On this episode the Full Stack Leader we sit down with product coach Gabrielle Bufrem!
Gabrielle Bufrem is a fractional CPO and Product Coach. She also runs a course on Building Impactful Products. Previously, she was the Head of Product at Little Otter Health – a mental health for kids startup that raised over 22M. Gabrielle has trained hundreds of Product Managers from startups to Fortune 500 companies for over four years through Mind the Product. She is a speaker at conferences around the world where she talks about product leadership, decision-making, and building impactful products.
Gabrielle’s Top Leadership Tips:
Below is a summary of the Top 5 Leadership tips shared during the interview this week. Take a listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips.
- As a leader, you’re only as strong as your weakest team member
- Hire general athletes
- Give your team problems to solve, not things to build
- Develop your people to be excellent
- You’re never done learning
We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:
Full Stack Leader Show Transcript:
Ryan: hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Full-Stack Leader podcast. This week I’m here with Gabrielle Bufrem. She’s a product leadership coach, and we’re excited to hear what she has to say about product management. Gabrielle, it’s great to have you here.
Gabrielle: Thank you so much, Ryan. So happy to be here.
Ryan: So maybe you can give us a little insight about how you became a product leadership coach, what steps you took to get into that position, and what your background.
Gabrielle: yeah, of course. So I’m Brazilian, but I currently live in New York. I. Been a PM kind of all my life. I joke and realize I could get paid to do it after college.
So that’s when I started. I have done and built products in nine industries so far. I’ve lived in Paris, opened their office there, Switzerland. Products in Singapore, San Francisco, and most recently lived in New York. Before becoming a full-time coach, I was the head of product of Little Otter Health, which is a mental health for kids startup.
And before that did a ton of different industries. So that’s kind of how I got here. And right now I mostly focus on coaching and guiding product leaders on strategy, vision, coaching their teams, and also developing their.
Ryan: All right. That sounds amazing. You mentioned that you’ve done a wide variety of industries.
yeah. What have you seen in kind of crossing those industries that has a lot of commonality in it, in the product side of things?
Gabrielle: I’ve seen that there are. Definitely specific techniques and things, and I mean, this has completely shaped my view on product and I really believe that like the view is shaped by experience.
So for me it’s really interesting that things that I learned that are core to product management are applicable to all these nine industries that I have seen. So setting really clear goes applicable to everything. Doing very good product discovery, applic, Kubota, everything. And I’ve also learned too that it’s truly, at least for me, about the people you get to work with, the industry kind of comes secondary, even though it’s kind of right there after the people.
Ryan: I agree. And that makes sense, especially in the product position where you’re talking to lots and lots different people. Yes. As you’re working with up and coming product managers, mm-hmm. , , how do you help facilitate them perceiving some of these commonalities and, and trying to learn some of the basics that would cross industries?
Gabrielle: I think that the most important thing in order to develop product managers is to start with an assessment and also a very clear. Explanation of the product management role itself, and that includes like the product and that is being an expert in your product and truly understanding its ins and outs.
You should be the person that knows the most about what you’re building, the processes of becoming a really good pm, and that includes all the discovery techniques. Prototyping, quantitative, qualitative analysis, and also the people side of the job, which is stakeholder management, product evangelism, and truly being able to lead without authority because you are required and expected to work with all sorts of people across the organization and sometimes outside of it, but you don’t manage anyone.
So it’s truly about leading with I.
Ryan: yeah, that’s, it’s a vital topic and I think it’s an important one that sometimes people just starting in product don’t understand. Can you give an example of somebody who is trying to lead with authority, what that actually looks like?
Gabrielle: when people think that because they are the product manager or the product leader, that innately gives them power, and it means that other people need to follow them and need to believe and need to trust what they say, that’s when I’ve seen it go really wrong. When you assume that confidence is built in and that you don’t need to work really hard in order to get.
Ryan: yeah. So you’re kind of in a power position to be able to just make calls, but you’re not really thinking about the impact and communication across the different units.
Gabrielle: exactly. Or even you’re not thinking about the fact that you need to earn that power that you’ve been given the title, but that doesn’t give you full power to do what you need to do.
