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!