Oct. 26, 2022

Stakeholder Management for Product Managers with Adam Kropf of Texada Software

Adam Kropf truly leads by example. He’s a Head of Product and Development at Texada Software. But he’s also so much more than that. He leads a local product management group – a community for likeminded product fans to chat and share ideas. In this episode, he talks all about that, as well as stakeholder management, user interviews, empowering the team, and more!

Time Stamped Show Notes

Getting into product [00:53]

Leading a product management group [01:34]

Stakeholder management [03:29]

Conducting user interviews [04:53]

Balancing feature requests [08:04]

Product 101 [11:17]

Empowering the team [13:45]

External stakeholder management [16:43]

Advice for aspiring product leaders [19:18]

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Kayla: [00:00:00] Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Adam Kropf who is the Head of Product at Texada and we talk about stakeholder management and hiring, and also about leading a local product management group. So hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Hey Adam, thanks so much for coming on today. 

Adam: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to talk all things, product. 

Kayla: Yeah, well, on the subject of product, tell us about yourself. 

Adam: Yeah, my name's Adam, I work in the B2B SaaS space for a company called Texada. We work in the heavy equipment rental industry. I also lead local product management group.

We've got over 700 members who meet once a month to share best practices and learn and grow from each other. And really commiserate is what it seems to be sometimes. Cause nobody's following all best practices. 

Kayla: Yes.

Adam: And I also like working with startups and scale ups to establish their like product processes and go to market.

So it's exciting to be able to chat with you. 

Kayla: [00:01:00] Awesome. And then I wanna kind of back up a little bit. How did you get into product and what did that look like? 

Adam: Yeah, I think a lot of people fall into product and so back seven years ago, almost I was working customer support from my current company and I were building an e-commerce platform and they basically went around the office and said, who has experience with this?

And I previously built the Wix stores and Weebley stores and Shopify stores. And I was like, I've done that, does that count? And they're like, sure, you're now working on that. Didn't know it was called product management, but basically understanding user needs, working with dev to actually build it into production and kind of trying to look around corners and see what would be useful a year from now two years from now.

And then it kinda evolved over time. 

Kayla: Awesome. And then I, you mentioned user needs, and we're gonna dive into that a little bit later, but something you mentioned was that you lead this like local product management group. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Adam: I'm based in Canada, in Waterloo region. We like to call ourselves Silicon Valley North.

And so we've got hundreds of startups between Waterloo and Toronto and yeah, so it's a local product management group around my community tech. I'm one of the co-organizers. And we talk about all things product. Sometimes it's more formal with [00:02:00] speakers and panels. Love to break in the breakout sessions where we bring your own ideas, ask questions of other product people.

How are you solving this problem? Cuz at the end of the day, we obviously run into a lot of the same things and everybody has different experiences and things to contribute. 

Kayla: And so with this, if someone wants to create like a local group, what are like a few pieces of advice you would give around creating that or leading that?

Adam: The biggest thing is having great co-organizers because it's obviously a passion project.

So, you know, people who are passionate about working on that with you, and if somebody who's really good at organization is always helpful, thinking ahead. So you get a lot of speakers, line up topics, tap into local product community. There's always people looking to learn and we've been more and more welcoming of people who aren't in product, but wanna learn .

Because product management is still not formally really taught anywhere. So it's a lot of learned by experience and that's something we hope to be able to bring to those conversations. 

Kayla: I think you bring up like a great point around that is that people A) fall into product management, just like how you did.

And then also there's a lot of people that don't really know the best way to get into it. And so it's this interesting path of [00:03:00] there's no, like you don't go to school for it. Maybe at some point product management will be a major, but so far it's just been like people fall into. 

Adam: Yeah, it definitely feels that way.

We're pretty like our company's pretty closely tied with a local college and they've started at least having a product management course as part of a well-rounded programming course that they offer in a three year program. So I think it's starting to get some recognition. UX five years ago – again, no courses, no certifications.

Now there's a pretty well established curriculum and thought process around it. So I imagine that's, what's gonna happen to product over time. 

Kayla: Definitely. 

