Leading a Product-Centric Business | Ben Foster

"The more detailed your discovery research is, the more likely you'll develop a product definition to suit your customers." Ben Foster, Episode 121

Why is product the most important success driver for tech companies?

Ben Foster, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Prodify, is here to share what it means to be product-centric—and break down a discovery process that helps you understand the client’s mind.

He’ll also share his leadership wisdom, including:

  • The 5 qualities all leaders need to have

  • His take on micromanaging

  • What makes some leaders successful (while others struggle)

  • The leadership landscape post-pandemic

  • How leaders can be storytellers

  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Ben Foster: So the more specific your research is, the more detailed it is, then the more you’re going to be likely to come up with a solution like a product definition that’s going to actually suit those customers in the market.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast with professional speaker, coach and consultant Nicole Greer.

Nicole Greer: Welcome everybody to the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. My name is Nicole Greer, and they call me the vibrant coach. And today on the show, I have Ben Foster. He’s the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Prodify. He is convinced that product is the single most important success driver for tech companies, which is why he founded Prodify, to share what he has learned from being an advisor to over, don’t miss this, 50 tech companies and to continue helping others realize their full potential. 

Foster has led successful technology products for the last 25 years. He cut his teeth at eBay, and then moved to the product leadership role at Opower. GoCanvas and most recently, as CPO of WHOOP. He has been featured on several product podcasts and spoken at top product events, lectured at HBS, Harvard Business School, and has co-authored the book Build What Matters. Please welcome to the show, Ben Foster. How are you?

Ben: I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me.

Nicole: Yeah, it’s great to be with you. Now, first of all, I can’t miss this. What is WHOOP? W h o o p? Am I saying that right?

Ben: Yeah, you got it. Whoop. So Whoop is a wearable device. We sort of you know, we compete with companies like Apple Watch, or we would look at, you know, things like aura ring, etc. So he’s sort of like wearable that really helps track fitness and health outcomes, and helps kind of like guide people towards better outcomes along the way. That’s really what Whoop is all about.

Nicole: Oh that’s fantastic. And if you can see Ben right now he’s got like a helmet in the background. Are you a bicyclist?

Ben: I try to be. Yeah, exactly. You know when I can get out there and the weather’s good. I’ll try to get get some miles in. Otherwise I have to resort to the Peloton.

Nicole: Oh, isn’t that so much fun. That’s fantastic. All right. Recently, I stayed in, I see you’re up in Arlington, Virginia. I was up near Charlottesville and I stayed at the Boars Head Resort. Do you know what I’m talking about near Charlottesville? 

Ben: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t been.

Nicole: Well, they have Pelotons in the room. Very swanky. I was out of my element. But anyway. All right. Well, Ben, at the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast, one of the questions we start out with is, tell us your definition of leadership. How do you define leadership? You’ve been doing a lot of it.

Ben: Yeah, you know, it’s been a few years, there’s no doubt. I always think of leadership this way. To me, it’s defining a goal and inspiring others to do their very best work to achieve it.

Nicole: Oh, that’s fantastic. I love that. Yeah. And we’ve heard, you know, like John Maxwell’s definition, which is to influence. But I think also, you do that by inspiring, which is exactly what you just said, I think it’s all about being inspirational. Fantastic. All right. So I want to know a little bit about your journey. I read your bio, but how did you kind of rise through the ranks? How did you get where you are today? I know there’s all these young techies out there listening, wanting to know how did Ben get where he is? How do you become the CPO of a WHOOP?

Ben: Yeah, you know, I, the story is probably similar to a lot of people were, you know, that’s probably riddled with a number of mistakes, and, you know, things that you learn along the way. So a lot of it has to do not with avoiding the mistakes in the first place. But I think really learning from them and getting great coaching from different individuals along the way. You know, I’ve been the beneficiary of some phenomenal mentors, and, you know, leaders that I’ve had, that I’ve had a chance to work for, you know, people that I’ve had a chance to learn from examples that I’ve seen sort of like set for me along the way. 

And that’s been really helpful. You know, and you sort of, you just keep learning, and you apply, and you learn, and you apply, and sometimes things go really well, sometimes you get a little bit of a setback, but you keep kind of like taking a step forward. So I think that, you know, at the end of the day, that’s what the process looks like, for anything. You know, you’re always going to have those tensions of trying to kind of like, push yourself beyond the limits of what you’re currently capable of. 

But also, at the same time, kind of like figuring things out as you go, and always reassessing. So that’s sort of the the process at the end of the day. I think, within tech, you know, I’ve really focused on product management throughout my entire career. And so much of product management is about building amazing solutions for customers that they themselves didn’t even know that they needed. And so there’s this natural need for establishing a vision for what that might be. For kind of ideating about what the future state could look like. 

And I think that’s actually a really important part of leadership as well, right? It’s kind of like centered around something that’s visionary, something that’s sort of like outside of the norm. If it’s always just kind of like maintaining the status quo, is that really leadership or is that more management?

