Spotlight – April Williams of IHG Talks About Getting Promoted, Managing People and Partnering With the Tech Team

By Tiyash Bandyopadhyay

April Williams is Director of Product Management in Global Operations at IHG. In contrast to our last Spotlight post, April’s journey is that of success in a large company. Some of the tenets though – influencing, bringing everyone into the conversation and not making it all about you – seem strikingly similar.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your role at IHG and your journey to get here.

I direct a team that runs 3 different websites that the General Managers, owners and employees of hotels use to optimize operations and access management tools. Our goal is to help our users get what they need quickly and go on to their day - so that they can be out interacting with the hotel guests instead of sitting at their computer.

I started in this department as a product manager, and then got promoted to a manager, which means I manage the product but also manage people. I recently became a director, which means manage people but also have more strategic responsibilities. IHG has been a great company in regards to helping me achieve my career goals. My previous experience was focused on delivery but during my career I wanted to get in the strategy of which products get built, how they get built, what the scope of that business case looks like. Being able to experience that based on the knowledge I have on delivery and on what the market wants has been great.  

Q. Our audience will be interested in learning about your journey - get ideas on how to succeed at a large corporations. What’s your advice?

Socializing your career goals is very important as no one drives your career but you. People may be hiring right under your nose, and they may not know that you are looking for an opportunity. You need to be specific and tell people, hey I am happy where I am but I want to get more into social media, or mobile products, global products or whatever that might be.

Its important to tell everyone you talk to – not just the SVPs – the business analyst or the project manager because you never know where your job leads are going to come from. Always work the network, as you never know who is going to be your boss tomorrow, and who might have their ear just at the right moment.

A lot of people will tell you that the best jobs are not posted, and when they are posted, there is often a candidate already identified.   The Atlanta product management community is small. Talk to those people on where you want to go with your goals. You know you talk to people and they say “I have not been in a job interview for 8 years”.  That is unfortunate because if  you don’t keep an updated resume and occasionally  see what’s out there either internally or externally you run the risk of losing the skills to sell your most valuable asset, you! I think looking for work is like dating. If you come in to a job interview  feeling desperate, people will know that. I learnt this the hard way and think that is very valuable.

Regarding getting promoted, examine the role you aim to move into.  You need to figure out what people in that role are doing that is different, and if you can, ask them what’s different. What is it about this role that I need to demonstrate to show that I am ready? You have to see what the company values – look at the people who got promoted. What got them there – was it launching new products, cost savings, creating a new business or revenue stream?. Sometimes people focus on the wrong things. What matters to you may not be what executives care about and what will get you noticed.

You sort of have to be doing the job before they give you the job. You want to be a director? Start acting, dressing, working, thinking, taking risks like a director. So that they see you doing the role quite naturally and its not a big change for them.

Don't be afraid to try something new – rebrand yourself as an executive.  Decide in your heart that you are that person.  Some good tips I have heard for looking savvy include putting books on your desk, hot books that everyone is talking about – whether you read them or not or hanging out in the lobby of your building at lunchtime as a way to mingle with executives, even if you are going back to eat leftovers at your desk

Q. What advice do you have for people beginning to lead a team?

A. Definitely have people on your team who are strong where you are weak so that they balance you out. Having a diverse team allows you lean on their strengths but you can also help them develop in areas you are good at. I am not super analytical, so I have people on my team who are. Similarly, I am great in speaking in front of a room of people. I am fearless. Some people are nervous to do a large presentation, so I say ‘We are doing a presentation in front of 300 people and you will do a part of it, lets work on it together. That builds trust as then you are pushing the team members in a good way and helping them develop new strengths.  Of course, they teach me things too.

Putting people first has helped me a lot.  So when I really need them to go above and beyond and meet a deadline, they will do it, because you have built trust and they want you to succeed. You don't rise to the top alone.

