June 8, 2022

Leading Product Teams and Knowing Yourself With Sneha Narahalli of Sephora

With a career featuring time leading product at Sears, Walmart eCommerce, and Sephora, Sneha Narahalli knows how to effectively lead product teams. Check out this episode of Product Chats to hear Sneha’s advice for effectively leading your team in a way that builds trust, celebrates progress, and leverages members’ strengths.


Time Stamped Show Notes

The fundamental nature of product management [03:40]

Avoiding boxing yourself into solution-based thinking [05:14]

Building trust through communication [07:45]

Ensuring your work is measurable [09:13]

Celebrating progress and not success [10:48]*

Introvertism and leadership [13:12]

Identifying your teams’ individual strengths [17:20]

Taking time to understand who you’re speaking to [21:03]

Focusing on your strengths [22:07]

Understanding yourself before you understand your customers [23:45]



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Kayla: Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Sneha Narahalli who is the Head of Product at Sephora, and we talk about leadership and also knowing yourself. So hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Kayla: Thanks so much for coming on today.

Sneha: I'm so excited. Happy to be here.

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

Sneha: Okay. I am Sneha. I lead all of the product teams in Sephora right now, been in the retail space for over a decade in product management. I studied in Bangalore in India, came here to do my master's in Carnegie Mellon. Fell in love with retail and product management in Sears, Walmart and Sephora.

Sneha: My parents are writers. Love writing. If I had a ton of money and I wasn't doing this, I would probably be a chef/writer/own a restaurant.

Kayla: Great. And then I want to kind of back up and talk about like you obviously right now, you head up the teams at Sephora but let's talk about kind of like your journey in retail and product and what that's looked like.

Sneha: Sure. So I was actually a software engineer, so I studied computer science and then I was a software engineer when I was working back in Bangalore. I did a good job of it because I usually try to do the best in what I do, but I didn't really realize that I didn't like it till I joined product management.

Sneha: So luckily after I did my masters and I joined Sears there was this program called technology leadership program, which was a rotational program of like, you get three months to do several things that you want to try out. So product management was one of the rotations in that, which where I got the opportunity to try that out.

Sneha: And then I realized I was like so stressed and so enthusiastic to do product management because when I was doing coding, I was like, I have to be like, perfect. I have to be on time. I have to do a lot of things. And it stressed me out a little bit, which I didn't realize till I started to do product management.

Sneha: I'm like, okay, wow. This is something I actually enjoy. And I never realized that I could enjoy doing what I do. And like just ambiguous nature of like the problems that I got to solve. And I think as I progressed through my career, like, I kind of got a way to define my style of like product management.

Sneha: What are the areas that kind of excite me? How do I get into the depth, as well as the breadth of the different things that I do. And just basically enjoy and have fun in what I do. It's just so important.

Kayla: And I think you bring up a great point, right? Like engineering is very structured and with product it's more about, hey, let's actually understand the problems that our customers have. We talk about this like logical brain and creative brain and it's that creative brain, but then you get to mix it with the logical brain of like how do we actually create solutions to build these things out?

Kayla: And what do these things look like and how are we solving the problem of our customer?

Sneha: Yeah. I think that's a great way to put it, although I'm a very structured person, so kind of try to break through the creative world as well, not saying but it's like crazy chaos. I think it's more closer to the real word problems. It's more closer to the customers.

Sneha: It's you and me facing issues on what could we be doing better for somebody that we know, which I think resonates more on for people like me, who I would like to call myself creative, but just it resonates more with people like me.

Sneha: But apart from that, I think the fundamental nature of like product management still remains the same irrespective of language, domain or which area you're in, because, for example, like when we are hiring, like, I find it a little funny when people try to very specifically look at what you've done in the past. Right. If you're looking at somebody in the payments domain, like, yes, it's an added advantage if you have like that background of having worked in that domain in the past, but it's not a must have, in my opinion, it's a nice to have, but if, you know, like hey this is what the problem statement is.

