Ken Norton on the Product Thinking Podcast

Leading with vision and purpose

By Ken Norton

38 min read • Nov 23, 2022

Ken Norton

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[Product Thinking with Melissa Perri]

I joined Melissa Perri’s Product Thinking Podcast to talk about the evolution of product management, the stark difference between empowered and unempowered product teams,and why ultimately, product is all about people. I have lightly edited the transcript for accuracy.

Melissa Perri:

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Product Thinking Podcast. Today we’re gonna be talking about product leadership and I have a guest here named Ken Norton. Ken has had an illustrious career in product management, mostly working at Google but working in all different places on it, building a lot of the apps that and love. And now he’s an executive coach. So welcome Ken.

Ken Norton:

Thank you Melissa. It’s good to see you.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah. Can you give our audience a little bit of your background and tell them how did you get to where you are today?

Ken Norton:

Yeah and I suppose it depends on how far back you want to go. I think like a lot of product folks, I have a sort of an eclectic and meandering path into doing this. I actually studied philosophy and political science in college. So my college undergraduate degree effectively had nothing to do with what I ended up doing. You’d think. Turns out it did. I graduated from college right into a recession in the early nineties and turned out couldn’t get a job doing anything in Washington D.C. or anything that I thought I was gonna do. And so I sort of fell back on what I knew how to do, which is hack around with computers I had been doing for a long time and actually got a job working the phones for Microsoft in New York. Basically doing phone support for, at the time was Microsoft Word and Excel.

And that was sort of my path into software development. And within a year or so, I had actually joined the development team and that was the early days of the web and of brought my career up moved to San Francisco in 1996 to work for a company called CNET [then styled c|net], which was one of the earliest web companies, one of the few pure web companies in the mid nineties. I ran software engineering teams there and became a sort technical leader and then at some point, and I’m not quite sure when, became a product person and I don’t know exactly when it happened. I sort of know the sort of before and I know the after, but I’m not sure I can actually pinpoint when did I become a product manager and stop being an engineer. But it was somewhere around that point. What brought me into it was I was one of the engineers that people liked bringing into non-engineering conversations for whatever reason they like to drag me along to meet with sales people, meet with marketing, meet with whatever.

I had the combination of both enjoying it and no one else wanting to do that job on the engineering team. And so that’s sort what led me, I think fundamentally, down this path that became product management moved into various different product roles at Yahoo! for a long time. Eventually that brought me to a startup company called JotSpot, which was one of the first Web 2.0 interactive apps. If you think of Airtable or Notion, a lot of the current generation of those types of collaborative tools, we were one of the earliest versions of that. I was a VP of Product there. We were acquired by Google, and I moved into a product role at Google where I spent some 14 years working on products such as Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Mobile Maps. I was in Google Ventures for a while and then about two years ago left Google to become a full-time executive coach.

Melissa Perri:

That’s great. Such a fun career trajectory there. And I think you’ve worked at a lot of the companies. I feel like we talk about where good product management came from. A lot of the people that we talk about who’ve been doing product management the longest, they worked at Yahoo or some of them were at aol, Google, all those different places. For you, what have you observed between then and now about how product management has changed or matured?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I probably started, well I started writing about product management in about 2005 and part of the reason I felt motivated to do that was I don’t think anybody really understood what the job was. And I felt like I was sort of defending the job in some ways. I was trying to make a case that really this thing should exist. You should have somebody who is between engineers and customers and users. And so it felt a little almost we were trying to make a case to even exist and a lot of my first jobs as a product manager, I did feel like no one asked me to show up and here I am and I’m supposed to help out in some way. And everyone’s asking what do you do? We’ve never had anybody do this before. What’s the point? Is this marketing? Is this product?

What is this engineering? What is this? And the shift in those 20 years or so has been pretty substantial from not feeling like we have to fight for our very existence to almost, I think a pendulum swinging very far the other direction, which is product becoming so popular almost overly popular to the extent that so many people wanna become product managers every once in month to try to break in. Companies are hiring lots of product managers. And so I think the biggest shift I’ve seen is from this nascent upstart concept that we felt like we were trying to argue for. Now here it is, I think pretty established people understand that there is a role, although I think there’s a lot of debate and dispute around what exactly that job does. I think that maybe we’re gone the other extreme, which is everyone hires a product manager, but not everyone necessarily agrees on what that person is supposed to do.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah, I found a similar thing when I started consulting in around 2014. And when I did, I originally wanted to start product management consulting and I kind of fell into it cuz a lot of people I’d worked with before called me and said, Hey, like you’re freelancing now. Can you come help us? Cuz we don’t do product management the way that you did when we worked together. Can you teach the people around me how to do it like that? And there’d be some places where I try to further that. I liked freelancing, I liked consulting, so I said I wanna go do more of this. And I get into such arguments with people that they didn’t need product management and it wasn’t a thing. So to me it’s almost shocking how fast and rapidly it changed. You talked about but I know I keep telling people, I’m like, people have been doing this for a very long time. It’s not brand new . Like there's people like Ken and there's people like Marty and everybody out there has been product managers for a very long time. This isn't a brand new field but I do think it's getting a lot more standardized .

