Changing the trajectory of your career

By John Zilch – This blog post is based on an interview conducted with Brian Lawley, the CEO and Founder of the 280 Group. He is the author of six best-selling books, Product Management for Dummies, Optimal Product Process, The Phenomenal Product Manager, Expert Product Management and 42 Rules of Product Management and is the former President of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association (SVPMA). Brian was the host of a BPMA event titled “Becoming a Phenomenal Product Manager and Getting to the Next Level” on September 14th, 2017.

You’re coming to Boston on September 14 to talk about phenomenal product management. What can folks expect to learn about?

Over my career, I’ve seen at each organization there were anywhere from one to a handful of superstar product managers. These folks seem to be the ones who really stood out above and beyond everyone else. They ended up moving through the organization faster and gained much more respect than their peers. They always ended up working on products that had the highest chance of success.

In writing one of my first books, The Phenomenal Product Manager, I thought about these people that were phenomenal product managers and then I tried to distill down to what the common traits were. What was it that made them different? What did they do differently? What skills did they have?

I wanted to share these findings with the product community. In my presentation we’ll do hands-on activities about this, and encourage people to challenge themselves and dramatically change how they’re doing their job.

Can you give us an example of one of those common traits?

Sure, one of the key traits would be being good at reading people and playing to their personalities. For example, I’ve had engineering teams that were all over the map. Some teams are what I would call just “Coders,” who will build exactly what you give them. And then at Apple, I had the best engineers in the world who were primadonnas (for good reason), and they didn’t want to be told exactly what to build. For the former, you have to prescribe the work to be done. For the latter, you have to convince them that what you want done is their idea or present it to them as a problem where they can come up with a brilliant solution that they can own.

So reading people is really important, and this goes for all functions within a business such as sales, executives. It’s important to understand what drives people and motivates them.

Do you find the traits shared by phenomenal product managers can be learned?

Some people are innately have these traits at a higher level. But I truly believe anyone who has the desire can build the skillset they need. It’s much like genetics. If you’re born with higher metabolism, you’re going to look lean and fit with little effort. If you’re born with lower metabolism, you’re going to have to work to be fit but you can get there.

For example, I tend to be reserved and introverted (which aren’t typically associated with success as a Product Manager) so I found a way to make that work for me.

How do folks get better at one of these core skills, like reading people? What’s something I can do tomorrow to get better at this?

The first step is to make a list of the most important relationships you need to influence. Then, spend a few minutes thinking about what drives those people. If it’s an engineering manager, are they driven by moving their career up? Are they driven by building cool products? Are they most concerned with slipping the schedule and perhaps losing job? This sounds simple, but once you have an idea of what motivates them, you’ll know how to frame some of the challenges you share with that person.

It’s also possible to simply ask them directly what they are trying to accomplish. Find out ‘What’s in it for them? “ Let them know that you want them to be successful, and ask them what they are trying to accomplish and how you can support them to make it happen’ Most often, folks won’t just open up but they’ll feel like you are on their side. It really helps grow the relationship.

Tell us a story of a product manager who became a phenomenal product manager?

Sure, I brought in a former administrative assistant who was completely new to product management. She didn’t have a lot of the traditional skills but was very ambitious and very willing to work hard on her skills. When she first started it was hard for her to get respect in the organization. She ended up not just being a phenomenal product manager but also having a huge impact on the company. When I joined we the company was valued at $3M and eventually sold for $120M. A huge part of that was what she did as a product manager and how she influenced in a chaotic and stressful environment.

What type of background do phenomenal product managers typically have?

It varies. The good news is that background isn’t the determining factor. The key is how passionate you are around the products you’re working on. I’ve seen MBA’s straight out of college, support people, sales people, operations people and new college graduates with degrees in psychology. The key is you have to work on a product you’re super-passionate about and have the drive to want that product to win. That’s far more important than your background.

It’s interesting – there’s no technical training for product management. Less than 2% of product managers in the world have been trained to do their job. They learn through osmosis and, if they’re lucky, they have a good mentor. If you really want to get into product management, read books on it, go to a training course, follow LinkedIn groups, immerse yourself. Be as passionate about the profession as you are around the product you’re working on.

I was lucky to start out at Apple where we had incredible product managers. I had to step up and say “I’m going to get great at this job” and then built a plan.

How do I judge how I’m doing as a product manager? What metrics do I pay attention to?

It’s hard. You have to trust your gut feeling first. Ask yourself: Does my product have a really solid strategy and a path to winning against the competition and making customers really happy? Will my product reach the company’s top-line and bottom-line goals?

In terms of quantitative stats, it all depends on what the company’s strategy looks like. If I’m trying to win a price war and capture the market then market share is obviously something I want to pay attention to as a PM. However, if I judge my performance by escalations, well is that really up to me? What if a hidden bug wreaks havoc across the product? Was that my fault? Probably not, but how I respond to it does matter.

How do you look at the role of the Product Manager in 2017?

Fifteen years ago Product Management was the Rodney Dangerfield of careers – “I get no respect” (laughs). What we’ve seen happen over the last nineteen years since I started my company, is that the role of product management has been recognized as being mission critical. We have major companies like Cisco and Cigna that you would think have always had a driving strategic force but now realize product management needs to own that role. The profession of product management has increased in importance dramatically. The profession continues to rise in importance. Here’s a stat from CBS news: Product Management is the fourth most important role behind the CEO, Vice President and General Manager. Corporations are realizing that if you don’t have someone driving the strategy holistically, you may have short-term success and luck out but in the long run your effort are going to be far less fruitful.

What can folks expect to get out of the event on September 14?

My goal is to convey what I’ve seen work effectively and have people walk away with an actionable plan with a couple things they can do immediately to up their game. If I’m successful, people will say: “That presentation changed the trajectory of my career.”

zilchJohn Zilch is Director of Product Management at Dun & Bradstreet, building data management products for sales and marketing professionals. Throughout his career, John has built world-class software products for world-class companies such as Intuit, Pegasystems and now Dun & Bradstreet. Follow John on Twitter at @JohnZilch and LinkedIn at  Also, check out his personal blog at

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