What does a great product team look like? Should you take different approaches when building a team from scratch or inheriting one?

During our fantastic Chief Product Officer Summit, Jason Knight, Product Director at DueDil, led a panel discussion sharing tips and insights on building the best product team with four industry experts:

  • Mike Ilin, VP of Product Management at LoopMe
  • Saagar Bains, Head of Product at The Body Coach
  • Alexandra Lung, CPO at Signaturit
  • Namrata Sarmah, CPO at iPlato Healthcare

Check out the discussion’s highlights below, and remember you can catch the whole thing, along with hundreds more on-demand videos, templates & frameworks, exclusive content and more by becoming a PLA member.

What's a good product team? What are the characteristics of such a team we should be looking out for?

Namrata Sarmah

First of all, a good product team would be a team with complementary skill sets, where everybody has different superpowers. I tend to hire people who know something I probably don't. If I'm not very strong at something, I would like to hire people around me who are so the team ultimately becomes stronger.

Secondly, diversity is very important in my team. I'm very proud to say that most of the teams I have led for the last 10+ years have been extremely diverse, not only in terms of gender diversity but also in terms of ethnicity, language, etc.

The third characteristic is working towards the same common goal. Everybody's way of reaching the target could be different but working towards the same goal, and having the same passion and ambition for achieving something makes for a better team.

Mike Ilin

I agree that diversity is very important for any product team because we’re communicators and we’re building a team of communicators so the communication should be transparent and consistent and at the same time, diverse on multiple levels.

It's not just about cultural diversity but also about diversity of experience. We've got multiple sides of our product, some are very internal and inward focused, while some are very outward user focused. We need this variety of experiences and skills in a team so they can complement each other.

I’m always looking for big personalities. I want opinionated people, but with lightly held opinions as you don't want them to be steamrolling everyone.

Saagar Bains  

Namrata called it complimentary, I use the word balance. We have to have a balance of skill sets across the team.

The second characteristic, arguably the hardest, is the cultural piece moving forward and making sure that the team operates as one and there's no blame culture, have strong opinions but then when we pick a direction, everybody gets behind that direction and we move forward.

Alexandra Lung  

My first criteria is also about having a complementary team. Sometimes we’re a bit tempted to hire copies of ourselves or people we feel would be easier to manage or work with but in the end, complementarity gives strength to the team and helps everyone learn and be more impactful.

Another characteristic I look for is people who are constructive in the sense that they always want to grow and learn, knowledgeable but also humble. Whenever there’s an issue, we’re able to share it but also propose a solution and not just complain about it.

What I'm looking for in a team will also be tied to the stage of the company and the product. If you're in a series A company your team will be pretty small and you're looking for certain types of profiles. For example, when I joined AirCall, we had a team of 15 people and were scaling a lot so I was hiring the next level of leaders that will help me grow the methodology and the rest of the team. In that case, the team needed senior people. Then, it can also be about the product, a very technical product, or a certain industry, and you need certain profiles in the team that complement each other to get there.

Have you had situations in your career where you've built a team from scratch or taken over a team and adapted your approach?

Mike Ilin

It's a completely different experience when you build a team from scratch and when you inherit a team. Both situations have good and bad and they've got their own specific aspects.

When you inherit the team, you inherit the business unit, which works, and your number one goal is not to break it or slow it down, it sets your baseline. At the same time, you haven't hired these people and so they could be not a cultural fit, so when you inherit a team, you have to be ready to make some sacrifices or the team has to understand there will be changes because the new manager always brings something new.

When you hire a new team, it's completely new and the story you're trying to build is like a jigsaw puzzle based on your own experience and vision. If I could choose, I would choose to build it from scratch and foster the team from ground zero to something better. But you don't always get to choose!

Jason Knight

Saagar, you've definitely chosen because you've joined a company that didn't have a product team so you're on that journey now. At the moment, you're doing a lot of the individual contributor work but also planning to scale the team out. How tricky is it to keep the balance of keeping your eye on the future but also getting the day-to-day work done at the same time?

Saagar Bains  

It's really hard. Getting off a call about a critical bug and then jumping into a workshop about the six-month strategy moving forward, just hurts your head. I think a lot about the stage of the organization. The Body Coach is a brand that has been around for 10 years now. Joe and the team did an incredible job of building it into a household name in the UK, but from a tech point of view, we’re a brand new startup.

