Ken Norton on Lenny’s Podcast

Making the shift from reactive to creative leadership

By Ken Norton

51 min read • Jul 24, 2022

Ken Norton

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Unlock Your Product Leadership Skills: Ken Norton

I joined Lenny’s Podcast to talk about coaching, product leadership, and the transition from reactive to creative. Listen to the audio or watch the video at the bottom of this page. I have lightly edited the transcript for accuracy.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:00:22):

Over his 14-year career at Google. Ken Norton led product teams at built Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Maps, and even did a stint at Google Ventures. The products that he’s helped craft are now used by over three billion people.

Today Ken is a full-time executive coach specializing at working with product leaders. In our conversation, we cover the creative versus reactive mindset, why the art of product management is much more important than the science of product management, how to get over imposter syndrome, the most common PM blind spots, how to find a coach and how to know if a coach is right for you, and so much more. I hope that you enjoy this episode with Ken Norton.

Welcome to the podcast, Ken. I am so honored to have you here. You’re such a legend of product managers and product management circles. Your writing has had so much influence on so many people, including myself. If nothing else, you’ve led to many donuts being purchased by tech companies over the years. So thanks for being here.

Ken Norton (00:02:58):

Thank you and thanks for having me. The feeling’s mutual. Obviously a big fan of your work and all the things you’ve done for the community and this podcast, which has been fantastic. So humbled and excited to be here. Yes, I do think that I’m at least maybe partially responsible for at least a lot of consumption of donuts over these years.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:03:18):

Are you tired of people asking you about donuts?

Ken Norton (00:03:21):

I’ll never get tired of it. Well, back when we met with people in person, people would bring me donuts, and I never got tired of it, nor did any of the people that I worked with who got to eat those donuts get tired of it. So, no, no, I’ll never get tired of donuts.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:03:37):

Someone on Twitter asked what’s a digital equivalent of bringing the donuts now that we’re in a remote world. Do you have any advice on that?

Ken Norton (00:03:45):

That’s a great question. I’m not even sure if the physical equivalent of donuts is donuts. I mean when I came up with that, I think it was really to be a metaphor around being a servant leader, bringing whatever needs to be done, filling the white space, filling the gaps, whatever needed to happen. So it doesn’t always have to be donuts.

Ken Norton (00:04:07):

I did put that question out to some of the readers in my newsletter a while ago, maybe earlier in the pandemic, and got a lot of really interesting ideas. Maybe that was at a place where people had a little bit more patience for happy hours over Zoom and stuff like that. Maybe that patient set is worn out. The idea that I love the most was actual donuts. There was a PM who got DoorDash codes and found the best local donut place for each of the people on the team and basically sent them a code and said, “Click here and order the donuts to come to your house whenever you want them.” So maybe at least partially the digital equivalent of donuts might be actual donuts.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:04:40):

Decentralized donuts.

Ken Norton (00:04:42):

Decentralized donuts, on the blockchain.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:04:46):

Oh boy, let’s not go there.

Ken Norton (00:04:48):

I don’t know what that is.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:04:50):

So I was perusing your career path ahead of this chat. You had this pretty wild career. You were an engineer initially, and then you were CTO at a part of NBC. Then you’re a founder. Then you spent 14 years at Google working on products that folks may have heard of, like Google Docs and Google Calendar and Google Maps. You’ve also done a bunch of writing. Then more recently, you’ve become a full-time executive coach focusing on product people.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:05:17):

I have so many questions I’d love to ask you about your career and learnings along the way, and the writing. But I’d actually like to spend most of our time talking about the coaching and things that you’ve learned through that experience. And so, I have a couple questions just off the bat. What does an executive coach actually do? What kinds of things are you helping people with? What does a session look like? Then, two, just how did you decide you wanted to be a coach full time after leaving Google?

Ken Norton (00:05:40):

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think coaching does mean a lot of different things. I mean it depends on who you talk to. It is a little bit of who you are, your style, your approach. Some people are calling themselves coaches, doing more mentoring, more advice. Other people are maybe more like me, more pure coaching.

Ken Norton (00:06:01):

To me, I see executive coaching as a creative partnership. It’s all about helping my client reach their goals, their potential, whatever that means to them. So an important thing about coaching is the definition of success does belong to the client. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t have a set of things I’m trying to share, teach, learn. It really is fundamentally up to them, which means every client is completely different. They have different sense of where they want to go. Different barriers that might be standing in their way.

Ken Norton (00:06:35):

In my coaching practice, I coach the whole person. So there is no restriction on what we might talk on, what we might work on together. It’s not limited to product. It’s not even limited to work or even leadership. It’s wherever they want to go, whatever change, transformation means to them.

Ken Norton (00:06:52):

As coaches, we bring a bunch of tools to the conversation. The most important ones, honestly, are probably listening and curiosity, intuition, open-mindedness, really there to help challenge them to see things in different ways, help them tap into their imagination, figure out when there might be underlying beliefs, help them connect dots that need to be connected, help them disconnect things that feel connected. There’s a lot of exploration to it.

Ken Norton (00:07:20):

It’s very jazz-like. My love of jazz has been shared before, but there is an improvisation to it. What coaching is really powerful is you may not necessarily know where you’re going when you start and you follow wherever there is meaning and change for that individual, wherever is they want to go.

Ken Norton (00:07:38):

The question around what brought me into it was actually interesting. I, honestly working with my own executive coach, started to figure out what it is that mattered to me, what I liked, what my values were, what my purpose was, started to unpack that I love deeply connecting with people and I love helping people change and grow.

Ken Norton (00:08:01):

The moments when I had the opportunity to do that as a manager, as a product leader were the most fulfilling parts of my career. And so, I started to unpack that and figure out what would it look like if that was what I did.

Ken Norton (00:08:15):

The other part of the journey was, for several years at Google, I worked at GV. It’s Google Ventures, Google’s venture capital arm. I had the opportunity to work with founders and product leaders in the portfolio. I started to simultaneously recognize the shortcomings of giving advice, because it seemed like, well, I can meet with these folks, I could tell them what I did, I could tell them what Google did, and that’ll answer all their questions.

Ken Norton (00:08:41):

You start to realize advice is not as powerful as you might think it is. It’s a little bit like cotton candy. Doesn’t have a lot of nutrition. You get a nice sugar high. You feel great, both sides feel happy, but then a couple weeks later, a couple months later, nothing’s really changed.

Ken Norton (00:08:57):

That’s because it doesn’t often confront the real problem. It often isn’t relevant. Like what worked for us at Google may not have worked anywhere else. It may not even have worked at Google for all I know. I feel like there were years at Google where all we were doing was making things worse by showing up and we should just all have gone and sat on a beach somewhere, and the company would’ve grown even faster. So who knows?

Ken Norton (00:09:20):

I mean so it was these just twin pillars of wanting to figure out where I could do what I like the most, and then also recognizing that where growth comes from is less around advice and telling people what to do and more about helping them figure out their own path, their own way. Then that ultimately you brought me into, hey, I want to do this full time, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:09:46):

When do you find people come to you to get advice and coaching? What kind of clients do you find you end up working with?

Ken Norton (00:09:53):

That’s a great question. Generally speaking, I work with senior product leaders, however you want to define that. Typically, these are chief product officers, VPs of product at startups, largely director level and above at bigger tech companies, some CEOs, other C-level execs in there. I think really anyone that considers themselves in a product leadership role.

Ken Norton (00:10:15):

Often they come to me because there’s a career milestone or a crossroads, and it could be that they now find themselves in the position of being a CPO for the first time. Maybe there’s a new industry change, or they’ve gone from a big company to a startup and a have this sense of what got me here isn’t going to get me there. That’s oftentimes when they reach out for coaching.