Sneha: This is why the problem statement is important. Why now? And why not tomorrow? How are we going to solve it? What's the best way to do it? Who's doing the best job out there? And how do we get to actually solve this in an integrative manner so that we don't boil the ocean? I think if you get these concepts, it really doesn't matter if you've done it in the past or not.

Sneha: You kind of adapt to solving that problem irrespective. So it's more of problem-solving then like having done it in the past, which I think a couple of us should be aware so that when we are hiring and we are looking at the next set of leaders, you're looking more at the potential more than credibility of the past.

Kayla: Yeah. And I think you bring up a great point, right? Like you can always learn an industry. You can always talk to customers. You can always learn about the problem. As long as you have that right skill set around are you like a curious thinker? Are you someone who can ask the why questions? Are you someone who can understand? And I think in the like the logical brain you're still very structured in what you do, but also that creative aspect of there isn't one defined solution ever in a product where it's like, we know from the beginning we're going to build this out. Yes. There's structure, but it's hey, there are 10 different ways to get from point A to solve this problem. What makes the most sense for the business?

Sneha: Yes. And I think it's very critical for us to identify 10 different ways because it just makes that process more fun, more broader. And it gives us the opportunity to not box ourselves in the solution-based thinking right from upfront, you gotta narrow it down through the prioritization process.

Sneha: And then it also helps you build your backlog because now okay. Out of the 10 things you started out with five, but there are another five things that you always have in your backlog ready to be. But also the fact that. You mentioned that to go to point A to B there are a million ways to do it. I think that's where I find like a lot of fun and like, identifying those million reasons, narrowing it down because for all technology is not always done.

Sneha: So it could be like a process change. It could be re-visiting something that's already there. It need not be like a big, shiny solve for every problem that you are thinking. So also broadening the mindset of the best way to get it done, the simple and the best way, and not always most complex or like the most shiniest ways.

Kayla: I think that's also about breaking it down. Right? I think that goes into like effort, right? There could be something that has a lot of impact and a lot of effort, but there also could be like of those 10 things, there could be a few things where they're super low hanging fruit. They don't involve a lot of effort and maybe it's just a way of repositioning something.

Kayla: And I think that gets down to the way of just thinking about the problem. And then you think of, hey, what are like 5 to 10 different ways that we can solve this? And maybe there's some where it's not about building out a new product. It's about maybe educating your customers or it's about different ways of being creative.

Kayla: And I think that's the creative piece of, hey, let's be creative about the way we solution. Let's be very structured in our process around how we measure things around how we build things, but let's have that space for our team to say, hey, here's five different ways we're suggesting. Let's actually discuss this and see, what's going to take the least amount of effort and be the most effective.

Sneha: A couple of points I want to touch on and what you said, right? I think the first important thing is being able to communicate this process to everybody who is going to be involved because it's a skillset. I can't come to you and say Kayla, you don't have to know. Trust me and I tell you this is the way to go. Of course you won't trust me.

Sneha: Tell me like, why exactly. So being able to walk through this journey, seeing that, Hey, this is the customer problem. Here is how we're doing it. This is why we believe ABC is the way to go as opposed to XYZ. Going from 10 to 5 to your point, it has a lot of components in the prioritization framework.

Sneha: And that's where I see a few people struggle because if it's of strategic importance and not of like immediate ROI or immediate benefit, like how do you tie a value to something like that? You've got to do it because it's needed. But I can't tell you it's gonna move the needle by XYZ right now. So how do you still give a value to like initiative of strategic importance? How are you thinking of long-term goals? How do you keep on adding different layers to your prioritizations frameworks. When you're doing the right job, but your're also explained that, Hey, this is why you landed with XYZ and everybody's brought into it. They feel like, oh, that makes sense.

Sneha: Okay. That is very important because sometimes it's all in your head and you're not able to explain it well, and then leads to a lot of churn in the organization.

