About This Episode
EPISODE 2 features the VP of Product at StyleRow – one of LA’s hottest industry startups. Serena tells us some amazing stories from her time at places like eVite and Rodan & Fields. She also ponders the challenges of being a leader in tech while also raising a busy family. Her Top 5 Tips are like digging up diamonds in a field of coal – we think you’ll really like them!
Serena’s Top 5 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 –
- Be someone that other people want to work with.
- Hire people that are better than you.
- Be confident yet humble and be kind, but be firm and be optimistic, but be realistic at the same time.
- Lead by example.
- Always give your team credit for their hard work.
We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:
Ryan: Welcome to the full-stack leadership podcast. We’re here today with Serena Burton. She is the vice president of product at style row. A startup here based in Los Angeles.
Serena has worked at a wide variety of companies in product management, including demand media, where she worked as a senior director of product management for live strong at Rhodan and fields where she was a digital product consultant. And now at style row where she is the vice president of product in the midst of all that, she’s also run her own strategic digital product consulting business and has a really amazing perspective on how to build great digital product in today’s world.
Welcome Serena. It’s great to have you
Serena: Thanks, Ryan. It’s great to be here.
Ryan: So Serena, you have worked at a variety of different organizations on really a wide variety of different types of projects over the course of time. I was wondering if you’d give us a little rundown of some of the highlights of what you’ve been through.
Serena: Absolutely. So I have been working digital product for almost 18 years already, and my experiences have spanned across.
Startup organizations to more enterprise level companies. And there’s just so many different challenges with each organization size, so I did get into product management sort of by chance. And I learned a lot on the job and I began working in different organizations and understanding what a product manager does and what their roles and responsibilities are. And I’ve had the amazing opportunity of working at many different fantastic organizations.
I spent some time working at dot com and really helped with the online invitation platform. From there. I moved on to a company called demand media, which is now called leaf group. And at demand media, I ran the product organization for live strong.com startup at the time focused on health and wellness.
And that was an amazing experience
Ryan: I want to jump in here and say too, I’m a cancer survivor. And I used to use that product during the time. It was amazing. So, yeah. Thank you.
Serena: That’s great. And that was one of the most rewarding products I’ve ever worked on.
I liked working with our users and understanding the concerns of their health journey or their fitness journey, whether it was helping them with. the calorie tracking app or helping them with quitting smoking or learning about ways to just improve their overall wellness. So that was really one of my most rewarding experiences by far.
I also, from Livestrong, ended up starting my own consulting business and I had the opportunity to work with many amazing companies, startups and enterprise level. And my biggest and most consistent client was Rhodan and fields, which is a skincare company started by the doctors that founded proactive and Rhodan and fields has grown to be one of the largest skincare brands in the nation.
And it was just a really amazing experience working there on different. E-commerce experiences, mobile apps, skincare assessments and quizzes, and really enabling their consultants to market and run their businesses.
And most recently I’ve been working for style row, which is a business really focused on creating amazing digital experiences for interior designers and helping them. Manage their projects from end to end, whether it’s sourcing products from our marketplace or sharing their projects with clients, looking for approval, starting a budget, really the whole end to end experience of managing an interior design project.
Ryan: I happen to know that product. And I want to say like, it’s a really great innovation within that industry and bringing so many aspects of it into a modern experience, but also it’s a very complicated industry. So it’s been amazing to see how you guys have been iterating through that process.
Serena: Thanks, Ryan. And you and your team have done so much amazing work to help us get where we are and style row really is just. We’re still early, but we are hearing such great things from the designers that are using the platform and how it’s helping them save hours in their workflow process and just really positive feedback.
And so we’re excited about where we can go with Style Row
Ryan: Great. Awesome. Thank you. Thanks.
Well, we wanted to talk to you today and hear a little bit about your product leadership experience and how working in product management ties in with leadership and the different areas that you work at.
