This Week #9: Breaking into growth, leading with influence, and (not) stepping on toes 🦶

With special guest contributor Brian Balfour – Founder and CEO of Reforge

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of my humble newsletter, where I attempt to answer your questions and offer candid advice about building product, driving growth, working with other humans, and anything else that’s stressing you out at the office 🤝

If you’re returning from the last edition (or the marketplace series), thank you! If you’re new to this newsletter, nice to have you! 💛

This week:

  1. How to break into a growth role (with special guest Brian Balfour!) 🧗‍♀️

  2. How to use influence to get sh*t done in a large company 😏

  3. How to work within an ambiguous org structure without stepping on toes 🦶

On to this week’s questions…

Q: How does one break into a “growth” role?

For this question, I went straight to a person who has gotten more people into “growth” than anyone else in the world (and is also a great human being): Brian Balfour. Brian founded and operates a company called Reforge, which trains hundreds of people each year on all aspects of growth, and generously offered to share his wisdom. Here’s Brian’s advice for getting into a growth role:

1. Understand what growth means to the company
This sounds simple but is unfortunately complicated.  Every company has defined its growth team differently.  In some orgs it is a cross-functional product team, in other orgs it is a section of their marketing team, and others it is their market expansion team. Then within that structure, the cultures of growth teams vary a lot across companies in how they approach the practice of growth.  Some take a more aggressive approach, others a little more reserved.  My personal view is that growth is a specialization across functions and is most effective when formed in a cross-functional product team.  But not understanding what growth means to the company is the top mistake people make in seeking out growth roles and leads to situations that were doomed to fail from the beginning.

2. Form a point of view on how they grow
You then want to form a point of view on how the product grows.  At Reforge, we believe this is best done in the form of growth loops, not funnels. In the interview process, if you do any type of situational judgment question, take-home exercise, etc. always make sure you have a solid understanding of the product grows.  Come in with this point of view, validate and refine it with the company.  It shows that you are able to think about the bigger picture and gives you context for all of your answers. 

3. Focus on foundational tools, not tactics
I see candidates try to impress by listing off a lot of tactical ideas they have for the product.  Your chance of success with this is minimal.  You are at massive information disadvantage about what is working, what isn't working, and what has been tried at the company.  Most of the ideas you can come up with the little information you have probably have already been tried.  This isn't what great teams want to see anyways.

Instead, they want to see that you are really strong at the foundational tools and that you can apply them to solve a variety of growth problems.  A simple version of these foundational tools is the ability to use data analysis (qual and quant) along with user psychology within an experiment-driven methodology.  Don't focus on the end idea, but show how you would approach solving problems using these three things. 

4. Build a meaningful body of work
We talk internally at Reforge a lot about "application, not credentials."  It might sound weird coming from an education company, but we believe the value of credentials is diminishing fast (which is great).  You shouldn't learn something to get the credential, you should learn it so that you can apply it and create a meaningful body of work.  Then you need to show off that work.  Unfortunately, resumes and LinkedIn profiles are the worst way to do this.  Instead, you need to take a portfolio approach (even if you aren't a designer).  That could be through a blog, personal site, private collection of work you share, etc.  The format doesn't matter.  But those that show they can apply and create stand out 10X more than someone with a list of useless badges on their LinkedIn profile.  Don't have a portfolio of growth work yet? That is fine, take a couple of products you use, pretend you were a growth pm for them, and show how you would break down a problem you see in their product.

[Sponsored] For the next four weeks, I’m going to run an experiment where I’ll highlight fantastic job opportunities at hand-selected companies that I love. My goal is to make these ads both valuable and informative. Let me know what you think 😳

This week’s featured open role comes from a company that I’ve increasingly come to both rely on and respect: Wealthfront.

Wealthfront is hiring a Senior Product Manager for their fast-growing Cash product — click here to learn more 👈

Not only do I keep some of my own savings with Wealthfront, and have friends who work there and love it, I’ve also been eating up all of the wisdom that their CEO Andy Rachleff has been sharing lately. Don’t miss his chat about PMF with Mike Maples Jr. and this chat with Jason Calacanis about investing, startups, and fintech. Before Wealthfront, Andy co-founded a VC firm you may have heard of…Benchmark Captial.

I’m asking every company that I feature to share a piece of wisdom with our readers — here’s a learning from Wealthfront’s product team:

"Design exclusively for our target customer" is one of Wealthfront's most important product principles. We take this to an extreme: we will periodically fire non-target customers who demand things we know we will never build. Our success depends on delighting our customers, and this segment will never be satisfied with our product. If we will never delight them, we believe it's better not to serve them. This enables our product, design, and engineering teams to remain laser-focused on delivering delightful product experiences to the customers that matter to our growth and success.

Thanks, Wealthfront!

Q: In your articles, you discuss the importance of leading via influence, rather than authority. How do you influence getting something out the door if you are burdened by excessive bureaucracy? I've experienced trivially small bugfixes get ping-ponged to the EM, VP, other PM's, and even to the CEO. Instead of 2 minutes, it becomes a 2-week issue with an excessive number of people involved.

First of all, it’s important to remember that there are good reasons for some bureaucracy. A big company has a lot of moving parts, with many people, teams, and workstreams that need to stay coordinated. There are probably a dozen other PMs hoping to get their 2-minute fix prioritized too. To scale, leaders have to put in processes and systems to keep things running smoothly. Even if some of it sucks, some level of bureaucracy is essential.