Ken Norton (00:10:41):

I think my clients are also very introspective and surrounded by great mentors and advisors and have all sorts of people in their life who can help them, but are realizing that a lot of the work is going to be internal work that’s going to get them to the next level. And so, this transformation is going to be just as much what I need to do as who I am. That’s often when people come to me.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:11:08):

You said that the way you coach is about the whole person. I’m curious … I don’t know if there’s an answer to this, but when people come to get help and coaching, how much of their blocks, I guess, are rooted in their regular life versus skills, technical skills, and more like the PM-ey, product leadership side, if that makes sense?

Ken Norton (00:11:31):

Yeah, I think … Well, let me maybe try to illustrate this with an example from my life right now. Indulge me, I’m going to go a little bit left field here, but I promise it will connect.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:11:45):

Let’s do it.

Ken Norton (00:11:46):

We are teaching our 16-year-old son how to drive. So he just got his driver’s permit. Do you remember when you learned how to drive, Lenny?

Lenny Rachitsky (00:11:56):

I do. Yup.

Ken Norton (00:11:58):

Yeah. Yeah. So it’s scary. I don’t know if you know how your parents might have felt, but I’m on the other side of it. It’s a whole new journey. Look, he’s a smart kid. He’s going to do great. But it helped me actually think back to when I learned how to drive. Actually, what I think is maybe a little bit more important here is before you learn to drive. And so, if you think about it as a … When you’re a kid, cars just go places. You get strapped in and you just wait and you get impatient. Then eventually you go somewhere. You’re not even consciously aware of the concept of driving. Just cars just happen and you’re not even aware of it.

Ken Norton (00:12:41):

As you get a little bit older, you start to become curious. You start to figure out, oh, that wheel has something to do with it. You turn the wheel. Maybe you start to understand there’s pedals. But it also just seems really simple. Just like you get in the car and you drive it and you go somewhere. Maybe as you get older, you end up maybe even being a little bit of a smart aleck about how easy it looks and you start talking to your parents about, like, “It doesn’t look hard. I can do this.”

Ken Norton (00:13:07):

Now suddenly you’re behind the wheel of the car. This is what my son is doing. Wow. Is it different than you thought it was going to be? Is it way more complicated? You have to remember check your mirrors. You’ve got to look before you turn. You didn’t even know what that sign meant. You didn’t know what those stripes meant. It is just overloading with complication and your internal mindset for confronting this challenge is not going to suit you the way you used to approach the world.

Ken Norton (00:13:44):

Maybe to put it in product leadership, product terms, everyone around you has got some real pithy advice about the things you’re forgetting to do. It’s like, “Hey, don’t forget to check your mirror.” Everyone’s got a framework. It’s like, “Ah, do you know about the Ten-And-Two Framework?” “Wait, what’s the Ten-And-Two Framework?” “Oh, you just put your left hand on the 10 o’clock, your right hand on the 2 o’clock. That’s the only thing you’re missing. Here’s a great Medium post about that.” Then you’re like, “The problem is that I have not adapted to the complexity of the world around me.”

Ken Norton (00:14:19):

And so, there is this sense that what is interesting about driving is the world hasn’t gotten any more complex. Driving’s always been driving. But now your place in the world has shifted such that the internal meaning-making and self-complexity that is required requires a complete reboot of the internal operating system in order to allow you to thrive there.

Ken Norton (00:14:41):

And so, when you talk about this question of how much of this is skills, how much of this is tactics, how much of this is learning versus how much is internal growth, the answer is it’s both, but the shift that is required is very much around how your inner self can make meaning and respond to the demands of the world around you so that you can succeed and thrive in this mindset shift that happens.

Ken Norton (00:15:09):

The skills matter, but by this point, you’re beyond the place where you’ve learned the skills. There’s mastering the skills, but there is this sense of what developmental psychologists call self-complexity, the ability to respond and adapt to that.

Ken Norton (00:15:24):

And so, I think we go through a lot of those shifts in our career. The driving example is simple. Actually, probably too simple, because the world is actually getting more complex for those of us that work in product. I mean every day something changes. It forces us to respond and adapt. So there aren’t even rules of the road in product.

Ken Norton (00:15:42):

But I think this is what we’re talking about, this question of the internal operating system I develop my ability to restructure it such that I can succeed given the demands that have been placed upon me.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:15:57):

What an amazing analogy. Totally hits home in a good and bad way. It’s a really good segue to something I wanted to chat about, something that we talked about before the recording, which is what you’re finding to be one of the bigger unlocks for your clients. It’s also a concept that you’ve been spending a lot of time refining and you’re finding is helping people shift, and specifically shift their leadership mindset. And so, I’d love to just hear you talk through your thinking there.

Ken Norton (00:16:24):

Yeah, it does sort lead into this. Maybe another analogy that might work for your listeners, if you think about product management, your career arc and where you are challenged from a mindset perspective, in some ways it does feel like the early part of your career. You’re learning to play a video game. Hopefully there’s a tutorial. Your first job is learning the ropes, somebody’s teaching you. You maybe have managers that are giving you simple little missions that you can succeed at and if you fail, the consequences aren’t bad.

Ken Norton (00:17:03):

It does feel like a little bit … And I felt this way, and I talked to a lot of people earlier in their career. It does feel like you’re trying to learn the rules of the game, trying to figure out the physics. You want to run up the score.

Ken Norton (00:17:15):

You get better at playing the game. You fail, but you start to develop some confidence that when you fail, you’ll learn from it. You’ll get better. You get really good at the game. You get promoted, you get rewarded, you unlock new levels, teach other people how to play the game. You start to feel really awesome about yourself.

Ken Norton (00:17:32):

But then suddenly you’re put in a place where you realize that the rules of the game aren’t so black-and-white. Maybe there’s a long delay now between when you get to see what you did and the score of it. Things start to behave in unexpected ways. The physics start to get weird. You’re on a level where you’re floating. I don’t know what the right metaphor is here.

Ken Norton (00:17:52):

But you start to recognize that there’s been this huge change. The most frightening part about it is you look around and everyone is looking at you like you’re the designer of the game, and you thought you were playing. That’s often what it feels like when you move into a leadership role, to come back to this sense of what got me here is not going to get me there.

Ken Norton (00:18:17):

I work with a lot of leaders and sometimes that’s come with a pretty significant cost, this juxtaposition, maybe your happiness, your health, your marriage. There’s been this existential crisis of I don’t know if I love this anymore. Maybe it leads to burnout. Maybe it’s not even that dire. It’s just a sense of, well, I’m looking around and I need to be something. I need to unlock something else to continue on this path. There is a sense of stuckness that comes from that.

Ken Norton (00:18:45):

What I’ve come to realize is this is the precipice of, I think, this pretty fundamental concept in leadership. I’m not the originator of this, so this has come up again and again and again. It’s not new. It’s going to sound familiar. It’s like the Flood Myth from Gilgamesh showing up in all the oral histories of the world. It’s not new.

Ken Norton (00:19:10):

Conscious Leadership Group, an organization that I’m big fan of, they call it Above the Line versus Below the Line. Brené Brown calls it Armored versus Daring Leadership. Sage versus warrior. Even in the world of sports, there’s playing to win versus playing not to lose. It’s this concept that’s come up again and again. Leadership Circle calls it Creative versus Reactive, and that’s the term I’m going to use. I like that.

Ken Norton (00:19:35):

Here’s the distinction. Very simple. Are you responding to the world from a place of fear, where you see problems and threats, you want to be right, you want to be liked, you’re defensive as an inward approach, or are you responding to the world from a place of openness, possibility, curiosity, passion, growth, purpose? Very simple concept. Pretty much everyone understands what I mean. It makes sense.