So now I wanna kind of pivot over to stakeholder management and I know there are two pieces of this. There is internal stakeholder management and external stakeholder management.

So let's start off by talking a little bit about internal stakeholder management. 

Adam: Internal stakeholder management is never perfect, which I think anybody who works closely with me would agree with, but it's trying to be able to find that form where you can actually hear what's going on. Cuz a lot of people are much closer to the actual users, closer to the industry because they're either support implementation team services, sales team, and [00:04:00] they're actually hearing what customers are saying and then trying to translate all of this fire hose of knowledge into something that can actually be readily shared as well as really acted upon can be a big challenge.

So one of the ways that I like to do that is through what's called product talk. We call that let suck product in our company. So we run it every other week. And it's really a mix of, okay, maybe we're sharing some roadmap items, maybe we're sharing: okay, this is what's in the next release. And we actually walk through the product itself, or it's an open forum where like, what are you guys hearing right now?

What are you seeing out there? And we try and leave time for that in every session. Start those conversations. Then if we need to go super deep into something, we can break out into a separate meeting at that point, the least it's in recurring time on the calendar. Everybody in the company's invited, no matter the role and everybody can contribute and listen. That's a great way to start the conversation and get it going. Then once you build up all these lists of ideas, you go into things like dot, voting exercises, where people can place their importance behind different things that they think are more or less valuable. And then you can drill into those and say, well, why did you say that this was really important to you? What do you hear? What insights do you have that maybe I don't? And then go from there. 

Kayla: And so with that, we talk about like user [00:05:00] interviews and seeing how important things are to your customers. So, with your customers, are you just talking to sales people? Are you going out in the field and interviewing customers?

Like what does that process look like? 

Adam: Definitely a mix of conversations through sales, sometimes product will shadow or even lead demos sometimes. Cause it gives you real time, like, what's the buyer persona looking at and what's their core decision-making criteria, but also we have a customer advisor group that we've just recently started.

So we bring in select customers to really represent different segments of our market, different sizes of our market and kind of get them to put their advisor hat on and really look at what's gonna help the rental industry, which is our core industry five years from now. Right? So it's bring them in and then that also gives you a sense of co-creation and commitment. And when we say, hey, we wanna look at this specific subject area. Who in your org would be best equipped to have that conversation? They'll actually introduce us directly. It makes sourcing user interviews much easier. And with the team collaboration, when possible, we like to bring other team members in to those conversations as well, because everybody brings their own lens. We all are [00:06:00] inherently biased as humans. So the more perspectives you can bring in, the more valuable you can make those feedback sessions. 

Kayla: So, something you just talked about was bias. So, how do you get past that bias and make sure you are not using bias or at least as humans, we have bias regardless, but how are you trying to get away from the bias?

Adam: The biggest thing to do is just recognize that we have bias. And I try and think, okay, if I feel strongly about something, but I can't point any sort of data, I can take a step back and figure out where is that coming from? So is it coming from a bias? Do I need to source the data or what kinda led me there?

And sometimes it's just resistance to change. Sometimes it's a pet project that I'm passionate about, but maybe it does not make sense and being a little bit analytical step back and say, how does this align to the overall goals? And does it make sense for us right now? It's just about knowing that and looking for that and going to solve for that problem.

Kayla: And with those goals in mind, right, something that I talked to a lot of product leaders about is always tying back these basic ideas or feature requests back to company goals. And how do you [00:07:00] ensure that you're always doing that and you're not going with this bias or you're not doing these pet projects.

Adam: Yeah, I say to my team that my job isn't to make the product decisions for you, it's understand how you're thinking about it and really just help you with your thought process. So, when we're looking at, okay, this is area we wanna explore, what's the business outcome if we go in that direction? So is it a different industry, vertical we could service? What information do we have today that would lead us to believe that's going to be successful? Or what information should we gather? And it's really about de-risking things before you build, again, product management 101, by really helping to look through that and say, is this enough?