When I think about building a team from scratch, we will be looking for people who have worked in early-stage organizations, who understand we won't have a million resources, you won't have a dedicated team of data analysts or go-to-market specialists or a dedicated copywriter, you will have to fill in some of those gaps yourself.

However, it doesn't mean when hiring that you can't still have one eye on the future and begin to think about what the team’s shape will look like 18 months from now. Is the individual bringing into the team at the right stage of development? I wouldn't be looking for someone who's quite junior in their career, because they're not going to get the support they need in an organization of our size at this time. Someone who's at a mid-level of their career can still hit the ground running, still have early stage experience, but then can grow into a more senior role as the organization grows.

When you already have a team in place, I think about balance and complementary skills. The first thing I want to understand is: what are the strengths of the team and what are the gaps. Then, I look, overtime, to develop the individuals if they're up for it, in those areas we don't have or bring someone new to the team if necessary.

Jason Knight

Namrata, you've got a much bigger team. You've got two teams, people focusing on b2b, and then people focusing on B2B2C, and obviously, you're working with doctors as well. You've got a more diverse set of skills you need to maintain and build out. Did you build or inherit that team?

Namrata Sarmah  

I did inherit quite a lot. When I joined this company, I was the first CPO they've ever hired. A lot of companies are going through this phase at the moment, especially midsize or large organizations, where they never really had that CPO role before and now all of a sudden, they have a C suite role in the board. We’re brought into these organizations as a change agent, a disruptor, and these companies are going through a digital transformation which is why these roles are created. When you're brought into a company because the company expects you to make some drastic changes, the pressure is very high.

You have to look into what the team you've inherited looks like and then do a proper mapping of skills vs. job after which you decide what the future team would look like. It’s a transformation and it can come with a lot of different complications.

On the other hand, if you're brought into a company where everything is almost perfect, but you're just brought in to make sure things are not broken as maintenance to make incremental improvements over the next five years. That's a much easier situation because you're not expected to change the world in a few months.

Alexandra Lung

In my experience, it was a mix. but it depends on what you mean by building a team. For example, when I joined AirCall, I hired eight people in my first three months out of a team of 12. So in the end, I felt like I built a team because I hired most of the team. At the same time, it was an interesting dynamic, because I was saying a lot that we were a new team, but I needed to be careful because it wasn't easy on older members in the team who didn’t feel included. You need to be careful with the team dynamics, how you treat everyone and how you make everyone feel.

At Signaturit we were engaged in mergers and acquisitions. In the beginning, when I joined, I found a team in place, then in the second company I needed to hire so we created a global team and then the third company already had a team and we needed to bring people together from different companies in one global product team. It's an interesting challenge to build a team when hiring new people from different backgrounds, companies and even countries.

You've had some experience building an APM program, which traditionally big tech companies do as a way for them to get top talent out of university. Have you taken the same approach?

Namrata Sarmah

That's just the hiring philosophy of every hiring manager. I love to hire high-potential people. I had to hire a lot of people, not just PMS but designers, data scientists, etc., and hiring in London especially is hard in today's market where there are way more jobs than candidates. Retaining talent is probably the hardest so then the question for every hiring manager is:

  • How do you keep balance in the team?
  • How do you keep the team consistent?
  • How do you avoid losing good people?
  • How do you continue to have a high-performance team?

So I created the APM program, which was out of sheer frustration, because I had a bunch of PM roles and I wasn’t getting enough people applying. On top of that, when you hire in niche areas like health, it's almost impossible to get health tech PMs so you either get people who know a lot about health care but don't know anything about product, or you get amazing PMs who don't know anything about healthcare. That's the reason I created the APM program and hired a bunch of clever APMs, and some of them shock me because they're even better than some of the very experienced PMs in the market.

You can build APMs internally, I think that's possible. In our case, we hired them externally. So these were not people from the company, we hired them fresh. They were fresh grads who had worked 2-3 years in different sectors, most of them had master's degrees or MBAs. I also tend to hire people from complicated sectors like finance or investment banking, because they have dealt with complexity. Then, you ended up hiring some really good people who I'm very sure, in the next 2-3 years will be promoted very fast. If you’re on a hiring spree, in the next few years if you're a scale up or a growth-stage company, creating an APM program could be a good solution.

