Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Laura Bednasz, Vice President, Product Management at Xylem
For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Laura Bednasz, Vice President, Product Management at Xylem. 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?
Looking back, I see that so much of my career was building toward my current role in product management.
I started in computer science, where I worked in aerospace and defense for 13 years doing embedded software development and project management. I like systems thinking, the ability to solve technical problems for customers, and leading teams. I liked working with the customer and solving challenging, complex technical problems… like building electronic countermeasures and radar warning receiver systems for military aircraft. These systems detected the location of threat weapon systems and provided protection for the aircrew.
In parallel, I got my master’s degree at Northwestern University in Product Design and Development. This degree could have been called a product management master’s degree because it was an interesting mix of MBA, engineering, product-focused strategy, marketing, IP, user design, and user experience. It was very different than what I was doing in my job.
That’s the skill and experience side of things. Fate also played a role! Due to a family move, I needed to look for a new job. I wanted to put my master’s degree, and my skills, to work on something important. That’s what ultimately led me to my current role solving major water and energy challenges, being responsible for the Sensus smart metering and Smart Utility Network product portfolio at Xylem.
What do you like most about product management?
I love partnering with customers to solve big problems. To put products into the market that create value for our company, our customers, and communities. That solve for resource scarcity, resilience, and affordability. That is what I love about it.
Any lessons learned along the way?
In product management, it can be easy to put on blinders and to think that every customer problem can be solved with your product or technology. But my team’s biggest successes came from listening.
Listen to the customer problems, obsess over their needs, and make them the focal point for product innovation. Balance this customer perspective with cost, profitability, and whether the product will resonate in the market from a usability perspective. But start with listening.
What do you find the most challenging?
Product management requires leading, collaborating with and working to influence many groups outside your reporting hierarchy. We’re helping bring together different parts of the product universe, and acting as the mini CEO of the product line. We’re keeping tabs on all the decisions to keep the product profitable, and usable by the customer. On one hand, we’re working to ensure sales is excited about selling it. On the other hand, we’re ensuring our engineers are excited about building it.
These challenges are also why I love the role though. I like to get results for the business, be an entrepreneur, but I also like to lead teams and help people.
What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?
Knowing the market and knowing the industry are things that can be learned. I look for leadership. You have to be a leader to be in product management. You’re influencing and creating excitement with the people you work with on the product that you’re asking them to build.
Putting the right team in place is critical. I’ve led teams through a lot of organizational change, and if you don’t have the right skills and competencies and leadership, it’s hard to tackle all of the challenges that you face. I like helping people develop and letting them take on more of my job. A wise person once told me that the best managers are the ones who have promoted the most staff up over and out of their organizations. I get excited about seeing strong talent in my team, and then seeing them move on to their next role.
What advice would you give women going into product management?
First, welcome. We need great female leaders in product management. We need more diversity in the technology space.
Second, many of the women I’ve had the pleasure of working with excel at both problem-solving and empathy. Put those character traits to work. Being an empathetic leader is a skill that helps Product Managers succeed. And yes, many of us – men and women – get nervous about the stress, or speaking in front of groups, or the technical skills required, but it works as long as you are joining a balanced team with the right skill mix. We need a diverse set of perspectives that include people who are creative, people who are strategic, and people who can solve problems. We need technical competency as well, but I wouldn’t let any one of those things stop you from applying if you are a leader. Don’t be afraid to try it.
Lastly, check out the Xylem careers page for opportunities to solve water and energy challenges through product management!
Any guiding motto?
Listen, empathize, and lead… in that order. Listen to people. Understand what’s driving them. Lead your teams and the teams around you to deliver problem-solving products and solutions to your customers.
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.