So my first piece of advice to you is that you’ll have to deal with some amount of bureaucratic pain working at a big company. It’s part of the deal.

Fortunately, there’s also a lot you can do to make life better for both you and for your org. By reading between the lines of your question, it’s clear that no one in authority believes what you’re proposing is a priority. They simply don’t agree with your assessment that this “trivially small bugfix” is worth doing now, above other priorities.

Here are some things you can do (both for this ask and for future asks) to increase the chances of your asks happening:

  1. Find the decision-maker: Who makes the final call on what’s prioritized? Focus your efforts on that person. If that person says they will defer to someone else, focus on that other person. If it’s unclear who the decision-maker is, simply ask the most senior person involved, “Who’s the decision-maker on this?”

  2. Ask direct questions: When the decision-maker says they aren’t ready to commit, or they keep kicking the can down the road, ask them “What would it take to convince you this is worth prioritizing?” Then, work on delivering that to them.

  3. Make the ask crystal clear and trustworthy: Often, tasks stall simply because they aren’t concrete enough to start designing or building. Or leaders don’t trust the ask (when is a 2-minute task actually just two minutes?). If you suspect this may be the case, spend more time refining the problem and solution. Get buy-in from the folks that’ll likely be working on it (e.g. the engineer, designer, etc.).

  4. Help them see why it’s a priority: How strong is your case for why this is worth doing, above all of the other work that’s being prioritized? As a PM, you understand the importance of prioritizing ruthlessly, and not shifting priorities haphazardly. Other than “it’s just a quick fix!”, how could you make your case stronger? What convinced you it’s such a high priority?

  5. Set a deadline: Share a date by which you need to make a call, one way or the other. Even if it’s just arbitrary (e.g. “I’d like to make a call by X/X to keep things moving swiftly“), it helps keep things from dragging on. If you miss that date, it’s a good opportunity to step back and highlight how long this process is taking.

Finally, if this is a recurring problem and is something you and others are continuously frustrated by, I’d suggest taking initiative and shining a mirror to the org. Put together a short doc or deck that collects this and every other example of small things that took way too long to do. Then, add your recommendations for how to fix this problem. Imagine you were charge — what would you change? When you share this with your leaders, either they’ll agree it’s a problem and will want to address it, or they’ll explain why things are working as intended. Either way, it’ll make things better.

Q: As our company & PM team has grown, it's been increasingly harder to tell when I'm "stepping on someone's toes" by pursuing an initiative in an ambiguous area of ownership. It would be helpful to hear your thoughts on this issue as the company scales.

The good news, and the bad news, is that this issue will never really go away. After a dozen re-orgs during my time at Airbnb, with all manner of org structure, we never fully solved this problem. You’ll need to get used to working with some ambiguity in ownership.

However, you can certainly reduce the pain. Some of the things that I’ve seen work best (from simplest, to most complicated):

  1. Communicate, then proceed: You never want your company to miss a big opportunity just because you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings. You want to create a culture of impact > ownership. Uber took this concern to the extreme making one of their core values “Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping”, which actively encouraged toe-stepping if you had a good idea. A healthier approach that I’d recommend is to simply communicate to leadership and associated teams that you plan to tackle a project in an ambiguous area, and ask them to let you know by a specific date if they disagree. If you don’t hear anything, just go for it, while also communicating your progress regularly. The key is that you don’t block on waiting for approval – it’s more of a heads up. If there’s push-back, hear them out, but make sure it isn’t just land-grab politicking. Seek out concrete reasons for why you shouldn't be tackling a big opportunity right now. Keep interested parties updated, run big decisions by them, but otherwise, make sure the highest impact work is getting done.

  2. Make an ownership spreadsheet: Every time you re-org, create a simple spreadsheet with all of the product areas that exist as individual rows, and each of the teams as columns. Then, assign every product area to a team. Even if it doesn’t fit perfectly, give it to someone anyway. This is especially important for assigning bugs. If there is disagreement, have a senior leader make a call. Nothing here is set in stone, you can adjust it if things don’t end up working well. It’s more important to make a decision here than to make the perfect decision.

  3. Organize your team around outcomes, not features: One of the best decisions the Airbnb founders made early-on was to build cross-functional teams around “Outcomes”, not “Product Features”. In this world, a team wouldn’t own the Dashboard but instead would own “Increase user engagement.” This team can then work on any part of the product that they need to achieve that outcome. This avoids both over-optimizing a feature that isn’t driving impact, and also breaks the whole idea of clean divisions of product surface-area ownership. Though this may be a big shift for your company, and it does introduce new challenges, I believe this was a critical ingredient in Airbnb’s success. You can read more about this in Jonathan Golden’s excellent post.

That’s it for this week!

Inspirations for the week ahead 🧠

  1. ReadI coached 101 CEOs, founders, VCs and other executives in 2019: These are the biggest takeaways by Leo Widrich

  2. WatchWhat happens when our computers get smarter than we are? by Nick Bostrom

  3. Try: How to Boil the Perfect Egg by J. Kenji López-Alt

If you’d like some advice yourself, just reply to this email. Each week, I’ll tackle three reader questions (keeping you anonymous) until you quit sending me questions. If you’re finding this newsletter valuable, please share it with your friends!


Lenny 👋