Sneha: And then the third thing I think is measuring. We should be able to say that we messed up. This didn't land where we wanted to land, but that's okay. Right. We are going to go back and we're going to revisit and rechange a few things too like not rechange, change a few things to make sure that we can make progress towards reaching our end goal, which again is very easy said than done. You wake up one day and start measuring things because a lot of it has to depend on how the data is there. How easily accessible is it? Like, how are you thinking of success? Like even labor hours saved because of a manual tasks being done, is success. I think naturally today, like success looks at like ROI and like sales and like the most common attributes of measurement of success. But there are so many other different ways to measure success, which eventually gets back to money because if you are in the business of making money, yes, it will somewhere lead to that, but how do you get down to that spot?

Kayla: I think you bring up a great point, right? Like creating a safe space for people to say this was wrong, or hey, this wasn't the right decision for a product and we're going to talk a little bit about leadership, but I think that's a really important thing is just creating that safe space and leading by example of like this wasn't right. Like I made the wrong decision, but it's okay to own up to that. And I think that's just something that's so important in leadership is to set that example and say, it's okay. Sometimes we don't get it right. But it's more about how can we use this to pivot and create the right solution?

Sneha: I would change that a little bit differently. I always have this line where I say you should celebrate progress and not success. Right. And progress is knowing that if you had five parts to choose, you eliminated one part and now you just have four parts to choose. So it wasn't a wrong decision. It was still a right decision, except that it eliminated one part that you didn't have to go by now.

Sneha: So, that's where I think we should change our mindset, that there is no right or wrong. It's more of like, how do you reach your end goal? And you are choosing the best possible way to get that. It's like a maze. Right. You take a few wrong turns but then you're not taking the wrong turn again, because it's not going to lead you there.

Sneha: I think that's where we got to be like, even knowing what you shouldn't do is success. And that's where, like I said, measurement is important because it might move the needle just a little bit and not as much as you want, but it still moved the needle a little bit. So it's fine. And plus apart from just the goal, I think there are other benefits that we ignore, right?

Sneha: Like team-building or like how has the organization come together? Did you build a relationship with your engineering partner through this process? Now maybe just in that three weeks of whatever you did now you'll hang out and have a beer with them, which is in my head, like still a success, right?

Sneha: Because the next problem you're going to solve with that person you're going to be much more comfortable and much more easier to work with. So there are a lot of other benefits as well that we should be cognizant about and look at it more holistically than just, this is the problem that we're trying to solve.

Kayla: I really like how you kind of rephrase it or restructure it, the way that you're looking at as it's progress regardless. Right. We learn something, how we're moving forward. And so everything's seen as progress, whether it wasn't like you got it right. It's just progress around. Okay. We discovered something about the product or we discovered something that works or doesn't.

Kayla: So I really liked that kind of mindset shift of let's look at this all as progress. It's just, how are we getting there?

Sneha: Yeah. And we shouldn't like go completely in this route where we are like always making progress. I mean, there's a fine line between deciding, okay, now's the time to get things done. Enough of moving around. So it's a balance between the two.

Kayla: I want to dive into leadership and talk a little bit about that since I know you lead the teams at Sephora. So let's talk a little bit about like introvertism and leadership.

Sneha: Yeah. I have been educating myself a lot more in this space both for my personal journey. I think like, how do we structure?

Sneha: How do we empower different kinds of personalities of people to lead teams? To lead teams, to lead themselves? Like whatever and by no means, am I saying it comes with the title. I'm not at all talking about title of leadership. And that's one thing that annoys me a little bit when you associate titles with leaders, right?

Sneha: I feel like anybody can be a leader. You don't have to be like a certain level and above.

Sneha: So for me, growing up in India, like having parents where you don't speak when two elders are speaking was like a thing that they used to say. You don't speak unless you're spoken to. And then somebody asks you a question, makes you feel like you are a little too bold if you just express your opinion at any random point. You've gotta be like asked, what do you think? And in that context, it makes sense when you're a kid and I think for them it's more don't interrupt when people are talking, that's where they're coming from. But then the kind of sense of feeling that you get, is that okay, it's hard for me to just open up when somebody else is talking which now translates to a world of, if I'm in a meeting, I'm not the loudest person in the room.

Sneha: I take some time to process, to think. I really need to be confident of knowing all the surrounding information around the statement and then I give my opinion.