Ryan: yeah, that makes sense. But if you’re leading without authority what’s kind of a perspective on what look like. yeah,
Gabrielle: I think that there, there are a few things. I feel like the first one is that you need to understand very clearly that no one reports to you, so no one really needs to do what you want them to do.
So it’s about you figuring out with them what is in it for them. Right. Like, and I talked a lot about PMs being translators or product leaders being translators and really understanding what language other people are speaking in order to be able to speak their language, explained to them, and then get them to want to work with us.
Ryan: yeah, I think that is a huge thing. And it, looking to help them identify the challenges within their space
Gabrielle: yeah. It’s kind of the like what’s in it for them? And I find that really good product leaders, really good kind of senior PMs are very good at articulating what that’s for each discipline that they work with.
Ryan: yeah. And that can be tricky to learn. Sometimes you have to be around some of those different groups to understand what their challenges are. So it does help sometimes to work in technology environments without without being a product manager first. So you can actually see the lay of the landscape.
Is it, do you think it’s, do you think it’s really difficult for someone to just come in right outta college as a product manager and be success? I
Gabrielle: think it’s definitely difficult. I will say I see the product row as a senior row by design. You’re the only person normally in your team that does your job, which can lead to it being a pretty lonely row sometimes.
And I have some like bad news for people that like the higher up in leadership you go, the less. People are around you that actually do what you do. So that becomes even more true as the career progresses. So I’d say it’s definitely hard. I’ve seen a few things be really successful. The first one are really good APM programs and that’s like apprentice or associate product management programs where you.
Paired with someone and normally multiple teams in order to accelerate your development into the product row or, I mean, for me, I actually became the first pm of the organization that I joined, but I had a really incredible mentor and I asked my manager if I could shadow him. I spent a bunch of time with him and I had weekly one-on-ones with this person, and I think he’s really shaped how I think about product even today.
Ryan: That’s amazing. yeah. I think having that great mentorship is pretty vital. yeah. If you were looking for a mentor, if you were looking for a product mentor, what are some of the things you’d want to have in that?
Gabrielle: I think that the first thing is they need to be someone you wanna learn from.
Someone that you’re like, wow, like I see characteristics in you that I feel like could be really beneficial and helpful to me. I think the other thing is that each organization, like the product Row is the same, but companies do it slightly differently. So finding a mentor within your company, if that’s what you’re doing that has that respect and has kind of buy-in is extremely helpful because that then accelerates your ability.
To get buy-in and to get respect just by being associated with this person. And I would also just look for extreme product leadership craft. So, people that are very good at doing the product grow and normally being a leader. And then last but not least, and probably the most important, someone who loves being a mentor and that loves being a coach and has that ability to teach because.
you’re not really only looking for someone to look up to or someone to watch. You’re looking for someone that’s gonna be willing and able to teach you.
Ryan: So if you were asked to be. Product mentor or in the product leadership position on the other side. Of the mentee. yeah. What are some of the things out of the gate you’d probably want to teach them to get them going really effectively? .
Gabrielle: one of the most important things is kind of going back to what we first talked about, like truly what the ROE is, right?
Like what are all those expectations and figuring out with your mentee, like what are the things that they feel like they’re strongest in, less strong in? What did their manager actually bring them as things that they should be working on. Because as a mentor, you don’t have an insane amount of proximity with this person because you’re not with them day to day.
Normally, you’re talking to them on like a every two week basis or every month basis. So it’s always about figuring out what they wanna learn and then kind of matching it with what you think they should be learning. If that makes.
Ryan: Going back to a thing that you mentioned earlier too and maybe some of the foundational pieces that we were talking about. yeah. When you’re working with someone, guiding them on how to set product goals, what are some of the approaches that you suggest around that?
Gabrielle: I definitely would separate those, I think.
personal goals and goals for people are one thing, and then objectives for the team, like very different thing. And I’ve actually seen a lot of companies get into a lot of trouble when they mix both of these, because objectives should be inspirational and amazing and should actually bring the whole team together in order for the team to feel accountability and responsibility for solving them.