Nicole: I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I just had a little, like flashback. You know, you were talking about the Whoop, your device. But, you know, Steve Jobs back in the way, way back, you know, I can see him in like his little black turtleneck and his blue jeans. Right? And do you remember when the iPod, am I staying it right, came out? And he’s on the stage, right? And he pats his front right hand pocket of his jeans. And he’s like, I got 10,000 songs in my pocket. Do you remember that line? Yeah. Oh, it’s so fantastic. And so you know, there’s a there’s, you know, a nano iPod in his pocket, but nobody knows what the heck that is. 

But the idea that you have 10,000 songs in your pocket? Everybody’s like, wow, yeah. Because some of us grew up with this thing called a Sony Walkman. So look that up people. All right, you only got 14 songs in your pocket. Didn’t really fit in your pocket, did it? Alright, so tell us a little bit about the fact that you are convinced that the product is the single most important success driver for tech companies. And you just said for almost all companies. So talk a little bit more about being, you know, product-centric.

Ben: Yeah, being product-centric is in so many ways the same as really being customer-centric. But I think that there’s a big difference between, well, I guess maybe you put it this way, there are two different ways of being customer-centric. I think one of them is the services type company. And that’s one where you meet your potential customer, you learn about their idiosyncratic needs, you come up with a custom or bespoke solution that’s gonna work for them. And then you try to deliver on that, right. You’re trying to find ways of getting to yes, to kind of like meet your client’s needs. 

And that’s a, you know, there’s a ton of services companies out there. In fact, Prodify itself is itself kind of ironically, a services company that’s trying to help other companies to become product companies. So let’s take like the product side of it as well, which is another way of being customer-centric. Which is instead of meeting your customer finding out exactly what they need, and building the one kind of like, specific thing for them, etc. 

Instead, you try to take the market-driven approach, and you say, you know, how do these interactions that I’m having with customers help me ideate kind of like, understand what the needs of the overall market are going to be? And how do I build a product in advance so that it’s sitting on the shelf, kind of like waiting for them, so that when they’re ready to buy it, where the right kind of like, next best thing, right? So it’s not like you walk into a car dealership, and you describe what your perfect car is. 

And they say, okay, great, give us five years, and we’ll come back with a car, right? Like, they have cars that are sort of like, you know, waiting, and there might be different customization options and things like that. But there’s still a finite set of those that you can choose, right. That’s a good example of a product company, because they’re, they’re creating something from scratch on their own. And then they’re making sure that that’s actually the right thing for the customer that they’re gonna meet. Versus a service company will take a very different approach. 

And so as a tech company, sort of, like, you know, in any of the Silicon Valley, big names and things like that, they always have to take that approach of really understanding what the customer needs are going to be, but not just through one on one kind of like conversations, but really trying to use that information that they learn to do discovery work, as it’s kind of like called to better understand the market. 

And really what they’re trying to get at is, what do we expect that the next customer’s needs are going to be for the next customer that we haven’t even yet met. So that’s when I say product is really at the center of it is really about making sure that you identify what that customer value proposition is going to be and figure out how you’re gonna go deliver on that.

Nicole: That’s fantastic. I love what you said, you’ve got to do this discovery process. Could you kind of help us see inside there? You know, so I’ve got leaders listening right now. And they’re thinking to themselves, okay, we got to operate more like that. We got to do what Ben Foster is saying right now. So would you kind of like let us take a peek inside of what maybe a discovery process might look like?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s a term that’s used, it’s kind of like a term of art, if you will, within the product management sphere. So you can read all kinds of great books on discovery. Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres is a great example of that. And what was meant in the product world of doing discovery is really kind of like learning about the space, right? You want to learn about your customers, and you want to learn about the needs that they have. 

You want to learn about the problems that they’re encountering, and what the current solutions that are out there, what the opportunities are for how you might be able to deliver a better solution. You might want to find out how they would find a solution like yours in the first place, you know, where are they going to go get their information today, right, you know, who are they getting their information from? 

So there’s just so many different kinds of questions to really try to get in the head of the customer and really try to understand things from their perspective, because the better you understand that, the better you can build a product that’s actually going to suit their needs, that’s going to be usable for them, that’s going to be something that they’re going to deem to be valuable. To be something that they’re going to be willing to continue to pay for that they’re going to refer their friends to et cetera, right. 

So, you know, the discovery work really comes down to in many ways, doing kind of like research, but in particular research of who those people are within your target market that you’re trying to reach out to. You can also do other kinds of discovery work that I think is a little bit more peripheral, but it’s still really valuable. Like understanding the competition, right? What are the kinds of things that people love or hate about those other kinds of products that in reality you’re going to be competing against. 

So the more specific your research is, the more detailed it is, then the more, you’re going to be likely to come up with a solution, like a product definition, that’s going to actually suit those customers in the market. Because it’s really a shame when you get these great products that are created out there that have all these amazing features and capabilities and things like that. 