Because sometimes it can be, well, if we had this one feature, we can attack this whole larger market, but is that true? What can be done today to validate that? Because sometimes it feels easy, but especially in the B2B space, I found that they're much less willing to take on a future incomplete product. Even if it's solves one really powerful pain point. Maybe it needs to integrate with their CRM or needs to integrate with their like active directory for user management, whatever it may be, especially as you go into mid-market enterprise. You need to be a more complete solution, even if [00:08:00] you don't do everything, but you can integrate with the partners that are already part of the ecosystem.

Kayla: And with that, how do you actually balance? And I think this comes into like prioritization and balancing customer requests, but how do you make sure this customer says, Hey, I want X and this other customer says, Hey, I want Y and you have all these customers kind of their needs, but how do you make sure that you're balancing, hey, here's what the company goals are.

And here's also versus just like building out features. How do you make sure you're like staying on track? With building out the product.

Adam: That is one of the hardest things of product management, where ideas come from everywhere, internally and externally, presumably they're all valid and they all have some sort of backing to it. And sometimes it's standing up to customers and say, Hey, we don't think we're the right partner for this because this problem you're trying to solve is outside of our core competency, sometimes we'll help them source a partner. We have a open SDK, so they can actually go and integrate with a third party if they wanted to really solve some of those more niche things. And over time, maybe we help them with that integration, which is a much [00:09:00] smaller lift than actually building an entire additional module onto our platform. 

Kayla: You bring up a good point – it's the ability to say no. That's something that's important as someone in product is you can't always, even though you want to make all your customers happy and you put your customers first, right?

You can't always say yes to what they want, because it's not always, like if you're looking at one customer, maybe they have this idea in their head, but if you're looking at all your customers, you see a bigger picture. Oh, maybe that's actually not what's best for most of our customers or makes the most impact to growth or revenue.

Adam: Yeah, I think that depends sometimes where you're playing in terms of markets. I think enterprise, obviously they carry more revenue, they carry more weight and it's more expected to be more customizable. So you have more parameters and options. And it's a double-edged sword. Like Salesforce is incredibly configurable, but hard to actually work in until you've actually nailed down the configuration.

That's where Hubspot had an opportunity. They came in, they were simpler. And now that they're trying to scale, they're getting more complex. It's definitely a fine line in figuring out how you balance those two [00:10:00] things and really saying to yourself, is this going to move us forward to the company? Is this customers' needs aligned with where we want to be in the future?

Like I said, sometimes it's saying "no", offering alternatives, offering to still help them solve their problem. Cuz the problem is still a pain point for them. They still need to be solved and being a good partner sometimes means handing off to somebody else. 

Kayla: I think you bring up also a great point about communication, right? Like it's not always about, hey, let's build out this feature, but it's hey, maybe we can help you and support you in this other solution, or at least by communicating, we care about what you have to say. It may not be the best thing for our company, but at least we're listening to you. 

Adam: Definitely been one of the journeys I've been on as a product leader, especially since I am pulled into the enterprise accounts and speaking directly with them. It can be a, it can definitely be a challenge and coming out with empathy and helping them understand that we do hear them. We do see the pain point that you're dealing with and then trying to, by showing empathy to them, trying to elicit empathy from them and saying, Hey, these are the other things that we have going on. [00:11:00] Here's why it doesn't make sense for us to tackle it right now, here's an alternative as much as possible. That way it's not shouting into the void and saying, here's my big problem. And not hearing anything back. Definitely still work in progress as many things are, but definitely making some progress on that from feedback we're getting from customers now.

Kayla: And so something I wanna hop back into is we probably have some aspiring product leaders listening to this.

And you mentioned product 101. So what are a few pieces that you would say are part of that? Like 101, if you're a product leader or a product manager, what are those things that you would say are really important or part of that 101? 

Adam: I like to define product management as building commercially viable products. What I mean by that is it's cool to build stuff, but if there's no unmet market need, willingness to pay, ability to actually execute on that vision, then it's waste. So delivering half of a product or delivering a great product for very well-satisfied market isn't gonna get you anywhere forward. Making sure you understand who are we going after?

Is there an opportunity you can de-risk it early on and [00:12:00] say, what are the hypotheses that have to prove true in order to actually capture this market? And then you can start building from there. When it comes to transition from product manager to product leader, the biggest difference is that you're no longer in the details and that can be scary at the beginning because for so long, you've owned a part of the product or you've owned a whole product.

