Diverse product leaders will redefine what leadership looks like for the better.Featured

How do you think about using your leadership role to advance diversity in product?One early morning, I was ready to present my team’s weekly progress to the business and technical leadership. The CEO looked at my giant pregnant belly from the other end of the boardroom table and asked me how I was doing. Looking around the table of men watching me, I gathered myself, forced a calm smile, and lied “I’m great.” “That’s good” he said, “not all pregnancies are that easy, know you.” He meant well, but he didn’t know that I had just had another sleepless night filled with contractions, leg cramps, and heartburn. He didn’t know that I was going through a pregnancy from hell and was petrified of my long commute to the office because I was getting very little sleep and could start getting contractions at any point. A few weeks earlier, I’d gotten rear-ended by a careless driver on the freeway and spent painful and terrifying hours strapped in a baby monitor at the hospital. My fear was not exactly unsubstantiated.After that leadership meeting, my manager took me aside to tell me that I needed to work on my leadership presence. I didn’t look confident, he said. He too meant well. I was the first woman to be pregnant at our rapidly growing 200+ people company and the first in his entire professional life. He had no idea what I was going through. I took my manager’s feedback seriously because leadership charisma is key to product management. You have to lead and inspire your team without formal authority. And you have to represent the team’s work to the rest of the org to make sure the team is always moving in the right direction and never gets bogged down in cross-functional miscommunications. At first, I was having a hard time reconciling this new feedback with the feedback I’ve been hearing for years. Colleagues had always identified leadership charisma as one of my greatest strengths. So what was going on? Listening to The Charisma Myth during my commute, I finally figured it out. My physical discomfort came through in my body language, voice, and posture, so I didn’t exude confidence. The Charisma Myth tells you to wear comfortable clothes and avoid getting the sun in your eyes for important conversations, but there was literally nothing I could do to get more comfortable with a giant baby growing inside me. Looking back at my pregnancy and postpartum time, I miraculously managed to make a lot of progress in my work during that year. Probably much more progress than most able-bodied men do in a year. But not nearly as much progress as I made in the following years. And making that progress was ridiculously hard. I think about all the mothers who’ve gone through this experience multiple times during their most productive years and people with disabilities whose chronic physical discomfort prevents them from “looking confident.” We all know that diversity is good for business in many ways. Most obviously, the dudes in blue checked shirts sitting around our boardroom table had no experience or ability to empathize with 50% of the world’s population and some of the ultimate users of the products we were building. But how do we actually enable diversity and inclusion when all our work models are designed around just one type of individual? The good news is that more and more people with different backgrounds are getting to leadership roles where they can redefine what leadership looks like. It’s a tricky balance because to get there we need to try to fit in and fake it till we make it. Once we’ve made it though, we can use that position of power to make the path for other people from diverse groups easier. Having struggled ourselves, this is easier said than done. I’ve seen many women in leadership roles turn a blind eye to blatant sexism, not to mention unconscious bias. They are tired. They feel like they have seen much worse. But that’s no excuse. You have to continue trying to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.I’ve thought about this responsibility when hiring product managers. To try to level the playing field, I introduced a task to get more diverse candidates further in the hiring pipeline. Non-diverse candidates tend to have had lots of advantages due to their privilege that causes them to look better on paper, but not necessarily be better at doing the actual work. I got lots of pushback for my task both from colleagues who preferred it to be a presentation that tested the candidates’ leadership presence and from the most privileged candidate in the pool who didn’t want to be bothered completing the task and mansplained that I didn’t know what I was doing. But pushing through the pushback paid off. Using an objective measure, the few diverse candidates in our pipeline perform better on the task than most non-diverse candidates. The takeaway is not that diverse candidates are always better PMs. Rather it’s that diverse candidates tend to stop themselves from applying unless they are really good. They do this even though I’ve tried to design job descriptions to avoid gendered language, share with groups like Women in Product, and advertise the fact that I’m a female hiring manager, which is fairly rare for product roles. I’ve also thought about this when organizing events for Women in Product. Our sponsors sometimes want male product leaders to keynote the event or moderate a panel, particularly when they don’t have female executives in product leadership roles. It’s something we’ve had to push back on given the central role a keynote speaker plays at an event. Junior female PMs need to be able to look at the speaker and think “This could be me. I could do this.” Because they really could and, one day, it will be them. Yana Welinder is Head of Product at IFTTT, where she’s working to help everyone unlock magical experiences by connecting different products and services. She’s also a co-lead of Women in Product San Francisco. In previous roles, she worked on disrupting manufacturing with digital production at Carbon and tackled knowledge creation on Wikipedia. Yana graduated from Harvard, London School of Economics, and USC. She grew up in Sweden and has lived and worked in Dublin, London, L.A., Boston, and San Diego, before settling down in quirky San Francisco.
Hi Elphas – today we're featuring Yana Welinder as part of our ongoing series with women doing impressive work in tech.Yana – thank you for joining us!Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
How insightful and inspiring!
Thank you for sharing a relatable experience! If you had a do-over, or a different co-working environment, what would you advocate for changing or doing to improve the current environment without hiring? Would you advocate for forming allies during your pregnancy, more transparency about how you're feeling, or something else?
Developing allies is usually the best idea and something I've done in different contexts. But I don't think it would have worked here. I think the only way to improve the situation would have been to promote more women (mothers even!) into relevant leadership roles. In this particular case, I was the only woman in the room and most men were either single or married to stay-at-home wives.
Thank you Yana for being an inspirational leader for hiring diverse PM's! I was a Sr Manager at a consulting firms and a PM in a startup, so I have experienced many work environments. I applaud you for using objective measures when hiring. How do you think we can teach more hiring managers to consider those? I also think there is a great opportunity to create mentorship programs for women early in their career (especially new mothers) and experienced women.
Hi Beth! Thanks for connecting with me on LinkedIn! I'd like to put you in touch with the Women in Product lead who focused on the workshop portion of our program. Look forward to collaborating this! :)
Hello Yana - Looking forward to collaborating!