Ken Norton:

Yeah, yeah. And you used the word brand new and it is definitely not brand new. The word brand, this goes back to brand managers in the 1940s, 1950s at consumer package goods companies. That’s sort of where product management came from. So there is a long lineage of this type of role.

Melissa Perri:

And I love the history of how this kind of changed. And one thing that we were talking about, and I, I’d love to get your take on it. I found that people started becoming more receptive to getting product management help when Scrum became something, right? So we got the agile product donors all of a sudden a lot of the companies put a bunch of product owners around Scrum, they made the scrum teams, they put the product donors there and then they were like, Oh wait, something’s broken here, something’s not working. People are just mindlessly looking at backlogs. We need product management. And that’s how I got introduced to a bunch of companies. But a lot of that deep product management expertise that we talk about wasn’t there. It was just very emotions and process and things like that. But that to me was the turning point of how product management started really catching on.

Which brings me back to what we were talking about with the brand men. A lot of it came out of marketing though too. And I saw a lot of people come from marketing backgrounds or other backgrounds switching into the product owner role, subject matter experts coming into the product management role. But a lot of people doing it for the first time. And I get into these arguments too, I think with companies about why can’t we just have a bunch of people, we can just train anybody to be a product manager? And it kind of gets into this conversation about if anybody can learn product management, that’s great. What is it at the end of the day? What do you need to do to be a great product manager or how do you separate out people? And I would say, let me take into this different direction.

Sorry I’m me meandering for a minute, but I think this specifically becomes an issue when it’s leadership and you know, transitioning into executive coaching and having been a product leader for so long, I wanna get your perspective on this. I think we need a lot of entry points for people who’ve never done product management before to be a junior product manager to work their way up into a senior product manager and become product leadership. So I see nothing wrong with moving into these roles from a different area and doing that, but I’ve also seen a shift in these companies who’ve adopted Agile where they bring in leaders who’ve never done product management before at all. What could you see, I guess having been in product for so long, working on a lot of these companies that are extremely good at doing product management, what could you see as a pitfalls of jumping into a leadership position over product without ever having done it before? Cause I think people get into this war. I hear it as well, as long as I know strategy, it doesn’t really mean I need to know how to build a feature.

Ken Norton:

It really shocks me when you say that, and we talked about this before we jumped in the podcast, like the notion that you would hire somebody to lead a product team that had never done product before just blows my mind. And it’s a little bit, I obviously have a very Silicon Valley parochial mindset. Most of my experience has been in venture-funded companies here in Silicon Valley. Most of my clients work for venture-funded companies wiandth startups. And I know there’s sort these different places and different stages but I see completely the opposite.

I see product leaders being asked to become more general managers. This has been a trend that I’ve seen over the past several months to a year where people that have been primarily directors, VPs of product now asked to run entire lines of business, which is almost the opposite of what you’re talking about, which is of business owners now being asked to run product without an experience. And it reminds me of, there’s a great book called Flatland. Have you read that book from the 1800? It’s like a Victorian book by… a mathematician whose name will come to me here I’m sure when I’m talking. And it’s about two-dimensional world. And so there’s this creature that lives in a two-dimensional world and obviously to him everything’s like a point or a line. And… Edwin Abbott is the name of the author… and he’s visited by a sphere from a three dimensional world.

And when the sphere from the three-dimensional world visits flatland, he obviously only shows up as a circle. And so the part of what’s fun about the book is the two-dimensional creature is trying to understand what a three-dimensional world is like. And it’s almost unfathomable. And the three-dimensional creature is trying to understand what a two-dimensional world is and its unfathomable to them. And sometimes I feel like we have that distinction in the product world where it’s almost like we’re talking two different worlds, two different languages. And this is what often what Marty Cagan calls empowered product teams versus unempowered product teams. And it’s like I’ll hear stories of companies doing things like bringing in product leaders that don’t have never built product before and it just sort of blown away. I can’t imagine that that possibly exists. But then you talk to people in those world and they don’t believe that we build software the way we build software out here.

And so I think there is this sort of almost two different worlds it feels like in product. And I’ll come across people on Twitter and it almost feels like we’re speaking two different languages. And so when you say this trend of people putting leaders into product leadership position, never built product before, it just, I can’t understand it anymore than I can understand a three-dimensional creature visiting my two-dimensional world. So it shocks me a lot When we think about your first question about getting into product, I have strong opinions of this. I think product management is fundamentally an app apprenticeship-type role. It’s just something you have to learn how to do by seeing it done, by watching it. And it builds on a lot of other skills. And so naturally people come to product from engineering, from marketing, from design, having that functional experience, knowing how products are built, knowing how stuff gets done and then moving into a product role which is almost like an advanced layer on some of this other capabilities.