But they get one little piece of that wrong, because they just don’t understand the customer mindset in the right way, and it ends up being a failed company as a result. Which is not great for the company. It’s not great for the investors, and it’s certainly not great for the customers.

Nicole: Right. Yeah. So he just downloaded a whole bunch of, hope your pencils were flying, your keyboards are clicking. So really, the discovery process is like learning about your customer. And really like getting their mind inside your mind is what I heard. Figure out what problems they’re experiencing, how they look for their information, you know, the different customers that might use your product, and then basically buckling down and doing some really thorough research. So you don’t get one piece wrong. 

Right. Okay. All right. That’s fantastic. Okay, so tell me about what you see is the leader’s responsibility for kind of guiding product development. I think, sometimes in big organizations, there might be silos and things like that, or maybe in smaller organizations, you know, the leaders got so many, you know, hats on, they’re doing so many different things, that maybe we’re not paying attention to our product and how we could improve it. What are your thoughts about leadership of managing that whole process?

Ben: Yeah, you know, you certainly have to cut through the noise, right? I mean, there’s always a million things that are going to be taking away your attention, or, you know, you maybe you’re even part of a siloed organization, like you talked about where you’re responsible for one component of it, but you almost don’t even have visibility to other elements of it as well. I think that’s okay, as long as you have clarity of what the definition is. The scope of those things that you’re responsible for. 

And once you’re sort of like clear on what that scope actually is, then you realize that there’s a lot of freedom to kind of be a visionary within that space and say, okay, how are we going to do this stuff better? So for me, I think there are five real qualities of being a great leader. You know, if we kind of go back to that definition of defining a goal and inspiring others to do your best work to achieve it. Well, then how does one go about doing that? And I think that there are five essential ingredients to this. I think the first of those is vision. 

You know, we talked about that earlier, right? You can’t just sort of say, okay, great, it’s gonna be the status quo, or people will get the thing about 5% better. You know, your vision should be bold. It should be customer-centric, it should be about how you’re going to make their lives better, in a lot of ways, right. And I think that the more you can clarify what that vision is, and really use that as the catalyst for inspiration for others, then you’re in a great position to really get people to do their best work at the end of the day. 

So the vision is part one, but part two is communication. And I see a lot of failure on this front where people have a great vision, and they can articulate it to me when I ask them all the right questions, etc. But if I go talk to somebody else in that same company, and I say, what is the vision that you’re actually working against? I get, you know, 10 different answers from 10 different people. Well, that’s not really helpful, right? It doesn’t matter if you have a phenomenal, perfect vision for where you want to go with your product. If the people who are actually working on that product, couldn’t themselves articulate the same exact thing. 

So it’s so important that you’re able, as a leader, I think, to communicate it well to others, so that they can, you know, follow in kind, obviously, the work that they can do. But then in turn, they can inspire the next group of people to go work on it as well. Right. So I think that that’s all really important work. The third one is organization. And I think it’s just really important that you actually set up a team for success. This is kind of like the blocking and tackling behind it. I’ve seen companies fail when they have a great vision, they communicate it really well. 

But then the way that the team is organized, to go achieve it is quite poor, right. You might have three different business units are all working on trying to solve the same one problem. And they’re all taking completely different approaches and stepping on each other’s toes. Or maybe there’s completely missing elements where they’re very important parts of the overall vision that need to be achieved, but no one’s actually paying attention to it right now. 

So you know, you got to have everybody kind of rowing in the same direction and kind of aware of what everybody else is working on. A really nice kind of like organizational structure will ensure that that’s the case. Fourth is that inspiration piece. And I call this out independently, even though we’ve kind of like talked about it already. Because I think to inspire a team, I’ve seen it go poorly when it’s on either end of a spectrum. 

Where on one end of the spectrum, it’s just complete optimism, but almost like denial of reality, right? It’s like, we want to go make this amazing, incredible thing happen. And everybody’s kind of looking at it saying like, I don’t even think that this is feasible, you know, like, how are we going to, you know, go make that happen. And I’ve seen the other end of it, where it’s all kind of like realism, and it kind of turns into a little bit of doom and gloom and people aren’t really inspired because they’re like, yeah, you’re telling the truth about the obstacles that we’re going to face or the headwinds that are going to get in the way etc. 

But, you know, I’ve kind of lost track of like, why we’re doing what we’re doing. And I think that there’s a nice healthy balance that’s out there between the two. Where you can say, you’re just kind of coming in day after day after day about, we can achieve this, we can do this. But at the same time, you’re also being realistic about some of the obstacles that you’re facing. And then enlisting the team to help work through or around those obstacles as needed. 

And then fifth, and probably the most important of all of this is, is just giving people the freedom that they need, giving people the space and the time to do their best work. And I’ve seen these kinds of things break down where all the other four parts are there. But it sort of gets upended through a lot of micromanagement, because there’s so sometimes it’s because they’re so excited about their own vision as a leader that you know, that they want to go make it happen, that they can’t just sort of like, let go of some of the details and say, hey, look, I’m gonna empower you to do your best work with us. 

