I am pleased you want to find out more about product leader coaching. The coaching landscape is broad, with varied approaches and styles. Your expectation of how a coach might work with you might differ from how different coaches operate. I cannot talk about what other product leader coaches do, so I will share my approach to product leader coaching and give you some questions to consider when finding a coach to work with.
What is coaching?
Coaching is about the journey you are on to be the best you can be. The focus is on the way things are done. Coaching focuses on your future possibilities and learning through action. It is not teaching or instruction. A coach is not your boss and does not tell you what to do.
The foundation of modern-day coaching is Timothy Gallwey from Harvard, who is a tennis expert. In his book published in 1974, "The inner game of tennis", he stated, "the opponent within one's own head is more formidable than the one the other side of the net." This focus on the inner self is at the heart of coaching accredited by ICF (International Coaching Federation) and AoEC (Academy of Executive Coaching).
Gallwey summarised his approach with the Inner Game Equation.
Performance = potential - interference
Thinking of sports coaching is interesting when Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth, holding the world record of 9.58 seconds for the 100m sprint. Usain's coach is not faster than Usain, but his coach was critical in helping him on his journey to be the best he can be. While a purist view of coaching would suggest anyone qualified as a coach could have helped Usain achieve greatness, the pragmatic view is domain expertise makes a difference. It creates deeper cognitive empathy between the coach and coachee and accelerates the pace of the improvement journey.
Domain experience helps the coach pinpoint areas of reflection and share tools that will move forwards more quickly. Timothy Gallwey had tools to help his tennis players when they reflected that they overthink a shot resulting in distraction and a miss hit. He would suggest the player say out loud the word "bounce" when the ball hit the ground in front of the player. This simple tool was enough to help the player control the "what if" overthinking and improved their game.
Product leaders have many decisions to make, some are big and irreversible, and others have a smaller impact and can be undone. Decision flow is critical for all companies that want to create momentum and achieve growth. But as humans, we make emotional decisions driven by the primate part of our brain, which is hard-wired to bias loss aversion. This doesn't always manifest as the ideal leadership behaviour to help our teams achieve their best.
To maximise our effectiveness and reach our potential, we have to form positive habits and continuously improve. Much like a retrospective in an agile development team will drive continuous improvement in their working methods, coaching will help you continuously improve your leadership behaviours. Modern product executive coaching will help you evolve your choices of leadership behaviours to strengthen your self-belief, your motivation and, importantly, your performance.
A coaching culture generates high performance.
Over the last two decades, we have seen businesses transform and go digital. It would be easy to overlook the culture change for successful digital transformation and simply focus on the vehicle of delivery to the customer. Organisations that succeed at digital transformation or those that are digital natives have what is often described as an agile culture or product culture. The major change is staff are empowered to make a difference and, in the best cases, innovate to change people's lives.
To empower teams, we leaders must embrace a different style from traditional mindsets. Product leader coaching helps emerging and experienced leaders navigate empowered leadership. The table below highlights the differences between traditional and empowered mindsets.
|Traditional Mindset||Empowered Mindset|
|Imposed rules||Purpose values|
|Best practice||Continuous Improvement|
Mentoring is not coaching
While domain knowledge does help, it is crucial to understand what makes a coach effective is their experience and knowledge of coaching, not their experience doing your job. In our domain of product management, an experienced CPO from a top unicorn tech scale-up does not qualify to be an amazing coach. The word mentor is often used to describe a coach, but it is very different. A mentor's role is to share everything they know that might help you. It is based on the premise that the mentor has the greater experience.
When the mentor has shared everything, they know the relationship is over, and there is no value left to derive. Coaching opens up the opportunity to help further. Good coaching should take the coachee to limits beyond the coach's own expertise.
Improvement coaching model
When I coach product leaders and founders, I work to encourage a coaching mindset of awareness and responsibility. We explore your current situation and aims considering the short term, the long term, as well as the organisational aims and your personal aims.
Everyone is different, some have strong self-awareness, and others need tools to help understand their values, potential and opportunities. One tool I frequently use to shape understanding is the Product Leader Map which drives focus on culture, product and team.
To give structure to a program of coaching, I use the Improvement Compass to identify the big challenge, understand the current condition and explore the target condition. Knowing where you are trying to get to is half the battle, then we look at actions to try to get you closer to the target condition. I prefer to call these experiments - it is ok if the action doesn't work as long as we learn from it. Learning is part of the journey.
Over the years, I have developed a suite of tools to support product leaders. Some of these are prescriptive and closer to teaching or mentoring. To keep the coaching relationship effective, I offer these as e-learning which product leaders I work with can choose to watch in their own time. This allows for the best of both worlds - imparting knowledge and coaching.
While the Improvement Compass provides structure, the agenda for every coaching call must be owned by the coachee. Coaching does not have a set curriculum. So each session can be different, and we explore what is most important to the coachee.
When should I hire a coach?
If you want to personally grow, improve your performance, form better habits and make clearer decisions, coaching is a powerful option for you. Typically I find product leaders or founders consider coaching when there is a change in a situation, such as a new job or new strategy and when they recognise their potential is greater than current performance. In short, if you can embrace a coaching mindset, the coaching process will help you.
"When should I hire a coach?" might be easier to answer if we turn it on its head. When should you not hire a coach?
The most common mistake I see is when someone wants to learn a new skill, this requires training, not coaching. A coach can help you improve the skill through experiential learning, but the foundations need training.
If you cannot commit to the coaching process, it will not work for you. You get out what you put in, so don't expect a magic wand. So only hire a coach when you can commit.
The coaching process will challenge you, it will ask difficult questions to help find a pathway forward. If you are uncomfortable with being challenged, then coaching is not right for you.
How do I choose a product leader coach?
Most importantly, talk to multiple coaches and look for one where the chemistry is right. You are not looking for a new best friend, but you do need to feel comfortable and open to being challenged by the coach. Sometimes individual personality traits cause distraction and get in the way of a successful coaching relationship.
To have the best chance of success, I would look for a product leader coach who has:
- A product background and has lead product functions.
- Gained experience by working in multiple sectors.
- Coaching experience, ideally qualifications.
- Coached other people and can share testimonials or references.
- A point of view matches your own, e.g. "I care about empowering teams through servant leadership."
- Can explain their coaching framework or approach. It should not be made up on the spot.
- Doesn't tie you into a long-term contract.
Perhaps the most important thing is to speak 1:1 with the coach before you enter into a formal agreement.
Working with me
If you are looking for a coach to help you with product leadership, and you like the idea of mentor / coach armed with tools to help you grow fast, then please check out my blogs and white paper. If you feel there is a match, take a look at my 1:1 coaching and contact me to set up a call.