Skip to Content

115 / How Emotional Intelligence Drives Product Success, with Kate Leto

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Kate Leto

Product Coach, Consultant

Kate Leto’s product management, org design, and marketing background spans more than 25 years. She has had a front-row seat to the evolving ways products are discovered, defined, built, and delivered and now takes her hands-on experience into organizations of all shapes and sizes as a consultant, coach, and advisor; helping to create authentic, high-performing cultures, teams, and products. Her consulting experience has taken her around the world, guiding clients that range from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 companies. Kate’s first book, Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills, is now available.

For years product management’s “hard skills” have gotten much of the spotlight, maybe because they’re easier to get our arms around. But as product management coach and consultant Kate Leto explains, the conversation seems to be shifting toward product leadership’s more elusive collection of “soft skills,” which she refers to as emotional intelligence.

In this episode of Product Momentum, Kate emphasizes the need to develop aptitude around empathy, conflict resolution, resilience, and maintaining a positive attitude. Her first book, Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills, discusses how the human approach to product leadership often makes the difference in individual, team, and product success.

Sharpening our product technique and functional skills remains vital, she explains. “But we need to reframe the narrative and realize that things like emotional intelligence are important skills sets as well.”

All these soft skills come together to form Product EQ, really bringing emotional intelligence front and center into the product community, Kate adds.

Catch the entire episode with Kate Leto, and be sure to listen for her insights on hiring and team building that go beyond the functional proficiency, especially:

  • The Role Canvas. A collaborative approach to creating a meaningful role.
  • The Product EQ Wheel. A self-reflection exercise designed to help you understand and assess your product EQ.
  • Sphere of Influence. Understanding that our ability to truly control behaviors and outcomes is limited.

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul [00:00:43] Hey everyone, really excited to share this conversation with Kate Leto. We talked a lot about how we’re aware of the leadership problems that product leaders face, but we don’t often talk about the tools that address these in really effective ways. And Kate’s work has been so effective at helping to illuminate the journey that product leaders, directors, managers of product managers look into as a daily practice. And I think the hard skills often get the spotlight because they’re easier to get our arms around, but the soft skills are really important and there are equally approachable and valuable tools to talk about measuring and hiring and building and nurturing teams of product leaders. So I really hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. So let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:23] Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to the show. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Kate Leto. Kate’s product management, org design, and marketing background spans more than 25 years. She’s had a front-row seat to the evolving ways products are discovered, defined, built, and delivered, and now takes her hands-on approach to organizations of all shapes and sizes as consultant, coach, and advisor. Helping create authentic, high-performing cultures, teams, and products, her consulting experience has taken her around the world, guiding clients that range from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 companies. Kate’s first book, Hiring Product Managers: Using product EQ to go beyond culture and skills, is available at Amazon and anywhere you can find books about product management. Kate, thanks so much for joining us today. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Kate [00:02:05] My pleasure. I’m very happy to be here with you.

Paul [00:02:08] Absolutely. So jumping right in, I’d love to start with a little bit about the book itself, about your inspiration behind it, and maybe just some of the nooks and crannies that you find in the product community that you found it important to kind of go on the record about this idea of product EQ.

Kate [00:02:24] Yeah, that’s a great first question. It’ll help me give everyone a little bit more context as to my background where thinking and kind of the importance that I place on emotional intelligence in product management is coming from.

Kate [00:02:36] So I’ve been an independent product consultant, believe it or not, since 2011. So that’s 12 years now, which is just nuts. Before that, I had leadership positions in startups and corporates alike, and I had just decided that it was time for me to go do my own thing. And as I started doing consulting, probably a few years on, I was doing a variety of consulting, everything from helping organizations with their strategies to helping organizations with their hiring, to helping product organizations figure out their ways of working, all sorts of stuff. But I noticed probably about five, six years in to my consulting work that the questions that people were bringing to me, well, they might start out being some kind of functional product question, like how you create a road map or going deep into a strategy question or something like that. About five, 10 minutes in, the questions became quite personal in nature, you know, like comments around, like, “I don’t think my boss likes me'” “I don’t know how to get my team to do what I’d like them to do;” “I don’t think I’m going to get the promotion I really want;” “I don’t know if I even want to be doing this for my job, like, what am I doing with my life?”

Kate [00:03:42] And to be honest, I didn’t feel like I had the expertise and the tools to really help people answer those questions. So that’s when I took my first coaching program and training. That was probably in 2016, 2017 that I did that. And the coaching, you know, I didn’t do it to become a coach, but it really opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about how we work and how we bring ourselves to work and what are some of the questions that are really sitting there that we don’t know how to address and provided me with a whole new kind of set of tools and ways of thinking and learning to help people with that.