And that’s really what I want to have, you know, happen. And so that requires that you give a little bit of time and space, you know, you don’t need a checkpoint or update email, you know, twice a day and things like that. You want to sort of give people the space. And I think as long as they have the context, and the clarity of what they’re trying to solve, and they have the skill sets that they need, and you can actually provide that coaching, then that sort of like converts the role that you play. 

You know, I think about like, let’s say you’re trying to make great music, right. And you used to be this amazing violinist, but now you move into a leadership position. Well, that’s like becoming a conductor. And it’s not like you, you make better music, because you’re playing more instruments, or you’re playing them better. 

The conductor doesn’t play a single instrument at all right, but they’re responsible for the work and the instrument playing that everybody else does, and making sure that it’s all kind of like aligned, and that it makes sense. And that everybody’s, you know, playing to the same beat. And I think the same kind of analogy really applies within a business context as well.

Nicole: Yeah, so you just downloaded a whole bunch of good stuff. And one of the habits I have on this podcast is I think people are on their Peloton, sometimes, so I just want to repeat what he said, because it was a bunch and it was genius. So the first thing is, leaders need to have five qualities. They need to be a visionary, and it’s got to be bold, it’s got to be awesome. I mean, it’s got to inspire back to your definition, right? You’ve got to communicate. So a vision that’s written on a piece of paper and put in a drawer does no good. 

You got to talk about it and talk about it, and then set up the team so that it is realistic and achievable. So it’s almost like, you know, we’ve got a little smart goal in here, right, we’ve got to have a goal for setting it up. And one of the things I thought of when you said setting up the team and having the business units be clear, it’s like probably there also has to be kind of like agreements between leaders. That is so important. 

Then the inspiration piece, you know, not denial of reality pie in the sky, we’re gonna make a bazillion dollars this year. But not also like the economy, the economy, gloom and doom. We might just have a product that could beat the economy, right. And then, most importantly, the freedom and space to do their work. So you mentioned this thing. micromanaging. I gotta go there for a second. 

Everywhere I go, Ben, people are like, oh, my gosh, micromanaging. I have a recruiting part of my business, Ben, and one of the things I will ask people in the interview is I’m like, what kind of leader would you like to have in your new role? And they’re like, and they don’t tell me who they want. They tell me they don’t want the micromanager. So, talk a little bit more about micromanaging and the importance of maybe empowering people to get things done. Will you talk a little bit about maybe an experience you have about empowering versus the micromanager?

Ben: Yeah, you know, I’ve been at a company before where, well, I’ve worked in a lot of tech companies. And a lot of the times the CEO that I’ve been reporting into is also the founder of a company. And you know, it’s really easy for a founder to think of the product because it’s the thing that they started with as their baby. And so they really want things to work in a very specific kind of like way. They’ve got a specific kind of idea around what it could be, et cetera. 

But as the company continues to grow, and to mature, I think it’s really important that they realize that their role starts to shift a little bit, right. It’s not about making these individual kind of like specific decisions. Which, by the way, in the very early days of the company is absolutely their role. 

And I think that’s the challenge, right? Is that the role of like, let’s say CEO, or the role of chief product officer, or any of these kind of like high-level C level, kind of like, you know, executive titles and things like that, even though the title stays the same as the company or the business unit, or whatever it is matures, the reality is, the nature of that position changes dramatically, right? 

It’s very different to be the CPO of a team of four people than the CPO of a team of 400 in terms of what your day-to-day looks like, and the kinds of things that you should get yourself involved in. And I think that the challenge there is that what used to work for them in the past to make them successful is exactly the opposite of that thing that’s going to work for them as they sort of look forward as the company continues to grow. 

And what they really need to do is think about, I think one of the best things you can do here is as a leader, think about how you can have the people on your team eventually take your role because that’s ideally what’s going to happen. And in fact, if they don’t take your role it’s going to be what prevents you from being able to stay in your role in the future. Because, let’s say five years from now, you know, your role as the Chief Executive Officer will ideally look very different than it actually does today. 

Because the company will have matured and grown and you know, things like that. And the thing that’s gonna hold you back from being able to do that is not investing in the people on your team and coaching them on how to do it, right, and letting them make some of the mistakes and letting them kind of like, you know, grow through it and stuff. And so yes, you do care about all the details, and you need to sweat the details, but you sweat the details in a particular way. 

You know, it’s not like that conductor that we’re talking about is completely aloof, and not even paying attention to the music that’s getting made. They’re absolutely paying, you know, tons of attention to it, right? Every little detail. But they don’t go grab the instrument out of somebody’s hand when they don’t think that it’s being played properly, right. They kind of like, you know, guide them in a silent manner to allow them to kind of like do their best work. And I think the same kind of thing is applicable here. I just see that same kind of routine happen over and over. 