Sneha: And so many times during my career, like I've gotten feedback, you got to speak up more in meetings. I'm like, why is that a definition of success? I mean I can speak up more. I can tell like 10 random things, but is it as important as me telling one important thing during the 30 minute meeting? So I think that's where understanding, like, what are the strengths of people?

Sneha: How are they adding value? And not defining it in a certain style that she doesn't speak up in meetings. She's quiet. She's this. It's like, she is. So what, why is that a bad thing? Or why is that not so good thing? And that's why I'm educating myself. And I know in this day and age, it's hard to change things that's been around for so long.

Sneha: And if you read the book Quiet by Susan Cain, like that also talks about like how indifferent, right from the process of hiring or selecting students for universities, how some of this is just really ingrained in the whole process. It's a lot more deeper than what we think it is, but there's always opportunities to change and learn.

Sneha: And for me, that's where leadership style. When somebody asks me like what my leadership style is. It's not set in stone. I can't say it's XYZ because tomorrow I learn something new about myself or about the organization or about the people that I'm working with. And I got to adapt and evolve to make sure that it resonates with that environment.

Sneha: And I think that's where it's like leadership style is constantly evolving. That's my leadership style because I don't get stuck into one way or another. And I spend time to learn what clicks with people? What makes them more passionate or what brings out like the true excitement in them and try to adopt a way that resonates with the both of us, because that's when true meaningful conversations or outcomes happens.

Sneha: I wouldn't say like, I'm good at it or anything right now. I'm still learning through it as I go through.

Kayla: I think you bring up a great point, right? Like understanding your team and understanding their strengths. And it may not be that everyone is the loudest person in the room. It's hey, what type of learner are you? Like how do you like to speak up? Do you need time to think about that? I think that's something that's so important is just understanding the strengths of your team. So let's talk about that a little bit about identifying the strengths of the team overall.

Sneha: So nowadays, I think there are a lot of these tests that tell you, like what your personality type is, right?

Sneha: Like the Meyers Briggs, which is INTJ and there's Strengths Finder. There's so many of them. So that's more of the formal route of like getting people to start thinking about, okay, who are you as a person? Like, how do you operate well? Do you need a heads up for the meeting? Can I just tell you five minutes before and say, Hey, you got to present in the next five minutes.

Sneha: Are you okay with that?

Sneha: So I think that's step one. Just getting people aware of trying to understand who they are and where they work and don't work well. Like for me, I need like heads up or I need time to prep myself before a meeting, just to make sure that I'm in the zone. And I know, this is what I can't do. You just can't call me like five minutes before and say to speak about it.

Sneha: I can, it's not that I can't, but it probably wouldn't be like the best version of what I would say. My manager or whoever I work with may not be aware. So it's not on them to figure that out. That's on me to give them a heads up that, Hey, next time I need like a day's notice. Don't pull me in.

Sneha: So I think that's where getting people to spend some time to figure out what ticks and what works and what actually resonates with them and being more conscious about noting that down.

Sneha: Identifying similar situations, if it's a trend or a pattern and giving everybody who's involved in that a heads up that this is probably not the best situation for me. I think is gonna really help because not everyone's going to be aware of what works for you and what doesn't.

Sneha: And similarly, on a personal relationship. I ask these questions so that again, people spend some time to think about it, right? And then if they operate in a certain way, creating an ecosystem that helps them work in that way, which means that I give them like a one week heads up. Then I set up like a pre prep session just to make sure they're prepared.

Sneha: And then the actual session, which takes a bit of time but it's so much worth. It's fun to, at least for me, it's fun to know about people and how they work and as well as like, it makes a more productive and healthy and a fun environment than having one formula fits all. Right. Which is very easy to implement because there are no versions of it.

Sneha: It's just one way, but that's always not the best way.

Kayla: I think you bring up a great point, right? Giving your team the space to understand like their strengths and weaknesses and setting time aside to actually understand how people work best. I think a lot of times people get onboarded really quick at a company and it's, hey, we just have to get into to the work, but taking this step back and say, hey, do you need more time if we're going to a meeting? Or, hey, what do you need?

