Is your team’s strategy transparent?

Get ready for episode 13 in the CPO Rising Series. Here, Fmr GitLab CPO Scott Williamson sits down with Products That Count CPO Renée Niemi. Scott talks about the importance of transparency when leading people and driving change. When it comes to change, he keeps it old school by writing things down. With talent, he makes sure people know where they stand (and where they need to go). And because GitLab is all-remote, transparent communication is key to making sure everybody stays in the loop.

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On why leaders should write things down

When it comes to leading change, you can’t assume the team will understand a summary of your strategy. No. To the contrary, Scott says you’ve got to go old school: write things down.

“I think when you’re trying to drive change, you have to be crystal clear about what you’re trying to do and why. So I’m a huge believer in writing things down. I already mentioned GitLab’s transparency. We tend to write things down. 

“Amazon has this notion of a ‘six pager.’ No decks. No summaries. Write it down, because the devil’s in the details. If you really want to drive change, you have to get lots of people’s heads around what’s otherwise probably a complex topic. And if you skip steps or just communicate in bullets, people don’t know what they’re signing up for. They don’t understand the implications of it. 

“It sounds simple, but writing it down, writing your strategy down – writing down what you’re trying to do, and then socializing that with your boss, your peers, your team – is the best way to drive change. Because people can get their heads around it. Understand why. Provide feedback. You can have a real conversation about it. Harden the idea. And then when you’re ready to execute, people can get behind it. 

“I believe the same thing about process changes. When you’re scaling, you have to introduce new process. So again, it’s important: write it down. Explain why. Be iterative. Make small changes. And then over time you’ve progressed. So I think from a product strategy and process standpoint, writing it down is key.”

On making hiring your number one priority

Consistent among CPOs is that talent is a top challenge. How can you win the talent game? According to Scott, it takes a special focus and transparency.

“The only way to do it is to make it your number one priority. Make sure that the people in interview teams have clear roles that don’t overlap, and that job descriptions are excellent. Make sure that the recruiter and sourcer are of the same mind about what we are looking for. Have weekly syncs to debug the process and identify bottlenecks. 

“It’s competitive out there. You have to optimize for a great candidate experience. And you have to make sure the bar is high, because product management is such an important role. There’s so much leverage in getting the right person in the role. And you get crushed when you have the wrong person in the role. It’s especially important in product to hire well. 

“As far as retention, one of the first things I did upon joining was pull together something that we hadn’t used at SendGrid, as well, called a Career Development Framework… That articulated expectations at each role. That made it clear for people managers when to promote. When to fire. And then we do reviews every two to three months about that CDF. 

“That gives a PM a chance to check in on how am I doing against expectations broadly? What do I need to be working on to meet expectations at this level, or move to the next level? And that’s been a huge help in retention because I think people feel like, ‘I’m receiving coaching, I can see myself advancing and moving my skills forward. I know what’s expected at the next level.’ So that’s been a huge retention tool.”

On managing a remote-first culture for success

GitLab is all-remote, and always has been, with team members in more than 60 countries. So when the pandemic hit, they were ready. Consequently, they offer advice on this topic to other product teams, including transparent communication, as Scott explains. 

“GitLab publishes a ton of best practices about remote. So if this is an important topic, go to the handbook and check it out. There’s a ton of advice there. [We start with] assuming asynchronous communication is very important.

“So we record every meeting. We have a very detailed Google Doc, where we take notes live in the conversation. We tee up the agenda ahead of time, so people can see whether it’s of interest to them or not. If they miss it, they can go read the notes. We start meetings on time. We just have really good meeting hygiene. And we assume that people aren’t going to be there. If you take the right notes, you have recordings, people who aren’t there can still feel connected. Because what you don’t want is some people feeling connected and others not.

“I think you need to leverage multimodal communication. We do have synchronous meetings, like I have a product team meeting every two weeks. And I’ll tee up conversations there where I think they need to hear it from me too. But I’ll also send things out by Slack. And I’ll leave it in the agenda doc, so they can check it out later. 

“People aren’t always paying attention. And I think as leaders, it’s easy, because you’ve repeated it a couple of times, to sort of assume everyone’s heard it. But oftentimes, that’s not the case. And you need to repeat the key messages over and over and over again, in different forums.”

About the speaker
Scott Williamson GitLab, Chief Product Officer Member
About the host
Renee Niemi Products That Count, CPO
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