But the reason it’s so painful to be micromanaged, and I think the reason that people say that’s the last thing that I want in my manager, is because it sort of like reduces the freedom that they have in terms of being able to do their best work. It kind of prevents them from growing, because all they’re doing is then purely executing, as opposed to actually having the creative space to do the best thing and to both surprise their manager and surprise the company and surprise everybody else that they’re working with. And ideally also surprise themselves with what they’re actually capable of doing.

Nicole: Yeah, and that was number five in his list of five, and we’ll have it in the show notes. But again, you gotta give let people have that freedom. Okay, I love what you’re saying. And don’t miss also, one thing I want to highlight that Ben just shared, because he’s like, man, he’s giving you great content today. And thank you, Ben for being here. He said, you know, get people prepared to kind of take your role, right, get yourself backfilled, right? Because your job is going to morph and it’s going to shift and it’s going to change. And it’s going to get, it’s going to be different. 

You know, like you said at the beginning of a company, 2, 3, 4, 5 year old company, the CEOs job is completely different when it’s been in, you know, in the particular market for 15 years, right? It’s a whole different job, even though the title never changed. I love that. Yeah. So get your people below you ready to go. Alright, so my next question for you. And because of all of your experience, 25 years of experience being at the eBay and the WHOOP and everything in between, what makes some leader successful while others struggle?

Ben: Well, certainly, you have to do all the five things that we just talked about. I think that’s, you know, really, really important, for sure. Anyone missing thing is going to really sink you. I think the second part, though, is that you got to respect that nobody, including yourself, and you know, despite a lot of people’s expectations for themselves, no one’s a unicorn, and they’re not going to be perfect at doing all these kinds of things. And so I think one of the best things is out there. 

And I think that one of the most important things that a lot of people miss, is that self-reflection and that self-awareness, to say, what are the things that I’m not necessarily as good at. You know, maybe I’m not great at organizing teams around this kind of stuff, I’m a little bit lost on that. 

Okay, great, that’s okay, it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna fail on this, it just means you’ve got to shore up your weaknesses, by either learning and kind of like, you know, continuously figuring out how you can improve, or ideally also, finding a team of people that you can work with, that you can delegate to, and empower them to make the decisions when you recognize something that they’re strong in. You know, some of the very best CEOs out there are actually not good at anything, except people, right? 

And you can actually be a tremendous CEO, if you’re really good with people. If you can identify who’s the best marketing person out there. And how do I empower them to make the very best decisions. And what are the right kinds of questions that I can ask them to make sure that they’re kind of, you know, thinking about things in an appropriate way. It doesn’t mean the CEO has to be great at marketing, right. 

But the same thing is true with sales, the same thing is true as technology, the same thing is true with operations, right? The list goes on and on. You don’t have to be great at everything. But you do have to be aware of those things that you’re not great at, because you’re going to fail if any of these are missing. And so that means you got to find the right people to surround yourself with who are ideally smarter than you.

Nicole: That’s fantastic. All right. So he just told us, you know, you don’t have to be great at everything, you’re not a unicorn. So write that down, you’re not a unicorn. And I loved what you said about a CEO being fantastic at people but maybe not at all the other business areas, you know, the marketing, the sales, etc. Because here’s the thing, and you know, Ben, I don’t, I don’t know if I shared this with you, but like, I’ve got an HR background. 

And here’s the truth about any business, you could have the best product in the world. But if you, you know, raptured all the people out of the warehouse and the building in the home office and the branches, nothing is going to get done today. Zero is gonna happen. Yeah. So I think that is so important. What you just said right there. Absolutely. 

You know, you’ve weathered a couple of, you know, market cycles out there. You’ve been been doing business for a little while. What are what are the challenges that you’re seeing that leaders are facing right now? Can you kind of talk about, you know, what you see in the marketplace and what’s going on?

Ben: Yeah, for sure. There’s two that really stand out and one we’ve all been experiencing. And it’s not news to anybody that COVID has really changed the workplace in a lot of ways, right? It’s been almost three years, I guess, to the day here, you know, where we’ve all been sort of, you know, kicked out of offices and you know, the regular work experience has changed quite a bit. Even if you’re going into an office, you might be working with a bunch of other colleagues who are remote, right. 

So especially in the tech industry, you really see a ton of this. So, you know, if you think about leading, and a big part of leading is developing this vision and communicating, you know, there’s obviously a lot of headwinds and complexities that come up with remote work, you know, because it’s really hard to build, the camaraderie that you might want, or the rapport that you need with other people, or, most importantly, I think it’s the collision of ideas, right? 

It’s those water cooler conversations that are just really hard to find a way to have, you know, these kind of like serendipitous moments that actually generate a bunch of ideas that sort of naturally happened at an office. So it’s funny, because in the very beginning, when we were all kind of going through COVID, I remember a really big thread on social media about this, about whether people thought that there were actually more effective, you know, when they were in this environment. 

And the consensus was, yes, actually, in the tech space, you know, people weren’t going to as many meetings, they had more time to get their stuff done, et cetera. And that was all great. But I kind of knew in the back of my head that we were going to run into this time. And I think we’re kind of experiencing that now. Where it catches up with you. The fact that you haven’t had these sort of serendipitous moments and that it’s really, you know, you’re very efficient at execution. But are you effective at innovation? 

