3 steps to better interview stories (or how to stop confusing and boring hiring managers)

Most of my mentees’ stories are boring and confusing. In an interview they get nervous and aren’t able to show off their skills and experience. This is fixable. Like a comedian or an actor on a chat show you need a couple of compelling and clear stories you can use and adapt for lots of different situations. This twist on the Context – Action – Result framework is working well for my mentees.

Act 1 – Set the scene 

  • What is this company? What do they do?
  • Where is the company in its evolution?
  • What did they ask you to do?

Here is an example:

3Pillar Global sells product, engineering and design services.Clients were frustrated that 30% of their budget and time were gone before they saw anything working. They were really known for engineering and wanted to grow their product and design revenue  so I was asked to create a business unit to prototype ideas and get ready for development. 

Why should you do this

Skipping this will result in confusion and lost time. Helping the interviewer understand the company and challenge draws them in. It also is a great way to show off your business acumen. You’ll want to be specific, saying that you did a redesign to increase engagement is not as compelling as saying that customers were overwhelmed by all the choices and quit 40% of the time. 

Act 2 – Show your work 

  • What was your role?
  • What did you do? 
  • How did you learn and adapt?

Here is an example:

My role was to create and lead Innovate practice. I was responsible for defining, positioning, selling, leading engagements and developing talent. At first I was a team of one, finding the right people to do these engagements without really defined requirements and lots of change was really tricky. So I learned what behaviors to look for and how to set different expectations for behavior. 

Why should you do this

Most people know they should do this but they get nervous, forget their audience and ramble. Begin specific about what you did, what challenges you overcame and what you learned in a concise way will be much more impactful. 

Act 3 – Bring it all together

  • What happened?
  • Did it get approved? Shipped? Do you have any metrics you can share?

Here is an example:

In the first year we did (X) engagements for Y) revenue and we grew by (Z) the second year. We were able to train the entire product 

Why should you do this

If your internet cuts out in the last episode of (insert your favorite show here) you will be dying to find out what happened and it will nag at you. Your story needs an end and it gives you once last chance to show off. Ideally you could use a number to show impact but that’s not always possible so you’ll want to share if it got approved, got good feedback, shipped or something else.

Don’t forget to practice and tweak. This is a learned skill and like all learned skills you can better if you work at it.

Lessons from 50 mentoring sessions

This week I did my 50th session mentoring designers and PMs with ADPList. So many of them are talented and creative people who don’t know how to shine on a resume or they lack the confidence to tell us how great they are. My job is to be very direct and help them spotlight their potential. Here is the advice I’ve given the most:

Position yourself

Every time I see “Hi, I’m…” on a portfolio I can’t help but roll my eyes. I see that you are passionate about customers but we all are because it’s our job. What can you bring to the team? What is special about you? Why do we want you? 

Let’s say you are transitioning from finance to product, I would target Fintech and show how you can get up to speed quickly and find opportunities others may not recognize. Are you a designer with a data science background? I want that, put it right on the top. 

Clear the clutter 

Indeed says recruiters look at a resume for six to seven seconds which makes me feel better about how little time I spend. Most resumes and portfolios I’ve reviewed are hard to read. We spend a lot of time reworking key points to make them short, clear and emphasize business results. 

Focus on your audience and the decision they are trying to make 

Sometimes recruiters know your function well. More often the same person is recruiting for design, finance and sales so they need help understanding how your experience lines up with the job description. 

As a hiring manager the first decision I’m making is if I want to talk to you for 30 minutes and it doesn’t cost me much so if it’s a maybe, it’s a yes.. After the initial conversation I need to decide if there is enough promise to invest in a panel. Only after the panel gives the feedback does a hiring decision get made. 

Peers and stakeholders often dive deeper and look for more specifics. I’m a softy so my team knows they need to be more discerning. They spend a lot more time on the portfolio, case studies or experience. They are looking for very specific, concrete answers and I’ve seen many of them mark a candidate down for not answering questions.

A new way of thinking about product team roles 

Teams need clear roles but people want to be heard and be creative.  Teams need to balance collaboration and execution. Some teams have found this balance and others are stuck in debates about ownership and that is stopping them from getting things done.

Some of the conflict we’re experiencing is because teams haven’t established roles and norms or individuals on the team are not following the norms. Product, UX and engineering roles are different everywhere I go. The folks filling those roles are individuals with different strengths.