Serena: Absolutely. So with my experience in product management, what I’ve found is that as a product owner, product manager, you’re constantly bringing teams of people together to launch great products. And so you have to be able to lead with. Different organizations, different functions, different groups, and be able to unite a team so that you can achieve these great results and launch amazing products.
So being a leader within the product management space for me, really means bringing teams and people together.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s it makes a lot of sense. And I think product management is one of the disciplines within the technology space that really requires amazing communication and guiding leadership through that communication in order to get collaboration.
Serena: Absolutely. So I’ve always practiced and tried to practice that you have to be a great communicator. When you work in product, you have to be talking to everyone throughout the organization constantly. You don’t want anyone feeling like they’re in the dark. And so one of the biggest parts of product management is communication.
And that’s something that I’ve tried to do throughout my career is really communicating and. Keeping all stakeholders updated, bringing the team together, making sure that people understand what’s going on.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s amazing. So when do you think you first started your leadership journey?
Was it your first product management job or was it a different spot, the spot where you really felt like a leader for the first.
Serena: That’s a great question. So I don’t think that it was right when I started my product career by any means. I had a lot of learning to do when I first started in product.
And what I found was one of my earlier product roles was actually at dot com. And when I was at eBay, That’s probably when I started feeling like a leader within the team, mostly because I was responsible for bringing together the engineering team, the UX team, and any designers that we might be working with in our marketing team.
And so while I certainly wasn’t in a leadership role per se, I was responsible for bringing together. All of these key team members and making everyone understand what was going on, what our goals were, what we were working. Towards. And so that’s when I first started probably feeling like the center of A product development process. And so that, that was again, like earlier in my career, definitely not in a leadership role, but when I started feeling like the hub in between all of those spokes within.
Ryan: Yeah, that makes sense. And it really is product management really. Is that hub. So it brings up a good question.
What do you think, as you’ve grown in your career and you’ve kind of been through all of these different adventures, in terms of experiencing different products being built and diff lots of different team members for you. What does leadership mean to you?
Serena: That’s a great question. So leadership for me, I think, would be.
Feeling like anyone within the team can come to you with concerns that they can come to you with ideas and suggestions. And I just, I love feeling like someone that can be approached. With any sort of challenge or task. And that I really want people on my team, people that I’m working with, people in other areas of an organization to feel comfortable coming to me and sharing their thoughts.
And so, again, it goes [00:08:00] back to that communication. I feel like being able to communicate. Company across role and across function is something that is so important as a leader, because you have to make people feel like they can come to you with any sort of issue that they might be having. You want to be approachable so that they trust you and they come to you.
If there is an issue you want to know sooner rather than later, and I feel like building that rapport with your team and with other members within the company really helps with.
Ryan: Yeah. That makes total sense. So you brought up the idea that, when people are faced with challenges and I know being a leader is fraught with challenges throughout it.
What’s one that you think you faced over the course of time? That was, uh, an interesting challenge that you came up against that you wanted to explore as kind of that leadership.
Serena: So one challenge that I faced in my career was about 10 years ago and I was working for a startup at the time. So we worked around the clock. We worked really hard and we were very passionate about the product that we were working on. We felt like we were doing great things for our users. The feedback was extremely positive.
And so we all worked extremely hard, but it was also very rewarding. And I had an amazing team I was working with. So I look back on it, very fondly, but a challenge I faced was that we did burn the midnight oil and we were constantly. Working around the clock. I’d always prided myself on being someone that would stay late with my team.
We would get dinner, we’d order snacks, whatever it might be. But really I was there for the team for moral support. I was helping with releases. I was providing feedback as we went through different things. And, around that time I realized that I was pregnant. And at that point of the time, Hardly anyone had had children.
there was really, it was a young culture and it was sort of not common. And so when I came back from my maternity leave, I was still trying to stay with the team. I was working till seven or eight at night and trying to. Be there for them. But then at the same time, it was really draining on me because I wasn’t home with my child and I wasn’t getting any time with her.
