The Person Behind the Action Item: Interpersonal Skills are the Bread and Butter of Product Management

They use their acting skills to convincingly simulate situations from the Product Management world and provide insights and practical advice to Product Managers participating in StarVision’s courses. Meet actors and workshop facilitators Joel Berman and Erez Grossberg

It’s no secret that the product manager role requires a wide range of skills. One of our most challenging tasks is managing without authority. Working with hundreds of product managers, it became very clear to us that improving the product manager’s interpersonal skills is an effective way of improving their ability to do a great job.

When we met Joel Berman and Erez Grossberg we immediately knew it was a match. They both studied acting and worked in television, theater, and film productions. Realizing they want to create a true change among people, they joined forces and established JBS, in which they use role-play simulations to develop professionals’ soft skills and allow them to practice interpersonal communication.

Erez, Joel, why is real-life scenario simulation such a powerful tool?

Erez: “We all learn in many ways – reading, watching, listening. Research shows that we tend to forget most of what we learn passively. When we experience, we are more likely to remember what we’ve learned and use it in practice. First-hand experience is the strongest, most purified way.”

As actors, i.e. not Product Managers, how do you sympathize with this profession’s challenges?

Joel: “When assembling this workshop, we worked closely with StarVision to find the most authentic day-to-day situations. But there’s something even more fundamental here. A person is a person and a dialogue between two people is a dialogue between two people, regardless of the technicalities of the profession.”

Erez: “We are actors, and as such, we get into our character’s shoes and do whatever it takes to understand it. To portray a Mikveh manager, Lea Koenig doesn’t have to be one. She must delve into her world.  That’s what we have done with StarVision – delved into the world of the product manager.”

Joel: “We also do not have the pretension to be the perfect R&D managers or salesmen. To do that we would need to be fully familiarized with the technical side of the job, and that’s not the focus of the workshop. The focus is soft skills and dealing with conflicts.”

Do participants have fun in it?

Erez: “Of course. The simulations always have a strong comic side to them. Comedy brings people together and makes it easier for them to relate to situations. And they take the experience of the workshop wherever they go, not just their workplace”.

Joel: “Participants meet two actors, who come from a totally different background than their own and bring something so incredibly relevant to their life. It must be refreshing.”

Nobody’s embarrassed?

Joel: “It’s up to us as the facilitators to recognize the sensitivities in the room and create an enabling atmosphere that will make everyone feel comfortable. And everyone always does, eventually.”

Why do you think this workshop is so effective for product managers?

Joel: “Product managers are positioned in a very interesting organizational interchange – they have to cooperate with R&D, sales and many more. To get everyone on board and to coordinate between them they must master the art of dialogue like actors, or maybe even directors.”

Erez: “A good director knows that working with a cast of 20 actors means working with each of them uniquely while staying focused on the big picture – the play or the film, and in our case – the product.”

What kind of changes do you see participants go through?

Erez: “Towards the end of every session we see that participants come to realize that their technical abilities embody only one part the game, They realize they lean too much on their technical knowledge and that a huge part of their success depends on understanding the other person and providing them with what they need. Sometimes this means being softer, sometimes more assertive. This realization is what we are looking for.”

Joel: “Many times, product managers are simply afraid to go personal and avoid that. During the workshop they realize that discussing personal issues is sometimes the key to a colleague’s cooperation. And we also provide them with the tools they need to communicate on that personal level. They don’t have to lean on their intuition.”

If you could give one advice to product managers, what would it be?

Erez: “Go into a meeting knowing exactly what you want to accomplish.”

Joel: “Identify the spot where you can reach out and touch the other person and enjoy the communication with them. For example, if a colleague wants to talk about their last weekend family trip before going into the professional stuff, allow them to do so, and even get back to it later in the conversation. While we sometimes see this as a waste of time, it is usually the fastest way to achieve cooperation”.

Learn more about the JBS-StarVision Interpersonal Communication Skills Workshop.

Listening – The Key Product Management Skill You Must Master

Working closely with various organizational stakeholders, product managers are positioned at a central organizational interchange. Sales, marketing, customer success, R&D and QA personnel all have different motivation and interests, which unfortunately are not always aligned with those of product management. The R&D team may, for example, strive to utilize new technologies which do not necessarily add value to the customers, while salespeople may push specific customers’ deal-closing features regardless of their relevance to most of the users.

Traditionally, none of the stakeholders report to the product manager, and yet the product manager’s success is dependent on her ability to motivate them. Knowing that behind every stakeholder stands a person, with specific drives, motivations, and issues on their mind (ego, job security, promotions, etc.), product managers must have excellent interpersonal communication skills and communicate effectively with multiple teams inside and outside their company.

Listening to Unspoken Words

Excellent communication skills include deeply understanding each professional interaction. A product manager should know her own goals (while this may sound obvious, think about recent meetings you participated in and ask yourself whether you knew what you aimed to achieve when entering them) and focus on them. But knowing what you are after is not enough.

To influence without official authority, product managers should always be aware of their counterparts’ perspective and bear in mind their goals and motivations as well as potential obstacles before choosing what to say and how. There is no one rule that fits all cases – sometimes it makes sense to take a more assertive approach while in other cases it is better to reach a consensus.

It is an ongoing learning procedure, not only of the generic principles of interpersonal communication, but also of the people you work with – their needs, incentives, and sometimes even their fears. Listening actively will eventually allow you to find your way with them, to present and evangelize new ideas while getting everyone on board to do what’s needed to build and market a winning product.