PART 3: My personal growth, and how I took feedback in.
This article is part of my learning journal. If you are interested to read them all, jump to my main index page "What I have learnt about product management, agile, and personal development at a big bank".
Over the years I have learnt many things along my career path. Most importantly, I learnt to use my own judgement to absorb the feedback instead of taking all in, and make sure I take care of myself.
I was fortunate enough to have a few really good direct managers, coaches and mentors in different roles that helped me to grow. And I also learnt from them what kind of leader I want to become.
If I look back, one of the key feedback I have been given at different stages was about communication.
Coming from a background that English is my second language (you probably already figured out from my writing), I felt offensive at times depends on how this feedback is given. And I found that when the feedback was given to me with specific examples, rather than general "you can improve your communication skills" made a real difference to me.
I remember one of the best managers I had in my career life, was pretty direct and upset when I presented a work in progress deck to him. I figured I wanted to include him along the way and take on his suggestions in, and the deck was definitely not polished. I remember vividly that he said to me don't present a half baked cake. Because the feedback was given in time, with specific example, I wasn't upset or offended at that time or even after, because I had a good working dynamic with him and I know he meant well and he prefers me to work more independently and has higher expectation on me.
The other time, when another manager gave me a low rating for the year and commented I could work on communication skills really gave me a shock. I guess communication is 2 way conversation, and I never really figured out what exactly that comment entails. It took me a long time to ponder upon this and think about what I can do with it. When I took it the way that people are criticising my language skills, I had self-doubt, low confidence and questioning myself whether I was fit for the job. I was desperate to get out of there and felt very anxious often. I never regret I got myself out of that state by moving to a different role, but I learnt I should never let that negative energy takes in charge of me, regardless what that comment really means.
Most recent years, the feedback on communication moved along to influencing skills. And I have learnt 2 things on this: 1 is influencing stakeholders doesn't mean you have to please everyone. 2 is if the stakeholders take a different direction than you, it doesn't always mean you are lacking of influencing skills.
I was given a feedback on I wasn't fully aware of the situation, not able to understand what people really mean when they say something in front of me. and didn't take the chance to influence people. I think this has passed language barrier, but I still wonder whether it has something to do with the cultural difference, or maybe my naiveness of not understanding the "subtlety". Maybe I could follow up to confirm my understanding, but I don't quite understand why would people say one thing but means another. I also learnt while there is always room to improve, I am not fully responsible for other people, and I don't have to change myself to meet other people's expectation.
One of the most challenging and difficult feedback I got is I was overconfident. And I really didn't decipher what is that. Is it supposed to mean arrogant in a polite way, which I never felt I was. I spent a few hours with my manager to discuss this before I left my last job. I learnt the best way to take feedback in is not staying on the semantics of the word, but understand what specific example that drove people to comment this. To this day, I still disagree I was over-confident, because I don't want this comment to change the way I feel about myself and reduce my confidence, and over-think what I should do or say, Through reflection of some past situations, I learnt what it meant was building relationship with stakeholders and understand the history and dynamic of the environment is more important than showing your knowledge.
I remember I failed massively on one of the projects I was working on. I was confident I would excel in that project because I had a good working history with the product manager a few years back when I was the product owner for online forms, and years apart, we got together to deliver another form. I was eager to realise the form strategy, and great customer experience I had envisioned years ago. I was good at facilitating workshop with architect, designer and developers. I certainly know what I was doing, and know I was capable of doing it, but I kept on hitting the brick wall, and been pushed back of almost all the suggestions I proposed. We couldn't patch our relationship and we cancelled our regular work meeting. At the end, I talked to the project sponsor and asked to pull myself out of it because I cannot see myself adding value to it. I learnt from that whole experience, the worst few months of my career, and I wish I had firstly re-connected with the product manager and understood her constraints and concerns (the project was running over-budget and over-time significantly) so we can work on the same short term goal first before we head to our long term goal.
Before I really learnt how to digest that experience, I moved on to another role. But that experience did change me on how I approach things, for both better and worse. Things were relatively smoother, but I was also less confident because I didn't want to upset anyone. I knew what things I would do if I was at a different position in that team. I would suggest something, but it was taken in after a few times of saying it, from different people all together. I occasionally felt I was betraying my design folks and not standing up enough for them. And that's the time I took the other feedback on influencing people. Be considerate, but you don't need to please everyone. Sometimes it’s ok to upset people, as long as you are authentic, rather than using anger as a tool to get people submit to you. Its better than people half listening to what you have to say when you are always nice. And one of the most empowering feedback I got is to back yourself up, you know what you are doing. It doesn't mean you put yourself as authoritative figure and overwrite other people's decision. Instead, ask people difficult questions, and what are they going to do about it. And don't be afraid to make senior leaders accountable for actions too.