And so the problem is there are very few apprenticeship opportunities. There are a handful of them, they’re associate product manager type roles but yet so many people are wanting product management to be their first job. And I think there’s a lot of professions that are that electricians, there’s tons and tons of professions that are fundamentally the type of thing you can only learn by doing. And so they’re set up to allow for people to move, to learn to become apprentices, to eventually graduate to full-time roles. And so I think we’ll need to do more of that per product or people will need to appreciate that it isn’t something you can just jump straight into you need to learn by doing. So sort of a little bit of roundabout, can I answer here but I am a little bit troubled by this trend toward everybody wanting to get into product because I think it has created this sort of preponderance of people that are desperate to get this job without the apparatus around them to help them be good at the job to help ‘em learn it and help train them. And it sounds like that’s happening both for entry level folks for and for senior leaders from what you’re saying.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah, so I have a lot of MBA students who wanna be product managers and I’ve worked with a lot of companies where we’re training people to be product managers. And I think it’s funny because once people do become product managers, I also find a lot of people don’t want that job. They thought it was something different than it actually was. And I thought it was funny, I was working with Athena Health and we were taking a couple hundred people and training them up and product management also hired in a bunch of experienced product leaders to help them coach them and oversee them, which was great.

But by the time that a lot of the people who were working on the teams went through the training, they said, I don’t actually wanna do this , they came back and they said, this is not really what I wanna do. I don't like this type of work. And I think people take that for granted how hard the job is and what it actually entails. They have this just big Steve Jobs mentality with it of, Oh, we're gonna do all the cool things and we gotta make all the decisions. And that's just not it in the reality at all. Yeah, .

Ken Norton:

Yeah. I think one of the worst things that was ever done to the craft of product management was calling it “the CEO of the product” because that created a perception of what the job is that is inaccurate and also I think ended up luring a lot of people into the job that think they were gonna do something that they aren’t. I have a friend who’s a journalist and they were marveling about the same thing, which is journalists, especially in movies, you know, think about all these wonderful movies where journalists are perceived as meeting people in garages and breaking incredible stories.

And it’s I guess very common for my friends that are journalists for people within their first couple years to be like, wait, a second this job isn’t what I thought it was at all. It’s basically just being stuck on deadline and having writer’s block. I want out. So again, I think on apprenticeship type model lets you do that. I think part of the challenge here is you can only learn the job by doing the job and you can only figure out if you wanna do the job by doing the job. And so everything is sort ass backwards right now where we’re sort forcing you to break in through the back door and then there’s no one to teach you the job and you find out it’s not as rewarding as you think it is. And I can imagine product management’s even worse if you’ve never learned good product management from anyone. It’s hard enough as it is.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And the one thing that you were saying kind of makes me worry too, cuz I haven’t seen that trend as much, and I wanna dive in a little bit there, but the product leader is becoming GMs. One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with the apprenticeship model is that so many places don’t hire in experienced product leaders to help train all those people in tons of companies and even SaaS companies too. I’ve seen this in a lot of scale ups as well that are venture backed. I work with a bunch of ‘em and they hired in a bunch of really smart people and made them product managers, but they never hired in a leader to oversee it. And usually when you’re early enough you can do that and correct the path, but sometimes people hire too many right people who’ve never done it before and now they’ve got so many people there that they have to train up.

There’s no room to bring in more people that they have to train up. So it’s like we’ve got senior product managers who are not really product like senior product managers, they’re more like junior product managers, they have nobody to learn from. And it becomes this whole cycle. And I hear from the CEOs and from the leadership teams like, oh, it’s just so hard to hire a product leader. And now I’m worried hearing from you, cuz I’m curious what you’re seeing with those, that GM role there that we’re not gonna have a lot of purely product leaders or enough people to oversee that if everybody’s turning them into GM business leaders.

Ken Norton:

It’s interesting. There’s a lot there. The too many PMs thing, I agree. One of my biggest pieces of feedback and advice to really early career PMs is to pick a boss. I was very fortunate to be surrounded early in my career and for different parts of my career by really strong product leaders. A lot of them were founders a lot of them were senior product leaders. And so I got to learn from people who’d done it before who knew just how to think about what the job entailed. And I can’t imagine not having had that. And to your point there are just not a lot of product leaders in general. I think if we look at the universe of engineering leaders that there’s way fewer product leaders cause there’s fewer product managers than there are engineers. And same probably goes for designers. So already you’ve got a smaller pool of people that you’re even selecting from.

So I don’t think that there’s a vast number of people out there who really have a proven record of being able to lead product teams, not just manage products but to lead product teams. And so that just aren’t a lot of people that have done this before and know how to do it. To your question, I think part of what I’ve seen, the trend that I’ve seen toward a lot of these types of roles evolving into more general manager type roles, I think is twofold. I think it’s a maturity of product leadership, a recognition of how important and critical that job is and a lot of those people that are in those types of product leadership jobs, seeing and wanting to move more into eventually becoming CEOs. And so it’s a natural combination of hey, we’re gonna just give you the entire line of business to run.