And so it became really problematic and I wasn’t quite sure how to manage it. And so I connected with a coworker who had also had a baby fairly recently and she gave me her advice. And what she told me was that she just had. Kind of a line in the sand and she had to say, this is my schedule. And I have to leave every day at five o’clock to relieve the nanny.
I have to be home for my child. And so she said that she would just hold her head high and she’d walk out the door and she would do what she could while she was at the office. She would certainly do things once she got home as needed, but she had to put that line in the sand that she was leaving at a set time every day.
And that was hard for me because I felt like I’d always been a team member that was there with my team and sitting there in all of the action. And I loved that, but I couldn’t do both and I couldn’t do both well. so I realized that I had kind of put off some of my family obligations. First, and so I started leaving at a more reasonable time and trying to be available both to my team and both to my family.
And so I realized that I was able to still do many things, even though I wasn’t sitting with them, I could still make the team feel appreciated. I could. Make sure they had dinner before I left, I could make sure that they knew it was okay for them to leave as well, and that they could take care of appropriate schedules.
And so I began to learn that work-life balance is very important and it’s not. Doing it for yourself, but it’s making sure that your team realizes that they should be taking care of themselves as well. They should be taking the time that they need, and there’s always going to be obligations. And so as a manager and as a leader, I wanted to make people feel like I recognize that I appreciate that.
And I needed that flexibility as well. And so. Being able to balance that and prioritize your time so that you can really take care of yourself, take care of your family and take care of your team because you really want. Team members that are happy and enjoy working with you and working on the product that you’re working on.
And so if they’re not feeling like they can have that space in their time for themselves, they won’t be as positive or as upbeat or encouraged as they might have been. So really trying to lead by example and showing that work-life balance is critical and you have to make time for what’s important.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s, that’s amazing. I think that is a very, very common leadership challenge where you really hit that cross section of. Where you meet the demands of the career that you have, and the people that you’re trying to lead through something as well as where you meet the demands of your family and where you’re also a leader in that, in that area as well.
Right? So you, you end up facing, The balancing question, which really ends up being quite different for a lot of different people. And, I know that, a young startup that’s trying to build something and pushing it hard in order to get early stage products out. It can be a real challenge when you feel like you lose all the manpower that’s possible.
And at the same time, People do get burned out and it’s really hard.
Serena: Absolutely. And I think that that’s something I’ve seen through several startups is people can burn the midnight oil and can work so hard and you need that at times, but then you also need that balance of having some fun with your team and really taking care of yourself, maybe working out together with the team or going on a walk, getting out of the office, whatever it might be.
But I think that. There is so much potential for burnout, especially at a startup. And so finding ways to keep your team feeling good and happy and enjoying the product that they’re working on is so important.
Ryan: Yeah. And there’s this one other interesting thing, thinking about also the startup experiences I’ve been in where I think when you’re building startups, you tend to establish a bit of a family environment with those early stage companies.
And you’re collaborating in such close quarters that it creates a system within there. And then also having a family system outside of that, which is kind of your main family system. They do come into conflict periodically.
Serena: Absolutely. And I feel like I have really felt like many of my team members have been like family and I’ve remained close with many people that have.
worked with different startups. And it is interesting when you have a family at home and a young family that needs your attention, trying to find that balance is so hard, but you find ways to accommodate both. And you find ways [00:15:00] that maybe when the baby is young, you go get the baby to sleep.
I would get back online with my team, if they needed support or I would join a late night release, whatever it might be also at times just prioritizing. And there might be a couple of days that you need to stay late and that’s okay. And need to just plan accordingly and find ways to get the support that you need.
But then other times, stick with your schedule and Try to be available at home as well. So it’s a constant juggling act. I think that people face, and especially at a startup, when you have limited resources, everyone needs to be contributing and everyone is doing such an important and a big job that it’s hard when people aren’t available.
