When my daughters come back from school every day and I ask them how their day was, I often get the default “ok” answer. Obviously, this doesn’t really help me, especially since it’s an answer I sometimes get also when things are not ok at all. Realizing that they are not going to give me any additional information voluntarily, I started asking follow-up questions like “What did you do?”, and then I get a list of activities in return. Sometimes that provokes further discussion or revelations like grades that were published or interesting events that happened throughout the day. Knowing that I want more of those, I started asking instead “What was the best and worst part of your day?”. It worked for a few days and then they started telling me that they don’t want to talk about it.
Obviously, I’m failing to get the information that I really want. Knowing that I deal with teenagers (and hearing from my friends that this is just how it works) I’m working with whatever I get, usually as part of other conversations that are not so straightforward trying to learn about their lives.
As you can see in this example, despite the fact that my daughters answered my questions directly, I didn’t really learn from the answers what I wanted to learn by asking those questions. I see this a lot when I work with product leaders and entrepreneurs. When asked, people are answering the question but not the real intent behind it. Managers, on the other hand, don’t pay enough attention to articulating the question in a way that would help them learn what they really want to know. And so people are talking to each other, but are not really on the same page.
If communication is good, they would take another stab at it and insist to clarify what they really meant. But if they are busy, or there isn’t too much trust between them, they might just walk away thinking that the other person doesn’t get it.
One such example is when you need to prepare a board presentation about the product. I see many board product updates. Some of the companies I work with wouldn’t go to the board without me helping them prepare and decide what to say. The initial thinking is always that the product update should talk about the product. While it sounds trivial and makes perfect sense, it’s usually not true.
Here is what they really want to talk about.
Do You Know What You Are Doing?
The board doesn’t care about the product. The product is just a means to an end, and the end goal is the business success of the company. The product update then must be given with a business perspective. Usually, there is a business update that comes prior to the product update. The product update should take the business update and break it down further into why we are seeing these results.
What the board wants to hear at this point is that you fully understand the end goal which is business success, and that you can read the map. They want to see that you keep your eyes on the business success ball and lead the product to the right places accordingly.
This part should address your current situation in terms of results. If you are still on your journey toward product-market fit, explain what the journey looks like and where you are currently at. You can break down the customer journey into phases (I like using the AARRR framework) and rate yourself in each phase. Another way to tie yourself to business results is to start with the goal, talk about how well you are positioned to meet the goal, and what are the challenges that you see. The general message should include outlining what you do well (in terms of business results, not processes like planning or delivery), and where you are struggling.
You can use this framework repeatedly, for example, if you give periodic board updates. Remind them where you were at the last time you talked, what you did, and how it contributed to the results that they see today.
Note that the board also doesn’t want to hear fluff about how everything is great. They know it’s not easy. They can read the numbers. When you do have phenomenal results feel free to share them, but don’t put lipstick on a pig. It would be much more appreciated if you talk about the pig as it is and explain what you are going to do to turn it into something else moving forward.
The goal of this first part is to convince the board that you understand the world that you live in, in a way that makes sense for them and that they can relate to. It should be about the business and your journey to success, not about the product itself. Remember to stay at the proper level and avoid too many details. Add explanations as to why you read the map the way you do and add evidence (quantitative or qualitative) to support your theory.
Do You Know How to Do It?
Now that you have established that you and they see things eye to eye, that you understand the goal the same way that they do, and that you have a good understanding of your current situation, it’s time to talk about what you are going to do with this understanding.
If you read “What you are going to do?” as a list of features and a roadmap, think again. It’s more like “So we understand all of it, now what?”. If you ask the question this way you see that features are not the answer.
Instead, the board wants to see your strategy. If you understand the goal and understand where you are at, how are you going to get from where you are to where you need to be?
This again relates to the root cause of why you are where you are. What are the challenges that you are facing and how are you planning to overcome them? You can include features here only as examples of the bets you are taking. They should always come in context.
Share with the board what you learned about the customers and the market that can shed light on why you are struggling where you are. Some examples here include assumptions that were proved wrong, refinement of the problem you are solving and the value proposition, a tighter definition of your customer segment, or even breaking down the world into a few segments – each with its own performance. One of the companies I worked with realized that as they enter the enterprise world they are much better positioned to succeed with smaller enterprises than with the real large ones. A strategic decision they made then was to focus on these smaller ones, and they were able to explain why this is going to give them the business results they need. It’s all about the explanation of the end-to-end journey and how you navigate it to success.
This part should convince the board that you understand the path to get to the results you are both looking for. Out of the many (too many) possible paths, you need to explain why this is the right path. That’s much more important than the stuff that you will implement eventually.
Can You Lead the Way?
Once the board is convinced that you understand the challenges ahead as well as have a good strategy to overcome them, they need to know that they can trust you to lead the way. They need to know that you are not taking everyone full speed into a brick wall.
Now is the time to address the way itself. This part should answer questions like:
- How are you going to know that you are on track?
- What will you monitor?
- What are some warning signs that you will listen to and react to?
- Do you have a plan B?
- What are the risks that you see with your current plan and how are you going to mitigate them?
- What are you relying on in order to succeed (for example, an assumption regarding the market, hiring, specific results with current customers, etc.)?
- What are key milestones (results, not features!) that you are expecting to meet, and by when?
- What will cause you to change plans eventually?
This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you take full ownership of your decisions and that you can be trusted as a business leader. You just happen to do it on the product side.
It goes without saying that everything you present to the board needs to be aligned with management first. But if you do your job right, this alignment is part of what you normally do. Business leadership is your real role as a product leader. You should demonstrate this kind of leadership every day with everyone, not just with the board.