It is one thing to acknowledge the room to improve on influencing skills, but another thing to find a more suited role to really set one for success, and that's another reason I left my recent job to pursuit my next level up. I want all the managers who gave feedback to their team on working on influencing skills to ask themselves: Do you give them clear direction and enough context of a challenge? Do you empower them with all the resources they need? Do you give them enough trust to exercise it ? Would you be willing to keep an open mind and give them a chance to try something you usually feel less comfortable with? What would do you do differently if you were in their position, share your thoughts with them.
The other big learning for me is be true to yourself, not to your role.
With my experience of being a designer and product owner in the past and product manager to be, people have questioned what do I really want to become. It seems impossible for people that one could be a good product manager but also a good design leader. I was told don't be a product manager and at the same time a disappointed designer. And I understand it's very hard and diluting to have 2 roles at the same time. But design thinking is already part of how I do, and sometimes it disheartens me when people don't recognise I was a designer once, and my feedback on design is also valid. I understand there is capacity constraint, and trying to keep up with the industry standard, and I guess the best way for me to learn is to try having both until it proves I cannot. Maybe no one is wrong about that, but it's a learning process of mine that I cannot skip.
One particular thing I am looking forward to do better and learn more in my next role is "know your numbers". As a designer, I have been using both quantitative and qualitative data to support design thinking and options. But I don't feel I have learnt enough on viability as a product manager. Yes I have done estimates, find out how long an initiative takes, how much it would cost across different platforms, and forecast the potential return (usually financial numbers provided by other people, or conversion rate I work on), but most of those numbers are fake money that is used to allocate resources and prioritise initiatives across the big company. I wanted to learn the in and out of the numbers so as a product manager I can really make informed decision on viability, desirability and feasibility balanced product.
Another learning on be true to yourself, is to not looking for recognition. One of the reasons I failed massively on the project I mentioned above was I didn't feel like I have earned my manager's trust. It was my 1st assignment joining the team, and I wanted to prove I can do it. I was looking for recognition, and it blinded me on other things I could have done. He said to me in our last catch up before I left my role: I wouldn't hire you if I don't believe you can do it, I hired you because I know you already are capable and have the knowledge. There are quite a few people left in my department and I often heard they say " I don't feel I am recognised." I don't mean that as a leader you don't need to recognise people for their good effort. What I mean is as an individual, if you don't look for recognition, then you won't be owned by people who give recognitions, you won't be afraid of the other side of recognition - punishment, and you won't take it as a frustration. I now think my goal is to learn what I want to learn, once I've done it, if I am happy and was given more opportunity to learn, I will stay, and if not, I can move to a different place to learn, without any hard feelings.
If I look back another case, I learned about true leadership and collaboration from not seeking recognition. I remember I was looking for a career progression, and look for the title I should have for the next level (a manager title), and when I joined the team, I realised most of the people in the team were seeking the same thing, and it became a bit of competition. I bet this mentality exist or existed in a lot of people's head: "I have been here long enough, done enough, it should be mine". We were all capable people, and we did well in our respective initiatives on our plates. And it became a bit of turf war and scrabbling to get the next best initiatives to further prove you are good enough for the next level. I was wrong, and we were wrong all together. I felt frustrated when I was doing customer research (because I had designer background) and was accused of being special and doing fun stuff. And When I shared some of my ideas based on the research, I was told you shouldn't do that, you always get the good stuff, share with the team. What I really learnt is we should know that everyone is equal and we all can learn from each other, and there can be many seniors in the team. And to be honest, you don't necessarily need to compete and progress to the next level at the same team. I learnt true leadership is about asking what you can help with other people, how to align everyone's initiatives to the big picture and strategy. And again, build the relationship first so people don't see you as a threat.
One last thing I want to share on my learnings of be true to yourself is to know your weakness and take actions. I know creativity, connecting the dot are my strength, I also know I sometimes can be slack in taking actions. Over the last few months, I learnt surrounding myself with great people, who are passionate about what they do, and quick at actions are my best motivation. They bring out my unused skills and knowledge. I am very grateful for those great people I have come across, either be designers, developers, project managers and SME across the bank. I felt I grew, I was empowered and respected when I am surrounded with positive energy.
So that's all I have to share with you about my learnings over the last 7+ years at a big bank. If you have come across similar experience, or something you'd like to share, I would be keen to hear from you. Thanks for reading.
Read my learning journal: PART 1: 9 learnings on the process of developing a product from discovery phase to delivery phase
Read my learning journal : PART 2: What do people look for in a good PO, designer, scrum master and technologist.
Back to my main index page: "What I have learnt about product management, agile, and personal development at a big bank"