Feb. 8, 2023

Building Out Your Product Team with Janet Brunckhorst of Aurora Solar

Janet Brunckhorst, Director of PM at Aurora Solar, shares her vast knowledge about creating, building, and working with product teams. She draws from her experience in publishing and IT and explains how collaboration is the key to everything. Learn more about Janet’s career path, importance of customer feedback, and so much more in this episode of Product Chats!



Time Stamped Show Notes

How information technology experience helps in product management [01:05]

Creating and supporting product teams [02:07]

Ensuring cohesiveness on your team [04:00]

Supporting professional development [05:58]

Parallels between growing a team and growing a product [08:54] 

Finding your product’s North Star via customer feedback [12:02]

Making sure you’re listening to your team effectively [13:29]

Collaborating vs solutioning as a leader [16:03]

Advice for aspiring product managers [17:21]



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Kayla: Thanks for tuning in. On today's episode, I chat with Janet Brunckhorst, who is the director of Product Management at Aurora Solar, and we talk about how to build out teams, just like how you build out your product and how to support the professional development of your team. So hope you enjoy and don't forget to give us a five star review on the Apple Store.

Hey Janet. Thanks so much for coming on today.

Janet: Hey Kayla. Thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.

Kayla: Yeah. So in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself?

Janet: Absolutely. So I'm Janet Brunckhorst. I am Director of Product Management at Aurora Solar. We make CAD design and sales software for the rooftop solar industry.

I've been there a little over two years. It's awesome. Huge career highlight. And I started out, uh, in editorial, in publishing and my product manager journey kind of started out more in the IT project management [00:01:00] side and slowly, uh, like gravitated towards product.

Kayla: So you said it started out kind of in IT. How have your skills in IT kind of translated into you being a strong product leader?

Janet: Oh, I love that you asked that question. So, uh, a lot of, I am a huge believer in transferable skills. I kind of have to be, and I think that a lot of what I learned, even as an undergraduate, right, in research became applicable to IT. What is IT all about? Talking to people, solving their problems, understanding their problems, and then researching the solutions because you know, you probably don't know off the top of your head how to fix everything.

What is a product management skill set? A lot of it is the same. Talking to humans, understanding their problems, figuring out collaboratively how we might solve those problems. I think the different biggest difference between what I did on the IT help desk, uh, and what I do as a product manager is the collaboration part.

It's much more about [00:02:00] working with other people to solve problems.

Kayla: And on that collaboration. I think that's something in product management that we talk about a lot. Like what are a few best practices, let's say, to aspiring product leaders or current product leaders that you would kind of share around how to collaborate better and best work with teams across the org?

Janet: So I love working with teams and talking about and thinking about teams. So, I don't know if I can really speak to best practices, but I can definitely talk about creating teams and supporting teams. So when I think about this, I really think about a team as its own entity, and I think this is something that I've noticed.

We don't necessarily think about that when we design our org charts, when we think about professional development, our learning and development budgets. We're not necessarily thinking about teams. We're thinking about like an org structure, and then we're thinking about individuals. And we're putting individuals into an org [00:03:00] structure.

And then that's a team. And I really started several years ago thinking about, well, what is that? Is that team really just a collection of individuals? And you know, it, it isn't, and any kind of organizational psychologist. Which I am not one. Um, but we'll tell you that it, it isn't, like every single interaction, like every group of people.

They create a dynamic within that team that is unique to that team. It's different from the individual's relationship to the company as a whole, um, different from the individual's relationship with their manager and the team culture and the team dynamic really matters day to day. So, I think to kind of circle back to your question, really thinking about how teams are behaving and interacting and what those teams are trying to achieve, how they're trying to achieve that as a team is a, a really important practice to develop as a leader to look at, uh, you know, how that team is, is interacting and behaving [00:04:00] overall.

Kayla: And I think on that also, right? It's about hiring for the best roles for the team and skill set for the team, right? Like someone could have a really strong skill set in some area and they may have weaknesses in others, but making sure that cohesively they work together, right?

Janet: Yes, absolutely. And understanding holistically where the gaps are on your team rather than in individuals, and this is not at all to downplay the importance of learning and development and, you know, professional career growth for individuals on your team. And as a leader, that's your responsibility. There's no question about that. But as you think about growing your team, I think about this a lot.

Like what does the skills matrix look like across the whole team? How do we fill in the gaps, uh, the skills gaps that we have, not only right now, but also looking into the future. And, you know, where I work now as a growth company, I used to be in consulting, so I worked with companies at all different [00:05:00] sizes and stages.

You always have to be looking ahead at what's coming next for this team. And we might have a gap that doesn't matter right now. You know, we don't need that skill now. When are we gonna need that skill? Is it in six months? Is it in 18 months? When do we need to hire? Or well, how do we fill that gap? Is it with hiring?

Is it with professional development for the folks on the team? Is it with restructuring our org so that the skills that exist in some other part of the organization can now be used on this team? And there's no right or wrong answer to this. It's really dependent on the context, but something that absolutely we have to think about as we plan our teams.