Now you need to own the company results and you need to grow the people who actually own those portions of the product. And whenever possible, try and push down the decision making to them. Because that's how they become more engaged. They become more effective and honestly, they should know more than you. They should be talking to customers more than you. They should be deeper in the industry than you on a day to day basis. So you have to trust them. And if you don't trust them, then something's wrong, bigger than just product management. 

Kayla: Yeah. And I think it's hiring smarter people like hiring smarter than you are, right? People who know more or can offer more because, if you're just hiring people who don't know as much as you , how are you gonna grow the product? 

Adam: Exactly. Hiring a product manager is probably the scariest role that I hire for. And I say [00:13:00] that because it does take ramp up time. You're interviewing a lot of really smart people, curious people, passionate people, knowing which one's gonna fit into the team, which one's gonna be great at the role.

And then not knowing for 90 days. Until you can start seeing some work product that's actually nuanced with industry information is definitely a risk. And then going back to the drawing board, you can be out six months between hires, if you make the wrong hire. So I'd say for any product leaders, try and spend as much time on mindset and thought processes and how they attack problems would be where I start.

And then what can you do to have them demonstrate that through a traditional interview process. Whether it's small problems or whether that's situational questions, small project. There's a mixed opinions about doing projects in product management interviews. But yeah, just trying to understand their mindset is gonna give you the best opportunity going forward.

Kayla: So something you mentioned was about like growing your employees and supporting them, right, so what are some things that you do to make sure that you're supporting your employees best or your team members? And what are things you do to ensure they're growth and make sure they don't feel stagnant? 

Adam: It's [00:14:00] constant communication and checkins on that. Traditionally, it's done through one on ones and I like to view one-on ones as, they're not done for my benefit. They're done for my employees' benefit. If there's like performance-based feedback. I don't really like to do that in one-on ones. I like to do that in dedicated sessions outside of that, just because this is really their time to really ask the questions.

And then at least once a quarter I should be asking in broad strokes, how are you towards achieving your goals? Have your goals changed since we last talked about it? Has anything changed in day to day life, or you are starting to feel mature in this product and you wanna take on new challenges and work in a smaller company?

So there's lots of hats to wear. We can sometimes shift responsibilities from time to time and pick up more execution stuff, more strategy stuff, more switching module – stuff like that. Just trying to keep things interesting, engaging, and just checking in on that goes a long way. And just knowing your team, knowing that you're listening for that and looking for that can help them be more comfortable raising that to you.

And I've said to my teams many times before – I should know that you want to quit before you quit, because we should be, have a good enough relationship, that you're, number [00:15:00] one, comfortable telling me that. You're not being challenged enough, compensation always comes up or you're just feeling stagnant.

Like you said, those are conversations that should be happening well before an email or a unscheduled: "Hey, can I talk at some random time?" and you should be able to know that well in advance. 

Kayla: So what we just talked about is after you hire right about keeping your team around, right? You said it's very expensive, right?

If you don't have a team member, it could take six months to hire, or you could have this big gap. So when you're hiring, what are things you look for and what does that process look like? 

Adam: Where I start is always – what have they done that relates to product management? So there's different roles. Sometimes you're hiring for an associate product manager.

Really you are betting on the future. So you're looking for what have they done. Similarly, maybe they've worked in a software company in a related role. I came from marketing. One of my PMs also came from marketing. When you have to think about how to position your product, who's using it, why are they using it?

These are types of things you also think about in product. So if you're like a product marketing manager role that can translate well, sometimes people come from like product owner roles or [00:16:00] QA, even frontline teams. So support, sales, service, because they're close to the industry, or they're used to listening to customers.

They have really good conversational skills and analytical skills from like solving problems for them for an associate product role. It's really what's similar and then drilling deeper into mindset for product manager role. Typically, yeah, you're looking for somebody who's done it before somebody who were in the B2B space. So it's always nice to have somebody with B2B experience, cuz it's very different when, you know, one customer's 10% of your company's revenue. They carry a lot more weight than one user in a B2C startup where you've got, I've got 10,000 users. But losing one, isn't gonna be impactful and you have to, instead of do more cohort analysis or segmentation of users versus in the B2B space, it's a lot more tangible to get feedback that way.

