Spotlight – Lisa Sedlar, Director, Product Management, on Managing Complex Products

Lisa Sedlar

I enjoyed talking to Lisa at ProductCamp last year, so she was one of the first people I reached out to for the blog. Lisa moved to ‘formal’ product management a few years ago and leads a large team managing complex products for financial institutions.  I loved her insights on hiring for her team and incorporating customer feedback into the process. Here’s our conversation.

How did you get started in Product Management?

When I started with the company over 12 years ago, I would say there was no true product organization.  Over the last few years, it has become a formal part of the organization structure.  As the product function developed, I gradually grew into   the role. I am a generalist at heart and had already been working with internal teams and external clients and partners. I like product management as the role is about getting people to work together and getting new products to market that help our customers solve tough problems and ultimately drive revenue

What are you enjoying most about the role?

I am growing a team and I enjoy the leadership aspect of it. We have a team with some seasoned employees and some younger professionals, some with technical and some with business backgrounds – we created a team with people from different backgrounds. It is a very diverse  team. We identify the knowledge gaps and then do our best to fill those with diversity.

What is hard?

In any organization, I think one of the challenges is to get people to understand the value and role of product management. It is not a catchall for what people don’t want to do. One of the most difficult tasks is internally  communicating and educating others in the company about the strategic aspects  of being a product manager. Sometimes I feel like product is viewed as the cleanup crew, coming in and taking on project management for different things just because no one is there to do it. So it’s the internal education piece

You talked about working with external and internal people. How do you incorporate the customer into the product process?

We deal with various levels of customers.  We have the end customers and then the financial institutions who serve them. We get a lot of end user feedback through surveys and we use external parties to help us collect that feedback

We hold client forums and engage our customers at different levels. For example, there is the user level feedback and then industry level feedback. At the industry level we discuss things at a higher level, more about the trends we are seeing in the industry and if they match what they are experiencing . We want to know how to solve their ten million dollar problem and not the ten-dollar problem.  Recently, we got a group of 20 clients together and asked for  their input into the road-mapping process – here is what is changing in the industry, this is how we think its impacting you, and here is what we are doing to help you solve for this. We gave everyone 3 votes so that we could prioritize as a team. Luckily the top 3 that came out of this was also top of our list. It was an iterative process and it helped  the customers feel more a part of the process, they need and want to be heard. .

Many of our clients also submit ideas through our innovation lab. We work with many clients on a monthly basis and so this is a good way to collect their input. This is new and not as automated but it gives them an avenue to provide ideas to us.

What are some of the other challenges for product managers and how do you deal with them?

The industry is changing rapidly. We have to be able to keep up and iterate products with that. You have to blend all that in and do it quickly. We are moving towards  more proof-of-concept work. More testing of different features parameters upfront.

How do you keep your backlog groomed?

We have an expansive pipeline as we work closely with many of our clients and get lot of customer input.  We look at of the requests coming in and  – for example, if we have a roadmap theme of building a singular customer experience, we try to fit in all the work that meets that objective.

We also have an excellent relationship with our IT and development team. We constantly share our roadmap with them, so that they can act as our filters too, and we don’t have to touch everything. In a perfect world, we would know each feature but the volume is significant , it is nearly impossible.

What do you look for when you hire product managers on your team?

Someone with great communication skills as you have to deal with all levels of the company and bring out the best in them. You are not only the CEO of your product but the chief liaison officer. Good project management skills that you can then translate to product. You have to be able to anticipate where the problems are and influence others.  You have to be thick skinned and deal with adversity well. You have to be tenacious as some days you are the only one flying your flag. You have to think strategically but also tactically – there is a constant ebb and flow of the two sides.

Where do you see product management going in the next few years?

If anything, I see it moving to more to the forefront of companies, as with the market changes, it is more important to have strong direction. I think smaller companies already have product at the top but larger companies have more challenges.