Kate [00:04:16] So after I got done with that first coaching program, I remember it was like January probably, I don’t know, 2017, 2018, and I was in my front room at my flat in London and I was going through all the product logs. You know, I’m like, “I got to get my dose of content,” because I hadn’t sat down and read things for a while. And in doing that I was noticing everything I was reading was about the functional side of product: “this is how you make a great roadmap,” “this is what you need to do a strategy document,” “this is what a vision is,” you know, this is how, “these are the five interview questions you should ask,” things like that.

Kate [00:04:51] And I was just like, “Nobody’s talking about anything that has to do with this whole emotional or personal development side of product management.” And so that’s where after I started to do a lot of reading about emotional intelligence and things, also during my coaching program, I’m like, we need to bring the focus on things besides product technique and product functional skills into our community. We need to reframe the narrative around, what does good look like in product? And realize that things like emotional intelligence, things like self-awareness, things like dealing with conflict, things like being resilient and having a positive attitude. All of these things come together and are essential in product management, but nobody was talking about it. So that’s where I brainstormed with a friend to come up with this concept of product EQ and really bring emotional intelligence front and center into the product community.

Paul [00:05:41] You know, I felt seen for the first time reading your book. I am a director of product management here at ITX and I have a team of a couple dozen product managers and product folks on the team and hiring and building career paths and trying to help nurture a sense of feeling complete and settled and present and capable to the problems that arise in the functional space, but also developing the people conversation too. For product leaders who are trying to build product teams, it really is kind of an unspoken burden, in a good way, but I think it is something that isn’t talked about. So I’m really glad to have had the breakthroughs that I experienced reading, and I’m very grateful that you took the time to put this all together. Pivoting for just a second into your other talks, you’re quite prolific. Besides writing books, can you tell us about how you’ve connected with the community? Especially your talk at mind the product, which I felt like you knocked it out of the park. What kind of things do you find resonating?

Kate [00:06:35] You know, what’s really interesting is a lot of times people will come up to me after I talk and they often will be more comfortable with sharing more personal things, you know, sharing things like they might have had a hard time at work and realizing that experiencing burnout, experiencing frustrations and tension with managers and with colleagues, and realizing that the work that they were doing, you know, to really reach levels they wanted to achieve within product management, that they needed to think about these other skills. They needed to think about, “What does it mean to really be self-aware and how can I build that?” And they need to think about what it means to have, like, these really challenging conversations with bosses or with stakeholders or with different members of their team.

Kate [00:07:16] So one of the cool things that happened, and I don’t think this is just from me, but I think our product community over the last couple years is starting to move in this direction where it’s okay to talk about these things. It’s okay to realize that it’s not just about hitting all your OKRs or writing the best OKRs even. It’s about who you are as a person and how you’re bringing these different capabilities and skills that nobody’s talked about before, all these things that make you human, into the work as well, and doing it in a way that is really powerful, you know, in a way that helps you feel good about yourself and also helps your team, right? It’s contagious and helps your organization and therefore has a bigger impact, hopefully, on your customer and society overall.

Paul [00:08:00] Yeah.

Kate [00:08:00] But it starts with you. So it’s been really nice. I did a talk a couple of months ago at Industry Product Conference in Dublin and we had a Q&A afterwards and there were a range of questions. But my favorite part is when people come and talk to me about some of the challenging times they’ve had in their product management and product leadership jobs and how being able to talk about things like emotional intelligence has helped create kind of like a bit of a, not a safety net, but a safer space for the conversation.

Paul [00:08:31] Yeah. You’re reminding me of a talk that I heard recently at the New York Product Conference where Chad Dickerson, former CEO of Etsy, mentioned something to the effect of, and I’m paraphrasing liberally here, so apologies to Chad, but he said something to the effect of, “product people often complain or bemoan the fact that we have all the influence, but none of the authority and this imposter syndrome that tends to come up in product communities.” And his point there was that influence without authority is what true leadership always looks like. If you grasp at that authority and you want to hold on to that decision, you’ve now limited yourself. You’re now in a box.

Kate [00:09:05] Right.

Paul [00:09:06] So I’m curious, digging into your thoughts on leadership and what real leaders do and say, I’m curious if there’s a way that we can maybe unpack a bit what your thoughts are on what leaders do and say in their product organizations.

Kate [00:09:19] You know, I think the thing that perhaps one of the ways I think about leadership a bit differently, be it in product organizations or in other areas of the company, is that I feel like your leadership style, everybody has leadership, owns leadership, is present in leadership in a different way. And it all comes from your own values, your own experiences, and your own backgrounds, right?

Kate [00:09:39] So it’s hard to say that, like, there’s one type of leadership and that everybody needs to sign up to this and that to be a leader, you have to show A, B, and C, because for everyone it’s different. And I think the work that I enjoy doing with my coaching clients is very much getting a better understanding of what is their kind of authentic level of leadership, you know, based on their backgrounds and their experiences. You know, what’s gone well for them and what hasn’t gone well, and their personal experience as well. You know, who does that make them as a leader and how can they use those as huge strengths to become, you know, a really positive force of leadership within a product organization or outside of product?