We’re gonna give you a P&L, you’re gonna have the entire team, everyone’s gonna report to you as both a of natural evolution of the types of leaders that are in these jobs. And I think also just a sense of your next step is probably gonna be CEO. This is an opportunity for the company that’s fast growing to try to retain some of these people that maybe they would’ve jumped off and become CEO somewhere else. And so a lot of the companies in Google’s been doing this a lot be companies like Dropbox, there are a lot more of these types of GM roles where if you look at who’s populating them, people that have been in product leadership roles. And so I think that’s a good trend cuz I think it definitely sets these folks up to being able to own and manage more of the business and ultimately for those that wanna become CEOs, it’s a logical step. But yeah, I mean in terms of the pool of product leaders like that, it’s an additional depletion of the number of people that really I think are fully qualified to take on a chief product officer or VP or product job. There’s just not very many people that have done that job are capable of doing that job.

Melissa Perri:

Part of me is really excited because I’ve, from a lot of places, but I feel like a lot of people don’t see product roles as partly a business role too. It’s mostly a business role I’d say. So that transition of being a product person and moving into a GM role, I’m like, yay, those companies get it. They see how important product is to the business. That makes a lot of sense. And on the other hand I’m like, oh, but where are all the product leaders gonna go if they all wanna become GMs? So I see both sides of that and that makes me nervous. But I’m curious for you too, you had been a product leader, worked at Google for a long time, and now you’re doing executive coaching. What made you, and not specifically product leadership coaching from what I understand, more general executive coaching, what made you wanna go that path?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, it’s a good question. So I coach executives many of whom are product leaders and so I certainly coach lots of chief product officers, VPs of product also coach a lot of CEOs, founders non sort of product people, but these mostly folks who are executives. I think for me it was wanting to do the work that I found most fulfilling as a product leader, which is to help deeply connect with people and develop them and help them get better at their job, help them just grow as human beings, help ‘em reach their full potential. And for a long time I didn’t really understand that that was part of what I loved about my job. I, I’ve written about this a little bit, but I would really love when I was managing a very small team, maybe two or three PMs and I was a little bit of a player-coach and I was getting to build product but then also manage and then eventually I would get promoted or my team would grow and then I would feel like I had too many people.

And what I thought was that I hated management the way I would’ve described it to you. It was just like, I don’t like being a manager, I don’t like managing, but I wasn’t it at all. It was as I started to manage bigger and bigger teams, I had less opportunity to do the work that I found most fulfilling, which is coaching and growing people just because there was too many people, just my team was too big. I didn’t get to do that very much. And so as I began to understand what it is I loved most, what I missed the most I started to recognize that it is this deep investment in the growth of other people. And so that naturally led me to do coaching more that I did more of that in my days at Google Ventures. I got an opportunity to do that with the portfolio.

When the pandemic happened I was like, okay, I’m ready for something new. What if I just did that full time? It’s what brought me into it. And so I work with about 20 leaders at a time. These are folks that are, again, lots of CEOs, lots of founders, lots of chief product officers, VPs of product some at big companies like Google and Facebook, some at startups, very early stage. And my full time job is to work with them to help support, help support and help them grow and achieve whatever they want to achieve. And it’s incredibly rewarding and I think because I coach the whole person, we certainly talk about product related things and product leadership related things, but ultimately I’m helping them grow and develop as humans, as leaders. And so my interests probably are, I would say maybe a little bit more around what does leadership mean than the product side of it, but certainly that’s a component of it. Yeah.

Melissa Perri:

So when you talk about coaching the whole person too, what types of things do you see executives need to consider instead of just the product pieces or the tactical components of their job? What are other components that they need to be successful in their role?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, it’s everything. And again, because I’m coaching people, it differs from person to person. There’s questions of just authenticity and what type of leader do you wanna be. A lot of leaders I work with are emerging into a stage of their adulthood where they’re starting to program their own sense of what leadership looks like and less of following a pattern or an archetype that they may have been familiar with at some point in time. And so there’s a sort of stretching and a development that happens when you start to understand that who I wanna be as a leader needs to be authored by me. And it’s not just a composite of all the different leaders I’ve seen. And sometimes that’s a struggle cuz sometimes it requires confronting a way that you saw that leaders worked and understanding that it may not work for you. Inspiring in leading others, confronting really difficult challenges.

Just all the types of things that come up for these leaders that I work with from managing the dynamic of the board of directors to just balancing their own work and life and family and children or if they have them and just really trying to figure out who they want to be and how they wanna navigate. I spend a lot of time helping leaders begin to understand what it means to lead from vision and purpose and to move away from leading reactively where you’re sort of retreating to a place of fear and anxiety and you’re sort of responding to threats. And that’s way most of us have been taught. And that’s often the way most of us get promoted is that sort of agitation related, reactive way of being. But it becomes self-limiting when you become a leader and you start to need to lead more expressively.

You need to start to lean in more into vision and purpose. And so that’s a lot what we work on with leaders, but it really runs the gamut. And because I’m a pure executive coach, I don’t bring topics to the conversation my client brings what is meaningful to them that day when we meet. And so it could be anything. It could be a myriad of different things, but ultimately most of the challenges come back to people, which is why if you’ve ever read any of my writing about product management, I keep reinforcing this hammering point over and over and over. The product stuff’s fun, deciding like what to build. That’s cool process. It’s interesting shipping, getting stuff out the door that’s all great. But it’s all about people. It’s all about getting the most out of people, bringing the best out people, resolving conflict, creating creative conflict as necessary and inspiring and getting a group of people to want to build something amazing together. That’s the hardest part about the job. That’s ultimately what we spend a lot of our time on.