Kayla: And I think going to that, back to that piece of like professional development, it's really like giving people something to strive for of, hey, you're not gonna be a product manager forever. How can we support you? And I think that's something that like the best companies do, is making sure that they're supporting kind of that career ladder of their team.

So I'm actually curious, like. What are things that you [00:06:00] do to help support kind of that professional development and make sure that your team members are staying engaged and stay at your company? Cause I know we talk about hiring all the time, but it's also about like, how do you keep those employees, right?

Janet: Right. Retention is way cheaper than hiring people. Right. And. You know, makes everybody happier and more fulfilled in their work. There are just so many benefits to, to retention and, you know, I, we are kind of wandering into territory that is generally the, the purview of the people team and I deeply appreciate the people teams that I work with currently, have worked with in the past, uh, because they're always thinking about this kind of stuff.

So for me, as an individual leader, it's really about getting to know the people on your team. Like there's just this really human aspect of connecting with the people who are on your team, whether they report to you directly or whether it's, you know, elsewhere in the organization. We work with a lot of cross-functional teams in software products. [00:07:00] So getting to know people and understand what their goals are.

You mentioned like people aren't always gonna be a product manager. Well, some folks want to be a product manager forever. And as far as they're concerned at any given moment, like this is the job that they want to do and the career that they want to have. And career ladders and career pathing, I think understanding that people's goals, you know, this old school idea that you'd be good at a thing.

And then you manage the people who are good at that thing, right? We all know that this is no longer the path. And I think engineering has really forged this like, and really been at the forefront of thinking about how do we provide paths of seniority and, uh, expanding your sphere of influence and the breadth of the impact you can have on an organization without forcing you into people management, which may or may not be something that you care to do.

So I think it's really the same in product management. Product managers, uh, tend to have really strong [00:08:00] interpersonal skills because of what I talked about earlier, talking to customers all the time. You're talking to people, understanding their needs. That doesn't mean that you want to manage people.

You know, different skill sets. So having a career ladder that supports people's growth in the way that they want to grow. Um, and I think when we talk about growth and the expansion of your career path. That career journey really is about making that bigger impact to the organization, and that's, that's not necessarily about becoming, you know, a manager of a really broad part of the product.

It might be about depth. It might be about a particular area of focus. And until you understand what the individuals on your team want to get out of their career, you can't really help them to focus on those goals.

Kayla: I think this kind of plays into our first topic around understanding our customer, right?

Understanding our employees, what they want, and so, let's talk a little bit about how you grow your team and kind of how that parallels how you grow [00:09:00] your product.

Janet: Yeah, so when I'm thinking about growing teams, I tend to rely on the tools that I have. We talked about transferable skills, right? This is a theme for me, like.

Let's take the things I already know how to do. Let's take the toolkit that I already have and see if that toolkit can help me with a new problem, right? So this is part of how as leaders, we can scale ourselves. We don't have to go develop a whole new tool toolkit necessarily. So in this case, thinking about a product management skill set and how that relates to teams.

Like I said, I work with cross-functional teams a lot. They don't necessarily report to me. When we are thinking about growing a team, it's kind of similar to thinking about growing a product in that, what's the first thing we have to know? Well, we have to know where we're at, so we have to have some way of measuring where we're at.

We have to know where we want to go. So we have to have some kind of idea that this status quo is not where we wanna just maintain. We actually want to grow [00:10:00] towards something, and then we have to figure out how we get from where we're at to where we're going. So you can think of this in a kind of a lean startup, build, measure, learn cycle, right?

We measure where our team is at right now. We know where we wanna go. Let's iterate towards that. And this is something that, when I work with teams, I really encourage the whole team to think about this. So this is not something that I would ever impose as a leader. I would never say, oh, this team should be more like this and you are here and you know, bridge that gap team. That is not at all what I mean, really understanding.

Usually, I've found a team has a really clear idea about what they want to change, what they want to improve, and you can, even if they're thinking about that more in the day to day, or they might have a weekly or biweekly retro where this stuff is surfacing, if you make space for a team to say, "what is it that if you could change everything about this team, if you could [00:11:00] change one thing about this team, like where do you want to be in six months, in 12 months, as a team."

They generally have an answer for that. Like they have an opinion. People have an opinion on how they want the team they're with to be working. And so that can help you to develop collaboratively, develop that kind of, you could call it a North star, um, or a vision for the team. And then that's something that you can, you can break down into smaller pieces and you can iterate towards it, kind of like you would for, for your product.

And I wanna be clear, I'm not saying that people are products, not saying that teams are products, that's not the case. But it's the same toolkit applied to a different problem.

Kayla: Yeah. And I think that's all about listening to your customer, right? At the end of the day, it's who is your customer and what do they want, right?

So when you're building a product, it's what do your customers need? Doing user interviews, listening to your customers, and then in the team, right? It's listening to like what your team wants to achieve and how do you get to that goal. So out of curiosity, like I know these are two separate [00:12:00] things that have really clear parallels, but when you're listening to your customers, like what are you doing to make sure that you're building towards kind of that North star of what your customers need?

Janet: So I was talking about this with the team this morning, in fact. When we are listening to customers, I think, you know the number one thing that we're always doing as product people is listening for problems, listening for the underlying need. And you know, this is so common as to be almost a truism in product management.

