How to Avoid Alienating Non-Product Teammates in Your Product-led Company

April 29, 2019

One of the hidden challenges faced by product-led organizations is a tendency to focus so much on product that other functional areas end up feeling less appreciated. This can lead not only to dissatisfaction, unmotivated teams and reduced efficiency, but can also interfere with a company’s ability to retain top talent.

It’s understandable how product-led companies find themselves operating in a distinctly unbalanced way that favors product teams to the detriment of other areas such as sales, marketing and even customer success. Many such organizations are led by founders and CEOs who started out as engineers and who naturally have a more product-centric approach to building and growing a company. Often, it doesn’t even occur to them that there’s any kind of imbalance because the lens through which they view the market is all product all the time.

Even in such instances, there are steps you can take to help balance the scales and give your organization a stronger foundation from which to operate. It’s important to keep your team aligned and ensure that each member feels not only like they are contributing, but that those contributions are valued. Only then can you expect your organization to reach its full potential. After all, once a product finds market fit and a company begins to grow, it simply cannot execute or scale without all its functions doing their part to create success.

The first step is admitting there’s a problem.

The first step to rebalancing your organization is to acknowledge that there’s a bias. A simple gut check to help you assess your company culture is to ask yourself if you can easily and clearly articulate your business’ strategy for areas outside of product. Do you have clear goals and deliverables that you hold at the same level of importance as product development for areas like sales, marketing, customer success, human resources and so forth? If you see each of these functional areas as important, you should be measuring both your investments in those areas and their performance against a master plan.

From looking at functional areas, you can then drill down to individual people on your team and how you reward them. It’s likely that people in product and engineering may be considered the most valuable and therefore rewarded most heavily. They may get more than their share of equity when you compare their collective percentage of material stock grants against their numbers within the overall population. If you discover a major disparity, it may be time to spend some energy focusing on how you value and compensate individuals outside of product with retention in mind.

In order for a product-led company to create sustainable growth, it needs visionary leaders who can inspire people throughout the entire organization. Finding and retaining great people who can instill team members with a sense of purpose and passion is key. It’s well worth the effort to make sure you’re not inadvertently alienating these pivotal players.

The next step is getting proactive about creating balance.

One popular and effective ritual that can help you recognize the achievements of all your teams and also demonstrate how those achievements support the overall mission of the business is the Painted Picture Process. This exercise provides a framework that considers all parts of the business and all stakeholders. The benefit for product-led companies is that it forces even the most product-centric organization to think about other parts of the business and understand that each functional area—yes, even product and engineering—are parts of a greater whole. In other words, the process reminds everyone that product, while important, is not the center of the universe.

The Painted Picture Process is a visualization method that asks participants to come up with aspirational three-year goals for all the different parts of the business. The idea is to then think about how each of those goals will affect the business in various ways—in terms of brand, operations, people and culture, customers, partners and so forth. Thinking about goals across all functional areas and then further considering how the effects of each proposed goal will ripple out and touch all different aspects of the business is an excellent way to drive home the fact that it takes a coordinated effort to achieve any company’s ultimate goals. No one team can do it on their own, and the decisions and actions of each team will influence the success of all the others.

When in doubt, hire an expert.

Another tactic technical founders can employ is bringing a Chief People Officer on board sooner rather than later. While technical founders have a lot of knowledge about and passion for product, engineering, and technology, they often lack the skills to manage the people side of things to deliver the best outcome. There’s nothing wrong with this—no one can be an expert at everything. The trouble arises when a technical founder either neglects or refuses to get the help of someone who knows how to manage and optimize the people-related issues.

Technical founders need time to grow into the non-technical parts of their leadership role. This evolution takes time and is greatly aided by support from people whose experience and expertise lies in complementary areas. A Chief People Officer provides critical insight into the rest of the business, helps a founder/CEO think holistically across all the functions needed for success, and develops strategies for creating a business that can scale.

Make sure to follow through – are your efforts paying off?

You’ve done the gut check, acknowledged the bias, and put some strategies in motion to help right the balance of recognition across all your departments. How do you know if your efforts are working? While digging into people analytics such as employee turnover and retention by department can be helpful, there are other indicators that bear watching as well.

One thing you want to follow is how engaged teammates are with their work. Do they feel like their work matters? Do they feel connected to the critical mission of the company? Are they excited and passionate about their contributions? While there may not be hard data to capture this, there are ways you can ask questions that will give you a sense of where people’s heads are at about their work.

Another element to look at is promotion velocity. Here, you want to keep an eye out for an imbalance in promotions from department to department that might reveal a leadership bias for moving people in product-related functions up the ladder more quickly than people in other areas. These kinds of hidden biases can derail performance and growth by causing valuable team players to look elsewhere to accelerate their careers.

Finally, you can learn a lot about how you’re doing by listening to what other people in the market are saying about your company. If an organization is too tightly wound around product, people will talk. If quality leaders perceive your organization as one that only caters to product and engineering teams and considers everyone else a second-class citizen, they won’t come looking to join your team. When prospective teammates ask around, you want them to hear that your organization is the kind of place where all leaders are valued equally and all functions are considered important. When you’ve earned that kind of reputation, you’ll be able to land the innovative and inspiring functional leaders you need to motivate each of your teammates to fulfill their potential and help fuel your company’s overall growth and success.

Chief People Officer, Advisor

Jeff Diana is the former Chief People Officer at Atlassian. He currently works as a high growth consultant helping pre IPO companies on how to successfully scale their businesses from go-to-market design to product roadmaps to senior leadership assessment and much more. He is focused on partnerships with key VC firms, CEOs, and other world class HR consultants to solve the challenges of hyper growth and to build incredibly successful businesses.