While personal goals should be about developing that individual. Sure. And. I’d say like as a mentor, I probably would look at the goals that this person has set with their managers already, because I’m there as like help, right? But when I coach someone on the flip side, I actually spend. The entire first session running an assessment.
So I send out this like pretty lengthy long assessment depending on the role. I even talk to their managers, talk to people, and then I do this gap analysis and I understand like at each level how much of each skill someone needs to have. And I see where they are. And then I normally tell people we’re gonna work on like one or two skills at a.
And those are the things that we are gonna focus on. Otherwise, if you’re trying to work on too many things, it’s kind of the same with business goals, right? You can’t do it all. We need to have focus in order to actually be able to achieve impact.
Ryan: yeah that’s a really great perspective actually, given the amount of things that a product manager may or may not do.
yeah. What are some of the things you see? Product managers maybe may, again, maybe younger product managers get caught up in that appear like the thing they’re supposed to do, but maybe. Different they should be doing.
Gabrielle: It’s a great question. I normally see a lot of product managers focus on the urgent versus the importance.
And what I’ve learned, because I’ve been in this position multiple times and I’ve helped people get out of it, is that. Everything can seem urgent, especially when you’re managing the product and you’re looking at things and it feels like there’s fires everywhere. And what I tell people is that we need to be able to separate which fires we need to put out and which fires we need to let burn.
Because they’re gonna put themselves out anyways, and more often than not, what I’ve learned is that the fires actually, the majority of them put themselves out, and the people that really only focus on the urgent stuff end up missing out on things that are extremely important, like, Doing customer interviews and customer discovery and actually testing out ideas.
So I normally hear PMs being like, oh, I have no time to do strategy, or I have no time to talk to customers. And that’s normally because they’re firefighting, they’re not actually able to do a lot of the strategic part of the product job.
Ryan: Yes. That is really great insight and it actually brings up a very interesting relationship I’ve seen quite a bit of as well.
Mm-hmm. In the way that product people and engineers sometimes overlap each other’s jobs. And maybe consciously or unconsciously, but yeah, fires is a great example of this. Yes. Where do you think product managers are even useful in this kind of like fire situ?
Gabrielle: I think that they’re very useful in terms of prioritizing, like what is the level of impact that this thing has?
Like if we don’t solve it, like are we in a disaster mode or is this like a little bad? So I’d say like learn that skill of like really being able to say like, this is a fire, this is a stop, everything. Hands down, let’s go. Versus like, this thing is kind of bad and we’re gonna get to it on the next release.
And I think since you mentioned engineers, that will also earn you a lot of trust with engineers because engineers. Getting their work stopped for something that’s not that important. And I have, at least in the past, made the mistake of. Stopping everyone because I was like, oh my God, this bug is really terrible.
But actually the bug wasn’t even that pervasive or it was actually a very bad bug, but it just wasn’t affecting an insane amount of people. So when I look back, it wasn’t the right call to make everyone stop and work on it. And engineers and my team were like, why did we do this? Tell me more.
And I was like, yeah, guys, I made a mistake. Like I’m.
Ryan: That’s great. Admitting mistakes is tough too, especially when you’re in an environment where maybe you feel like there’s a lot at stake.
Gabrielle: admitting mistakes is hard. It’s hard in general. I think a lot of PMs have like a type A personality and.
It’s really hard for a fail and for us not to do well, which means that building product becomes even harder because it’s very difficult for things to actually work on the first release or first try. But I’ll say admitting mistakes and being really honest with your team is what builds like trucks and.
I really believe that teams where they’re psychological safety, which means that people can actually say how they feel and say when they did something wrong or when they feel a certain way that’s, those are the best teams. That’s like a really good marker of an excellent team.
Ryan: yeah, that’s great that kind of vulnerability within the team actually allows growth.
yeah, and I’m, I think a lot about the kind of best relationship format between product people and engineering. , and I know in my career, I’ve run across a number of engineering leads who are a. just amazing, talented people who kept reminding me that my job wasn’t necessarily to engineer the solution, rather to create the opportunity for solution.
