How Your Company Benefits From a Product Coach

Actually, I was a bit hesitant to start this article with this quote:

I wish I’d have known… 10 years ago…

Nevertheless, I need to admit that many mistakes I’ve made in my career could have been avoided by having the support of a Product Coach or Mentor.

Especially in 2020, the role of a Product Manager/Owner is more relevant than ever. Due to the health and economic crisis companies need to make wise decisions on how they want to move forward. Therefore, the decision-making process of Product Managers is more important than ever. Companies have fewer “shots” they can take in these uncertain times and markets with limited financial resources. And obviously, the same applies to startups of which (unfortunately) 95% still fail no matter which industry they’re in.

This is where a Product Coach comes in. A Product Coach can be a great addition to an existing Product Team in a supportive and empowering role. Product Coaches help teams and people to unblock themselves, educate them on best practices, and challenge the status quo of the product development process.

You might ask: “What about CPOs, VPs, and Product Leads?“ In many companies, these people are often very busy with too much operational or too much strategic work. According to the recent PMF Study 2019 (slide 34), more than 50% of Product People experience a lack of time, and 35% feel they suffer from role unclarity. I’ve experienced these challenges in my career many times. That’s why these days, I help companies and people to get over these hurdles.

Let’s take a deeper look into the role of a Product Coach.

What is the Role of a Product Coach?

The job of a Product Coach isn’t set in stone and isn’t always the same. It differs a lot on whether this person is an employee or an external contributor, as well as the role descriptions within a company. Nevertheless, I’d like to highlight some key aspects of the role in a specific scenario that I describe below.

Spoiler Alert: A Product Coach isn’t an individual contributor who works on products/projects.

Agile Coach, vs. Product Coach, vs. Product Lead

The Agile Coach is a subject matter expert on team development and doesn’t know the product(s) & ongoing projects in depth (this doesn’t count for all coaches). They help the teams to better collaborate and communicate with each other through processes and best practices.

-> Focused on development and engineering processes within a team.

The Product Coach is a subject matter expert on the development of Product Managers and Product Teams. They understand the products and projects as well as dependencies and (global) priorities. A Product Coach helps Product Teams to build the ‘right things’ (see: Product Lead) and helps to get ‘things right’ with best practices, tools, and experience.

-> Focused on Product Management and people to optimize planning and execution.

The Product Lead is a domain expert and has in-depth experience in business domains and markets. They help individuals and teams to define and build the ‘right things’ based on company and product strategy(s). They align strategies and projects across squads, departments, and tribes.

-> Focused on the product & domain, project management, and strategic planning.

From my experience, companies and teams achieve the best results when all three key roles collaborate closely together.

How Does a Product Coach Support You?

In order to work as best as possible, a Product Coach needs to talk and connect with people and understand how an organization works. Information gathering is the first and most important task. If a coach can’t connect to people, they won’t be able to succeed. Soft skills and social interactions are one of the most important attributes a great coach needs to have.

In a nutshell, the job of a Product Coach is to aid in three focus areas:

Product Management Coaching (~70%)

There are two particularly important aspects of coaching to look at. The first part is the methodology of coaching. Business coaching has become very relevant over the last two decades. The idea is based on e.g. a systematic coaching approach to help people to find the answers themselves. People often know the answers and solutions to their problems but can’t find them due to missing clarity. The reasons for this are often stress, pressure, missing structure, and more.

A Product Coach focuses while working with teams and people on the “known unknowns.” The goal is to ask as few non-leading questions as possible and to help them to find the answers by themselves. Based on the experience, the coach can nudge people in the right direction if they move off-track. The benefit is that people have a way bigger learning curve than if someone just tells them the answer without making them use their own brains. I’m a big fan of this method because it has a great mid and long-term growth impact.

That brings us to the second part:

What’s the difference between therapy and coaching?

Therapy focuses on mental and psychological health and has no time constraints. It could “potentially” take “forever” in the case of psychotherapy. It’s hard and almost impossible to measure the progress.

Coaching instead is always connected to setting and achieving goals, milestones, and success. Therefore a Product Coach always defines clear goals with their coachees and regularly catches up with them. In practice, this is connected to business goals and aligned with the Management/Leadership team of the company.