Ken Norton (00:20:11):

Everyone also then immediately says a couple of different things. “That sounds amazing. I’d rather have that,” or, “Here are moments when I’ve felt that,” but that’s usually followed up by a couple of questions. “I don’t know if that works. It doesn’t sound very effective. Is it possible?” Then how do you that?

Ken Norton (00:20:38):

The effective part is actually a question we can answer, which is, yes, it is more effective. Bob Anderson and Bill Adams are two management scientists who’ve written extensively, done a whole bunch of research, and they have looked at every possible dimension you can imagine of success, both leadership capability, they’ve looked at revenue, brand, profitability, everything, and it’s shown, yes, this creative form of leadership is in every possible way positively correlated with success and reactive leadership is negatively correlated. So, yes, it works.

Ken Norton (00:21:17):

Yet… according to their research, some 75% of leaders are primarily operating reactively. So most leaders are operating from a place of fear, reacting, seeing problems, and threats. That’s because that other question of how do you do it is such a hard one to answer. It’s not an easy thing that you flip the switch of. It goes back to this notion of redesigning that internal operating system, so how you confront the world, what underlying belief systems and assumptions you have that are causing you to operate from that place.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:21:55):

Can I ask you a quick question? Just to clarify the two sides, what’s a sign that you’re in the reactive side of things? I think one thing you said is you’re worrying a lot about how people think about you and make sure that they like you. Is there anything else that’s going to tell a listener, “Oh, maybe I’m falling into this trap”?

Ken Norton (00:22:13):

Yeah, you’ve nailed it, which is that fear, like operating from a place of anxiety. There are different ways, depending on our mindsets, our approaches. I like the word postures because it seems to click different ways that we retreat into this reactive mode. Fear and anxiety is the way. That’s how you know. You’re just like, “Ugh, I’m below the line.” I’m just like I’m seeing problems. I’m seeing threats.

Ken Norton (00:22:43):

Our brains are hardwired to do that, so it’s not like that’s wrong. These are brains that learn to do that, I don’t know, on the tundra being chased by wild animals. So this is our normal way of being. There might be different desires and needs that force you to operate that way. We think there’s really three of these postures.

Ken Norton (00:23:11):

Anybody is probably more than one of them, so this is not pathologizing. This isn’t putting you in a box. But probably one of these will resonate more than the others. Wanting to be approved, wanting to be loved, wanting other people to like you. This was me in my early part of my career.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:23:28):


Ken Norton (00:23:29):

Yeah. So you’re kind of like the heart type. It’s sometimes called move toward other people. A lot of that came from my environment. When I was coming up in product management no one necessarily knew what the job even was. I had no authority and most people could just ignore me if they wanted to. And so, I had to meet other people’s expectations, please them, want to be accepted by them, seek their approval. It was this what we call a complying approach.

Ken Norton (00:23:58):

Here, this is why this is so vexing is it actually worked really well. It was pretty effective. Other people liked working with me. I listened to them and I considered everyone’s needs and made sure everyone felt heard. But there came a point where I gave away so much power that it was hurting me when it came to purpose and execution and decisiveness.

Ken Norton (00:24:22):

And so, again, these aren’t bad. There’s usually underlying tendencies that are very good. It just starts to have a cost as you become more senior. It’s like the gears start to grind to a halt a little bit.

Ken Norton (00:24:35):

Another way is more of a needing to be right head type, protecting one’s own ideas, sometimes called a move away from type, distance, arrogance, criticism, retreating into your own ideas and head. Then the other will not be a surprise, is the more controlling, my way or the highway, autocratic will move against wanting to win, wanting to be number one, wanting to excel, wanting dominance, wanting control, this would be another tendency.

Ken Norton (00:25:10):

Often one of those feels natural to you and another one feels just so incredibly distasteful that you can’t imagine possibly operating that way. This goes into the underlying beliefs part. If you had told me early in my career, when you saw me being passive and people-pleasing like that, “You’ve just got to stop caring what other people think, Ken. You’ve got to be more pushy.”

Ken Norton (00:25:41):

People did say that to me. That was pretty common probably in my performance review. It was very common. Even people who worked for me were like, “You need to push back.” My only archetype for doing that was the autocratic, controlling type. I was like, “I don’t want to be like that. That guy’s a jerk. That’s a fascist. I don’t want to be a fascist. I do care about other people.”

Ken Norton (00:26:04):

And so, many of our examples and archetypes are these equally ineffective reactive ways of being. And so, no wonder I didn’t want to be like that, because that’s also not very effective either. But there was a sense for me of redefining … This is where coaching is powerful is this what are the underlying assumptions and beliefs that you have that are causing you to fall back on some of these fundamental ways of operating and not let go of them?

Ken Norton (00:26:35):

Because the answer for me wasn’t stop caring about other people. I wasn’t going to do that. That’s a value of mine. It’s part of who I am. But take the caring about other people, the empathy, the connection, and direct it in a more creative way where you’re operating now from a place of purpose and vision and not reacting and protecting and defending and wanting to be.

Ken Norton (00:26:56):

For me, the key to that was letting go of needing to be liked and redefining it as an admiration that takes place over time. So rather than I want to leave this room with everyone liking me, I started to realize I want to be the type of leader where, a decade later, people say, “I would work with that guy again in a heartbeat.” That was part of the unlock for me.

Ken Norton (00:27:25):

Again, I care about other people. That’s a natural gift that underlines it. But it’s a redefinition of how that serves me, if that makes sense.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:27:34):

Say someone’s in that first bucket … And I was definitely in that first bucket. I still want people to like me and I still probably have flaws there. But say you’re a PM and you’re like, “Oh, man. That’s exactly how I am acting right now.” It sounds like is the core of it just a mindset shift, going from I need people to like me to what you just talked about of, okay, I’m going to shift to I just want them to respect me over time? Is that the core of it? I know it’s probably not that easy, but how should someone behave during that bucket right now?

Ken Norton (00:28:03):

Yeah. It sounds easy, right? This is part of what’s hard about this, is it always sounds easy when you describe it, having gone through the journey. It’s sort of like talk to somebody on the summit of Mount Everest and they’ll be like, “Yeah. Well, I could just climb this mountain. That’s how I got here.” You’re like, “Okay, wait, that’s not that easy.” Again, it is very individualized.

Ken Norton (00:28:21):

I think there’s an appreciation that you have to understand what is holding you back. This is a lot of the work that I’ll do with my clients is what is those underlying expectations? What are these underlying beliefs?

Ken Norton (00:28:40):

I believed that my style was incompatible with being a leader. I would’ve said I can’t be a CEO because I’m not tough enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m not commanding enough. I can’t command a room. It’s like, okay, what is the underlying belief I’m making about what leadership is there? There’s an archetype that I have in my mind that is incompatible with this this way.

Ken Norton (00:29:10):

And so, there’s a need to confront that. Okay, what makes you believe the only type of leader is the leader that orders people around? Maybe that’s all I’ve ever seen. Maybe I don’t believe it’s possible to be another type of leader. Maybe there’s an inner critic that is convincing me that that’s not who I am, because a part of it is redefinition of what does leadership need for you, for you authentically? What would it be like, in my case, to lead with purpose and be decisive and lead with vision and to have other people felt like they’re being brought along and listened to and participated and create safe spaces for other people? That was the question there.