Melissa Perri:

It’s funny cuz I also feel like that’s the reason why a lot of people opt out once they get into product management. They didn’t realize how much people, parts of it went in there. And I don’t think a lot of people either thrive in that area or wanna be in that area, which is totally fine. But yeah, it’s not just about being the person who dictates. And I think that’s hard for, I’ve seen that be really hard for leaders too. And what you were just talking about becoming not a reactive leader, but a purpose and visionary leader. That transition I think I’ve seen be extremely hard no matter what leader you are, whether you’re a chief product officer or CEO or COO because it, you’ve been so good at your job up until then, which was so execution oriented, now you have to change the way that you approach it. How do you try to get people out of a reactive mode? Why do you think people fall into that reactive mode when they’re leaders first? And then what types of things have you seen be successful in trying to get them out of that and to step up and reevaluate where they are now?

Ken Norton:

Well the reason we’re there is because that’s how the human brains hardwired. I mean we are going back to the earliest days of evolution set up to respond to environmental threats and that’s just how we survived. It’s just looking out there, seeing a threat, fight or flight responding to it. And so it’s just the nature of how human brains are working. It also is how we became successful in our jobs, how we got promoted. If your first job was all about stressing over making your boss happy and making sure every single T was crossed and I was dotted and living in constant fear that you weren’t getting it right, congratulations, you probably got promoted. That’s how of that reactive mindset is how we learn the job, how we achieve. The challenge is that although it can be effective, it becomes costly. And especially as you become more of a senior leader, that sense of just reacting to the world around living in a place of fear and anxiety and wanting to be right and looking for victims and villains, all that, everything that goes with that become begins to come with a severe cost.

And oftentimes that cost is to you, your own psychological capability to the people around you. But ultimately it’s just not how you lead purposeful, inspiring teams. And so there’s a shift that’s required and this is from the world of adult development. And this goes back to some of the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey and a lot of researchers who’ve looked at adult stage development and how we continue to make meaning and how we naturally as adults continue to reprogram how we respond to the world. And so this is part of that. The way you help someone through this journey is to you can’t take somebody through this journey cause this is a inner work. So you can’t just like, okay great, here’s three things to do. Now you’re out of it. Is to sort help them appreciate where how they are leading might be limited, where a different way of leading might be less limited.

To begin to help them notice when they’re leading reactively versus when they’re leading more creatively to sort help them connect, understand emotions great connector into a lot of this. To help them confront inner critics that might be, sources some of that fear, help ‘em step into confidence and be able to lead more purpose driven. And so it is, it’s a journey that’s not a light switch kind of thing. It’s not like you wake up and you’re like, great. No, no not it may take years. It many adults may never make it through this transition. We know this, the research tells us that some 70% of leaders are reactive leaders. So this is the default path.

But through coaching and through challenge and inner work and confronting some of these challenges, you can begin to see a brighter light and you can begin to see, hey, when I respond this way, when I lead this way it’s more effective. It makes me happier. People are more inspired. People wanna be a part of it, People enjoy their jobs more. I’m happier, less stressed out, I’m less anxious. And so that’s a lot of what we sort work on together. But we know it’s more effective. We have all sorts of research and data to tell us that when you’re leading from more creative and you’re leading from vision and purpose, you know are leaning into being curious, you’re willing to learn, you’re willing to be wrong, better things happen. But it is a practice to get you to that place where you begin to see the world that way.

Melissa Perri:

So one question I get from people all the time, and I don’t know if there’s a good answer to this, but love your perspective. I get a lot of individual contributors or directors of product, mid-level people who go, I can see my executive is extremely reactive. They just keep dictating solutions to me. I keep trying to poke and ask the why and get into the root of it, but they’re reprioritizing all the time and it looks like they’re scared and I don’t know how to bring up to them that they’re doing this or can I even say that I’m worried. I’m worried about having these conversations. When you are working with executives who are trying to make the shift, how do they come to the awareness that they need to? And if you were somebody on a team, is there anything that you could do to maybe surface this up or help point somebody in the right direction?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, it’s a great question. A lot of the leaders I work with are the leaders in the company. And so fundamentally if they’re accountable to anyone, it might be a CEO or it might be a board. And so they have more creative direction to determine the culture of the organization and how things operate. So they’re less sort of beholden to a boss that may run them a certain way. Cause part of the joy I get from this work is knowing that these leaders do have a lot more creative control over their environments. Cause you can be like, well that sounds great, but this is how it’s done and there’s not much I can do about it.

