Hiring managers often think that great PMs are Excel jockeys, design whizzes, or data junkies. These managers define success as deep knowledge in a small set of technical skills, depending on the archetype of PMs at their company. These skills are valuable, but they’re also straightforward to train for and specific to the needs of the company or team. In my mind, this makes them secondary drivers of performance.
I consider self-awareness, emotional resilience and an ability to understand people to be the primary drivers of PM performance. These qualities are much more difficult to learn — and at their root they are about applying a growth mindset to product work.
Researcher Carol Dweck coined and popularized the concept of the growth mindset. The basic idea is this: people with a growth mindset believe intelligence and aptitude can be cultivated and improved; people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and aptitude are immutable. If you haven’t yet, read her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, or watch her TED talk.
On a daily basis, a fixed mindset culture is easy to recognize. Every meeting is a test of competency rather than an opportunity to challenge and improve each other. Ideas are not openly debated. The meeting-before-the-meeting-before-the-meeting takes up incrementally more PM bandwidth. Any substantially new or disruptive ideas are secretly workshopped to avoid being killed prematurely. No one admits when they are wrong.
In contrast, teams that embrace the growth mindset and learn to learn can anticipate challenges and opportunities rather than just react to them. These teams also get better over time, because high performers are attracted to growth mindset cultures.
Applying a growth mindset to your own career or product team is hard work, over and above the everyday work of product and people management. Much of it is also deeply uncomfortable and personal. What follows are some practical tips to help you get started.
Applying the growth mindset to yourself
Keep notes on your performance
Cultivating self-awareness is key to a growth mindset. You need to evaluate your own skills and performance in order to get better — you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Keep a weekly 1:1 with yourself and write down your challenges, obstacles, and thoughts about your performance. I use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) thought journaling to evaluate my thoughts and feelings about my own performance. I learned this framework by reading David Burns’ book When Panic Attacks and using the tools he teaches. CBT has been a key tool for me, professionally and personally.
The notes you’ll generate from this self-reflection are invaluable, not least because you can take this from company to company and use it to guide your career over time. Once you can identify the cognitive distortions you tend to apply, you can catch yourself before you react in a counter-productive way.
Seek feedback and manage up
Your manager is a human being, just like you. They want you to like them and make them look good. They’re rarely thinking about ways to promote you, or ways to demoralize you until you quit… but damn if it doesn’t feel like that sometimes, huh.
Your manager needs you to manage them. Make sure you get a 1:1 every week and create an agenda for that 1:1 that makes good use of your boss’ time. Keep them updated on your wins and losses, but don’t spend the valuable time together just updating them. Find out what they need from you and how you can help them be successful. Seek feedback on how you’re doing and if your efforts are aligned with theirs and the company’s.
If you approach your relationship with your manager as something that you are an active participant in, you’ll take a lot of performance pressure off yourself. Our fixed mindsets often take hold when we feel judged; this inhibits our ability to learn. Rather than resign yourself to the judgement of your manager, consider their feedback as valuable input. Taking initiative and asking for feedback will show your manager that you’re looking to improve. It will also help put you emotionally in the driver’s seat.
When you’re listening to their feedback, remember that their opinion does not define you. Managers are imperfect judges and their feedback will be a big mix of things. Some of it will be reflective of their own cognitive distortions, some will be expectations of the company for the PM role, and other feedback will just reflect their mood at the time. This is another reason to ask for feedback consistently: you’ll learn to parse these types of feedback from each other and not over-correct when your boss just had a bad day.
Once you’re in the growth mindset with regard to this relationship, you’ll be able to identify your own areas for growth and ask them for help. If you’re not yet managing people, it will also show your manager that you’re self-aware and emotionally mature enough for the opportunity.
Make and track hypotheses for key people and conversations
One of the most valuable insights from Chris Voss’ priceless book Never Split the Difference is his reframing negotiation as hypothesis-driven process rather than an adversarial relationship. He teaches that negotiations are fundamentally about gathering new information (and uncovering black swans) by testing and updating hypotheses.
Here’s a sample assumption: My boss thinks I’m good at optimizing existing flows, but doesn’t yet trust me to develop new features.
In advance of your weekly 1:1, take the time to design an experiment for testing assumptions about your relationship with your manager or team. Let’s assume that you already know in order to get promoted, you have to show you can develop and manage a feature from start to finish.
Now you’re ready to write down a testable hypothesis: If my boss doesn’t think they can trust me with a new feature, then I won’t get the chance to prove I can.
The next step is to create a script using open-ended questions to solicit feedback from your manager. I use this Negotiation Cheat Sheet (developed by serial founder/my husband Yan-David Erlich) to structure conversations with colleagues and get high quality feedback. The cheat sheet also includes a summary of Voss’ lessons, which are great to keep nearby as you practice.
It’s helpful to read the script out loud and ideally practice with a friend. This will help you find awkward phrases or hear a tone in your voice that you didn’t want to convey. Tone is vital to collaboration and negotiation as it communicates a huge amount of information. Practice also can help you memorize your plan for the negotiation so that you free up mental space. This empowers you to really listen to your counterpart instead of thinking about what to say next.
Managing with the growth mindset
Management is where vision meets execution. People are most motivated and engaged at work when they feel like a respected member of a winning team.
Managers define what great looks like in the hiring, promotion, and resource allocation decisions they make. According to research cited in Harvard Business Review, managers have such a huge influence on job satisfaction that people leave their jobs because they don’t like their boss or they don’t have growth opportunities.