Ken Norton (00:29:47):

It took people challenging my point of view. It took working with a coach, asking me questions, forcing me to see places I’d made connections, that the connections don’t really need to be made. There’s a lot of instruments and tools we work with in coaching. There’s 360-degree assessments that are very helpful here that will start to help you understand, hey, here are places where you’re operating actively. Here are places where you’re operating really creatively, because, by the way, most people are partially somewhere in that journey. It’s a developmental process.

Ken Norton (00:30:17):

And to start to be able to get the feedback, the dopamine hit of seeing when I do it this way, actually it’s more effective and it doesn’t cost me as much. I’m happier and I’m enjoying it, I’m seeing that it’s working, is oftentimes a big part of this because there is this belief that it won’t work. The number of times when I’m with a client in coaching and say, “Well, what if you did do that?” and they go, “It just won’t work.” You realize that there is this wiring in there that needs … And this is what I talk about, this operating system that needs to be rejiggered to start to make sense of what if it did and how might you know.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:30:55):

The point you just made about how you can realize that you can be successful in a lot of different ways and you don’t have to be this one archetype of a leader really resonates with my experience. I actually had an executive coach for a few months, and that was probably the biggest unlock for me. We did the strengths exercise, which a lot of people do. The main thing that she helped me see is you can do all the things that you want to do through the lens of the strengths that you have and not have to force yourself to be good at these other things, because there’s many ways to accomplish the same outcomes.

Ken Norton (00:31:29):

That’s exactly right. Then once you start to understand that, you start to develop a better way of finding the right place, the right environment, the right role. When we began the conversation, you asked me what brought me into executive coaching. I would feel these … I would describe it as flying too close to the sun in my career, where I would have a team. I’d be managing a small team. I would love it. I would enjoy it. Then suddenly my team would grow.

Ken Norton (00:31:57):

I’d become more senior than I felt comfortable being. Then I felt like I wasn’t getting to do the “real” work anymore. Then I would be just completely disheveled and dissatisfied. Then I’d go try to go find a smaller team or even stop being a manager. It was a very meandering, reactive path. It was like every so often I was catching a wave, and I knew what it felt like to be on the wave, but I didn’t know what the characteristics of the wave were.

Ken Norton (00:32:23):

Then through coaching, I was like, “I love connecting with other people. I like helping people grow. I like helping challenge people. I like helping.” Then I was like what are those parts? What if I unpack those? Oh, that’s why I loved managing that team of five because I got to do a lot of it. That’s why I hated managing a team of 35 because there’s no time for it.

Ken Norton (00:32:44):

Then you start to say, okay, well, what if rather than just randomly meandering through my career, I actually elevated needing to connect, wanting to be helpful? Then you’re like what would it be like if I wanted the helping professions? It’s just a reframing of move through your career in a way that seems externally to fit some definition of success and to start to define that internally.

Ken Norton (00:33:11):

That is the very definition of the reactive versus creative mindset. Reactive, allowing the world to set the expectations and try to meet them versus tap into what your real, true sense of purpose and vision is. Then use that to navigate the world.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:33:28):

It’s interesting that so much of this is just mindset. It’s not like learning a new skill as a leader or a product manager. It’s just seeing yourself in the world differently. All of a sudden you unlock your career. Is that what you find?

Ken Norton (00:33:40):

Absolutely. That’s why I think so much of the focus on the skills, the frameworks, it can be limited as you develop these capabilities, because it’s inner work. Where we’re talking about is this is all me.

Ken Norton (00:33:57):

Now that’s empowering. There’s empowerment to be able to say I want to change something and it doesn’t involve a whole bunch of other people convincing and persuading them, convincing an executive … This is all me. But it also, in some ways, makes it harder because it is all you. In coaching, it’s all about you. It’s all about that. Who am I and what matters to me? What underlying belief systems, inner voices are challenging me in ways that I want to be challenged? What is my unique …

Ken Norton (00:34:31):

I love the word authenticity. It’s, like you were just talking about, like what is my authentic way to lead, and then how do I center that rather than trying to fit into someone else’s definition of what leadership might be?

Ken Norton (00:34:43):

You may recognize I can’t be that authentic way of leader at this place or in this place type of company, but I know how to find it and I’m going to go find it.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:34:55):

Do you have any more examples of either someone uncovering this about themselves, or another mindset shift that you can make in one of these other buckets, similar to the idea of I’ll think about people over the long term versus immediately?

Ken Norton (00:35:10):

Yeah. It really does vary. You start to pick up on that shift when it’s less of the goals being defined externally and more of the goals being defined internally. So you’ll have a conversation with somebody who’s new to coaching and you’ll say, “What do you want?” They’ll be like, “Well, I want to get promoted to VP.” “Why?” “Because I want to be a VP.” It’s like, “Well, what’s important about being VP?” “Well, because … “ Eventually the answer is, well, because it’s there and that’s the thing that I’m supposed to do.

Ken Norton (00:35:45):

Then you start to notice the shift and it starts to become more of, “Well, because really what’s important to me is creativity. I want more creativity in my life. I want more ability to challenge other people.” And so, you start to just sense that’s more from in than from out. That’s where that shift is.

Ken Norton (00:36:06):

The journey is different for everyone. I think ultimately this is part of why, quite frankly, coaching may not be right for everyone. If we go back to that video game analogy, if you’re looking for someone to just teach you the tutorial so you can learn how to play the video game and there’s this jackass like me sitting next to you and saying, “What’s important to you about playing this video game?” you’re going to be like, “Just can you tell me how to hold the controller? Can you stop?”

Ken Norton (00:36:31):

So it’s not always right. It’s a place where I think oftentimes people recognize that they’ve gotten all the advice, all the frameworks, all the rules, all the tricks, all the tips. They’ve learned that, they’ve mastered it, they’ve tweaked it, they’ve optimized it, they’ve recognized the shortcomings, they’ve customized it. The emergence that’s required for them to get to the next level is just going to come just as much from inside them as it is from outside, if not more. That’s when that shift is made.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:36:58):

That’s called mentorship, I think, for people that are just looking for actual concrete advice on how to do a thing, is that right, versus coaching?

Ken Norton (00:37:05):

I think so. This is where the words are squishy because there are a lot of people who are mentoring, who are also stepping into a coach role occasionally. There are plenty of managers who are great at coaching as necessary. So skills run the gamut, but it’s a question of how much are you looking for someone to tell you the right way versus how much do you believe that there even is a right way? It’s ultimately going to have to be your way.

Ken Norton (00:37:33):

That’s a different place, a different point in your career at different levels of journey. It’s part of why I tend to work with probably more senior executives, because they’re not looking to me to tell them how to do the job. They’ve already learned how to do the job. It’s just something deeper that’s going to need to break through from that.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:38:51):

For someone that wants to do the work, but can’t find a coach, can’t afford a coach, is there something people can do on their own that you’d recommend to help them shift their mindset and do a lot of these things that you’ve been describing?

Ken Norton (00:39:06):

Yeah, it’s a great question. Here’s the secret about the coaching industry. Anyone can call themselves a coach. It’s very democratized. It’s great. There’s no gatekeepers and barriers and there’s no 500 licenses you have to go through.

Ken Norton (00:39:22):

There are tons of great coaches who are at various different price levels, at different levels of accessibility. And so, if you say, “I can’t afford a coach,” I might challenge that a little bit and say have you looked?

Ken Norton (00:39:36):

The other thing is that you don’t need a coach who’s done the job before. I mean obviously I’ve done the job before, so I’m undermining part of my own selling point here. But coaches are trained to coach people on any topic. So when I go through coach training, I can coach you on anything. People can coach you on anything.