What do you advise product people in kind of that, that non-authoritative leadership aspect with engineers? How would that relationship work? The.
Gabrielle: I literally just wrote about this boat, like on Twitter and LinkedIn and I, yeah, so super timely. I mean, the thing I tell people all the time is that some of the best ideas I ever shipped came from engineers on my team and.
The way that is done is, I mean, like they’re insanely creative people. They know the technology the best. They’re actually gonna be building it. They know what’s possible. They know how to architect it. So I always instruct PMs that like, it is really our road to figure out like what problems to solve and which ones impact the business and the customers the most.
And when you’re clear on the problem, involve engineering, involve design. If it’s a feature that has a lot to do with marketing or sales or everything involve these people like run co-design I call them like design studios where we have a question or a problem and I ask everyone on the team. To actually come up with a solution.
If I come up, I literally mean draw out what the experience looks like. I’m the first one to be like, I’m not the best at drawing, even though like, I got better over the years. So that line doesn’t work that well. Cause I’ve done so many of these which is funny, but I tell people like, I’m not the best at this.
You’re probably not gonna be either. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine. You’re gonna get a pen and paper, we’re all gonna draw and. We show our solutions to each other. We present it and people get to vote on the stuff they like the best, which is amazing. And then, We get to do it again. I mean, we try again after getting inspired by everyone’s solution.
That’s my favorite thing. And I’m normally the one or anyone on the team’s like, oh, like this seems hard, but it would be really cool if it could do X or it could be really cool if it could do Y. And normally there’s an engineer on the team that’s like, you know what? Like it’s actually not that hard.
Like we built this API already, or like, we have a way to get this data. So if it’s really valuable, like we can make it. So I’d say involve engineers super early, not even at the like story or spec level, like they should be in on your brainstorm meetings. Otherwise, you’re just not leveraging them enough.
Ryan: I completely agree, and sometimes it’s hard to get their time or their attention, but it is just absolutely vital because they offer so much insight.
Gabrielle: it’s actually like not that hard to get their time if they feel like they’re gonna have a safe in the solution, and as soon as you do it like wood or.
They get it. They’re like, I know why I’m going into this meeting. I know what’s about to happen. And I tell people too, like, not every engineer’s gonna be excited about this. And it’s fine. You don’t need everyone, but you do need a few people on the team that really care and that like to be a part of this process because it gives them a whole new level of ownership.
When they understand the problem they’re solving, they understand why, and they too bought in on the solution as.
Ryan: yeah, that’s great feedback. Do you feel like, or maybe you can explain your perspective on when there is a ideological breakdown between the two groups or when there’s a challenge to which idea is right.
When’s a good time for a product person to acquiesce or back off, and when’s a good time for them to stand by their position and go to battle?
Gabrielle: for me it’s really way less about like, oh, ideological things because I really believe that data will help us make these decisions. And I also trust prototyping and user testing a lot.
So I describe kind of like prototyping and testing as like if someone is learning how to swim and they’ve never swim before, like you can take them to like a heated pool and get, train them on how to swim. Like whenever you release them into like the bottom of the ocean, like they’ll have a way better chance of surviving versus if you don’t prototype or like.
basically throwing someone in the ocean that has never swim before. So like it really allows us to see what what challenges we might encounter. It has completely led to like redesigns for me and for my team, and it was absolutely the right thing to do because we don’t know what ideas are great or not because we’re not the customer.
I always involve everyone. And then after that meeting that I mentioned around the design studio, like it really is on the designer to put. Idea all together. And of course they’re like in super tight feedback loop with the engineers. But I would say the majority of the things become really clear when you are testing with users and in the very few cases that they don’t.
I say that like product needs to be like the government of Singapore like you are. It’s kind of like a dictatorship, but no one is surprised by what happens. And sometimes when it’s a product decision, you need to make a call. Just like with design, the design lead sometimes needs to make a call. And with technology, sometimes the C T O or the engineering director needs to make a call.
And that’s how I’ve seen it be really success.