An old-school RACI (RACI – responsible, accountable, consulted and informed) matrix feels complicated, overly formal and not flexible or personalized enough. For some time I’ve been thinking about this problem and trying to come up with a new tool to help teams create clairity and flexibility. 

What the research tells us

Roles are norms that tell us how to behave

“Clear and explicit specification of the basic norms of conduct for team behavior, the handful of “must do” and “must never do” behaviors that allow members to pursue their objectives without having to continuously discuss what kinds of behaviors are and are not acceptable.” (Hackman)

Roles need to be understood and defined 

“Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood — in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.” (Erickson)

Roles don’t have to be fixed and permanent 

“Within a team, individual roles need to be clarified and understood by all. However, role construction can be influenced by personal expectations, and by organisational and interpersonal factors (Maple 1987). Therefore, roles need to be flexible enough to accommodate individual differences, personal development needs and membership changes (Blechert et al. 1987).

A proposed new framework 


Where should you put your energy and attention? A designer may have an idea about how to build something but if they put all their energy and attention into solving a technical problem they aren’t going to be thinking about flows, needs and how the experience should be. 


Where should my voice have a greater impact? An engineer may have great ideas about how to solve a user experience problem and the team should consider it but the designer’s perspective should carry more weight. 


The combination of focus and prominence represents your contribution to the team and it should align to what the team needs from you. 

How you could use this

This is a developing idea and I haven’t had too much practical experience yet but I’ve used it as a way to open up conversations between team members and function leaders. I think it’s useful to do this at the functional/department level and for teams. It may also be useful if there are two designers or more than one product person. I welcome feedback and ideas.

Building a Research Flywheel: A Helpful Guide for Product Managers & Their Teams

Product Management Today Webinar – March 2022

You’ve heard of Amazon and Vanguard, two of the most successful customer-focused businesses in the world, but have you heard Jim Collins’ Flywheel Effect? You might be surprised to learn that neither of these businesses would be where they are today without it.

Every step of the product journey is informed by research: what works, what doesn’t, what customers want, what they need. But no one tool or method can create a thriving research practice for product managers. Instead, PMs and business leaders need to turn the crank of the wheel to get processes in motion and build momentum.

By developing product- and customer-focused Flywheels, you can uncover new insights, make better products, and invest in more meaningful research. This, ultimately, will lead to more value, more growth, and a greater understanding of what your customer’s need.

Discover how it can help you supercharge your product process. Attendees for this session will:

  • Learn how Flywheels create momentum and value
  • Explore the process for defining your team’s Flywheel
  • Uncover how to supercharge and expand your Flywheel


Request the recording from Product Management Today



Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins 
This is an easy and quick read that introduces the concept, provides examples and the process. 

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr 
Get the inside of Amazon view of how they used the flywheel idea and a lot of other insight on their practices. I gave my copy to my sister-in-law to help her prep for an interview there. 

Why we’re building an Ops-First Research Practice by Brad Orego
Brad has a similar way of approaching the flywheel as a tool to advocate research. 

Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress by Bob Moesta 
Don’t get confused by the title, this book is the most comprehensive and easy to understand summary about jobs I’ve seen anywhere. In a few short chapters Bob Moesta helps you understand the theory, see how the different forces work and how it will help your business.

Jobs-to-be-Done Handbook by Chris Spiek, Bob Moesta
This is the practical companion to Demand-Side Sales. They’ve packed this short book full of great tips on doing the research that fuels your work on Jobs.

Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy by Cindy Alvarez
Cindy’s approach is simple and powerful. I’m such a fangirl that I got a signed copy.

Free Product Mindset Book 

Audio: https://productmindset.com/ListenNow

Ebook: https://productmindset.com/GetYourEbook

Who do you want to show up at your new job?

Whenever a friend, mentee or colleague tells me about a new job, after properly congratulating them, I ask them how they want to show up at this job differently. Maybe as someone who is more strategic, a better teammate, or someone who raises standards. 

A new job offers 

  • An environment where you can more easily change habits 
  • People who don’t have entrenched views of who you are
  • Opportunities develop or display skills you may not have had

This is not to say that you should try to be something that you aren’t or you should be inauthentic but you don’t have to be stuck. 
Our brains adapt throughout our lives. We are capable of changing how we behave, developing new skills and creating new possibilities in our careers. Here are a few things you should consider as you prepare for your first day. 