I think it is for many people you might be in an environment and you probably are an environment that is a very reactive environment. Whenever you hear, my boss keeps saying we’re we keep missing deadlines, you’re like, okay, it just told me a lot about how that company works . And that told me a lot about how you operate and the fear driven environment that you're a part of. There's work you can do to try to change the environment and to push back on the environment to show that there's a better way of working. You can certainly maybe create air bubbles for you and your team to operate in a certain way but ultimately if you're a mid-level product leader and individual contributor at a company and this entire way of operating is this way it's probably gonna be very hard to change it. Now the awakening you might have is to start to realize there might be a better way and maybe that is somewhere else. And now how to find it.

There’s a lot of people that I talk to is a sort a recognition that I didn’t believe it was possible to have a different type of environment. Now I know now I want that, I’m gonna go look for it. It’s not here. That might be fine. Or maybe you need to step into more of a type of challenger role where you are going to push back a little bit and try to create space and room for a different way of operating. Oftentimes that requires maybe a grand bargain where, hey, for the next six months, let us do it this way. You’re gonna lay off, you’re gonna stop telling us what to build, you’re gonna stop driving us to deadlines, give us an opportunity to show you that we can deliver something amazing for our users. Just give us some space and if we don’t, then we can re-talk about it.

And so there’s sometimes this sort of back and forth to let us be a little bit more creative which it brings tears to my eyes because as people like desperately asking for the ability to build amazing products that satisfy what their users need, it, it’s almost despite the organization’s resistance. But I believe that there can be some progress. But I also think that for a lot of people, I think fundamentally might confront the reality of the environment you’re in and realize that it may not create the space for you to be able to build products the way you wanna build the products. It may not create space for you to be able to lead the way you wanna lead. And the consequence that might be it’s time to go somewhere else. .

Melissa Perri:

I’m glad I’m not the only person telling people that. always, I always feel bad saying that, but I also can't come up with another answer because I don't know. I also tell, I've told executives at one point when they asked me to help them hire product people, I said, You don't deserve product people. If you're gonna keep operating that way, you to, you're gonna hire in somebody good. You gotta treat 'em right so that they stay. And I can't on good faith recommend people to this company if that's the way that you wanna lead or this is the way that you're going to pigeonhole them into this job. So yeah, I'm totally with you on that one, but I'm glad . Yeah,

Ken Norton:

Yeah. I wanna be careful. I don’t want to create the sense that there’s good companies, and bad companies. It’s like it’s Disneyland over here and it’s hell over here. Not, And every company’s got strength and weaknesses. And I worked at Google for 14 years and there were things that had just infuriated me about that place and frustrated me and I would wish they had been done differently. But fundamentally there’s gonna be things that are gonna hold you back and frustrate you. So don’t, listening to this is like, oh, there’s parts of my job I, I guess I’m at one of these bad companies. I don’t think that’s the case at all. But do you feel like you have the room to be able to do incredible things and you and your team are able to tap into your creativity and purpose and vision and you’re able to connect directly with customers and users and understand what they want and build that and test it. And those are of the raw ingredients that we’re talking about here. And for a lot of people it seems like these companies are just not hardwired to allow that.

Melissa Perri:

Yep, totally agree. So when you’ve, you were at Google for a long time and you saw a lot of different areas. How do you feel like space was created for you to go out and do amazing things? Because you built Google Docs, you built Google Calendar, literally use it every day. , and those are fantastic tools and they really changed, I think how people collaborate and work and do different things. So when you're looking back on product management at Google, what do you think were some good things that Google did that, whether you're B2B or B2C company, people need to embrace and do with product management, especially with leadership.

Ken Norton:

Yeah, there’s probably a lot there. And it’s hard to break it down to its parts because it was complicated. And I also feel like you may take all those parts, reformulate them and fail because there was just something, whatever the timing, the people, the founders, whatever. The things that I always appreciated as a product manager and as a product leader at Google was a sense of ownership and empowerment. And that, I remember thinking going into these meetings with Larry, Sergey, Eric, other leaders where you’re presenting a product plan. I remember feeling like if we’re all on the same page, my tech lead, my design lead or my eng director, and me, it really did feel like if the team that is building this product is unified and on the same page and passionate about something that it didn’t really feel like there was a lot that was gonna stand in our way they might challenge us to look at something different.

They might push us, often, push us to think bigger. It was much more of, this isn’t big enough, go bigger, this is inspiring, it needs to be more. But it really did feel like we as a team of people that are building this product, we’re sort of empowered to decide what’s the best thing to build, what’s the best way to accomplish what it is we’re gonna accomplish. And at Google, we famously use OKRs, which meant we were accountable to a big objective, which is something that was a big picture, ambitious way to express what we were all about. But it was up to us to figure out how to connect the dots. So at Google it was like, we wanna see you on the summit of Mount Everest by this time next year and go at it.

And it was up to us to go. Wow, that seems crazy and ambitious. The summit by this time next year. I don’t know, what should we do? When should we build it? Should we we climb? Should we fly? Should we build a helicopter? Let’s try this. Let’s try. And so we were the ones that felt like we were fully accountable and in charge of the how. And that was really inspiring because it was like no was gonna say, and oh, and by the way, by this time next week you have to have all your gear lined up and by this time next month you better have base camp number one identified. We wanna sign off on it. That’s how most companies are built. It was just like next year this time filling out Everest, go . And there was also a sense that this is ambitious if this time next year we're at 26,000 feet, that's a pretty incredible.

