I fell into product management accidentally, and my story starts with a shot of luck and opportunity. Long story short, while I was working in the education field, I received an unexpected invitation to become a Data Reviewer in one company creating a data-aggregator platform. Over time, I moved to Business Analyst and later to Product Owner.
But let’s go back to the root of this path: how was this possible? Well, something simple but highly valued — soft skills and the eagerness to do more and better. At first glance, I didn’t understand how my profile would fit into a Product career. But now, at this distance, I can see the product-related skills that I had, which worked as a huge booster to do this transition successfully.
Let’s discover why working with kids for six years gave me the luggage to succeed.
💬 The Power of Feedback
If you just say “No” to a kid, one will ask “why”, and replying with a “because I say so” isn’t the most helpful thing (yes, I feel you. Sometimes we think that there isn’t much more to add).
Giving explanatory feedback allows the infant to think about the impact of a certain action and understand what can be improved to navigate its nuances better in the next attempt. On the way around, you’re also stimulating the kid to do the same once the roles are reversed.
Sharing feedback to a colleague (and please don’t forget to give also the good one! 🙂) in the product world follows the same logic. You need to ensure that the person on the other side clearly understands your point and can use it as a way to improve. As with kids, you must hold on and give people space to take risks and try new things. This will help your peers learn how to make better decisions while allowing them to become better in the short term, which can also mean building a better team for the future.
If a kid needs to learn how to eat with a knife and a fork, will it be helpful if you opt to give him the food to avoid having a mess on the floor?
⚙️ Problem Solving & Strategy
Budget constraints, limited resources (both human and material), or lack of good infrastructure to organize innovative activities are pretty common in the Kindergartens world. And what do you do if that happens?
Imagine you still want to plan great and different experiences to promote exploration and, consequently, learn new things. You’ll then need to put your creativity into action and find (creative) alternatives to remove the block roads. At a specific time, when we couldn’t leave the school perimeter, I moved resources and asked for help to have a hatchery in the room so kids could learn that chicks weren’t coming from a pregnant chicken.
This also happens in the product field: it’s frequent to face time or budget constraints or even problems like the churn of certain services. Can you find a relation? Above all, strategy and a clear vision will make part of the route to transforming the problem into a solution. In the meantime, you’ll also need to guide the team to accompany you, so everyone works towards the same goal.
✌🏻(Product) Leadership through influence
When you work with kids, it’s very easy to assume that they will do whatever you decide without questioning your decisions. It can work. But will it have a positive impact, and will you ever get to know their will?
While making decisions, you also have to make sure that you give a voice to each of them as an individual so you can develop trust. You don’t want to be the authority — you want the child to feel heard and valued while guiding them through their challenges.
In the adult world, this works in the same way. While iterating on a product, you’ll have the design and engineering teams with whom you work sharing ideas and bringing their expertise to the table, and its value is incalculable. It’s your responsibility to hear them actively and to ask the right questions to understand their context and point of view so you can integrate their ideas into the plan. Commonly, different ideas from various members may result in one great solution or even that one small tip shared by someone transforms itself into something bigger when deeply analyzed.
As a Product Owner, you are responsible for the product and you want to have your team with you, but to succeed you need to set your behavior as an example and allow everyone to contribute to the process, to build trust. This trust will be the key and the base to influence others and will allow you to leverage performance and positive results in the teams you’re working with.
I can confidently affirm that I’ve already faced the most challenging stakeholders in the world. And if you think that I’m referring to kids again… Wrong answer! There is a demanding intervenient when you work in the education field: parents. The equation is straightforward here: they either love or hate you.
And what was the key that I’ve used to ensure I could keep these parents on the light side of the force? Exactly! Communication. And communication isn’t only the conversations you have at the classroom’s door.
One of my strategies to increase the parents’ confidence was to create a new communication channel: a monthly newsletter customized for each kid, which worked as a “Month in review.” I was overwhelmed with the huge impact of this initiative! The parents started to share feedback and discuss relevant topics that, until then, weren’t even part of our regular conversations.
The bridge to the Product Owner role is quite obvious: communication is also an unconditional component that you must use and improve over time. Through effective and regular communication you’ll be able to inspire trust in clients and teams, which turns you into the glue that keeps everyone on the same page. This is a powerful skill to create transparency and alignment. It can be done through Meeting Notes, Slack messages, Synchronous calls… you just need to pick what works best. What counts is that you need to use it and assume it as something non-negotiable.
📚 Decision making
Let’s mention something quite common, but that can be a terrible moment for any kid in kindergarten: end-of-year and/or Christmas parties. Guess who typically loves them? The kids’ parents! 😅
You would be surprised by the number of hours invested in its preparation. The hiatus between this and the pleasure that the kids (and the teachers) take out of these moments is huge. And what’s the worst thing you can do as a kindergarten teacher? To think or even say to the families that you would like to change these celebrations. But (there’s always a but!) what if you accompany this suggestion with relevant numbers and facts to show its pros/cons? With this approach, I was able to pass from a “What the hell are you doing?” to a “Wow, I wasn’t aware of this. How can we help you to turn these moments into something meaningful?”.
As a Product Owner, you’re also expected to collaborate with your teams to help them reach decisions, and sometimes, you’ll be the one communicating them. Having a set of questions, possible approaches, and data prepared beforehand will be a life-saver. It will allow you to gain perspective and rely more on facts and less on opinion, and consequently, make better decisions!
Being a Product Owner doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to know technical concepts from top to bottom. Of course, it will be helpful, but there is a strong component that you shouldn’t underestimate: soft skills! That’s what will make you excel on the job.
Transitions from kindergarten (and other professions) to Product are possible as long as these skills are framed correctly — it seems like kids taught me a lot of product management, hum?