Part of the product leader’s responsibility is to navigate their teams toward continuous improvement and success. This might include a few methods and strategies to create a system that teams can rely on. But how can a product leader build a systematic approach while giving room for flexibility? American Express VP of Product Development Penelope Madry shares how to lead through change and align successful product teams.

(The views expressed by Penelope Madry in this podcast episode are her own and do not represent American Express.)

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On Aligning Product Teams

While working at an educational nonprofit, Penelope helped systematize and align the whole company. She describes some solid outcomes there that launched them toward success.

“Part of it was helping the business see that some of the requirements they were bringing to us were contradictory. They had thought that they had built this very clear standard and a very systematic approach. It was helping them see that it’s not systematic, because you have this over here doing this, and this over here doing this other thing, and that is not consistent. That was a big part of it, having those kinds of conversations. 

“They were actually very open to that. The company was willing to make some concessions or make adjustments to their approach and their process in order to really build a system around what they wanted. They understood that they really needed this system in order to scale, so they were really good partners. 

“Also, the engineering team was great at pushing back on things. They could have just said, I’ll build whatever you tell me to build, and just made a spaghetti bowl full of code, but they didn’t. They said, well, that’s not consistent. You said the rules were this, and now they’re saying this. We had a lot of really good collaboration on this. 

“The other thing was that this business partner took full advantage of what not all business partners do, sadly: they attended every single demo, every two weeks, to see what we were delivering and really provide feedback. Their engagement was really also a big part of the success.”

On Hiring and Retaining Talent

Hiring and retaining talent right now seems difficult and is top of mind for any leader. Thus, Penelope shares some ways she fosters improvement and leadership within her team.

“I definitely think about these three things in concert and closely together. It’s really all about getting a diverse pool of candidates, asking challenging questions, and having a very fair and unbiased interview process. For growing talent, it’s about setting clear expectations, listening to their career goals, identifying and creating opportunities for them to achieve those goals, as well as giving them opportunities to grow their experiences, to grow their skill sets. 

“To retain that great talent, it’s important for me to help them identify opportunities, perhaps, on other teams, or identify opportunities that might be coming up within my team and channel them to that. I need to remove my ego and my desires from this conversation to help them achieve those career goals so that talent can be retained.

Internal Opportunities

“I will identify speaking opportunities for them, opportunities for them to present work that they are doing to leadership, to other teams, and to our team. I’m always looking for opportunities for them to raise their profile. American Express is a large company and a lot of people work there. Helping those people get visibility for the great work that they’re doing is definitely an active thing that I’m always doing. 

“I’m also always looking for them to have opportunities within their work to take on new responsibilities. So perhaps it’s somebody who might have too much on their plate looking to give it to somebody who perhaps hasn’t done something like that before, or could benefit from expanding their scope of responsibilities. The great thing is that it is a win-win because once you’re balancing work across the team, the team feels better about being a team together. It feels more fair.”

On Team Frameworks for Success

Penelope describes how her team prioritizes its work in a highly regulated environment.  Here, they try to determine importance of these priorities by using safe agile processes for team success.

“That is something that has been a challenge for my team. Particularly, at American Express, we use safe, agile business practices and we use value to prioritize work. However, my team is a platform team and we support other product managers and engineers to deliver various initiatives. We might have competing priorities. 

“So what we do there is we look at value, we look at timing. Because the bank is highly regulated, we also look at the regulatory compliance factor to whatever it is we might be working on. Regulatory compliance always wins. The bottom line always wins. It’s always top of the list. Then after that, we’ll look at value and customer impact. Those metrics, of measuring the value and the customer impact, we will use to then prioritize the work that we are delivering for our product managers and engineers. We always try to be ahead of the game, we’re always trying to deliver ahead of them, and so that’s also the challenge, trying to get that information soon so that we can make those trade off decisions wisely.

Product Increments

“For the safe agile process, we plan what are called product increments. It’s PI for short. A product increment is defined to us as five sprints long. We have five product increments a year. At the beginning of each product increment, all dependent teams come together and plan for two days. There’s lots of meetings leading up to that planning event to make sure that it goes off without a hitch. We actually end that event with a clear plan for the next five sprints. 

“It’s almost like a product increment or a PI is similar to a sprint. We all come together at the end. The goal is to deliver value, with all the dependencies delivering at the same time.”

About the speaker
Penelope Madry American Express, VP, Product Development, Acquisition Product and Services Strategy Member

With over 10 years in technology, my expertise spans product strategy and management, driving cross functional teams, managing product road-maps, and balancing user needs with business priorities. Experienced in solving complex problems with logic, imagination, and empathy, I maintain an unrelenting focus on user needs. Currently, I lead a team of Product Managers and Engineers responsible for acquisition platform strategy and ensuring that the product teams supporting the business and markets have the tools they need to deliver value quickly, efficiently, and with high quality.

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