Kayla: So something I wanna hop back to, and I know we kind of hopped a little bit. We went from stakeholder management, internal stakeholder management, hiring. Something I wanna go back on. We talked about internal stakeholder management. So I wanna talk about external stakeholder management. So can you touch on that a bit?

Adam: Yeah, so I mentioned briefly that an [00:17:00] advisory group can be very impactful. I think there's definitely risks with running an advisory group setting the right expectations that this is not a sales call. So preferably you don't have sales people on the call. This is not a support call. You don't want them to be like, here's everything that's wrong with your product.

And then just voice that in an open forum with your other big customers and just plant those seeds of descent. It's really about what's going on in the industry. What are your companies facing and how can we work together? We just had one a couple weeks ago and it was a great conversation where one member of the advisor group said, Hey, I'm facing this problem.

How are you guys solving it as a company? You actually stepped back and let their are peers who are operating in different geographies, help collaborate with that conversation. We add a little bit, they add a little bit, and it really became more of an industry water cooler from feedback from the people afterwards.

They're like, that was great to be able to both talk to the people in the industry. Again, we had the opportunity to show some industry expertise as well, and then they were able to get a lot of value out of it. That's a great way to do it. Another way is obviously doing user interviews, shadowing, real users and understanding what [00:18:00] they're doing.

A lot of times, having those sessions and listening can definitely be impactful for engaging stakeholders. And sometimes when they bring stuff to you, maybe it's quick solve and you can deliver on that. And that brings a lot of engagement, or sometimes it's not so easy, but because you worked with them and you built a relationship with them, they're more willing to wait or adjust expectations or look at an alternative path and that's just through relationship building.

So not always the easiest thing to do. And it does take a lot of effort, but it pays a lot of dividends for both sides.

Kayla: I think something you bring up –  the advisory group – I think that's such a good idea for companies to do, because like you mentioned, if you haven't brought these people together in a room, probably a virtual room, they wouldn't have been able to bounce ideas off of each other.

So not only is it a way for you to listen to the customers, hey, we're coming to these challenges, but it's a way for you to understand how different companies are solving different challenges. And maybe that kind of also sparks the idea process of, "Hey, what are actual different ways that we can solve this?"

And what are the different challenges that customers are dealing with and how are they solving this? 

Adam: [00:19:00] Yeah, exactly. It's any product person. If they have one wish it'd be able to listen in on real users or listen in on real people in the industry using their product or talking about the industry in general.

So it takes a little bit of work to set it up and keep those conversations going and a toll on the calendar, but it can definitely pay a lot of dividends. Again, build that relationship.

Kayla: And something you mentioned was listening. So I know that's something that's very important for any aspiring product leader to be a good listener, but what's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader.

Adam: Listening is definitely very important. And again, one of the active listening principles is to repeat back what somebody's saying to you in a different way. Sounds like you're saying this, is that what you actually said? Not only does it help remove bias, it helps actually state your assumptions and state your bias upfront, and then the stakeholder internal or external can actually answer that and correct themselves.

Or be like – that's not exactly what I meant. Here's like a nuance that maybe you didn't consider. So as opposed to just like nodding and writing notes, which is great, being able to repeat [00:20:00] back and rephrase things to make sure you truly understood the problem can be a lot more impactful. 

Kayla: Awesome. And then are you hiring?

Adam: We're always hiring for developers and as we're continuing to build out our team. So I think everybody is, but we've grown our product team over the last little while and looking forward to hiring more developers and QA and customer success over the next couple months. 

Kayla: Awesome. And then where can people connect with you?

Adam: I'm on LinkedIn, Adam Kropf, probably copy paste it. Cause you can't type it the way it sounds. But yeah, I was looking to connect with product people. I'm also on Twitter, but not super active. I'm more on there to listen and shadow other really smart people, but I would love to connect and always love talking product.

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

Adam: Thanks so much for having me.

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