Consider your triggers 

Researchers at MIT found that every habit has a loop with a cue, routine and reward. You can learn more about this in the great book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. If you want to change your habits, you need to think about substituting your current routine instead.

Here is an example 

  • Cue – A team member is stuck because they aren’t getting something they need 
  • Routine – Go fix it for them
  • Reward – Feel helpful 

When I fix things for them they don’t learn how to fix things for themselves. It also takes away from things I should be doing. So instead of going to fix it, I’m trying to feel helpful by coaching the team members instead. 

Set your intentions 

A young colleague who was smart and quick tended to be seen as arrogant and overbearing. We had talked about different strategies to work with people and he was making progress but it was hard to escape his reputation. A new job was a good opportunity for him to be seen differently. 

James March of Stanford University suggests that people make decisions by thinking about these questions:

  • What kind of situation is this?
    • What is the culture like?
    • Who is involved?
    • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What kind of person am I?
    • How would I typically react?
    • What could I do differently?
  • What does a person such as I do in a situation such as this? 
    • What should my next step be?

Use your new environment

Think about what you want to change and how you can create an environment that encourages and supports that change. You can create a new schedule, maybe you start doing walking meetings or change up your lunch plans. 

You don’t need to wait

A new job makes changes easier but not impossible, you can start today. You can experiment and learn how to be that person right where you are. 

3 questions that will help you hire the right design leader

Attracting candidates, finding the right fit and helping your chosen design leader them launch successfully is hard and often ends badly. As a former consultant and the first design leader in an organization in more than one organization I’ve seen that companies fail when look for a magical being to solve all their problems. Instead we need to do the work to direct the search and prepare the path.

What do you want this person to do?

What problem do you need this person to solve? Is your product hard to use because it was designed by engineers? Is your product experience inconsistent because of acquisition? Is your design team missing skills or struggling to scale? Leaders need to agree on why this hire is important now and what the needs are of the moment.

Get clear on the most important job this person needs to do. It’s not just the capability you need but the person who likes to solve your kind of challenge and has the determination to push through.

pre-mortem is a great exercise to do with your team. Imagine that one year has passed since you made the hire. What would an outstanding success look like? What contributed to the success? Also imagine what a total failure would be and why.

With a clear understanding of your top priority, you can better target your recruiting efforts. Seek out leaders who love to solve challenges you have and explore in detail how they would attack the priority.

When a promising new leader arrives in an organization they’re often immediately weighed down by the expectations of other leaders. Giving the new leader a clear priority will prevent distractions and help them gain traction on the big problem.

What is your level of commitment?

UX leaders have heard it all before, human-centered, design focused, sticky note obsessed….Except most of the time those end up being just words. Prospective design leaders will want to understand how committed you are to making a change.

Are you willing to commit enough budget and for talent, training, tools and research? Money certainly helps but the more important commitment comes from being willing to change.

Are you willing to have your ideas challenged? To invest time in testing? To change your practices? Are product and engineering willing to change to include and support design? It will take time and cause some initial delays.

Engaging candidates in discussion about what change could be needed and how to manage them will be an important part of your recruiting process. Help your existing team start to understand what you are trying to change and how it might affect them will make it easier for the person once they join.

What are the constraints?

Many non-profits have consensus decision-making cultures. Some organizations have lots of legacy code. No one seems have enough designers, product managers, or engineers. While these can be changed they will not change quickly or without consistent effort and resources.

Every organization has constraints, things about the culture or industry that are really hard to change even when you have the commitment of leadership and financial resources. In their book, Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work, Bill Burnett and Dale Evans describe these as “gravity problems.” You can’t change gravity but once you accept it exists you can work with it and consider other ways to move things forward. 

Stephen Gates has a good way of identifying these, when they happen someone always says “Welcome to (Company Name)!”

It’s worth your team doing an audit to identify where the barriers will be. Common areas for friction include:

  • How decisions are made and what level in the organization
  • How functions collaborate and resolve conflict (or not)
  • Alignment on incentives and goals
  • Level of ambiguity and change
  • Allocating budget
  • Level of technical debt

It’s better to risk losing a prospect in the hiring process than for them to become disillusioned and frustrated because they feel deceived. Instead we want someone who understands the job they signed up to do and an organization that is ready for them to do it.