Product Management Consulting (~20%)

With certain topics, Product Coaches act as a consultant rather than a coach. Based on their knowledge they make analysis, recommendations, and provide solutions for certain challenges and projects. Companies and coaches need to define together what areas need consulting vs. coaching. That depends on the urgency on the company side and an assessment from the coach’s side.

High-level example:

Let’s say an eCommerce company wants to restructure its product and engineering organization around feature teams. The Product Coach has many years of eCommerce experience. They can give great advice on defining the feature teams and domains and can share best practices and mistakes to avoid. The coach will focus on defining good domains and good processes for all employees to grow and work as efficiently and as much as possible.

This concept will obviously be worked out with the Product and Engineering Leadership Team and not just by the coach.

Product Management Training (~10%)

While focusing on coaching the known unknowns, a coach focuses on the unknown unknowns. With education and training the Product Coach helps teams and individual Product Managers to learn Product Management best practices. Depending on the maturity level of a team, it can be more or less than 10% of the time a coach needs to spend on it. I’ve defined the Product Management practices based on 11 focus areas that I analyze and cover when I educate people and teams:

  • Product Planning
  • Product Discovery
  • Problem & Data Analysis
  • Product & Service Design
  • Prioritization
  • Product Ownership
  • Project Management
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Product Marketing
  • Team & Leadership
  • Organization & Processes

I’ll soon write and link an article explaining every area in-depth and how they harmonize together. If you want to get notified, feel free to sign up for the newsletter below.

The Difference Between Mentoring and Coaching

I like describing the difference from William Campbell’s point of view (The Trillion Dollar Coach).

Mentoring is when two practitioners come together and one teaches the other certain “practices.” Let’s say an experienced tennis player teaches another to improve the surcharge.

Coaching is when someone identifies and knows your strengths and areas to improve. They define goals and create a path for your personal/professional development and will help you achieve them. A coach guides you in the right direction that you’ve defined together with them.

Knowing how a Product Coach works, let’s look at when and how they can help companies.

Why is a Product Coach Important to Your Company?

Obviously, not every company needs a Product Coach. It’s, however, good to have one especially when you get stuck on

  • finding product-market fit
  • scaling processes for growth
  • establishing a coaching/mentoring culture

Companies are faced with different challenges based on product maturity, employee numbers, market shares, etc. Below you can find an overview of when and how a Product Coach can support.

Product Coaching for Startups

You can easily start a company/business without a Product Manager in your team. That being said, if you want to go big and scale it’s indispensable. A Product Coach can be a great support for the founders to do a proper problem definition, validation, market research, and then MVP definition. Doing the “right things”, and “things right” from day one will later be the best foundation you need to scale. With a clear product vision, mission, and purpose, the Engineering Team and the rest of the company will be more able to support the founder to achieve the goals and live the values.

Product Coaching for Scale

The better Product Teams, work with best practices by focusing on solving customer and business problems the better the organization will scale. A structured product management and development process will lead to better results. The Product Coach can help teams and Product Managers to streamline their work and processes. It’s important to note that Product and Engineering Teams, in particular, are very affected by the organizational structure. Depending on the organizational structure (e.g. organic vs. mechanic) decision-making and team autonomy can be limited or highly scalable. This is tightly connected to career development opportunities. Product Coaches can help in designing organizational structures and career development plans.

Product Coaching for Culture

I’ve experienced the best cultures in companies that were fully driven by delivering value to their customers and solving problems. Employees are happier when they are committed to the company vision and work every day hard to make it come true. Establishing a product and coaching culture is exactly what motivates people to constantly thrive in that creation process. The positive side effects are

  • more job satisfaction
  • stronger relationships
  • great teamwork
  • improved productivity
  • better quality

There are many more great benefits. The best way to learn and experience those is to start working towards a coaching and mentoring culture.

How to Become a Product Coach?

Product Coaching requires certain key “skills”:

  • Great experience in Product Management (practice)
  • Deep theoretical understanding of product management methodologies, agile, lean thinking, and more
  • An understanding of psychology and coaching (e.g. Business Coaching)
  • Great communication and other soft skills

There is no one way how to become or to learn all of these things and many other skills. The openness to continuously learn and accept that you’ll never know everything is the best motivation to get started.

Are you curious about product coaching? I’m happy to help you and provide you with more information. Learn more on our product coaching & consulting page.

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