Kayla: And I think on the flip side, giving your team the space to say, hey, what do you need to be successful? And as a leader saying, hey, what are the things? Do you need time before meetings? And obviously you see trends throughout your team. So it's, hey, these are the things I see. What resonates with you or what do you need to be successful?

Kayla: Obviously that's a big part of leadership is supporting your team and leading by example, but allowing your team to have the space to say, hey, I really work best this way and setting them up for that success.

Sneha: Yeah. And fortunately, I've had really good mentors who've given me advice, very personalized to me as well as very practical and progressive. Taking time to evaluate people and understanding how they are was again, advice given to me by my mentor, who was like the first thing you need to do is take some time in a conversation to evaluate who the type of person is and what do they want to hear, because then you can tailor your conversation towards that because it's not what you want to say. It's what do they want to hear? So how do you make sure there's a balance between both of them and it's just not one bit, and I'm not saying it's just to say what they want to hear, but how do you tailor it in the way of what you want to say in a way that resonates with them? So that I think is super important.

Sneha: The other thing was like the strengths and weaknesses or opportunities as I would call them are not weaknesses, it's basically, you tend to naturally gravitate towards your strengths.

Sneha: And again, going back to probably like how we were doing in exams in school, right? Say you got 98 out of 100 in a few subjects and you rarely got like less than 70 or whatever. Right. And you've got to get 100.

Sneha: You focus so much time in getting from that 70 to 100 because a 100 is supposed to be good.

Sneha: So the way that we've been trained is there is a good, and there is a bad. This in-between is like it's okay. You are like normal. And one of the advice that my mentors gave me was like, for the things that you're not great at, don't spend a lot of time in making you the best because you will never, I mean, you will get there, but along the way you're compromising a lot of other things.

Sneha: So just get from a 70 to 80. That is very good enough because you have a lot of other hundreds in the strengths and you've got to like leverage those as opposed to focusing on this one 70 and getting that to a 100. I think that is also like stuck with me a lot where I'm like, I know I'm not good at like a couple of things.

Sneha: I'm not great at it, but I'm good enough, which is okay. I need not be like the best of it at everything. And that's something I try to identify in teams as well and tell the people that I work with that let's just be honest. You are not the best at this, but you're good enough. That is okay. Right. You don't like now spend all your time and energy in making the best of that.

Kayla: And I think you bring up some great points, right? Around like giving your team the space to say, like, I'm not perfect at this. And I know a lot of us are perfectionists, so it's just, hey, it's okay. You can just be good at this or you bring something really special to this team and this piece may not be your strength and that's okay.

Kayla: So I know we've talked a lot about leadership and mentorship. You mentioned as something that's really helped you as a leader. And I want to know what's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader?

Sneha: I would say spend time to figure out who you are before you try to figure out who your customers are, who your clients are and how do you solve their problems and make their lives easier? I think if I, and this is probably like one of those questions where they're like, hey, if you have to go back in time and change things, I mean, I know people that say I wouldn't change a thing. I would change a lot of things, knowing what I know now like I would be happy to go back and change a lot of things.

Sneha: So if you asked me this, you know, back when I was starting, like, I would probably spend time in like figuring out myself and how I work. What makes me excited? What makes me passionate? Because I know those are the times that I give my best in what I do. So probably figure out who you are first.

Kayla: Great. And then I want to know what roles are you hiring for at Sephora?

Sneha: Oh, a lot of roles. I don't know if I can just tell you off the top of my head. Yeah. Constantly hiring and I'll probably send you like a list. I don't know, I wasn't prepared to answer this.

Kayla: That's okay. And then where can people connect with you?

Sneha: On LinkedIn. I'm very active on LinkedIn. I get to know, going back to I love knowing more about people. I get to know a lot about them, so in the professional space. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Kayla: Perfect. Well, thanks for coming on today.

Sneha: Thank you so much, Kayla. You were amazing. Thank you.

Kayla: Thanks again to Sneha for joining us on today's episode of Product Chats for more product management resources, head to canny.io/blog, and we'll see you next time.