My favorite Jobs to be Done resources

Jobs to be Done is a very effective way to think about what drives purchase and onboarding behaviors. I’ve been doing some workshops on it with colleagues and at first they aren’t buying it. They don’t see the value of functional, social and emotional goals until the switch flips and once it does it’s pretty great to see how many new ideas get unlocked and how they start to question things they took for granted. I’m still learning about jobs, here are some of my favorite resources so far.

Understanding the Job – Clay Christensen

He’s one of the leading thinkers in innovation for a reason. This short video gives you a really good introduction to why jobs is powerful.

Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress

Don’t get confused by the title, this book is the most comprehensive and easy to understand summary about jobs I’ve seen anywhere. In a few short chapters Bob Moesta helps you understand the theory, see how the different forces work and how it will help your business.

Jobs-to-be-Done Handbook

This is the practical companion to Demand-Side Sales. Moesta and his former parnter packed this short book full to great tips on doing the research that fuels your work on Jobs.

Interview – buying a smartphone

Jobs to be Done radio (actually a podcast) has a lot of great episodes full of insight. In this one you get to see the masters, Moesta and Spiek, interview someone who recently bought a smartphone.

The causality of cutsomer behavior

Bob Moesta explains that everything has a cause and how to understand what causes customer behavior.

Don’t want to be an order taker? Stop taking orders

When you sit the chair and ask your hair stylist for a certain style of cut or color chances are they listened carefully, considered your face shape, hair type, how much time you spend your hair (not much if you are me) and your skill in doing hair (none if you are me).

Hopefully at the end of it all you looked in the mirror happy. You got something that was even better than you asked for. Understanding your wants, your life, your hair and using that knowledge to create a great look is what makes a stylist good. A good designer or product managers understands requests, goals and constraints and puts it into a solution that is even better than what they were asked to do.

Designers and Product managers often ask me how they can stop being seen as “order takers.” My answer is simple, don’t take the order. Consider what they are asking for, who the customer is, what the business objective is and try to come up with a solution that is what they asked for, but better. Or give them what they asked for and another option to consider.

You may be thinking that is it easy for me to say given the fancy title I have, but I haven’t always been in leadership. I started as an 18 year old intern. I won’t pretend that this works with everyone, some people can be very directive even if their directions are not great.

Many product and business people have complained to me over the years that their designers have to be told what to do and they don’t elevate the ideas. The space for you to create just might be open for you but you aren’t taking it. If you don’t try, you will be forever stuck in the space where people see you as an executor and not a partner.

Here are a couple of tips for designers trying to move beyond order taking  

  • Ask questions to understand the intent. Why are they proposing this solution? What do they hope will happen?
  • Learn about the business. How does it make money? What are the levers? What are the strategic goals?
  • Be more deliberate in presenting your ideas. Before you show them your design or options remind them of the intent and goals. Explain why your proposal meets their needs.

Here are a couple of tips for leaders to enable their designers more effectively  

  • Create context. Help your designer understand the product or business goals and your intent for this feature. That helps them make better decisions. People often vastly underestimate how much context people need and or how much they’ve given their team.
  • Establish constraints. Help the designer have a sense of where the boundaries are in terms of how big of an effort this will be and what can be changed.
  • Create space. Make sure the designer is invited to interpret the intent and work within in the constraints.

Image: Boone Drug in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is the home of Appalachian State University where my husband went to college. The food in Boone was amazing.

Helping a CXO let go

I’ve seen CEOs who are deeply involved in color schemes, CTOs who want to control every architecture decision and product leaders who are very particular about agile rituals. 

I’ve written before about how to manage up. If you want to manage a CXO (CEO, CPO, CTO or one of the random other ones) and get them to let go there are a few simple things you can do that have worked pretty well for me in a variety of situations. 

Understand triggers 

CXOs, especially CEOs, carry a load no one sees and only they feel. They feel pressure from the board and investors. They feel pressure that comes from knowing how many people are counting on the company’s performance to pay their bills. They feel pressure to deliver for customers. 

Showing you understand this pressure, you understand the business and it’s objectives. You understand what the risks are will go a long way in getting them to let go. 