Ken Norton (00:39:52):

Sometimes even there might be power in having a coach that’s never done the product management job because there won’t be any cheating of starting to move into a more of advisor role or maybe as the coach either. There may be, “Well, you tell me what should I should do,” and the person would be like, “I don’t know. I’ve never done this job. Let’s go back to what you want.” So there could be some benefit from that. Again, you don’t have to have done that.

Ken Norton (00:40:13):

So I would say coaching is incredibly powerful. I wish I’d had a coach much, much earlier in my career. And so, the answer may be coaching is more accessible than you thought. If not, I think the things that we’re talking about here are internal understanding of what matters to you, your sense of purpose, this inner curiosity, and that could be harnessed at any age. So just wondering about yourself at any point in your career, wondering what’s important to you.

Ken Norton (00:40:43):

I love doing values work, like, “What are your values? Okay. No. What really are your values?” That’s something you can do yourself. That’s something you can question. You can read about, you can start to understand.

Ken Norton (00:40:53):

Mentors can be great, especially mentors who are less about trying to tell you the right way and get you to follow directly their path, but are more they’re applying some curiosity, asking questions, challenging you in certain ways, being a way that you can bounce ideas off of.

Ken Norton (00:41:09):

Great managers, I think, especially the best product leaders, understand how to put the coach hat on and when it’s appropriate to put the coach hat on, and are explicit about that, are like, “Okay, let me take off my manager hat now and put the coach hat on. What do you really want to do, Lenny? What’s important to you? Let’s talk about your career?” And so, I think you can get coaching from everywhere.

Ken Norton (00:41:28):

There’s a lot of self-coaching you can do. This is honestly one of the benefits for me having gone through tons of training and coaching is starting to coach myself, like feeling an emotion and asking myself coach questions. Really powerful. That’s something you can do when you’ve had a coach. You can do it when you don’t have a coach. You can explore it.

Ken Norton (00:41:46):

So I think this is really all about really being curious and wanting to understand who you really are at the core and what’s important to you and what matters. That’s something that can be done with or without a coach.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:41:58):

Are there any resources that you love for either the values work or learning these questions to ask yourself? We can put them in the show notes if nothing comes to mind immediately. But is there something you recommend people check out?

Ken Norton (00:42:08):

Yeah, there are some great books. Maybe I’ll use this opportunity to throw out a couple suggestions.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:42:13):

Let’s do it.

Ken Norton (00:42:14):

I guess we can link it into the show notes. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. It’s a good book. She actually even has a whole section in there around values, confronting her values. I like her approach. There’s some free resources on her website.

Ken Norton (00:42:26):

I love Conscious Leadership Group’s work here. The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership book is fantastic. You don’t even need to buy the book. There’s a ton of stuff on their website. Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp are of the authors of that book. That’s all about a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about. They’re the ones that have the above the line versus below the line that fits into this creative versus reactive standpoint. Those are all fantastic.

Ken Norton (00:42:57):

If you want to go deeper into more of the management science behind it, if you’re like me and really curious about the psychology and the management science, Bob Anderson and Bill Adams’s book, Mastering Leadership, creates the entire integrated system around Creative versus Reactive Leadership.

Ken Norton (00:43:19):

As a teaser, they identify five levels of leadership, of which Reactive is the second, Creative is the third. So beyond that, you get into Integral and Unitive. So if you’re looking to unlock the advanced stages beyond Creative, there’s a lot of great stuff in there. Those are where all the research comes in as well.

Ken Norton (00:43:38):

From an adult development standpoint, Robert Kegan is the godfather of the adult-stage development work and the meaning-making concepts that underline a lot of this. He has a great book called Immunity to Change if you’re curious about that.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:43:52):

Awesome. We will link to all those in the description of this podcast so folks don’t have to Google around. I have a couple of more coaching questions before we move on to a few other topics. One is just what are you finding are the most common blind spots for product people in general? How are people shooting themselves in the foot most?

Ken Norton (00:44:11):

Oh, that’s a great question. I think probably the number one category, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a problem, but maybe category or problems, is … And this is, I think, great lesson for people earlier in their career, is how much all of the challenges that senior executives are dealing with come down to people versus product. So it’s like it’s fun to think about designing products, optimizing, doing user discovery, and testing what, but it’s like you sit down with an executive and it’s all about people.

Ken Norton (00:44:47):

That’s the hard part. It’s about persuading people, getting groups of people to want to work together, trying to figure out how to deal with difficult personalities, figuring out how to set a vision and articulate a vision, create an environment where people can collaborate and play.

Ken Norton (00:45:01):

And so, I think this category of blind spot often is people being confronted with that without having been intentional about thinking of it as a skill or an area that they needed to work on, needed to improve.

Ken Norton (00:45:18):

Part of what I think is pretty exciting about product management is you are a leader from day one in product management. There’s leadership all over the place, and that’s your job. You’re a leader. You don’t have any formal authority, but you’re a leader. You’re expected to lead.

Ken Norton (00:45:39):

Guess what? The hardest part about being a leader is when you don’t get to just rely on the formal authority. So you’re getting to practice all the hard parts about leadership from day one, because you’re nobody’s boss. You get to sharpen those skills, develop those intuitions, get better and better at that, so that when you do someday, if this is right for you, become someone else’s boss, you’ve already been able to lean into that.

Ken Norton (00:46:04):

And so, the people side of this is such an incredible aspect of what product management is. What I find, and this may be a category of blind spots, is people realizing that when they’re put in a position where they’re expected to have impact and realizing that they haven’t developed the skills, they haven’t developed the capability to actually be able to manage and work through all these people, which is …

Lenny Rachitsky (00:46:33):

How do you actually get better at that or develop those skills?

Ken Norton (00:46:37):

Yeah. I just think recognizing it is part of the job. It’s important. Maybe I came up at a certain time where it was often dismissed as soft skills. It’s just like soft skills are helpful, but they’re not actually something you want to work on. They’re not something you train, not something you …

Ken Norton (00:46:54):

And this is just as important. This is the equal … I wrote a piece recently about the Art versus the Science. The Art is communication, collaboration, the more fuzzy, softer skills, people stuff. It’s an elevation of that being just as important, if not more important, over time, as all this skills, techniques, tactics, managing a backlog, all that kind of stuff that you have to do. You should invest in that the same way you invest in those other skills.

Ken Norton (00:47:25):

So if you go off to a training to learn a technique for doing, I don’t know, some sort of technical dashboard analysis, why don’t you go to training to learn how to have difficult conversations? Because there’s some great training about having difficult conversations, or do some training about storytelling. These are all really, really important factors that start to come into play.

Ken Norton (00:47:54):

What I would recommend is just appreciating that these are going to really, really matter and practicing and then valuing them and not thinking of them as something that either will matter later or a distraction or not really part of the job.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:48:07):

I think the reason people don’t do that work is because it’s so hard. Difficult conversations are difficult. We talked about this with Trey Hass. But just like it’s a rule of thumb, the thing that is hard is probably the thing you should be doing. It’s like a compass point of you to the thing you should do.

Ken Norton (00:48:23):

Absolutely. We are all about doing hard stuff, we product managers. That’s what we’re all about. And so, when something seems hard and it seems squishy and it seems like it’s difficult to put a three-step rule around, chances are it’s really going to matter. It goes back to this mindset shift. That means that there’s an opportunity for you to readjust your inner complexity management system to adapt to that area of complexity that you’re now seeing, because this stuff really feels squishy. And so, that’s even more of a reason why you want to get your hands around it and grab onto it and value it and learn and grow from it.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:49:07):

Speaking of difficult and squishy, I’m guessing that one of the biggest challenges that people you work with face and one of the most recurring themes is imposter syndrome, people having imposter syndrome, something definitely I went through and it comes up a lot on this podcast. What do you usually advise your clients to do when they’re feeling imposter syndrome?