Like customers will come to you with a solution, and what you need to do is like unpack that til you understand what problem is it that they're trying to solve with this solution they're coming to me with. And then, you're hearing this probably from more than one customer, if it's a real need and a real problem. And then you're able to synthesize that and obviously, you know, working with talented cross-functional teams, once you've synthesized it, you're able to figure out solutions, go back and validate them with the customer.

Kayla: And I think that goes off to [00:13:00] like the important skill set. If like there's any aspiring product leaders listening to this or people who wanna get into product right around the skill set of rather than solutioning, how can you actually take a step back? And I think that's so important in product is taking a step back and rather than just coming to a solution, hey, what is the problem?

And fully understanding the problem that your customer is dealing with. Right. And then I would say on that also, what are you doing like on the parallel of your team? What are you doing to best listen to your team?

Janet: Yeah, I think this is, this is really important and this is where I think we can sometimes as leaders, you know, be tempted to, to drop out of that skillset.

One of the things that's so rich about product management. I told you a little of my origin story. Every product manager has an origin story. You didn't used to be able to go to school for this. Now you can, but the majority of people still don't and there's nothing wrong with that. Great product managers come from all kinds of different backgrounds, [00:14:00] which means that as a leader, as a manager of people, you are never going to like turn people into you.

They're never gonna follow your exact path cause they've come from somewhere completely different. There can be a temptation as leaders to sort of say, oh, how do I guide my team to, you know, to be this particular type of product manager? And we should resist that temptation, I think, because that takes away from that richness that we have in, you know, across our whole discipline.

So, you know, going back to what you said about listening to customers and then listening to the team the same way. If our team comes to us with, or you know, someone on our team comes to us with a problem, understanding what that problem is, rather than leaping to a solution that worked for us or worked for other PMs that we know, or, you know, worked for a different org.

Really understanding, okay, what's the problem in this context? And yes, maybe I've solved this problem before and I have insights to give, but I [00:15:00] prefer to take more of a coaching stance at that point and really understand like, well, what do you already know about this problem that you have? What have you tried, what did and did not work?

And allowing that to kind of surface, because like I said about the team knowing what their North Star is, the team knows and individuals know what can make things better for them. So starting with that, and that doesn't mean I never give advice or have an insight to share, but starting with what does this team already know and really respecting the knowledge and insight that exists already and the ideas that those folks might have, and then, a lot of the work I think of leaders and managers is surfacing what's already there and helping people to see it.

You know, it's just something that in your day to day work can become really, uh, buried. And having an outside person just help draw it out is really powerful.

Kayla: So I think a piece of it also [00:16:00] is about like leadership style, right? Like the best leaders don't necessarily tell their team what to do, but they help their team think about it on a bigger picture level.

And rather than solutioning, it's, hey, have you thought about this? Or let's actually think about kind of what you need to know in order to solve this challenge. And I think that's similar to product, right of, what do we know? What's the problem? And then not going straight to solutioning, but rather taking the information, you know, and leveraging that.

Janet: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, like approaching these things, the product or the team with that humility of, I probably don't know the answer to this, and even if I think I know the answer or I know an answer. That doesn't mean it's the right thing. The best thing. It comes back to collaboration as well.

I am one voice and one brain with one set of experiences and there are other folks around who have [00:17:00] another set of experiences and a different approach, and bringing those things together, I think in almost all cases will make for a stronger, better outcome. Having one answer is good, but having multiple answers and synthesizing them into something is almost always better and will lead to better outcomes.

Kayla: So on the subject of one answer, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring product leaders, what would that answer be, or piece of advice be?

Janet: It's been a long pandemic. And I, think this is, you know, outside of product, it really applies to everybody. I think that leaders, when we are thinking about servant leadership sometimes can drift into a place of sacrifice rather than service.

So I really think that the best advice at this moment in time is self-care actually, is part of leadership. We can't work for our teams and serve our [00:18:00] teams if we are not taking care of ourselves. So sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the team actually doesn't serve the team. And I think that that's, that taking that time, building resilience as a leader and as a human, I think is the best piece of advice I can give right now.

Kayla: And I think to go off that, actually I was reading a post on LinkedIn the other day. I think it was from a product leader. And basically he said he used to allow people to put time on his calendar any time of the day. And now he actually has said, okay, you can schedule time during these hours because I agree with you, right. You have to put yourself first. Make sure that you are in the right, that you have like enough sleep, that you have enough work life balance to actually give your people the full attention that they need.

Janet: Yeah, I think that's exactly right.

Kayla: So last question. Where can people find you?

Janet: You can find me on LinkedIn is probably the best place.

Yeah. And I'm very happy always to speak to underrepresented folks, especially who are curious about transitioning into product. One of my superpowers is [00:19:00] helping you to figure out how you're already doing product.

Kayla: Perfect. It's been great chatting. Thanks for coming on.

Janet: Yeah, you too. Thank you so much, Kayla.

Kayla: Thanks again for joining us today on Product Chats. If you want some product management resources, feel free to head over to canny.io/blog.