But what I’ve realized is you can be highly effective when you know that you have a limited amount of time or, you know, you have a cutoff point where you have to leave. The amount of productivity that you can have is
Ryan: heightened quality productivity. Right?
Serena: Exactly. You focus on what really matters and getting the most important things done when you have
Ryan: That chance.
Yeah. that’s really great. I think it’s a nice transition to, you and I were earlier talking about another experience that you had and the concept of Some form of a family system within the organization that you’re in and really that coming out of a cross collaboration amongst a number of different departments or a number of different, people of specialty in different areas.
And I wonder if you, you mentioned you had something to talk about around that kind of cross departmental or cross skill collaboration.
Serena: Yeah. So one thing that I’ve had to do continually throughout my product management experience is you are spanning multiple divisions, multiple groups, multiple functional areas, and.
You may be working with the engineering team. You may be working with the marketing team, you’re working with the design team. And so I’ve learned over the years to sort of tailor my messaging based on who I’m talking to. Right. And understanding how they might be approaching a problem or how they might be thinking about something and really trying to understand where each person is coming from and what they’re bringing to the table.
So that you can communicate with them effectively because sometimes I may need to be more technical in the way that I’m speaking to someone and the way we’re approaching a problem, or other times I need to be more focused on business aspects. So I think it’s important to speak to people and to communicate with everyone in a way that makes sense for that team.
And so if you’re talking. With a certain group and you start getting too technical that may not be the best way to get to consensus. Or if you’re talking with another group and you don’t understand the basics of the technical aspects that need to be approached, that it’s going to be much harder to communicate effectively and get your goals achieved.
So I usually try to do some research beforehand if I can and understand. I may not know all the technical components that will go into something or a product that we’re working on, but I want to do some homework and I want to make sure that I feel like I can communicate effectively whether it’s looking at API documentation or whether it’s doing some research on how things have been implemented at other organizations or.
Potentially looking at software solutions that are available. I like to try to prepare myself for technical conversations so that I can communicate effectively. And my team will then appreciate that I’ve done my homework and they’ll appreciate that. I’m trying to come to some sort. Common language that we can all communicate in.
And then same thing. If I’m working with the marketing team or a business team, I like to look at the competitive landscape and I like to do my homework so that I can communicate effectively and understand what’s going on and how best to. Communicate with all the
Ryan: Yeah. I actually did a talk a while ago, called the interpreter and talking about as a product manager, you’re often an interpreter amongst a number of different groups.
And then as a product leader, somebody who’s running product teams, you’re really in a lot of cases, teaching people. How to interpret some of these different languages and you may not know the details of them. You may not be able to go as deep as, like how do we actually implement the API or how do we get into full blown marketing conversion funnels that make sense, but you’re absolutely able to understand and make decisions off it.
And so I think That, that kind of ability to translate and interpret. Have you had any experiences where you’ve had to use that specifically? Like you’ve run into a problem or a challenge and you’re like, okay, I understand what these two people are saying and bringing them together and kind of a leadership form maybe every day.
Serena: That’s what you call it, being the interpreter, because that is so spot on because I’ve been in meetings. There’s members from the technical organization and members from the business organization. And we’re all talking about the same thing, but the way that people are expressing their ideas or their concerns.
There is a lot, there’s a lot lost in translation between the two or between the different groups. And so I feel like as a product leader that you often are translating, you often are helping communicate more effectively for one group to the other group. And that is part of our job. We need to make sure that everyone is understanding what’s happening and how we’re going to approach a problem.
And so that is back to the earlier topic of communication. You’re continually communicating and helping people communicate effectively across group. And so I’ve definitely been in that situation where I’ve had to explain why someone is talking about. Certain technical aspects and why that matters to the business or why we’re talking about, something that might be going on in the competitive landscape and why that translates into our technical concerns.
And so you’re often translating between different groups in different parties and really being an interpreter that is the perfect way to explain it. I love that.
