For our fourth installment of Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Sarah Hatfield, VP Product Management and Client Solutions at OnProcess Technology.
To catch the entire series on Women in Product Management make sure to sign up for our newsletter.
How does training for battle in Afghanistan prepare you for an executive role in Product Management?
That was just one of the topics I discussed with Sarah as part of our Women in Product Series.
According to LinkedIn, Sarah’s career highlights include full P&L responsibility, New Product Development (hardware, software, and managed services), global go-to-market strategy and execution, and management of key strategic partnerships with an emphasis in the Asia Pacific region. She is a former active duty soldier, and veteran of foreign wars, with a penchant for leadership, vinyasa yoga, and adventure travel.
When we began our interview, I told Sarah that I had a vision of her in fatigues doing a tree pose.
“You nailed it with the tree pose in fatigues! It’s an interesting story, and a non-traditional path, especially for women. It’s a badge of honor for me. When I first started in the corporate world, I was really self-conscious because I hadn’t followed the same path as everyone else. I thought in order to be successful, I needed to fit into the same mold. I’ve since broken that mentality, and am really proud of my alternative path.
“My career has had many twists and turns, all of which were steps along a path.
“They may not all have been the right role for me, or my absolute favorite role, but they each drove me to grow and created an expansion path into the next opportunity. I started out my career in the military. I was enlisted in the army, and even spent a year in Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Division back in the early years of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“From a skillset perspective, I specialized in logistics and supply chain, and carried that experience over as I made the transition into my civilian career. Initially, I contracted with Department of Defense, doing essentially the exact same job that I did in the army. I like to say that role was very similar to being in the military, except I got to wear something other than camo to work, which was a huge win in my book. Shortly thereafter, I had my break into the corporate world. My first job was leading supply chain for Comcast’s Western New England Region. It was a perfect fit with my military supply chain background, but was also a huge stretch role for me.
“I’m forever grateful to that leadership team for helping me through my transition from army green to corporate gray. With the mentorship of a few great leaders, I quickly had an opportunity to promote up and relocate to California to run business operations for another area within Comcast. It was my first foray outside of pure supply chain.
“Now, with a robust business operations role under my belt, the path to product management was starting to form.
“My first product role was at Asurion. Before I started in the position, I was so nervous! I literally had no idea what was expected of me. All I knew was they were looking for someone with a background in logistics, scalability and process. Those things were all very familiar to me from my experience in the military and my time at Comcast.
“In the long run, they took a chance on me, and I took a chance on product- it worked out well for both of us. This first product role was specific to portfolio management and establishing global governance processes. From there, my career opened up into more general product management, product development, and eventually solutions as well. It was really an organic progression over the years.”
I asked how she up-leveled her skills. This is a question I get a lot from people wanting to get into Product Management. How do you learn to do the strategic part of Product Management?
“It’s so important to pause, take a step back, and assess the path you’re going down. Is what you’re ideating, what you’re developing, what you’re testing still relevant in the market?
“Are you solving a market need, or has emotion become the driver?
“Getting out of the weeds of what you’re working on, and focusing on the big picture is something that comes with experience and professional maturity. The strategic part of product management comes from missteps, and lessons learned along the way. At first, it’s something you have to remind yourself to keep in the front of your mind, and then one day like magic, it becomes a habit. It becomes instinctive. I watched other people and learned from them.
“I’ve had a lot of great mentors in my career, and while I’ve had some formalized product training, much of what has shaped my success has come from on the job training, and simply having a seat at the table to observe. Every role that I have had has been a fantastic preparation for the next step. My first, more junior product role at Asurion was a great stepping stone into a more strategic role at ADT where my space was a combination of both product and project management. That experience then lead into product development. It’s all been about the step before preparing me for the next phase.”
When I asked Sarah what she loved the most about Product Management, it was being at the crossroad of where the customer and the market meet, and how they intersect with technology.
“This space is just so exciting to me. Product Management is in the forefront of everything, looking at cutting edge technology and innovation, understanding market dynamics, and consumer trends. How could you not be excited by that? I also love change, and that theme is omnipresent in product management. When I was in the military, I had to get very comfortable very quickly with flexing and adapting to my environment. This translated very well in product for me.
“It’s all about readiness. You can plan and plan and plan, and whether you’re on a true battlefield, or the battlefield of business, no product launch, project plan, or program ever goes exactly according to your original plan.
“If you’re shifting and moving appropriately with the market, it shouldn’t remain exactly to the original plan. It’s really important to assess, reassess, and pivot where necessary. That is probably the single greatest carryover lesson from the Army, into my civilian life.”