Ken Norton (00:49:27):

Yeah, it’s a great question. I always get corrected to say imposter phenomenon by people in the psychology community, because I guess it’s not a dysfunction. And so, I’ve learned to use their terms. But, yeah, I think just about everyone experiences it at some point. Research shows that that definitely is born out … It’s really the moments when you’re doubting your abilities or you feel like a fraud or you feel like you don’t belong.

Ken Norton (00:49:54):

It’s funny because as I’m interrogating my own inner emotional state right now, I’m feeling it a little bit, because there’s a part of me right now that’s just like, “You’re not a trained psychologist.” When I said that whole thing, well, it’s technically a phenomenon, there’s a voice that was like, “What are you talking about? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you to be talking on this?”

Lenny Rachitsky (00:50:14):

We’ll put a disclaimer on the episode.

Ken Norton (00:50:16):

Yeah, I’m not a psychologist. So, look, we all feel it. There’s a part of me right now that’s like I’m going to say the wrong thing and embarrass myself. Product managers, product leaders maybe more so because the role is so cross-functional and ill-defined. There’s always going to be an edge of the job that you aren’t as qualified as whoever you’re interacting with. It’s the nature of it. Look, we’re never going to be as good as an engineer, as good as a designer, as good … So there’s all these opportunities for that.

Ken Norton (00:50:40):

I find, certainly from client work, that there is a little bit of a softening and solidarity just knowing that. I’m just like, “Oh, you have that, too? Oh, I have that. Yeah, there’s some value to that.”

Ken Norton (00:50:51):

I think it’s important to pause here and say that there is the risk of dismissing or even maybe weaponizing imposter phenomenon against particular populations, particularly women, people of color of all genders, women of color especially, who are facing real external feedback and doubt about their abilities.

Ken Norton (00:51:15):

The environment is reinforcing and the source of a lot of this stuff, microaggressions, bias, real aggressions. And so, I think we always have to be careful in the helping professions to not dismiss it as a problem that just shifts the obligation to the person. So it’s like, “Oh, that’s just your imposter syndrome. Deal with it.” Well, it’s really easy to overlook all these systemic issues that are leading to that imposter syndrome.

Ken Norton (00:51:39):

So the leaders I work with, I think we have a special obligation both to confront our own inner dynamic, but also to recognize what our role is in the broader environment that might be contributing to some of this stuff. If you’re a leader, you have a special obligation to dismantle those, not when you’re meeting with your people, be like, “Ah, it’s just your imposter syndrome. You can work through it. Hire a coach,” but to be able to recognize, “Okay, wait, what signals are you getting? What issues are contributing to this? What’s our role in needing to change that?” So I think that’s worth pointing out.

Ken Norton (00:52:13):

By the way, there’s a great article in Harvard Business Review from a couple of years ago. I think the title was literally “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” The two authors of that were Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, if you’re curious and you want to go into more depth on that.

Ken Norton (00:52:29):

As coaches there, there’s all sorts of ways we’re trained to work with this. Oftentimes as an inner critic and inner voice, we all have voices, saboteurs. They’re often trying to help us, they have good intentions, but they’re developed to try to protect us in certain ways. So gaining awareness of those, just sort of like, “Oh, that is an inner critic. That’s what it’s trying to do.” There’s a self-distancing that’s valuable to that, really kind of …

Ken Norton (00:52:54):

I like to think of it a little bit as you’ve got an inner board of directors, and there’s some noisy, chatty voices that every so often sit in the chairperson’s seat and start taking over. If you start to recognize, “Wait, no, I’m the chairperson. I don’t want to hear from you right now. We’ll hear from you later,” it starts to create some power and you start to notice when it’s happening.

Ken Norton (00:53:16):

We bypass inner critic sometimes as a classic coaching technique. It’s like, “Okay, I’m sensing that’s your inner critic is saying that. What if we just ask it to maybe step aside? Let’s keep talking here.”

Ken Norton (00:53:28):

You can befriend it. There’s a lot of practices and works just actually trying to understand what its motivations are. You can really think of it as a board of directors. Give this board member a new job, put it on a new committee, reassign it.

Ken Norton (00:53:41):

There’s oftentimes underlying belief systems. We talked before about my impression of what a real leader was and who they had to be. And so, hey, when all those second-guessing of me not being a real leader, of me not being qualified came from some of those underlying assumptions, that that was the only type of leader that was effective, was somebody that was slamming their fist out on the table.

Ken Norton (00:54:02):

Okay, so what if we redefine that? I’m too kind to be a leader. I’m not dominating, commanding enough. When you hear a client say that as a coach, you recognize, okay, there’s a connection being made here between what effective leadership is and isn’t. Let’s interrogate that connection. Is that connection actually true?

Ken Norton (00:54:21):

Again, it get backs to this question of you’re often responding to other styles, approaches you’ve seen. You’re comparing yourself to others. So this is the reactive mindset of I’m always comparing myself to that person, to that wave, that being, and seeing myself as lesser then. And so, the inner work of starting to see who I really am truly inside and less comparing myself to others.

Ken Norton (00:54:42):

But, yeah, imposter phenomenon, syndrome, whatever you want to call it, very common and very popular, I suppose. Although when I say popular, it’s like popular like a plague.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:54:53):

Right. Another inner critic tactic I’ve heard that I used for a bit that was helpful is to give your inner critic a name, like Jim. I mean like, “Jim, not right now. I don’t need you right now.” That kind of helps.

Ken Norton (00:55:06):

Yeah. There is a whole school of coaching that I work with that’s called Parts Work or Internal Family Systems. It comes from a psychologist named Richard Schwartz who spearheaded this. It can be really, really powerful.

Ken Norton (00:55:19):

I’ll work my clients and we will give them names. We will imagine what they look like. They will interview these parts. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, this notion that like, hey, all these different parts show up in different ways. I’m going to put myself, the real me, the real self into the chairperson’s seat. When I hear these voices, I’m going to appreciate them from what they are and who they are. They’re not me. They’re parts of me.

Ken Norton (00:55:46):

There’s something really powerful in that, in that sense of like … Because, otherwise, they’re all me. So I just hear this voice telling me I’m an idiot and I’m a clown and I’m not qualified to be in this room. Then when you can start to go, “Oh, yeah, there it is. That’s Larry the Loser. My big angry, irritating judge who’s, of course … Oh, yeah, Larry always shows up every time I do something new, because Larry doesn’t want me to challenge myself. So, of course, Larry’s going to pipe in. I’ve heard from Larry. I’m going to ask Larry to step aside. Let’s go.” Yeah, it can be very powerful.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:56:22):

I love that. One last question about coaching. For folks that want to find a coach, do you have any advice of just how to find a coach, and then what are a couple questions you can ask to evaluate if they’re a good fit for you?

Ken Norton (00:56:35):

Yeah, great question. So I think, like any helping profession, finding a therapist or really anyone who you’re going to have a deep and lasting relationship with, this sort of trust and authenticity is really important. I think we all, as coaches, recognize, and we feel this as well with clients, is it either has to be a fit or not. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it. Sometimes you meet with someone and you’re like, “Yeah, it clicks. It feels right.” Sometimes you’re like, “Eh, it doesn’t,” and that’s okay. And so, all coaches worth their salt will offer a free session to understand that, engage that.

Ken Norton (00:57:13):

I always tell everyone in that session, if you don’t decide to work with me or I decide … We don’t need a reason. It’s fine. It’s just not a fit, and that’s okay. You don’t need to come up with bullet point reasons to let me down. It’s part of how it goes.

