).
  • Also, understand the products (platform vs. consumer app) or product markets (such as B2C, B2B) the product coach has worked in or is actively coaching clients.  
☑ Alignment in values
  • where you can, through content a product coach has published, or in work they have performed for other companies, try to get a sense of the type of shared values you have. For example, I have centered much of my product career on purpose-driven organizations measuring product impact, including metrics beyond customer acquisition and revenue. I value solid human-centered practices and creating sustainable, lasting products. 
☑ Initial discovery and meet and greet
  • Look for coaches who set up a time for an initial introduction and discussion. It helps if you use that time to get a sense of who the coach is, how they work, and how they ask questions and listen to your answers.
  • You might pay for this first session, but product coaches should offer this initial intro as complimentary because coaching is a mutual relationship and requires establishing shared intentions and trust before formalizing engagements.

The close out on product coaching

Barry O’Reilly and Katie Leto have a great post about the power and misconceptions of coaching. High performers need coaches. New founders need coaches. Experienced senior leaders need coaches. Coaching is about unlocking potential and superpowering you through your challenges or goals. Like any good product, finding areas where you have blind spots or opportunities to iterate can help you achieve success in your personal and professional life. Product coaching specifically can offer you another set of eyes and fresh, different perspectives and pathways to take on future challenges and goals. 

Like there are various types of products, there are different types of coaching, different times when you need product coaches, and different types of coaches. As with product, start with understanding your problems or needs and use that to help you identify a product coach that best suits you. 

If you’re ready - or think you’re ready - and would like to find a product coach or discuss product coaching, contact me via email (lenae@beperennial.co) or schedule a free product coaching consultation. I can share my product coaching approaches and coaching program, and if I don’t have the right coaching for you, I’ll help you find others who might better serve your needs.