The hardest part of Product Management for Sarah is work-life Balance, or as she calls it, work-life integration.
“Because I love what I do, because there’s never a shortage of things to be done, the hardest part of my job is knowing when to turn it off. I know that a lot of people talk about work life balance. For me it’s a little bit more about work-life integration, it’s all part of my life. Work is important. Taking time out is important. I try to make sure that I’m maintaining balance in both.
“There’s never a shortage of work. As soon as you’ve launched a product, you move into the space where you’re continually assessing how it is performing in market, and what changes need to be made. You’re thinking about what the lifecycle looks like and when to prepare for a new product. On the people side, it’s equally as important to spend quality time developing those authentic connections, and grooming that next round of up and coming leaders. There are only so many hours in the day and I think that finding comfortable work-life integration is a challenge so many of us have. For me it comes down to applying the right amount of effort in the right space at the right time.”
Sarah currently has six solutions engineers and a pricing strategy manager reporting to her. From a product perspective, they’re focused on continuously improving scalable service solutions of their core offerings, and driving market leading services through the use of OnProcess’ key differentiation. When I asked how she drives success with her team it became clear it was one of the favorite things about her role.
“I have a very senior, very seasoned team and they get a lot of respect across the organization. Much like you would expect from a solutions engineer, they’re the people who understand in great granularity the inner and outer workings of our company. They know how to solve for technical components of our implementations, how to operationalize our services, and how to pull together the end-to-end package that we deliver to the client. So when you have a team with that level of talent, it’s really important to keep them critically engaged.
“For me it’s about providing stretch opportunities for the team, finding new areas that maybe they haven’t played in before. There are always new, exciting products you’re planning to take to market, but even when it comes to working on a more mature service line, there is still an enticing element to it because we’re looking at new and innovative ways to improve something. Taking that a step further, even when we’re going to get to shut down a service line and sunset it, you know that you will most likely replace it with something else – something else cool and new to work on. It’s just making sure that they all have opportunities to be engaged in cool things to drive and shine on their own. ”
When I asked what advice Sarah had for women who are thinking about getting into product management, she absolutely recommended it.
“First and foremost, product is so much fun. It’s really exciting to watch the evolution, and see more women filling product roles.
“My advice is to get engaged, like really engaged. It doesn’t matter what part of product you engage in, just get in there.
“You could start out in product portfolio management and then spend some time in UI/UX. Maybe you want to spend some time in customer experience, and then work in product development. Personally, my background in project management was a great segue into product, because I was so close to the products in the projects that I was leading. In the projects I was leading, it was critical for me to be at the front and center, it was more of a strategic project management role where I was responsible to drive overall success. Because of this, I was incredibly close to the product side of the business.
“If you are interested in product, and you come from the project world, or business operations, or technology, you will be in a solid position to be really successful, because you have an understanding of the business at large. Remember, product is the intersection of the market, technology, and the customer, there are lots of pathways in. So, get in there. Listen. Learn. Find a mentor, even if it’s not formalized. Fine someone that you can look to. Emulate someone that you respect how they act, how they present themselves, and the decisions that they make.
“When you’re selecting a job, it’s as critical to choose who you’re working with, as it is what you’re working on. Obviously company culture, role, title, choosing your boss, comp package, all of those things are really important. But it is also important to choose your peers wisely. When you go through the interview process, ask a ton of questions with the intention of assessing if you will enjoy the environment and your peer group. I love working with my current partners, and those relationships are a large part of what enables my success.
“When you combine genuine appreciation of one another, with a shared goal, it creates an organic team environment. It’s the same thing when I’m looking to hire. In addition to technical skills, the first two things I look for when I’m interviewing are: do I like this person (because I’m going to spend a lot of time with them), and is this person smart? Combine smarts with likability, and you have a recipe for success.”
Guiding principle or motto: Get comfortable in the grey space
“I talked earlier about the importance of planning, but it’s just as important to understand that conditions are likely to change. Get comfortable in the grey space.
“That took me a while to learn, longer than I would like to admit. Having clear processes are necessary, but when you’re too reliant upon black and white tactics, it can be difficult to be truly effective. It is important to get comfortable in the grey- I wish someone had shared with me early on.
“Reassessing your strategy and making a pivot doesn’t mean your original idea wasn’t a great one. It was probably great at that time, but that the voice of the product, or the process, or the customer may change. First, get comfortable in the grey space, and then leverage your product tool box, to make those critical pivots along the way. Your future self will thank you.”