Set a high standard
Congratulations! You are the person who defines what great looks like for your team. You’re also the person that will be literally rewarding or punishing different behavior.
Carol Dweck’s research shows that the most successful companies are led by people who have a growth mindset. This is how she describes them:
“They’re not constantly trying to prove they’re better than others. For example, they don’t highlight the pecking order with themselves at the top, they don’t claim credit for other people’s contributions, and they don’t undermine others to feel powerful.
Instead, they are constantly trying to improve. They surround themselves with the most able people they can find, they look squarely at their own mistakes and deficiencies, and they ask frankly what skills they and the company will need in the future. And because of this, they can move forward with confidence that’s grounded in the facts, not built on fantasies about their talent.”
It is up to management to create a growth mindset culture — one that tolerates failure. High performers will leave companies that have a fixed mindset, since they won’t get stretch opportunities to continue growing and will be punished for taking bold steps.
Hire for the growth mindset
If you build and manage your team towards a growth mindset, the goals, process and culture of your team will attract like-minded candidates. Past creating that self-evident affinity, there are a few tactical things you can do throughout the hiring process.
When you evaluate resumes and profiles, look for indications that the person has applied the growth mindset in their own life, such as “distance traveled”. Mitch and Freada Kapor describe it briefly in a larger post on taking diversity seriously:
“We take into account where a job candidate came from and how many obstacles they had to overcome to get to our door. We believe, and it’s borne out in practice, that this can be an important measure of work ethic and resilience.”
During phone screens, ask questions to assess attitudes about growth and failure. This is definitely material you want to cover early with candidates. Here’s an example question: “Tell me about a time when a feature did not pan out, for whatever reason. What would you do differently now?”
The best answers will demonstrate some combination of self-awareness, emotional resilience, and the ability to understand others. For the example above, a good candidate will demonstrate a growth mindset by taking responsibility for the poor outcomes of their team. Great candidates will go on to describe the many different steps they took to improve the outcome, and why and how they changed their strategy as they learned. Unsurprisingly, those in a fixed mindset will tend to blame others.
In general, I have a strong bias toward interview questions that ask about real scenarios vs. complete hypotheticals or logic puzzles. (Logic puzzles in particular are utter garbage heavily biased towards certain races and social classes.) When you ask someone to recount a particular event or relationship, they’ll often take on some of the emotional tone of the story. You can learn a lot simply by watching for cues in tone and body language. Asking questions based on real examples can reveal red flags such as whether someone is contemptuous toward their colleagues — a massively toxic trait.
(Before I first started consistently asking candidates these questions, I assumed that people would be better at covering up or suppressing their reactions and put on more of a “face”. Instead it turns out that people are surprisingly candid, especially if they feel justified in their actions. Follow strong feelings. Consciously mirroring someone simply by repeating something they said will encourage them to open up.)
Once you’re ready for a candidate to come on-site, ask them to generate a response to a problem statement or customer need that is relevant to your company. Have them bring some kind of documentation to the interviews. This can be a printable document or a presentation, anything that approximates what you’re already doing. Centering a 1:1 or panel interview around something concrete helps give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their approach as well as their interest in the opportunity.
Including an assignment of some kind also provides an opportunity to see how candidates respond to feedback and questions. Good candidates will be open to feedback. They will have anticipated a lot of the questions that get asked — they will even have prepared answers later in their presentation to many of them.
Great candidates will seek out feedback. They also anticipate a lot of the questions people ask as well as when those questions will come up. During their interview, you’ll find yourself thinking of a question and then have it more or less immediately answered by the next point.
Overcoming biases (Everyone’s a little bit racist)
It’s important to be aware that women, people of color, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks have to apply much more effort to receive fair external compensation for any of these efforts. As a manager it’s your responsibility to create a safe place to fail, for everyone.
Managers and peers from higher positions of privilege can start to build the empathy needed to create an equitable and inclusive culture by educating themselves. For instance, if you work with someone who is African American you can read up about the psychology of racism, the Great Migration, and the militarization of police in the United States.
Learning to recognize when (not if) you and others treat someone unfairly is the first step toward building a diverse and inclusive team. Assume that you yourself have bigoted views and try to address them as you make decisions, not after.
It’s also important to acknowledge that recognizing and dismantling intolerant/hostile behavior can be very uncomfortable. Anyone with some racial, class, or gender privilege will learn things about themselves they would rather not know.
Be transparent about your own growth areas
People respond to leaders they feel they can trust, and being vulnerable with your team about your own shortcomings and thought processes models the growth mindset. Vulnerability is a tool for PM performance because it increases our emotional resilience and our willingness to challenge ourselves to improve. Researcher Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly explores vulnerability more deeply:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”
You can build trust and transparency with your team in a lot of ways. I prefer to get updates on work outside of the in-person 1:1 because it leaves the time open for more nuanced questions and long-term career development discussions without having to schedule a separate meeting. Receiving updates outside 1:1 time also gives managers the space to ask questions and find ways to unblock their PMs without worrying about whether they are missing an update.
A great tool for quickly establishing transparent communication is soliciting your team’s personal user manuals. Someone’s personal user manual is the guide for how to work with and interact with them. By sharing often unspoken but deeply important traits like communication styles and values with each other, team members learn to function as a group.
I hope these tips are helpful to you on your never-ending journey. I’d love to get feedback from you as you apply these to yourself or your team. Let me know what did and didn’t work, or share some additional tips with me.
You’ve got this. 🙌