Ryan: Yeah, I’ve often felt like let me translate this business language into this technical language or vice versa. And, people are really grateful.
And once that translation happens, then it gives people the green light to be able to move forward and the things that they need to do, and it keeps everybody. Focused on what the actual end goal in that collaboration is. And yeah, I completely understand.
Serena: Yeah, that makes so much sense. And I feel like it helps people trust you as well, that I hear what you’re saying and I understand what you’re saying and I can convey your message to someone else. And it’s being that liaison between the different groups and then that way the different groups will come to you again, as that hub in the middle, communicating across all different parties and bringing people together.
Ryan: Yep. Absolutely. All right. Thank you. That was an amazing rundown of some of the spots and challenges you faced over the course of time being a leader.
I was grateful for Serena’s ability to really drive home how great cross skill collaboration leads to impactful product creation. Being an interpreter allows product leaders to translate across groups in order to make sure the overall vision is resonant in every department. Similarly, great leadership is often about finding balance across those groups and balance comes in a variety of forms.
Balance of work balance of family balance of business needs and balance of self talking to Serena. It was very clear that leadership is really about helping team members juggle their personal lives, their innovation passions, and their desire to have positive work environments
All right. We’re back with Serena. We talked a little bit earlier, and I know you had five amazing tips for being a leader. I was wondering if we could talk through them real quick. Sure. All right. Let’s start with number one. What’s your number one?
Serena: My number one, and this is the most important to me is to be someone that other people want to work with.
So I really try to be someone that people want on their team that people want to work with. And, that’s really sort of my number one.
Ryan: And how does that help? What does that mean in terms of leadership?
Serena: Yeah, so I feel like when you are respectful, when you are. Kind when you’re building these relationships with your team, you go a little bit deeper than just being a manager or just being someone that they’re working with.
And it comes down to hard work, being available to your team and being someone that is known to get things done. And it feels like when you are doing good work, you’re building good relationships with your team and you’re launching.
It creates this environment where people want to work with you and it pays off because you may cross paths in the future. And you’ll remember working with someone that made you feel happy and appreciated, and that will be someone that you want to work with again.
Ryan: Yeah. And I think when you are exhibiting what you want, it inspires people to. Move towards that themselves as well. It’s another great benefit of,
Serena: Yeah, that makes sense. And just being that teammate that is really helping everyone take their game to the next level and really just always being there for your team and supporting them in whatever you’re working on.
Ryan: Awesome. Okay, so let’s talk about leadership. Tip number two. What do you got for us?
Serena: Okay. Number two, this one is also very important to me. I like to hire people that are better than me, so I try to lose any ego and just find the absolute smartest.
Best people that you can, for whatever role you’re hiring for and having someone on your team that is better than you at something is only going to make everyone better. And so just feeling comfortable knowing that there are experts in all sorts of areas and finding the best possible person for a role is so important and really, Feeling comfortable hiring people that are better than you at something.
Ryan: Yeah. I think this is a really good spot where. I’ve seen young leaders over the course of time, believe they need to be the best at every aspect of everything going on. A lot of times you back yourself into a corner doing that, and there’s no way you can have a large project come to life.
There’s no way to scale. And you just end up being the, the, um, the choke point for the entire process. So finding people that are high quality and what they’re doing is so.
Serena: Absolutely. And I think it comes down to also losing your ego a bit and not feeling like you have to be that person in control of every aspect, but having people that are so smart, so equipped and able to really execute is so important.
Ryan: Great. Thank you. All right. Tip three.
Serena: Okay, so this one’s a little bit long, but I think it’s important for me. So I really like to be confident yet humble and be kind, but be firm and be optimistic, but be realistic at the same time.
Ryan: So you want to be all of those things at the same time.
Serena: Absolutely. Because you can be confident, but you don’t want to come off as cocky or arrogant. Right. So you need to temper your confidence with some humility. I think it’s important to be kind. Obviously you want, again, to be someone that people want to work with. If you’re not a nice person, no, one’s going to want to work with you.