It’s OK to ask your leader why this is an area that’s very important them or what they are trying to achieve. Use their own words to help show your understanding, this is a technique hostage negotiators use. When you are going to propose something refer back to their objectives or pains before you propose it. 

Establish principles 

Design principles are great in helping a team come to an agreement on the type of experience they want to create and guide decision-making. Years ago I was working with a CRO with a global B2B sales team. He wasn’t going to go to design review every week. Instead I got him to agree to principles, one of them was “support the conversation.” He wanted sales people to be seen as strategic partners and not order takers.

Over the years I’ve expanded beyond design to use principles to guide technical and business decisions too. Sometimes the leader I’m working with wants to diverge from the principles and referencing them helps us all know if we’re changing direction or we forgot it temporarily.

Schedule regular review sessions 

Regular design keep the design team organized and focused on delivering. It makes it easy to show things early on before we get too far down a path. It provides a venue to share insights from research and testing.

Depending on the organization this typically happens weekly, every other week or monthly. I wouldn’t let things go further than that. I also encourage you to have a standard presentation format that includes the context and to establish ground rules for giving feedback.

Give them direction  

Most leaders I know want to be helpful and add value to their teams. So give them something to do to help you. Absent your direction they are going decide on their own and you may or may not like that.

Maybe they can explain something for you, connect you to someone, clear a blocker or help you think through something. Inviting them in a productive way will make both of you happy.

In my experience these techniques establish understanding and trust that makes it OK for them to let go and be more wiling to confront their sacred cows.

Image: Stained glass windows at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

Mysteries of Product-Engineering Disfunction

I’ve seen a similar pattern pop up in three different companies and I’m writing this to see if anyone else has seen it too. Each company is in a different industry. One is small, one is medium and one is massive. The leaders are frustrated with the lack of progress and the amount of friction in the system.

They are talking to me because they want someone to help them figure out what to do. They need an outsider to figure out where things are getting blocked. The symptoms are challenges prioritizing, friction between roles, and products or features that don’t resonate with customers. P

There are a lot of ways you can prioritize what to build. In some organizations product makes the decisions and others are more democratic. RICE (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort) is a popular method for making decisions. Here is my favorite, we gave it the name GAS (Give a S#$t) score.

“Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?

I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.

Cool, then let’s do it your way.”

Cap Watkins (Posted at a now-defunct blog)

When people, particularly engineers, talk about a need for prioritization frameworks I think it’s a front. I think what they are really saying is that I don’t trust your decision-making because it feels like you are just making it up and putting your own preferences above everyone else’s.

I’ve seen an engineering team go rogue on their product manager and cut them out of decisions. I’ve seen engineering and product teams have their own feature wish lists that are prioritized separately. They were trying to solve the problem of not trusting product decision. These are both terrible ways to solve any problem and I gave the people who did them lots of crap for it but I understand why they did it.

If everyone knows who the customer is and what we’re trying to achieve as a team, it shouldn’t be that hard to prioritize. It should make logical sense and with some debate people can get on board. They can do what Cap Watkins and his colleague did above. They can run an experiment and see what happens.

When people don’t know what they are trying to accomplish and why it matters one of three things happens: they get beaten into submission and blindly execute, they quit or they try to go their own way and drama ensues.

More than once, I’ve taken on leading a team of people who have been given the brand of being divas. They have the reputation of being insular, self-important, unwilling to compromise and difficult. When I dug in what I found was people who were deeply committed to their customers, wanted to make a good product, felt the organization didn’t value their craft and were always put in a position where they had to make concessions.

Engineering scales faster than product or UX, there are common ratios and expectations of when you need to add Engineering heads based on how much pizza you need. Product tends to be created and grow once they are swamped. It puts them in a position of being constantly behind and being blamed for slowdowns.

A common pattern I’ve seen for the last few years is that the further up the organization product, UX and engineering meet has a direct relationship between how well they work together. If a leader is holding them accountable for collective results you see a lot more collaboration.

If you want a team to work together better you need to create an environment and encourages good behaviors. Most people are having to overcome their environments and even act against their best interests related to bonuses to do what needs doing.

Image: A friend took this while we were climbing at Seneca Rocks, WV. There was a lot of “exposure” which apparently is climbing lingo for scary as shit