Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Nicole Francis, Director of Product Management at Paycor

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Nicole Francis, Director of Product Management at Paycor. 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?

I initially worked in retail, so Paycor was my first career position. I started in our customer service area. After a few years, I found that I had an affinity towards trying to solve our customers’ problems through technology. I started thinking about my career, doing strengths finders, and getting to know myself. I wanted to better understand the business and where my skills would best be applied at that time. The Business Analyst role is where I landed. Over time, Paycor went through an Agile transformation and the Product Owner role became a thing, and then Product Managers became a thing. I naturally evolved from the Business Analyst role into product management.

Any lessons learned along the way?

There are two lessons that come to mind. One being, I made some terrible decisions. I did not always make the right choices about what we needed to do in our products, and that’s okay. I think people need to know that not every decision you make is going to be perfect. Let go of perfectionism if you’re holding on to it. Another thing I learned is that at some point in leadership, it switched from things being offered to me to going after them myself. For example, a manager would say that I would be great for a certain role, and I should apply. But at some point, that flips to where you have to go after what you want. You can’t always wait for someone to tell you what the right next role is for you.

What do you like most about product management?

Product management is very much about turning ideas into things that need to happen. That process will always include challenges, roadblocks, and obstacles that will make you think harder and require different decisions. I enjoy working through that. I like the challenge, especially when it results in a successful product delivery.

What do you find the most challenging?

What frustrates me is the lack of understanding about what a good Product Manager is. Often, people just focus on the project management skills, but it’s really much more strategic. Product management is about being able to deliver value to your customers and focusing on the business. Sometimes those skills get missed, which can be challenging.

How do you drive success with your teams?

The biggest thing that drives success is the constant focus on the strategy and the ‘why’ behind everything you’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the features you’re working to deliver, and the tasks that need to get done, and then forget why you’re doing it all and why it’s important to the business. I am always focusing on the strategy and the ‘why.’ My role as Director of Product Management is to bring everyone back to that focus. I frequently conduct one-on-one meetings with my team where I’ll ask, ‘What’s going on? Why are you working on that? Let’s talk about the strategy, and how are you moving that forward.’ Those conversations keep the team focused and successful.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?

I like to tap people internally and raise them up within the company. I look for people who are organized, confident, and curious. This job is so challenging. There are constant pulls for your attention and constant distractions, so you need to be organized. You have to be able to evangelize your product, which requires you to be confident. If you’re not confident in yourself, everything falls flat. You can’t get your engineering teams bought in, and you can’t get different business units and leadership bought in. Being confident in yourself is what moves your product forward. I definitely look for a sense of curiosity. That will serve you well as a Product Manager.

What advice would you give women going into product management?

Women often wait on someone else to validate their success. I encourage women going into product management to be confident in your contributions. Show up to the table; lean in without waiting for someone to pull you in.

Be passionate about the business, your customers, and about learning something new. I call it my Blue’s Clues phase. With any new product or initiative, there’s always that timeframe where you have more questions than answers. Enjoy that process of getting answers and bringing clarity to the situation. If you are uncomfortable with the unknown, product management is probably not for you. The majority of your career is working through what you don’t know. We don’t know how customers will receive this. We don’t know if we can build it. We don’t know how long it’ll take us. Then something dramatic happens – like COVID-19 – and everything you’re doing doesn’t matter anymore. You need to be able to pivot and ask the next set of questions. You will often not have all the answers, and that’s okay.

I also want to encourage women to always be willing to ask for feedback. It can be scary to ask someone specifically, ‘How can I be better at this? How can I help you differently?’ But don’t be scared. Being able to do that has been one of the more helpful practices of my career.

Any guiding motto?

Stay curious. I am excited by the unknown and by answering the tough questions. I don’t think that only helps with product management; I think that helps with leading people as well. Get curious about your team and their individual motivations. Really listen to what they’re saying. People don’t always come out and say what is bothering them. Ask questions so they can think about their career and where they want to go. You have to stay curious about everything and everyone.

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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.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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