So it wasn’t a like, oh, and you have to hit your deadlines, you have to hit your goals. We’re gonna set something big audacious. It’s up to you to figure out how to get there. And so there wasn’t ever a time where I felt like somebody was undermining me, second guessing me, micromanaging me. Oftentimes, frankly, my frustrations were the opposite. Which is like I kind of would love them to care more about, can I get more time? I’d love to wait. It would be fun to get more than 15 minutes with my SVP every three weeks. But the benefit of it was we had a lot of empowerment and we had a lot of control over what got built. And that was very inspiring. Cause it really felt like it was just us. It was just this 15 person, 20 person, 30 person team.

Melissa Perri:

How do you have leaders give those big, lofty goals but also not overwhelm the teams? Because one thing that I’ve observed is sometimes leaders think they’re doing that, right? They think they’re coming in and being get to Mount Everest Summit by next year but they do something, I don’t know if they’re doing that, but they do something and the teams go, Oh my God, I don’t even know where to start. It’s like so nebulous. It’s so out there that I see teams like panic and they don’t even know how to take step number one towards it. And sometimes I will say that is a lack of skill on the team and they just need more coaching and training and need to get there there. And then other times I have seen it where the leaders have been so vague about what they actually are expecting, that anything the team does is just not correct. So how do you balance that visionary aspect? The big pushes the go for it, go win this crazy thing and not be extremely vague about it or too wide of a net that you’re casting.

Ken Norton:

Well the leaders have to know where they’re going. . So in some of these cases it sounds like the leaders don't know or they're not on the same page. And so I think that's important. And we were always blessed with having great leaders at Google, visionary leaders that were smart, ambitious, and capable. I think part of the ingredient is what are the consequences if you don't? So if it was like you need to hit the summit of mount Everest, and if you're fired or your bonus depends on it , or if you get 70% of the way there, you get 70% of the bonus, then you're naturally connecting your own personal future, personal progress, personal pay to these outcomes. You're not gonna be as ambitious. You're gonna sandbag. You'd be like, Yeah, that one's too ambitious. Because if the consequences are I don't get my bonus and I'm not gonna do it.

So there has to be that kind of separation, this acceptance of mistakes, the psychological safety of being able to say you failed or to be able to attack or change direction. Part of what comes up though when you say this is it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of candor and two-way conversation there. Cause as I’m reflecting back to these conversations, Eric Schmidt would be like, You need to get here. And I didn’t understand it. I’d be like, I need to understand that more , I need more specifics. Why, I wouldn't just march off and be like, Oh no, I guess we're screwed. I, yeah, it's like that old Seinfeld episode where George's boss gives him an order and he didn't quite hear it and he spends the next days trying to figure out, guess go back to your boss and say, Well what do you want? I don't understand it. So there might be a lack of trust, oftentimes in these organizations being filtered down through 17 different levels. And so there's some CEO who's giving dictates is being translated and ultimately the teams aren't understanding what it's all about.

Really. You should be following your customers and users anyway here. And so maybe the shortcoming of that climb Mount Everest example is it really should comes from customers and users. So wherever it is you’re getting should in some way connect back to what you believe the customers or users need, even if they’re not capable of telling you cause they don’t know yet. So I think that was also part of what was powerful about Google was really a sense of our leaders understood they could see the future in ways that were really inspiring. They could understand trends, customer needs, user needs and translate those into big outcomes that we could all aim for. But if we were trying to climb Mount Everest and all the customers were in the Black Sea, then they wouldn't have mattered. And so you have to have that connection as well.

Melissa Perri:

So when you’re talking about climate Mount Everest and Google context too, what would be one of the big goals that you worked on for that? I think sometimes people get lost because we’re like, Oh yeah, we get the mount climb, climb Mount Everest. But then they go, How does that work in a company? ? What does that goal actually translate to? What level does that look like in a company?

Ken Norton:

If I could think of some examples, they’re the big goals when I was on Google Mmaps was, “imagine a world where you never got lost.” That would be okay. Everybody can imagine a world where you never got lost and everyone can immediately snap to how your life would be better if you never got lost. And also that can provide a lot of guidance around what you build. So if you’re looking at potential things to build in maps, and one of them is all about traffic routing all about more granular location tracking from a 10 meter to a one meter. Okay, well that definitely could connects to not getting lost. That makes sense. Organize the world of information, make it university accessible and useful, which is Google’s grand arching mission is a good example of this. Sometimes it was in the context of things that we felt we needed to do as an organization and it was up to the team to figure out how to do it.