And I think that those are two completely different things. So that’s one of the things that I think is a struggle that’s out there is kind of like working around those challenges and finding ways through it. And I don’t think that anybody’s got necessarily the perfect answer yet. But there are certainly some things that are out there that you can do to improve that. And then the second one is more recent, you know, I think that it’s interesting, because if you look at the Dow Jones or anything else, you know, the overall economy looks like it’s actually doing reasonably fine. 

But the tech sector has certainly taken a bit of a hit because of expectations of, you know, the effect of high inflation and things like that as well. So you’re seeing a lot of reductions in force, you’re seeing a lot of, you know, people who are losing their jobs. You’re seeing a lot of cutting out of VC capital funding, you know, this going into a lot of the startups and things like that. And so because of that, it just puts a lot more pressure on the short term. 

And I think what it does is it creates a lot more uncertainty in the short term. And when you talk about having a vision and organizing a team around that vision and communication, and then that vision is bold, then it’s necessarily going to be long-term, right? So you kind of like you want to put everything in place to be structured in such a way that you can achieve this success over the course of let’s say, several quarters or several years. 

But that’s really hard to do, when you don’t even know whether tomorrow half the team is gonna get canned, you know. So I think that that’s another thing that’s a little bit difficult for leaders is they don’t necessarily have an awareness of the expectations. And so because of that, it’s sort of like a level of risk that you have to take on to think longer term. 

And that kind of does force a lot of the thinking to be a little bit shorter term within the tech sector, which is actually not healthy for what it’s worth. You know, you want to be able to make those investments that are going to pay dividends down the road, versus having to be short-sighted. But I think the reality is, there’s a little bit of a balancing act that needs to take place today within the tech space because of those dualities. 

On the one hand, you’re trying to think about what’s the right long term thing that we can create for our customer and for our market. And on the other hand, you’re sort of saying, hey, look, and I don’t know whether we’re gonna have funding in six months, so let’s make sure that we actually get the results that we need to go secure the funding that we’re going to be dependent upon.

Nicole: Yeah. And so you keep circling back to that vision, it’s really the linchpin thing the leader has to be straight on. And one of the things that, you know, I’ve shared with people before, but I’m just going to quickly talk about this and see, and I’d love to have your opinion, Ben. You know, I talk to leaders all the time, and they don’t want to be a storyteller. And sometimes they feel like this vision is like, a, like some story there spinning or something. 

But really, you do have to be a storyteller, as a leader. And that vision is not like, you know, we’re going to make, you know, we’re going to reduce the workforce, and we’re going to reduce expenses. And we’re going to work on increasing sales by 40%, or some ridiculous thing. That’s not a vision, those are business strategies or something. A vision is really a story about who we’re becoming. 

And a great vision in my mind, I’m curious what you’re thinking, in my mind is like, here’s how here’s the state we’re in, in the future me, the company, the employee. It’s really a story of how you’re benefiting and growing and you’re morphing. And I tell people, when they are in difficult times, you got to have really 10 stories. You got to remind people of how successful we’ve been in the past, which tells people we can be successful in the future. Right? 

And then so the story of where we came from, and then always in a weird economy or in when we’re getting squeezed a little bit why we can’t stay where we’re at, you know, call for action. Where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, the strategy story, what we believe, you know our value story, who we serve, our customer story, which is what you were kind of talking about getting your whole customer story down pat. 

And then what we do for our customers, which you also talked about. How we’re different from our competitors, why we lead the way we lead, and the why you should work here. Those are my 10 stories that I think, create a beautiful vision. And so that kind of helps people see that a little bit. So what does your actual vision look like? Or how do you make it?

Ben: I wish I was taking notes as you were rattling off the 10 of those stories. It’s great content, for sure. But, you know, I look at this, as a product specialist, I look at this from very much a product lens. And you know, the story that you do need to tell and you do need to tell a story, let’s be really clear about this is the story of how your customer’s life, or their whatever your product is about for them gets better in the future, because of the product that you have. 

The way I like to think about it is the story that you’re telling is one in which your customer is the protagonist. Not you the company, not your investors, you know, the vision is not saying we’re gonna get to $200 million of annual recurring revenue in five years. Like, that’s the byproduct of you having delivered your vision for your customers, right. 

So it’s got to be from the customer’s vantage point. And I think you say, the customer is like the superhero, your product is their superpower, right? And that’s what you’re enabling them to be able to do. And they’re dependent on their superpower to do all these sort of like amazing feats they’re going to be able to do but your vision is the set of feats that your customers are going to be able to to accomplish, right. It’s almost like a little bit of a hero’s journey, if you will. 

So I think that the important part here, and maybe the reason that you hear people saying, you know, I don’t think that I should be a storyteller or something like that is because maybe it’s a semantic issue where they’re thinking about a story as being fiction. 