Its not about having the right idea or strategy, its about selling it. Sell internally so that people understand why it's the right thing to do. If people don't believe in your idea, it could be that it's a bad idea or it could also be that you have done a bad job selling it.  It's a negotiation. So many times I find that when I get push back, I find that you got to take a step back, and find a way to relate it to something they do understand to get their support.

Q. You work with a large technology team at a large company  – its not like you are across the room from a developer as in a startup. What works for you?

1. Build Trust:  In my past, I have worked a lot in scrum and agile environment. What it teaches you is that we are all in this together its not us vs. them. That's how you have to approach that relationship – it helps build trust and there’s less finger pointing.

I have had situations where a business person came up with unrealistic demands of what they need by a particular time. I push back and ask –what do you really need? Wouldn’t building only part of this get us the MVP (minimal viable product)?  The technology teams appreciate having someone who is willing to ask those questions and negotiate on scope.

I had a situation recently where a technology team member was “put on the spot” in an unfair way.  I made a point to call him that day to apologize for the situation and to let him know that it wasn’t okay.  Simple gestures like that when mistakes happen go a long way to build trust.

2. Thank the team and recognize their efforts: Every time there is a launch recognizing and thanking them – whether a party, Starbucks gift card – making them understand that my success is also the success of my tech partners, which is true. Also recognize anytime they go above and beyond – even with a simple thing like a phone call.

3. Treat them like a true partner:  I involve my technology team in things like usability testing so they can be exposed to how users see the products.  I also gave them an advance copy of the report.  The experience helped them gain the insight of where we as a team need to focus.    Often the technology teams are left out of these “business activities” which is a shame.

4. Get Facetime:  I try to attend meetings with my technology team in person.  I get in the car and drive to their office.   It says to them that I value your time; it’s worth it if I come and meet you in person. You get so much more out of the meeting.

Q. Are there any apps you use at work or in life that you would recommend? I love Any do for daily planning, IHG’s app of course for booking hotels.  I use my fitness pal, waze and another favorite app is Run Pee.  It tells you the best time to run to the bathroom during a movie without missing any critical moments.  Genius!

 

Spotlight – Sean Standberry, CEO Lyfe Marketing Talks Building a Social Media Presence and a Company

By Tiyash Bandyopadhyay

Now that the dust has settled on ProductCamp, kicking off our spotlight series with a talk with Sean Stanberry, founder and CEO of Lyfe Marketing. Launching a business is the ultimate product management challenge and at 23, Sean is living the dream. Here is our conversation on his journey.

Q. What led up to where you are today?

A. I am 23 now. My father was an entrepreneur – he owned a tax accounting business, and ran it in primarily the home. When I was younger, I saw him run a business, bring in more clients and saw the impact he made with his business on other people’s lives. I was very inspired by that. I understood early in my life that entrepreneurship was a viable option for me.

I worked at Stone Mountain Park as a photographer and took photos of tourists and different people in the city and all over Georgia. I used that job to boot strap the company I founded - Lyfe Marketing in December 2011.

Q. What gave you an idea to move from taking photos to digital marketing?

A. When I started with Kodak in Stone Mountain Park, I was a young kid, still in High School. I needed a job then primarily for additional income, but in the process I was always thinking of starting my own new business.  My generation is heavily integrated with social media. So social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter came second nature to us.  I started a Twitter account in 2011 called Voice of Atlanta and tweeted about news, sports, TV – anything on popular culture. And we ended up attracting 30,000 followers to that account. I started it to have conversations with people in Atlanta and over time grew a huge audience.

Q. How did you get there? What was your road to finding such a huge audience?

It wasn't even a tangible goal I was targeting. When I saw things happening, I wanted to make it bigger and it grew with momentum.

What happened was that as the followers grew, I started getting local businesses, musicians, restaurants and more asking if I could promote their services or shows to this audience. So it became profitable. During that time, a lot of people questioned the ROI of social media and I understood it.