Ken Norton (00:57:28):

You might prefer certain people, certain gender, certain backgrounds. You may feel more comfortable or less comfortable with … Maybe you want an old guy like me. Maybe you don’t want an old guy like me, and that’s fine. It has to feel right.

Ken Norton (00:57:41):

I would ask them to talk to you about what coaching is to them, because, again, it might combine some of these more mentory things. It might be more tactical. Some coaches are more structured, “Week one, we’re going to do this. Week two, we’re going to do this… “ Others are more pure coaches like me, where, look, within the first five minutes, I’m going to ask you what you want to talk about today, because you’re bringing the agenda. So figure that out. Figure out what works for you.

Ken Norton (00:58:07):

Then I think there’s a lot of great places to go. Actually, specifically where to go, the International Coaching Federation is our governing body. So those of us that are credentialed coaches you’ll find there. Again, you don’t have to be credentialed, but that’ll be a great place to find people who are.

Ken Norton (00:58:23):

There are some matchmaking services. Scale [now called Outpace] just put out a list of top coaches who work with product managers and product leaders, all sorts of great coaches. We can include that link. Lenny, I think you’re involved.

Lenny Rachitsky (00:58:43):

Yeah. Congrats on winning one of their categories for best coach of … Which category was that?

Ken Norton (00:58:49):

Product leaders. So, yeah, this was just a setup for you to say that. But thank you. But there’s tons of great coach, and different styles, different stages of careers. I think all those folks have work with or have worked with product folks.

Ken Norton (00:59:03):

And so, again, just talk to a few. Reach out to a few. Ask them. If you’re looking for more names, ask people who you admire, whose leadership styles you like and want to emulate, who they recommend, because oftentimes they have a better understanding of, hey, this is the type of coach that may want to work with, more of the emotional work, or this is the type of coach who actually maybe has a more compatible vision of what you’re looking for, because, look, all coaches are different. You can tell I’m a touchy-feely type of coach.

Ken Norton (00:59:35):

There are coaches who are … Sometimes people want a coach and they’re just like, “You grab that brass ring. I’m going to pound the table. I’m going to push you. I’m going to challenge you. I’m going to beat you up. I’m going to be more of a drill sergeant.” That’s a different style of coach that works with other people. That may be more what you’re looking for.

Ken Norton (00:59:50):

So I would just talk to a bunch, do some free sessions, get an opportunity to explore it. I coach people in the free session. So it’s not just like we’re talking. We’re going to talk about something. I’m going to coach you. You’re going to get a sense of what this looks like. Then come away and just ask yourself, what are your goals and where was there a fit? If there’s not, just keep looking.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:00:09):

Amazing. That was very tactically helpful. I really appreciate all those resources. We’ll definitely link to all that in the description. I have just a couple questions I wanted to ask you outside of coaching, around some of your posts that you’ve written before we get to our exciting lightning round. One is around this idea of 10x versus 10%.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:00:26):

So you wrote this post about the importance of thinking 10x versus 10%. Truthfully, I actually had a post started, “10x versus 10%.” I was like, “Oh, this is going to be great.” Then I Googled, “Oh, Ken’s already written about it.” So I’m glad that you have written about it and written about it so well.

Ken Norton (01:00:41):

Great minds think alike, as they say.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:00:44):

Now I don’t have to write it. I’d love to just hear your general take on what this idea is and how to think about 10x or 10% bets.

Ken Norton (01:00:53):

Again, I’m a great synthesizer of ideas. This isn’t my idea. This is a lot of … It came from some thinking at Google and some push. I think it’s really the sense that we think too small sometimes. You’ll see that as a theme for some of the other things I’ve written too. There needs to be a push. If you really want to have huge breakthrough innovation, you need to be able to try, you need to be able to fail. You need to be able to shoot for the moon is where this 10x comes from.

Ken Norton (01:01:22):

A lot of it is mindset, but a lot of it is also cultural. It’s creating environments where … And I had the great privilege of working at Google for 14 years. I felt like it was definitely an environment that I got to play in, of being willing to take big swings that might fail.

Ken Norton (01:01:36):

This doesn’t mean that the company should be out of business tomorrow. But it’s like if you have a choice between trying something that could have a massive breakthrough, a massive change, and playing small ball where you’re going to get a bunch of 10% improvements, you are over time, if you’re willing to try, if you’re willing to fail, if you’re willing to push yourself, if you’re willing to think bigger, if you’re willing to create environments, great ideas come from places that are unexpected, you’ll achieve massive, massive breakthrough.

Ken Norton (01:02:02):

You can find the piece on my website, because I use examples from history, but it is a little bit of being brave and trying big things. If you look at all the great technology, the huge breakthrough innovations that we’ve had, the Coronavirus vaccine, just this … Man, there is no small-balling that. That was a big, big swing that there was no guarantee of success, but we were willing to try it. We were willing to fail knowing that failure was probably the more likely outcome in the chance that we would achieve something that would really have that level of breakthrough.

Ken Norton (01:02:36):

And so, I think it is what I always challenge leaders to do is create the environment where people can step in and bring those types of ideas, and not play it safe or not be like, “Ah, boy, that seems like a big one. If we bring that to the CEO, there’s no way they’ll take a chance. So let’s ramp down our expectations. Let’s bring this little idea in that is a little bit more guaranteed to work.”

Ken Norton (01:03:01):

And so, it is the obligation of leaders to create that environment for people to be able to innovate, because the ideas are out there. I use the example of Kodak. Kodak invented the digital camera. It wasn’t like, oh, people at Kodak were dumb. They didn’t know digital was coming. No, they literally invented the digital camera. There just wasn’t an environment created where the people who had that idea, who saw that potential, who saw that possibility could step up through the plate and try.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:03:29):

Do you have any rules of thumb of how many of your ideas/resources should go into these big ideas versus incremental 10% bets, or is the general advice just like people aren’t thinking big enough, often enough, so you should always think a little bit bigger than you naturally will?

Ken Norton (01:03:44):

I think it depends. I mean it depends on the company. If you work in R&D, in labs, maybe everything is in that category and you build a portfolio. If you’re a venture capital seed investor, or if you’re working at a research lab, it’s like you’re building a huge portfolio of these bets. You’re just assuming that maybe 99 of them will fail, but one will succeed and it’ll make it all worthwhile.

Ken Norton (01:04:09):

Most of us aren’t in those environments. We’re in places where we have real customers buying our products, wanting our products, using our products. We’re like, “Let’s bet the entire company on 50 things that may not work out.” It may not be right for you.

Ken Norton (01:04:20):

So I think it is a little bit of an approach. I think it needs to be thought of in a fractal way, though, because maybe at the company level, they’re thinking Google once upon a time had a 70-20-10 thing, whereas 70% of our effort was on our core business. It’s the time we’re spending on search and ads. 20% is adjacent new products and business, and then 10% on crazy bets that may not be anything.

Ken Norton (01:04:43):

But I think that’s at the company level. At the individual level, at your team level, you might have your own way of thinking. You’re just like, okay, I’ve got 12 engineers on the team. We’re working on, at any time, a bunch of stuff that we know we have to do. This is a bunch of stuff that we hope is like 10%. Then we’re going to create some space for some innovation. Maybe it’s just one engineer every sprint, or it’s like a couple of times a year.

Ken Norton (01:05:09):

You create that type of space in your own little air bubble that isn’t necessarily at the portfolio level, to try things that may not work. But if they do, the payoff will be so substantial that it’ll make the whole thing worthwhile.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:05:23):

Awesome. Very helpful. Next question is around I think your most popular post that you’ve ever written, and maybe the thing that put you on the radar of writing, is around how to hire a product manager. Maybe this is where you mentioned donuts the first time. Is that right, or no?