And it’s not, no one’s talking about fiction here, like you can tell a really interesting and compelling story about reality. And your point is to try to create something that is not true today, but will be the reality in the future, right. And the way I like to think about it, and the way I think about strategy is it’s a means to try to arrive at your vision is to think of today, you know, the present day as being the future’s past, right? 

Like someday in the future, you’re going to be talking about what you did in the next year, as not possibilities or capabilities or potential, it’s going to be what actually happened, right? And I think that, you know, you can you can tell these incredible stories about all these amazing products that were created 10 years ago, 20 years ago, et cetera, right. But at one point, those were not in the past, those were actually future capabilities that didn’t even exist yet. Right. 

And so there’s clearly a way of telling something that may appear like it’s science fiction in the moment, but in reality is very much possible in the future. And I think it’s important to remind people of that as well. So when you’re trying to kind of give these examples of, you know, to people to make them say, hey, look, this kind of thing is potential. It is possible, right? 

I think it’s important to just share stories of the kinds of things that are in the past. I mean, go back to like, I don’t know, I’m old enough to remember plenty of days where there were no cell phones, right? Where there was no internet, you know, et cetera. And to imagine the world the way that it is today, based on the experience that we had back then it’s absolutely science fiction, right. And yet, here we are all in this reality, and we’ve been in this reality for decades. 

So what are the new realities that are going to be possible in the future? You know, don’t let yourself be held back by those kinds of things. But do at the same time, make sure that it’s not, it’s not magic, it might appear like magic, but there’s real science and actual evidence that supports that you can actually create these things along the way.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I was just, spoke at a change management conference. And the gentleman that spoke before me was from Wachovia. And, excuse me, not Wachovia, Wells Fargo, he was from Wells Fargo. I got my old Charlotte in my brain. He was from Wells Fargo, and he talked about AI, which I’m sure you’re very familiar. 

And he showed us this exoskeleton video of this guy who’s strapped on this exoskeleton was moving these very large, heavy things around, and everybody was just like, wow, you know, so, you know, we know, especially in the tech space, that, you know, people are plotting and planning and this AI is doing amazing things. But if you have a very simple product, the same thing is true. 

Where could we take this if you know it’s kind of like if you dream it up, then you can make it happen. I talk to people you know, you need to introspective, what’s going to happen. And then of course you do the retrospective. You make a memory of the future. What’s it gonna take to make this happen? And then you start executing. I mean, you know, though it’s not really it is storytelling, but it’s visioning or visioneering. Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. 

So exciting. Okay. All right. So, um, I love that fact that you have this book out right now. Will you share a little bit about your book? I mean, let’s get people to go on the Amazon and get a copy. Because you need to understand what Ben understands. So tell us a little bit about your book and how it came to be and how it might serve us.

Ben: Sure. Yeah. So the book is called Build What Matters. We published it in 2020. And I think it’s really kind of like a playbook for how to think just as you would put it, Nicole, to put vision really at the front and center of product leadership. And so it’s a book about how to craft a vision, how to craft a product strategy, how to develop a roadmap, that’s going to actually, you know, govern the kinds of priorities that the team is going to have coming up, to do the right product development work to then go realize that potential that you have for the company. 

Both for your own sake, and for the sake of your customers. So where it was born was, you know, as you said, I’ve done a lot of advisory work. And I’ve worked with a lot of different companies. 50 to 60 at this point. And my advisory practice, Prodify, has worked with about 200 or so. And we’ve got these amazing kind of things that we’ve learned along the way. You know, the irony is you get into advising because you’re trying to teach others the best practices and how to think through some of these challenges they’re facing, etc. 

But I honestly feel like the party that learns the most is us. Because we get all these data points from these different kinds of companies that we speak to. We see the patterns of success and the patterns of failure. We get to see what kinds of things are easy to implement, and which things are hard. And then we try to take those things and codify them, and then turn them into the next round of advisory guidance that we provide to those companies. 

And what we realized is that we had sort of, like, accumulated so much of that, that we really just wanted to share. And we were sort of prevented from sharing it with more companies because of the limitations on our own time, as a small kind of like boutique practice. And so we wanted to kind of like put it into a book and share it with a much wider audience if we could. 

So really, it’s all about how you do that discovery work to really understand things from your customer’s vantage point, to define what a future state could be like, from your customer’s vantage point. And then how you actually execute on delivering on that, as the business, especially as a tech business, you know, to try to, you know, go create that reality, that new reality for your customers. 

And so we think we’ve got a pretty good playbook in there. We’ve seen a lot of companies who have used it, you know, we’ve got some great feedback from it as well. And yeah, there’s just there’s not that much content on this kind of thing that’s out there. You know, and I think, you know, part of the part of the challenge, just when we were writing the book was, is because there’s this dilemma, on the one hand, the reality is how you do product management well, is going to vary so much from company to company. 

Depending on the stage that they’re at, depending on the number of data points they have, you know, etc, you might take very different approaches. And so on the one hand, you want to give people very specific and tangible and actionable advice, so that it becomes a very practical guide for them. 