It was then that I started doing research and was exposed to that whole area of social media marketing. I said we know this, this is big and we had seen ROI already. We had promoted a previous event and hundreds showed up from strictly social media promotion. So I got together with my best friend and brother – we started to provide marketing services for a lot of small businesses.

 

When we first started we worked with a lot of local labels, independent artists, new companies who did not have a huge promotional outlet. Initially we were just managing Twitter accounts for them. And from that we grew to getting local Atlanta businesses and bigger and better clients, and we were able to increase our prices based on the results we were generating.

Q. What have you learnt about discovering/serving customers?  You have to really understand your customers and their customers very well to be promoting them on social media.

A lot can be accomplished from a social media standpoint since it is so cost effective.

One way is to poll our audience. You can ask a question and see if people will respond, or do a poll on Facebook.

You can also post a lot of different content to test what they like. For example, if we are working with a small business owner who owns a bar – we can post photos of different sports teams and see if his audience likes content on sports, or if his audience likes content on food or on different events that happens near his bar. Once you figure out what they like, its all downhill from there – you just keep on giving them what they want.

You can also monitor them on Twitter and see what they are tweeting and posting. Twitter search engine allows you to track many different conversations based on keywords, which is great data when discovering your customers.

Q. How do you look for keywords in Twitter?

You have to understand your target audience a little bit at least.  There are search phrases a particular target audience will use a lot. For example, one of our clients is Westmar Student Lofts and their target audience is students in Atlanta. So you can search #Gatech, #GSU, #GaState etc in Twitter.

Another example, say you are a burger restaurant. You can search “want burger” near the zip code of your location (using advanced search) and see tweets about people who want a burger.

 

Q. Tell me some common social media mistakes.

A. Biggest mistake people make is thinking that everyone is going to like what they do. These people make social media all about them. For example, a restaurant keeps posting menus and food items – some people may look at it and say its delicious but the majority of them will not care if you keep posting about your fried chicken. Many people continually post about themselves and not interact with their customers or potential prospects. 

If you are going to be successful in social media you need to open the door and give them a chance to interact.

Q. Tell me something you learn the hard way in your journey.

A. Personally, it kills me to say this but I have to reevaluate myself as a leader in the decisions I make with the company.  I made mistakes like telling people to do the wrong thing or not making decisions of facts / true logic but just my gut or emotions. As a leader I am continuously growing every day.

Q. What are some of your favorite tools and apps?

I love TweetDeck as I manage so many social media profiles. Love app called ManageFlitter – biggest feature I love is that you can wipe our followers who are inactive, and look at your database more critically. Another app that I really like is XPLRR – app that allows to see everything that's going in Atlanta in terms of events/news.

Q. Any ideas/tips for product managers in using social media to promote their products?

1) Tell a story around your product. Every product has a story behind it. Such as why it was created, who they founders were, how long did it take, what were the challenges, what were the victories, etc. Everyone likes a good story and once they care, they’ll consume.

2) Use video to standout. In 2014, simply posts, tweets, statuses are being ignored. Photos are still good, but most of your big competitors will be publishing them too. Video is different. Today, video takes more time, resources and strategy to implement. However, it’s a great way to promote your product. Use video reviews, customer interaction, live demonstration, features, process, video comparisons, storytelling, etc. Video at a high level is a great way to stand out.

3) Have a plan of strategy and execution. Sounds simple right? However, I see so many people jump into so excited and after they don’t see a huge impact after a month or two they drop off. You truly have to dedicate time and effort into social media for it to work. Our company spends at least 2 hours a day to manage our own social media growth. Knowing your strategy and having an execution plan will help your team maintain consistency. 

Thats it for this time. We are always looking to profile people from the ATL community interested in sharing their story. Let me know at tiyash at pcampatl.com if you would like to share your story. 

Best Session & Presenter ProductCamp 8 2014

Wrapping up ProductCamp Atlanta this year, we always let the attendees dot vote on "Best Presenter" and "Best Session". It's always a good time and we give out a couple of trophies to go along with the titles. 