Ken Norton (01:05:40):

It’s funny. A lot of people think that, but that was later.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:05:42):


Ken Norton (01:05:43):

Yeah, I think that was a talk that came after that.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:05:45):

Okay, cool.

Ken Norton (01:05:46):

Yeah, that was definitely the big one for me.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:05:48):

So here’s the question, just to keep it simple, what’s one piece of advice that you would give people trying to hire a product manager? What’s the thing that you think is most maybe missed or useful?

Ken Norton (01:06:00):

Yeah, I think the intangibles. So basically I wrote that originally as an email, that it was a copy pasta thing for me, where people kept coming to me and being like, “Hey, I think we’re going to try to hire a product manager or a company. Can you send over a sample job description?” I’d be like, “Yeah. Before we write the job description, let’s talk about what the job is, because I’m not sure we all mean the same thing.” And so, then I wrote that … It was in 2005, so this goes back … to try to define what the role actually is.

Ken Norton (01:06:31):

I actually feel like maybe the pendulum shifted way too far now where it’s the interview process is so structured. Everyone’s doing all these mock interviews. They know exactly what questions they’re going to get. It’s SAT prep. Everyone’s ready. But we’ve missed out on, “Can they do the job?” Because it’s like they can pass the interview, but can they do the job?

Ken Norton (01:06:53):

And so, I think you have to be careful. This is particularly the case if you are a smaller company. You don’t have a huge apparatus of Google and Meta, where you’ve got interviewing monolith of getting persuaded into … Maybe this goes back a little bit to the science and the art. They passed all the technical questions. They do all this, they do all that. They do all that. But then you neglect to find out can this person show up and work with these engineers, these designers? Can they inspire them? Is this somebody that they want to follow? Do they have the right mindset for what this job entails? Do we even have an agreement on what their job is going to be?

Ken Norton (01:07:35):

The number of people you see earlier in their career will be like, “Well, I thought I was hiring for this, but it turns that’s not even product management,” or it was like, “I thought I was going to do this, but all they want me to do is build [features executives are telling me to build].” It’s like how’d that not come out in the interview process? It’s like, well, I know how it didn’t come out because they answered a whole bunch of structured questions around … They did a programming exercise and they did a presentation and nobody stopped to ask.

Ken Norton (01:07:55):

And so, I think that’s really the big thing from an interviewer perspective. I think same thing goes for the candidate’s perspective. You are interviewing a potential employer. You’re interviewing a boss. You’re interviewing coworkers. What do you want? What do you care about? What is the type of place you want to be in? What do you not want to be in? How are you evaluating that? How are you asking those questions?

Ken Norton (01:08:18):

Yeah, salary matters. Title. All that kind of stuff matters. But you’re interviewing a place to plop yourself into. How are you approaching that to make sure you’re making the right decision?

Lenny Rachitsky (01:08:30):

Well, with that, we’ve reached our very exciting lightning round, where I’m going to ask you a few questions and whatever comes to mind, just give me an answer. That’s it. Very simple. Does that sound good?

Ken Norton (01:08:43):

Yeah. Inner critic is raging right now.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:08:45):

Oh, no. Real-time imposter syndrome.

Ken Norton (01:08:48):

Here we go.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:08:50):

Okay. So question one, what are two or three books that you recommend most to other people?

Ken Norton (01:08:55):

Oh, 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. Definitely that book. I’d just add books I haven’t recommended yet. Probably Innovators Dilemma. It’s probably my number one favorite book for product managers and product leaders.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:09:09):

Amazing. What’s a recent movie or TV show that you’ve liked?

Ken Norton (01:09:14):

I love Ms. Marvel. My whole family were really enjoying it. I love all the MCU stuff. We just eat it up. Ms. Marvel has been amazing. Then watching Barry, which is crazy. It’s sort of like nothing else I think ever on TV. Then, over the last year, probably Severance. It’s my favorite program over the last … I’d say last year.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:09:34):

Wow. Yeah. That is a trippy show. I’ve watched it all. We might be severed people, we don’t even know.

Ken Norton (01:09:39):

You won’t even know.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:09:41):

Okay. What is a favorite interview question that you like to ask folks when you interview them?

Ken Norton (01:09:46):

Well, actually let me flip it because I just talked about interviewing as the interviewed … Maybe I’ll ask a favorite question for people who are being interviewed to ask the employer. Is that fair or is that turn the tables too much?

Lenny Rachitsky (01:09:58):

I love it. Yes.

Ken Norton (01:09:59):

I think a great question … Actually maybe I have a couple. I think one question that I love is how does the company define a product team? Because it answers so much. It says so much about culture, collaboration, decision-making, the role of product management. If there’s one question and you could figure out what is this culture like, it would be asking that.

Ken Norton (01:10:20):

I think another great question for candidates is to ask them to pick an example of something they’ve shipped recently and just talk about how it came to be. How did the bill become a law? Was it somebody in sales yelled and it got added to the backlog and it was the next thing? Is it a group of people together understanding customer user needs through discovery and ideating and trying some things and testing it? It says a lot about what it would be like to work there, particularly when it comes to empowerment and product culture. So those are probably two good questions.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:10:58):

Those are really good questions. I’m going to steal them. Final question, who else in the industry do you respect as a thought leader? I imagine this list is very long, but what comes to mind?

Ken Norton (01:11:06):

Well, this list is all of my fellow podcast guests on your podcast, Lenny, which is, speaking of imposter phenomenon, is just an incredible group of all the folks that I love and admire. I think, though, because … Maybe I’ll answer it a little bit outside of product, because I would worry that I would leave out too many great names.

Ken Norton (01:11:26):

In the realms of leadership, Amy Edmondson is somebody I really admire. She’s done a lot of the work on psychological safety. I really, really value her work, her contributions. There’s a guy named Tom Geraghty, who has a newsletter about psychological safety. I think he’s collaborated with Amy before. It’s one of the best, not the best newsletter I receive, Lenny, maybe the second best, about psychological safety for those of us that are wanting to create environments where people can really thrive and do their best.

Ken Norton (01:12:05):

In the coaching profession, I mean the coaching profession emerges from the humanist psychology traditions or the client-first work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are intellectual heroes of mine. They’re both dead. I don’t know if we’re supposed to talk about living people here, but definitely as I think about in my profession, they really set the stage and created the environment that coaching could even exist. So I’ll include them.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:12:36):

Amazing. Ken, this was such a special episode, unlike any other podcast that I’ve had so far. I can’t wait for people to listen to it. Before I let you go, where can folks find you online if they want to reach out, learn more, and then how can listeners be helpful to you?

Ken Norton (01:12:51):

Yeah, is my home on the worldwide web. All my writing is there. You can get in contact with me there. I have a newsletter that I am occasionally send out, but you can find all the stuff that I’ve ever written and get in contact with me there.

Ken Norton (01:13:09):

The how to help be helpful question is a really easy one to answer, but that brings me a lot of joy, which is just keep being awesome product folks. You’re so much my tribe. You’re so close to my heart, all the work that you do, everything you bring into the world, the amazing products that we get to use that I’m sure you’re working on right now that we haven’t even seen yet, that you can’t wait to share with us, and the cultures and teams that you make better, so your very existence. So I would say you can be helpful to me by just keep doing what you’re doing.

Lenny Rachitsky (01:13:41):

What an awesome answer. Thank you for being here, Ken.

Ken Norton (01:13:43):

Thanks for having me, Lenny.


Originally Published: July 24, 2022

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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