And on the other hand, the way in which you would actually choose to do it is so variable from company to company, that what happens is I think a lot of authors kind of spend their time in the clouds. They talk in the abstract, like, you know, oh, we should make sure that teams really feel like they own the challenge or something like that. You’re like, what, what does that actually mean? Like, what meeting am I having? You know, like, who do I hire? You know, they’re these kind of like, very pragmatic questions. 

And so we tried to kind of like thread the needle there, where we gave very practical and tangible advice and use like a lot of very specific examples, to try to illustrate these points. But at the same time, try to do it in such a way that we really do believe that it’s applicable to the vast majority of technology companies that would end up reading the book.

Nicole: Oh, that’s fantastic. So listen, if you’re hearing that it’s not a pie in the sky, here’s our theory on how to make it work. It’s a practical playbook, step by step, help help help all the way along the way. And of course, you could just pick up the phone, or you could reach out to Ben, and you can reach out to him. He is on LinkedIn, and you just look for Ben Foster, and you find the same face we’ve got right here. All right. And then he’s also on the Twitter and it’s Prodify, and your website. Tell us a little bit about where we can find you on the on the www?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. The website is prodify.group. So g r o u p. And we have a lot of resources that are actually on there available as well. The whole point of all this stuff was really to try to share it with as wide of an audience as we could. And so we’ve developed a lot of frameworks and templates and tools and things like that, that really help with making some of these really hard decisions at your company. And if you just go to the resources page, within the website, you’ll see a lot of materials that are just available to download. 

And of course, if you ever want to just kind of have a chat with us and learn about ways in which you might be able to help we’re always happy to provide that information. So you know, reach out to us. But you know, very first step is go take a look at the website and see if there’s really some valuable content that might be helpful for you as you’re trying to make these decisions on your own.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s fantastic. All right. So not only is Ben Foster wicked smart, he’s generous. Don’t miss that. Okay. All right. So I love a generous guy who’s going to help me in my business. All right. Now, we’re, we’re at the top of the hour here. And people were like, wait, don’t let Ben go, we need one more nugget. So if you were mentoring a single special listener, some young guy or gal working in tech, and they’re like, oh, my gosh, he, you know, he started, you know, cut his teeth over there at the eBay. 

And then he was the, got in the C suite, he was the chief product officer, and now he’s doing his own gig. I want to do that, when I grow up. So you know, help us. What’s one little piece of leadership advice that you would give us that would propel us to like, you know, be on the same track, as you’ve been?

Ben: You know, it comes down to something very simple. Time management, carve out the time, from your management responsibilities, in order to make time for leadership responsibilities. Be very, very clear and aware of the difference between the two, right? Management is doing the one on ones with people on your team. It’s making sure that they understand the kinds of, you know, work that they’re supposed to be getting done. It’s, you know, updating different members of the staff, and so on. 

Right, those are all the management activities. And what happens is they can be so all-consuming that they take up all of your time, and there’s nothing left at all. If you’re if you’re honest with yourself, what percentage of your week, are you actually spending doing the leadership things that we talked about earlier today? Right? And what percentage of your time you’re actually spending doing the management stuff? 

Guess what if the management stuff went from 105%, down to 95%, and you had 10% left, you know, that you could give to the leadership activities, that’s like four or five hours a week right there. Right. That’s a significant chunk of time that you can dedicate to this. But no one’s going to really like miss it, I think on the management side. You know, find a way of delegating that one extra little thing that frees up your capacity to start thinking about the future and where things can actually be headed. And then go make that future a reality. Right? 

Nobody gets promoted, because they’re doing their current job really well. It’s because they show the company how much more they could be doing, if only they had this additional responsibility. And the best way to show that is through the leadership. So don’t pay attention to the urgent management stuff as much as you need to pay attention to the important leadership stuff.

Nicole: Oh, and I love a good time matrix, you know, thing at the end. So I don’t know if y’all know this, but do this right now. Write down Eisenhower Time Matrix or Stephen Covey Time Matrix. That is what Ben Foster is talking about right now. He’s telling you to go to quadrant two instead of quadrate one all day. All right. 

So you’re like, what is Nicole talking about? Okay, just go look on the Google. You do the YouTube about it. It is so genius. That is a great final nugget for us, Ben. Thank you so much for being with us on the Build a Vibrant Culture podcast. Tell them one more time, your website address the name of the book, and we will be done here.

Ben: Sounds great. The name of the book is Build What Matters. You can find it on Amazon and the website is prodify, that’s p r o d i f y .group. Hope to see you there soon.

Nicole: All right, awesome. Thank you, Ben for being on the show. It’s been an absolute delight.

Ben: Thank you so much. It’s been great to be part of this.

Voiceover: Ready to build your vibrant culture? Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her strategies, systems and smarts to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Your organization will get lit from within. Email Nicole@nicolegreer.com. And be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at nicolegreer.com.

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