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Why I Can’t Be a Good Girl and Good Product Leader

I’m a volunteer coordinator’s dream. I say yes to organizing an army of helpers for school events. I call parents for school donations. I call voters to pass local ballot measures. I sign up to help with classroom projects. I deliver food on teacher appreciation days. More than once my husband has had to talk me out of volunteer coaching Little League. I try to be as good as I can be.

It doesn’t stop there. Much to Sheryl Sandberg’s chagrin, I frequently take on the “office housework” by taking notes in leadership meetings and making sure teams followed through on action items (no one is more popular than the office nag!). I’ve organized and promoted recruiting events instead of our CTO to fill gaps in our engineering team. Many women in business find themselves going above and beyond their core role with heavy dose of sugar and spice and everything nice to be seen as competent. We’re such good girls!

Good girls don’t say no

I say YES because of a lifelong battle with “good girl syndrome.” I want to be helpful. I want to support the team. I want to be liked. And frankly, I’m wired to get shit done. It’s a curse for many women and often at odds with what it takes to be successful at work. Product leaders know that to be effective means saying NO a lot. Saying NO this often calls into question whether I’m still a good girl.

Just say no

“That’s a great idea, but I don’t see how that aligns with our goals for this year.”

“Oh you have a customer that will sign a contract if we commit to building that custom project for them, do you?”

“No, your customer’s isolated feature request is not in this sprint.”

Lots and lots of NOs.

I hate to admit that I’ve been reluctant to write publicly about my experiences leading product for fear that it will upset former colleagues. Or that even using the phrase “good girl” will offend other women. But I’m overcoming that “good girl syndrome” to share a story about why and how I abandon my need to be a good girl to be a better product leader.

Good girl’s guide to piloting transformation

Not long ago I worked for a company where the product teams historically focused on feasibility and output. They were most valued when projects delivered on time and on budget. I joined to transform these teams into value creators — outcomes over output. It was time for my third pilot team to show the value of modern product management to our partners in Supply Chain. My stakeholders were eager for positive changes from the product team (aka faster/cheaper delivery). I was eager to forge a new path to true business impact and be a good girl partner. When asked, my Supply Chain counterpart said his most pressing goal was (solely) to “reduce the time it takes to onboard a new shipping carrier by integrating with a transportation management system (TMS).” The goal sounded reasonable and measurable enough. Notice he even specified the solution for me — how helpful! Yet, I soon discovered his goal and its supporting evidence were suspect at best.

Why, oh why, should we do this?

5 whys to get to a success metric

I probed further with the Supply Chain team to get the true WHY. I received a variety of answers:

“It will help us reduce delivery times.”

“It will help us integrate new local carriers when we expand into new countries.”

“We’ll get new customers when we can offer overnight shipping.”

“It will reduce our customer support costs.”

Many beliefs, many assumptions. We settled on this value statement: “We can reduce costs and improve data availability with a TMS integration.”

I turned each of these beliefs into hypotheses. I created simple models with placeholder data to show how beliefs can turn into success metrics. My pilot team and stakeholders needed to see the risky assumptions that would need to be true to increment revenue, save costs, improve customer satisfaction or drive some other critical business metric.

Safety in numbers

Now I delved in to get data to understand exactly which costs would diminish.

· Shorter Average Handle Times and fewer calls to customer support due to improved data availability to WISMO inquiries

· Returned item shipping costs for products received too late

· Shipping cost savings from using a new lower priced carrier in the region(s) that would benefit vs costs of the current provider

· What were the volume and nature of the shipping data delays on customer support

With each new hypothesis I created another tab in a Google spreadsheet of potential value outcome models. I hoped one would shine through to validate this effort as a significant priority. Meanwhile, my product and engineering leads investigated feasibility and dependencies (cost/time) from potential integration partners and our fulfillment centers. The effort side of the equation was growing.

Being relatively new to the organization, I enlisted the help of a trusted (female) friend in the Strategic Analysis team that supported Supply Chain operations. “Would you take a look at my estimates and let me know if you think these historical data and change assumptions seem reasonable?”

As we dug into the data, we struggled to see anything more likely than a modest improvement on the cost side.

Meanwhile, the feasibility investigation revealed the vendors would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months of development due to existing commitments in their roadmaps and the need to augment staff to accomplish. We invited our main stakeholder to each weekly discovery progress demo, but he was too busy to attend.

Several weeks later, our discovery was complete:

  • Interviews with supply chain and fulfillment personnel about current processes and pain points
  • Interviews with other e-commerce companies that had done similar integrations;
  • Models assessing potential business value and risky underlying assumptions;
  • Diagrams to observe pre and post carrier selection and data availability processes.

My stakeholders, used to receiving and holding my team accountable to project timelines, were growing impatient and demanded a “status update” meeting. My team was understandably nervous trying to reconcile their past delivery-mindset behavior with this new insight into the questionable value of their stakeholder’s top priority. They were happy to let me deliver the “status update.”

Everyone’s favorite meeting

The status update

In the room were our COO, VP/SVP of Supply Chain, our Strategic Analysis input/model validators, the Supply Chain product and engineering leads and me. The SVP of Supply Chain agro-opened the meeting by saying:

“I’m sick of discovery; It’s time to start delivering.”

Good girl Hope was feeling hurt, but badass woman Hope came to her rescue. I reiterated that the reason we invest in discovery is to make sure we’re prioritizing to build the right thing. It’s important that we are all aligned with the expected outcome and its ROI vs alternatives. I thanked and gave due credit to our partners in Strategic Analysis for their help in verifying the model assumptions. I pulled up on the big screen each potential outcome hypothesis and supporting discovery findings. In the spirit of collaboration and shared ownership of outcomes, I asked “Would anyone like to change any of the assumptions in these models?”

No one had any new data to offer.

The Supply Chain leaders preferred to focus the discussion on the results of the feasibility discovery. No good news there. Despite the lack of reasonable evidence to justify the value and the near certainty for the large time/cost estimates, my stakeholders’ inclination was to proceed anyway! I stated that I can’t in good conscience support a project that I don’t believe will have meaningful outcome. So we were at a standstill.

The COO attending wisely suggested that unless we can prove that there will be enough incremental value, we shouldn’t rush into this TMS integration contract and development plan. We left the meeting with a plan to (in)validate an overnight shipping offer hypothesis with an A/B test and estimate incremental impact. I was ecstatic! Before my arrival, my team had rarely been successful pushing back on these stakeholder requests. We left feeling empowered to continue our discovery.

I’m no genius, but…

Good girls ship, badass women validate first

There’s a lot of emphasis in product to “always be shipping.” Yet, when the effort to do so and the risk of being wrong is so high, I’ve got to suppress my desire to be the good girl and just say NO. I get shit done, but I refuse to waste my time working on actual shit. As a product leader I have to stand up and hold tight to the shit umbrella. I carry this umbrella to protect my team’s ability to focus on their users and create value. I carry this umbrella to help my company succeed with limited resources. I carry this umbrella so stakeholders and product teams become better aligned by externalizing their assumptions and sharing goals. I’ve carried this umbrella many times in my tenure in product. Each time it is lighter to carry. Being good and being nice feels natural, but the pain of opportunity cost and waste is stronger than my desire to be liked.

And maybe it feels (just a little) good to be bad.

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You can watch the video of my talk at 2018 Women in Product conference.

Hope Gurion, founder of Fearless Product, is a Product / Business coach for technology companies. Follow me to get more product leadership advice. Share your thoughts in comments below or connect with me on LinkedIn or via email.