Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Cecile Leroux, Group Vice President, Product Research & Innovation at UKG
For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Cecile Leroux, Group Vice President, Product Research & Innovation at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group). View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.
How did you get into product management?
Product management wasn’t something that I went for outright. It was something that I discovered, which is the case with a lot of product management professionals. I wanted to be at the forefront of figuring out how to make life better for people, create better products, and better solutions.
I started out as an anthropologist, which gave me a deep curiosity about people in different environments and honed my observation skills. In anthropology terms, it’s called participant observation. Much of product management is having this incredible curiosity to understand what is and isn’t working for people, and to make things better.
I talked my way into my first HR practitioner job. Since I was fascinated by people, I thought HR would be the right career focus. Within a year I realized I needed to figure out how to make the tools better for people doing this job. That is where product management came in. At its core, product management is a problem-solving discipline, which requires emotional intelligence and empathy.
Any missteps along the way, any lessons learned?
There are two important lessons. One is don’t be afraid to interact with as many different constituents as possible. We often think to listen to customers, understand their challenges, translate them into business requirements, and then work closely with engineering to make the right product outcomes happen. I learned to broaden my horizons as much as possible. I learned to be curious about what was successful, or not successful, from a support perspective, from a sales perspective, from a prospect perspective, and even from people who didn’t buy our products.
The second lesson I learned is that it is really easy to be myopic, focusing on your world and your products. Some of the best ideas come from going outside of your own discipline. If you’re in healthcare, spend some time in aerospace. If you’re in tech, spend time in retail. Find out what trends are happening; there are a lot of innovative ideas. There are trends that cross different disciplines. You start to see patterns when you go outside your own realm. You learn a lot when you don’t stay in your own bubble.
What do you like most about product management?
I like the problem-solving aspect and seeing something that started as an idea come to fruition. There is nothing more validating than creating a product and getting feedback that we really understood what it’s like to run payroll, or support people with technology, or whatever the case may be. Being able to see things from concept all the way through to adoption—and ideally love it—is the most rewarding part of product management, by far.
What do you find the most challenging?
What is probably most frustrating is the idea that product managers are seen as throwing requirements over the fence, and not necessarily being in sync with engineering or manufacturing partners. There is always going to be tension between product management and engineering. The worst thing you can tell a product manager is, “That’s not possible.” Every product manager has to work hard to remove that tension and find a way to really partner with engineers and understand what their challenges are, before that tension becomes a roadblock. By the same token, engineering has to recognize how difficult it is to come up with a reasonable, truly valuable solution or feature.
When you’re hiring, what are you typically looking for?
I always look for product managers who have a really good vision five years out for whatever product they will be supporting. Product management is about being aspirational and inspirational. It is difficult to inspire if you don’t have a good sense of where the product is going—even if you’re wrong. You can be wrong about the vision, but the absence of a vision is a bigger problem. I think of product vision as an alternate but possible, reality. You have to articulate in a way so others can see themselves in this alternate world. That requires knowing your audience, knowing your customers, understanding what challenges they truly have, and then being able to provide a path to address problems and achieve the vision.
What advice do you have for women who are thinking about going into product management?
I think that women are really good at identifying problems. Part of that comes from being natural multitaskers. We have the ability to read between the lines to see what’s actually happening. We uncover problems.
My advice is don’t be afraid to identify what you’re passionate about and then go after it relentlessly. The best way to pursue that passion is to get intimately involved in solutions and transforming that into something even better. What so many women do well is see something through from beginning to end. Product management is a great way to do that. Oftentimes you’ll see women in support roles and customer service roles who can identify many ideas about how to make something better. They can make that shift to product management really easily.
Any motto or saying that you live by?
There’s a quote by economist John Maynard Keynes, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, but escaping old ones.” I think oftentimes we think about moving forward and we forget to disassociate or divorce ourselves from some of the things that are holding us back. What got you here is not necessarily going to get you there. We do have to focus on developing new ideas, but we also have to leave behind the old ones, and I think that’s something that we all need a little bit more of.
Download the Trailblazing Women in Product Management E-Book
View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.
About the Author
Nicole Tieche is Solutions Specialist at 280 Group.
Nicole was born and raised in Michigan; she received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan in French and Creative Writing. After Nicole spent time studying and traveling through Europe, she moved out to California and discovered advertising was a great way to use her creative skills. Not as a writer, but as an Account Executive. Nicole is most creative in how she works with people: building relationships with clients and teammates, learning about them, and supporting them – even in ways they didn’t know they needed.