Women in Product Management: Jennifer Lyons, Product Management Consultant

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Jennifer Lyons, a Product Management Executive who has focused the last twelve years of her career in healthcare.

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How to Balance Strategy, Sales Requests, and Roadmaps

Those were just some of the topics shared by Jennifer Lyons as part of our Women in Product series.

Jennifer started her career working for a sales training company that had classroom training. When the company decided to broaden their offerings by adding computer-based training (CBT), Jennifer had the opportunity to work closely with a product manager from a third-party vendor contracted to help with the technology. That was Jennifer’s first exposure to product management.

“She was doing a lot of really cool stuff. That was what really got me interested in, and exploring what, product management meant. My career started out focused in consulting and program management, moving into product management and marketing. I think the exposure to clients, and managing clients on consulting engagements, actually instilled in me an awareness that companies need to be driven by the market and problems clients are trying to solve, not what we think our solution is. Product Management training companies like 280 Group teach the importance of voice of the customer. It’s very important for product managers to have those practical tools, but I think voice of the customer needs to be inherent in a product manager. You have to have passion for product and compassion for the consumer.”

When I asked about missteps or lessons along the way in her career, Jennifer focused on her partnerships with Sales.

“I think if any product manager is honest, they would say that our relationship with sales is both our best ally and biggest source of frustration. From my perspective, sales teams often react to solving a problem a client has raised as a blocker to closing a deal, rather than considering whether the ask is applicable to the market, or benefits our products holistically. They’re very focused on the here and now. Product Management can be focused on the future, while still addressing concerns that are raised regarding the here and now. We have to find ways to navigate the challenge of disruptive opportunities that every product manager is brought when there is a need identified by a prospect in the sale cycle. The key is to weigh the opportunity against the bigger picture of where the company is trying to go, and the value the opportunity brings. Sometimes you have to compromise because we have a shared goal, and we want an effective, bought-in and engaged sales team.”

I was curious which aspects of Product Management she found the most interesting and most challenging.

“What always interested me about Product Management is the strategic influence it has. If you have a product driven company, the product itself drives a lot of the strategy and the direction that the company takes. I find that to be the most interesting piece because in product management you’re engaged with and exposed to a lot of directional discussion.

The biggest challenge is balancing the day-to-day with the desire to be innovative, and engage in blue sky thinking to identify growth opportunities. As product managers, we all have to live in the operational day-to-day reality at times, but it can be frustrating when it feels like we’re not making progress on the innovation front.”

When I asked how she mentors product managers to do both, it came down to iterating on the product roadmap, and appreciating the importance of operations as part of the whole product

“It is increasingly important as companies embrace agile development that roadmaps be organized around a product vision that supports organizational goals the scrum and operational teams can rally behind, and achieve in a 12-18 month period. That way, success is measured by not only delivering product to market ‘on time,’ but also based on the value created by building in the flexibility to iterate and pivot based on usability and A/B testing during the development and release cycles. It is equally important to take early stage work to your internal stakeholders to build buy in and create excitement so the operational teams supporting the product have an opportunity to proactively plan how to package the ancillary services and support that are the wrapper for a great product. Good product managers can influence this to reinforce the vision they have for the client experience.

Longer term, I recommend Product Managers build a backlog of ideas – from stakeholders, healthcare market trends, expressed needs of clients, prospects and markets, product gaps, etc. – and determine which ones to invest time analyzing and structuring into business cases. Basically, you don’t want to pursue building things that don’t add value for your clients or the market. Anyone who’s done product management long enough has had that great idea that we believed would be a differentiator, and when released failed to resonate with our sales team and our clients. Don’t get discouraged, never stop learning, questioning and adjusting as your market evolves.”

I asked Jennifer what she looks for when building a team.

“When I’m growing a team, I look for cultural fit with my existing team – looking for skills that compliment and contrast, as well as personalities that will align – so that we can learn and grow with each other. Product management acumen comes next. I look for people who have product management experience, but who are also able to express their ability to collaborate, problem solve, are creative thinkers and can navigate an organization. I look for people who are able to have and to share their perspective, but who are also willing to listen and compromise.

If I’m inheriting an existing team as is often the case when consulting or collaborating with a new organization, I like to get to know each resource as an individual, what motivates them and where they believe their strengths are and where they see opportunities to grow. I tend to be more leader than manager, and believe building strong relationships and empowering people with situational coaching when needed goes a long way to establishing trust and bringing out the best in teams.”

Jennifer’s advice for getting into Product Management

Get a Mentor!

“Find a mentor. Find somebody that you respect, regardless of what they do in the organization, listen and learn. Be naturally curious about the market. Always ask a question. If a customer tells you that they want something, ask them why. What is the problem they’re trying to solve? What is the value they’re trying to create? Foster that tendency to be curious and ask questions. When you’re bringing that content in as a product manager or in another role, you’re creating value because you’re really showing and demonstrating you understand the market. I think good having good mentors is important, especially for women.”

Jennifer’s guiding principle

Focus on your sphere of influence!

“I like to tell my teams to focus on their sphere of influence and the things that they can control, because as a product manager there are so many things they can’t control that can bog you down. If you get too bogged down, you’re going to lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

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