Best Session

This year, "Best Session" went to Peter Hildebrandt and his session titled Making your offerings unique and highly profitable using Blue Ocean strategies. Peter also had another session make it to the day's scheduled titled Conducting a Usability Test on the Cheap and Getting Great Data. You can find out more about Peter and his company Hildebrandt Associates

Best Presenter

The coveted "Best Presenter" spot went to Kristy West and her session titled Improv Skills for the Business World. You can find out more about Kristy and her company The Brink Improv.

We hope to see you at next year ProductCamp or at one of our local events!

ProductCampers Looking for Talent

A tradition at each ProductCamp, this year we had dozens of companies share the positions they are trying to fill in the areas of product management, marketing, and development.  Below are a few positions whose information we were fortunate to capture.

Allure Global  http://g.oc.gs/boone

Altisource Labs http://www.altisourcelabs.com/Join_Us.aspx

Ceridian http://careers.ceridian.com/?utm_campaign=corp

Daxko  http://daxko.com/careers/openings/

Granted Gifts:  Internship Opportunities

Home Depot - http://careers.homedepot.com/

OutSystems http://www.outsystems.com/company/careers/

PRGX  http://www.prgx.com/about/careers

Sales Loft  http://blog.salesloft.com/careers/

SilverPop http://www.silverpop.com/About/Careers/Search-For-Jobs/

ThoughtWorks  http://www.thoughtworks.com/join

Ultimate Software http://g.oc.gs/poxie

User IQ http://useriq.theresumator.com/apply/aSKMFt/Software-Engineer.html?source=am

Version One  https://versiononecareers.silkroad.com/

Verizon Telematics  http://www.verizon.com/about/ms-vztelematics/

If your company attended ProductCamp and you do not see a position you shared listed, leave a comment and we will be sure to include it.

Thanks again for making ProductCamp 8 one of our best.  We are already starting to work on ProductCamp 9, if you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please let us know.

 

A Day at ProductCamp Atlanta 2014

ProductCamp Atlanta this year was on Saturday,October 18th. It had all its winning ingredients of awesome sessions, easy and casual networking, intra-company learning and knowledge sharing with added buzz from a crowd larger than ever and some seriously Sublime Donuts.

The crowd had many of the regulars and an influx of many new faces, many from industries beyond software. There were teams from larger companies like Home Depot, IBM, Silverpop along with startups from ATV or ATDC and even Georgia Tech students. The topics of discussion ranged newly minted ideas and trends to battle hardened methodologies. It's the energy of this intermingling of ideas, frameworks, people and realities that ProductCamp brings every year to the Atlanta product management, UX and product marketing communities. 

ProductCamp 2014 Kickoff

The sessions, voted in by the attendees, had the usual suspects – customer experience, agile, product design and marketing. There were also several newer ideas or fresh takes on popular topics such as linking sales and customer discovery and using improv in business.

Here are some top moments – Add yours!

  •  Walking into the total ‘un-conference’ vibe at 7:30 am and getting pulled into an ever-growing volunteer group, packing bags, stapling session proposals and assembling sign in paraphernalia.
  • Seeing the filled up auditorium for the kickoff and soaking in the energy and expectation of some great sessions and good networking
  • Listening to the session proposals (over 40) – from executives at large and small companies along with entrepreneurs
  •   Using text voting and feeling like I am part of American Idol
  • Seeing many companies from around Atlanta pitch at least 12 job opportunities for the community and feeling that the economy is definitely on the way up
  •  Listening (and joining in) to some great sessions on a variety of topics, and being able to choose how to mix up my day on the fly – doing a workshop, then a townhall, then listening in on a presentation.
  •  Walking off with tools that can be used the next day at work such as a 60 second business case framework or customer discovery worksheets.
  • Learning after the first Kindle Fire giveaway, that there was a second
  • Winding down an Ri Ra Irish Pub

So how was your experience? Did you attend? Let us know.

Oh and one more thing……it was all free. 

ProductCamp 2014 session