Ryan: That’s awesome. Well give given all this. yeah. Given this, yeah. , if you’re giving advice or feedback to a product leader on what to look for when hiring a product manager, what are some of the things you would advise them?
Gabrielle: I really think that there, there are a few things that I’m looking for. So the first one is, can they like, Set a vision and work backwards in a really clear way. So I’m looking for their communication skills. I’m looking for them to be able to break down complex things for me, and I’m also looking for a lot of that user centricity.
So I really believe that in order to make a business successful, you need to make customers really happy. Our customer. Don’t really care about our business, regardless of how much they love us. They care about themselves and their problems, and they’re like completely in the right to do that. So I say that it’s all about the customers.
You need to find those people that have that ability. So that’s kind of part one. I’d also say a lot of the PM’s job is connecting dots that don’t seem connectable by other people. So it’s identifying an insight, connecting it to a business goal, finding a trend, building on top of it. . That’s one example.
The other one is around that translating piece that we talked about before. So people that are really good at stakeholder management that can say no effectively without people hating them. So they’re respected enough. People that are very proactive. That’s another thing I look for because I mean, you’re the only one on the team that’s doing that job, so you need to be proactive and focused.
yeah, I’d say those are like the core things I, I would look for. yeah. And people that can talk about maybe one more. yeah. People that can talk about the impact of their job versus what they built or what they did. So when I’m looking at a resume, for example, impact is all that matters to me. I wanna know, did you drive retention up by X percent?
Did you increase LTB by X percent? Like how you got there? Like, I’m excited to dive in later and you can tell me stories that would be fun, but I wanna know what you managed to achieve because ultimately that’s what.
Ryan: yeah, that’s great. It sounds to me, based on what you’re saying and in my experience as well, that yeah.
Putting an emphasis on kind of the generalized term of soft skills versus hard skills is an important part of assessing whether somebody might be effective or not. yeah, I
Gabrielle: would say that there are a few hard skills that are table stakes and those you can see very quickly, right? Can the person like diagnose a problem?
Are they able to like come up with clear business goals? Like they’re like a few things that I would consider like hard skills. Can they analyze data? Can they make a hypothesis? Can they find trends? But after that, I think what separates the. From the excellent or like the good from the best are those soft skills.
And I feel like that becomes even more true when you’re talking about product leaders.
Ryan: That’s great. All right. Well thank you. That was an amazing rundown. Your insights are just awesome. I really appreciate you running through all of that with us.
Ryan: Gabrielle shares her perspective on building strong teams and relationships between product and engineering. She emphasizes the importance of admitting mistakes and creating a culture of psychological safety within teams where people can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. She also advises product managers to involve engineers early on in the ideation process and to leverage their insights and.
Co-design sessions are another important part of the culture where everyone on the team can contribute and vote on solutions. Gabrielle believes that involving engineers early on can give them a sense of ownership and make them more invested in the success of the product as a whole.
All right, welcome back. We’re again, we’re here with Gabrielle Brem and we are talking about product management.
We’re really excited to hear what your top five tip today, so maybe we can jump in with tip number.
Full Stack Leader Tip One (You’re Only As Strong As Your Weakest Team Member)
Gabrielle: So I tailored my top five tips for product leaders cuz I know a lot of people are either leaders or aspire to be leaders. So tip number one is you’re only as strong as your weakest plate.
So whenever you are managing a team or running a team, it’s your job to level up these people because your weakest link is a total reflection on you as a leader, and it’s your job to really raise the bar and get people to an exceptional place. Great.
Ryan: yeah, great tip. Great tip. How about tip number two?
Full Stack Leader Tip Two (Hire General Athletes)
Gabrielle: Amazing. so tip number two I would say is hire general athletes. And I will say that I have a bias, cause I’ve done nine industries so far, but I really believe in hiring people that can think like product people that have done it before, that have the product chops. And I believe that really smart pit people can learn any.
Ryan: yeah. And that’s a, that’s an interesting distinction that I talk about a fair amount with people is , how much you should hire for industry versus how much you should hire for skill. And kind of the balance in there.
Gabrielle: yeah, absolutely. I will say that there are some really specific roles where industry skill, like vertical really matters.