So I remember one year a company, OKR was “a single unified experience at Google.” And the reason for that was we were shipping our org chart, like the settings and when I was on Calendar were totally different than the settings on Gmail. There were seven different places you could set your time zone and they all felt different. And Larry was like, “Look, we gotta feel like we’re one product here.” So big annual OKR for us was a single unified experience across Google. What that means, do we start with the toolbar? Do we start with settings? That’s sort of up to us, but we could picture what the outcome meant and Larry held us accountable to that. And when there were other things that were getting in the way, we were able to remind ourselves that was something the company had decided was important and we should prioritize that. And if somebody asked me for something that had nothing to do with a single unified experience across Google, I could say, Hey, I’m sorry I’m working on this. This is the number one goal for the company. So those are maybe the Everest equivalents. Those were then translated into quarterly OKRs and it’s obviously then translated into what we’re building right now. But those were the north stars that we were aiming toward, that were unifying all of us around what really truly mattered. And then also in a way that was concrete enough where it could guide you day to day. It wasn’t so obscure that it didn’t actually hit the ground and translate into something that was meaningful.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah, I love, those are great examples and really good tangible things that you can grab onto and go, Oh yeah, that’s so broad. I could see how people can get to Google Maps, but you’re not being super specific about how you get there. It’s something that we can all rally behind as we go into.

Ken Norton:

By the way, you don’t get lost anymore. , those of us that are old enough to remember finding a payphone and being like, "Oh, I don't know where I am, but I see a gas station and there's a road called Highway 6 and where's your house again?" Gone. Yeah,

Melissa Perri:

Oh yeah, when I was learning to drive, my dad used to be like, okay, so if you wanna get to the grocery store, you go up two streets and then you make a right. And then when you see that weird looking tree, you’re gonna turn left and then you’re gonna go up towards the White House and then you make another right and you give 36 step directions. And I’m like, I can’t remember all this . And now I'm thinking, Oh my God, I just open up Google Maps and I go wherever I wanna go now.

Ken Norton:

Yeah, I remember meeting my friends at a festival and it would take half the day before you finally found them. It’s Lollapalooza and it’s finally 2:00 PM and you’re like, “There you are!” Yeah, so hey, we’re not lost anymore.

Melissa Perri:

Yeah, amazing. That’s really cool. I love that way that you create the world in your head too, through that vision. So I guess too, for final parting thoughts, we’re in q4. I think a lot of management teams, a lot of executives right now are thinking about, they’re thinking about this, they’re thinking about the vision and the North Star and how they wanna rally the teams for next year. What’s your advice for them on how to think about a good North Star and how to really set people up for success?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think part of it is to believe that if you paint a picture that you can inspire other people. I think there is this sense that it needs to be translated into steps. And I think sometimes it is maybe just not believing that’s possible or maybe it is a little bit of infantalizing of the team or all these people are too stupid unless I translate it into exactly what to build, they won’t know. So it really has to come from trust. There is this sort of weird thing that happens with a word vision where it’s implied that it’s like this, something’s comes down from the mountains in the tablets or it’s just synthesized from the ether.

And that I think there is this sort of magical sense that some people are just so gifted, they can see the future and you’re like, no, actually most of these types of things is not that. It is people looking at real evidence, drawing a conclusion about where trends are going, connecting to a user need, seeing a possibility, seeing an opportunity, and translating into a story that other people can rally around. So one thing I would say is anyone is capable of putting forth a vision that is gonna inspire and get other people excited about. It isn’t something that you’re born with. It’s not like it’s Steve Jobs and two other people. No, anybody can do this. And I think really what you wanna be doing is you wanna be telling a story around the future that you want to be in. So it’s like, come with me to the future.

Imagine this has happened, this is what’s different, this is what it’ll be like. This is where the opportunities will be created. This is what our users will be saying. And then worry less around the painting of a picture of how to get there and focus more on telling the story of what it’s like when you get there. I’m trying to think of a good metaphor here. I’m not sure I have one, but it’s like if you want your team to get to the beach to get to Miami and it’s like don’t tell ‘em it’s Miami Beach and then don’t tell them exactly what route to take. Tell a story about what it’s like to be on the beach. What’s the song gonna feel like? What it’s gonna be like, What are we gonna do on the beach, What it’s gonna be like. Think about how fun that’ll be.

Right? Beaches are awesome and live it up to the team to figure out how to get to the beach. Cuz maybe it turns out that we don’t go to Miami Beach, maybe we go to beach in California and it turns out that is a better route. It’s a more effective route. Your job is somebody who’s setting the vision and telling a story is paint the picture of the beach. What’s that gonna be? Get excited about the beach. Get every motivated understanding the beach is the right place. Then leave it up to them to figure out how to get there.

Melissa Perri:

I think that’s really good advice for everybody especially as they’re thinking about what do I do next year and how do I motivate my team? Because I know that’s definitely a struggle. So thank you so much, Ken, for being on the podcast. If people wanna learn more about your work, read your writing, sign up for executive coaching, where do they go?

Ken Norton:

Yeah, yeah. bringthedonuts.com. It’s my home on the worldwide web. And there you can find my email. You can also find me on Twitter @kennethn, but if you go to bringthedonuts.com, you can get in touch with me any way possible.

Melissa Perri:

All right, well thank you so much for being here. And for those of you listening, we’ll have another episode of the Product Thinking Podcast next Wednesday as always. And if you enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a review and let us know and make sure that you subscribe so that you never miss an episode. We’ll see you next time.

Originally Published: November 23, 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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