So being kind is super important, but your team has to know. You’re from, and you have important, goals that are set out for everyone and you have expectations. So it’s being kind, but still being firm with what you expect from everyone. Setting clear expectations and then in product management and you always have to be.
Realistic in terms of timeline or in terms of scope or in terms of whatever it might be. But I like to stay optimistic and positive. Again, going back to my number one, you want to be someone that people want to work with. And so if you’re continually negative or you’re continually pointing out the issues and the challenges and why something isn’t going to work, that becomes a drag for everyone.
And so you’re needing to rally your team. You need to be. Optimistic you need to be positive. And so that’s why that last point is important to me of being optimistic, but still keeping your feet grounded in reality.
Ryan: Yeah. I love the entire counterbalance approach to this tip because all of these things , if you lean too heavy on one side or another on any of them, they lose their impact.
And so, walking that counterbalance so you can have, each of them has , really amazing. Thanks. Yeah. All right. Tip number four.
Serena: I like to lead by example. So I want my team to be hardworking. I’m going to be hardworking. I want my team to be pushing the envelope and really being innovative.
Then I need to try to be innovative and I need to try to lead by example. And so I think that’s just something that I’ve always tried to do throughout my career is lead by example,
Ryan: When you say lead by example, do you mean, in terms of you getting in and doing the work, or do you mean in terms of the way that you want to guide your leadership with the team members?
Are there some perspectives on this?
Serena: That’s a good question. So I think it’s not necessarily just getting in and doing the work. Although if that’s what needs to be done, then absolutely jump in and do it, but also just showing people. the way that you expect them to treat each other, the way that you expect them to treat you and just
trying to help your team see an example of ways to treat each [00:29:00] other ways, to communicate ways, to get things to the finish line. And so it comes down to whatever’s needed at that time. So if you do need to jump in and get your hands dirty and do something absolutely jump in, or if it means showing people how to manage their teammates or how to do other things.
Just do what is necessary.
Ryan: Yeah. Great. Thanks. All right. Final tip,number five.
Serena: Okay. So last one, always, always give your team credit for their hard work. Really recognize people on the team, recognize their efforts, give shout outs, whatever you can do to make people realize that their work is appreciated and you are. So grateful for them showing up and getting the work done and doing what needs to be done.
So give shout outs, giving your team credit. I know early in my career, of course, there’s times where. You work super hard, get something done. And then when it’s presented or communicated, your name isn’t mentioned and so I want to be someone that gives my team credit always and make sure that they know that their work is appreciated.
So just sharing that love around.
Ryan: Yeah. And I think, this is an industry of innovation. And people put a lot of hard work into creating things and putting their heart and soul and whether, whether they’re imagining them or they’re building them or they are checking to make sure they’re good, they’re pouring their hearts and soul into bringing something to life.
And it’s truly inspiring to hear from the leader in your organization that the work you’re doing, good and it, and it feels good. So I completely understand that.
Serena: Yeah. Awesome. I think it’s so important to really, again, keep people fired up and excited and wanting to do their best work because people want to be recognized and they want to feel important in the organization.
Ryan: Yeah. All right. Thank you, Sarina. That was amazing. We really appreciate all the insight, the feedback, your perspective on what some great leadership tips are. we’re really glad you came today.
Thanks Ryan. I’m so happy you asked me to be here. I really appreciate
and today’s discussion. I was reminded how creating an amazing product is as much about cultivating great teamwork as it is about innovating exciting solutions.
If you don’t have the ability as a leader to connect to a diverse group of makers, it’s difficult to generate a vibrant experience. In many ways, leadership is about bringing out the best in technical and creative teams in order to share a powerful experience with the world. And to pull this off, a leader has to look inward to find the kind of personal balance and communication that will inspire that team of creators to come together and bring to life a great product.