Jason Knight

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it feels like something like, let's say, like, going for the bigger companies, because you've then got that time to kind of have a mix, right. So kind of getting some experience people in as well as getting those people that you can kind of bring in. But I think there's also this argument, which I you've kind of touched on as well, like, hire for talent, right? Like, even if you don't want, even if they're not perfect,  just get someone who's super good, because you want super good people working for your company.

But Mike, we were talking before this about how you've done some kind of internal transfers as well. And that's something that I've done previously, as well. So it's kind of a bit like APM, in a way, right? Because you're still creating product managers, but you're creating product managers that maybe have a bit of a leg up because they already work for your company.

They already know your product, probably. And they already have domain expertise and industry expertise. Now that could be seen as having a downside as well, like they could be kind of institutionalised a little bit and like they maybe need sort of free thinkers. But how's that experience been? For you?

Working in B2B, would you ever consider hiring B2C product managers? Are you specific or do you cast a wider net?

Alexandra Lung  

It goes back to the complementary skills. For example, one of my missions now is to strengthen the data driven part and also the onboarding part and activation part so someone who comes from B2C can have very relatable skills in this domain. I wasn't specifically looking for someone from B2C but I was open to it.

When they only have domain expertise, we need to carefully choose their personality because collaboration and a united side is important but so is how fast you can learn and ramp up, and how fast you can learn from others. Having a support structure, as we had other senior PMs, we could really support that.

Saagar Bains

Casting a wider net is definitely my preference. Throughout my career, I've bounced between B2B and B2C so I genuinely believe you don't need to have come from one or the other and stay in that, particularly in the early and middle stages of a career, you should get as much experience as you can.

As long as you can empathize with your end users, you should be able to adapt your product skill set to a B2B environment, or to a B2C environment. In fact, and I've just made that switch when I moved to The Body Coach I was coming from a B2B organization to B2C.

As you become more senior in your product career, should you begin to specialize in a domain?

Namrata Sarmah

In my case, it happened by accident because nobody would have thought someone from media would move to health as it’s totally unrelated. Still, it just happened, through circumstances and opportunities.

When you work in difficult sectors, like health tech, after you get out of it you feel empowered to do absolutely anything because it's so tough. In sectors like FinTech and health tech, a PM could really test their skills. It's a good testing ground to see how far you can get learning the new sector.

As you become more senior, a lot of companies from completely different domains are interested in my profile, not because of the sector but the skill set. If you look at larger organizations going through a tremendous transformation at the moment, they’re hiring executives from completely different sectors. Most of these companies do this because they want different ideas, diverse opinions and an outsider overview of the state of the organization.

If you're passionate about one sector, you could work on that your whole life but if you want to explore multiple sectors, why not. The job market has changed tremendously in the last 10-15 years, nobody cares about the domain anymore, which means people like us have a broader playing field.

Mike Ilin  

Product management is an institution, it's not a soft skill anymore. At first it was all about domain expertise and this expertise is the core of your productivity and effectiveness because no one else knows about the domain and that's why you build a good product. Now, we've got all of the methodologies and best practices of product management so you can shift from domain to domain and still be effective because you apply the best practices.

When you interview a candidate for a PM role, you have to be transparent about the domain and about the area you work in. I had some experience with people who were very bright candidates coming from a B2C background, with lots of good product management skills, but they don't want to work in B2B.

Namrata Sarmah

In my current role, I've got two teams, B2B and B2C, and so I have to hire different types of people. I found the B2B PMs always curious about B2C and wanting to move into B2C. However, I never find B2C PMs wanting to move to B2B. The reason is that in a B2B, there's a lot of pressure from sales organizations or commercial organizations. It's very contract driven and your roadmap can end up being very contract driven as well. As product managers, we don't want to be stuck to these contracts, it can be a very different dynamic and B2C PMs are scared of that.

As you grow higher and higher in your career, you never know where you’ll end up. You might end up in an organization that has a bunch of B2C and B2B products and you will then have to oversee all of them. My advice for any mid-level or junior PMs is don't be specific on just wanting to be B2B or B2C. You should try both because the more diverse your CV is, the more attractive you are in the job market, especially as you climb the ladder in your career.