But most of the case, and by that 95%, I would vouch for hiring someone that is just excellent at being a product person.
Ryan: Awesome. Thanks so much. Tip number three, what do you got?
Full Stack Leader Tip Three (Give Teams Problems To Solve Not Things To build)
Gabrielle: Tip number three is give teams problems to solve, not things to build. If you truly wanna empower your teams and be surprised and like honestly impressed with what they come up with in terms of solving problems, give them those problems to solve, empower them to do that, and.
Coach them so that they can actually solve the problems and get you to a solution. Because they are so close to the problem space, they’re so close to customers they know and they understand way more than you do, at least at that level.
Ryan: And you’re empowering them to bring their solutions to the table before you enforce your own, right?
Gabrielle: A hundred percent. yeah. I mean, I don’t think any leader should be enforcing their solution. I, whenever I’m invited to these brainstorms, which is rare at this point, I always tell people like, Hey. I, my ideas are probably the worst here. I’m the one that has the least context on whatever’s going on to like, take everything I say with a grain of salt.
And I encourage other leaders to do the same because you’re not on the ground all the time. You don’t see everything that they see. So really allow your teens to wow you. You
Ryan: great. Awesome. How about tip
Full Stack Leader Tip Four (Develop Your People To Be Excellent)
Gabrielle: number? Tip number four kind of goes hand in hand with this one where I think that a core part of a leader’s role is to coach.
And by that I mean develop, empower, give the skills, really teach your people how to be excellent and not to micromanage. So that doesn’t mean less management. That means managing someone.
Ryan: yeah, it’s a good general tip and I think it’s so important when you’re working with kind of advanced people, like product people.
Gabrielle: yeah. yeah,
Ryan: absolutely. All right. And finally, tip number five.
Full Stack Leader Tip Five (You’re Never Done Learning)
Gabrielle: Tip number five for me is that you’re never done learning. I have just gone through an incredible workshop with Marty Kagan, who’s one of my mentors and overall, Incredible product person in the world. For two days before that, I had a five day workshop.
you’re never done learning. And it’s so important, especially the higher up you go in an organization to expose yourself to different ways of thinking and to really question kind of all the time, like, am I doing this the right way? Am I doing the this the best way? Is there something else I should be doing?
And the best way to do that, I think, is by reading, talking to others, going to workshops, going to courses. It’s really, I.
Ryan: Are there any good books or workshops that you would highly recommend for people coming up in this area?
Gabrielle: absolutely. So I think some of my favorites are inspired. And that is all about product discovery empowered, that’s all about product leadership.
I always recommend people read Sprint, which basically test tells you how to test an idea in only five days, which I think is incredible. If I was to throw another one in there that I really loved is the Making up a manager for anyone that wants to be a manager, I think is a really good book by Julie Sue.
And then in terms of workshops, well on the Never Stop Learning kind of. , train. I started my own workshop, which is basically like a two week cohort based course all around building impactful products. So I’d say that is definitely a pretty exciting one. I’ve been loving to teach it and it’s my second cohort.
And then, I mean, there’s so many really good other product courses that people can take.
Ryan: All right. Thanks so much. We’ll put all of those in the show notes as well and make sure that they’re listed there, especially your course, which sounds awesome. . And we
Gabrielle: really, the first cohort was like, so fun.
It was really fun. .
Ryan: That’s amazing. Okay, great. I’m excited to hear how more go. Um, And maybe we can come back a little bit later and through some of the things that you’re teaching specifically in there. But it was great to have you here today and we really appreciate all of the feedback and insight.
You, you put a lot of thought into the product management leadership process and and we really appreciate that.
Gabrielle: yeah. Thank you so much. This was super fun. Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan: All right. Thanks so much.
Gabrielle’s method of leadership is centered around empowering and developing her team members to be the best they can be.
She emphasizes the importance of hiring people with strong product skills rather than just industry experience and giving them problems to solve rather than solutions to build. Gabrielle also stresses the need for leaders to coach and develop their team members while also continuing to learn and grow themselves.
these methods demonstrate her effective leadership style of empowering her team and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.