Kate [00:10:19] So I’m not sure I just answered your question directly or not. But I think leadership has so many different flavors, right, and so many different blends, that what’s really powerful is when you understand what leadership means to you as an individual and how you can bring that to life at work every day.

Paul [00:10:40] Yeah.

Kate [00:10:40] It sounds really simple, but it’s quite complex.

Paul [00:10:45] A few months ago there was a trend going around about having a user’s manual for yourself for you to give to your team: “how to talk to me, how to show up to me.”

Kate [00:10:53] Yes.

Paul [00:10:54] And I’ve had that draft sitting idle. It takes a long time to even understand what your leadership style is, let alone being able to communicate to others what that means for the organization and how to benefit. It’s a really complex challenge, and I think that the way that you’ve articulated it helps people get thinking about it. And speaking of, you know, we’ve, I hope, laid enough of a foundation in these questions and observations to start thinking about things a little bit differently. There might be aspiring product leaders, maybe Directors or VPs of Product or CPOs wondering, “Okay, great, I agree, I’m enrolled, now what? What are some practical things that I can do? I’m building a team.” Maybe we can start with something simple, like, what qualities do you look for in hires? If you get those kind of questions after your talks, how do you approach the practical side of this question since it can be a bit philosophical? What can somebody take back to their team today?

Kate [00:11:42] Yeah, well, I guess one of the things that I have in my book actually is this role canvas, and it’s in the talk that is on my website from Mind the Product a few years ago. And what the role canvas does is just ask four really basic questions around kind of what’s the focus of the role, what’s its reason for existence? So not just the job title, but going a bit deeper than that. What are the outcomes the role will be working towards? And then what human skills or EQ skills, as well as what technical or functional product skills this role is going to need in order to achieve these outcomes?

Kate [00:12:13] So one of the things that I try to work with my clients on is when you are thinking about hiring, when you are thinking about building your team, it’s let’s think outside the box of ticking functional skills, of, you know, they’ve had experience maybe putting together a great strategy; they’ve had experience of building good relationships with their development team or with stakeholders; they’ve had good experience of building out OKRs and things like that. Let’s go beyond that and think of, like, what type of human skills and emotional intelligence competencies do you really need to help make that happen?

Kate [00:12:48] So I will always harp on about the importance of self-awareness because it’s, in my mind, like, the meta-skill of all times, right? Self-awareness is not just thinking about how you see yourself, but how others see you, right? And that has a huge impact on everything we do from deciding what should go into a strategy document, making sure that you’re putting things in there, you’re pushing for things that are for the best for the organization, for the best for the team, and not the best for yourself, perhaps, to having those really challenging conversations and growing things like empathy with different members of your team to help you get through some challenging times.

Kate [00:13:26] So I guess one of the first takeaways I have for people that are thinking of growing their teams and how to do that is to go check out the role canvas. And if nothing else, think about not just what’s going to tick the box and the functional requirements, but what kind of human skills and emotional intelligence competencies does this role really need to get the job done?

Paul [00:13:45] Yeah, it’s such a great ad. I think it’s really been helpful to think about things in that context. And the way that you described self-awareness, of not just being aware of who you are, but how others see you as well, I think there’s a gap in sort of that common understanding. A lot of people see self-awareness as just introspection and self-reflection, but it’s really, how do you fit and how do others see you, and how can you help the organization?

Paul [00:14:05] And that brings me to another question that I wanted to get into about influence, because self-awareness is really just the first step. How do you think about the ways that you impact the team and influence those around you? Perhaps to put a finer point in the question, can you describe how product managers can use this concept of influence or control to prioritize what goes on in their day-to-day? What does this term sphere of influence mean in relation to self-awareness?

Kate [00:14:31] Yeah, so there is a great tool that I did not create. It was created by somebody much smarter than me. Don’t quote me, but I think it was Stephen Covey. The sphere influence is a tool that was created by somebody much smarter than me years ago. And what it helps us to do is to better consider what’s really within our control, what’s something that we might be able to influence, and what something that’s really outside of both of these things and is just a concern that we need to let go? So let me dig into that a bit deeper. So there is this theory that I subscribe to that the only thing you can really control is your own actions and your own behaviors.

Kate [00:15:11] You know, we might think we might be able to influence somebody’s reaction or somebody’s answer to us, but in reality, we have very little control over that, right. That might be something, if it’s a stakeholder you’re trying to convince one way or another, or trying to understand their thinking, might be something you could influence, but it is not within your control. We, as product managers and as humans overall really feel much better when we have things in our control. But the amount that we can really control in life at work and beyond is minimal. It is what your behaviors are and what your actions are. So it’s thinking of things in that way. And also when I talk to clients about that, it’s kind of a bit of a mind-blowing experience because it’s like, “Oh yeah, you’re right’ I can’t really control somebody’s response, right? I can convey my side of things, but I can’t control what they’re going to say.”

Kate [00:16:00] So that would be a different way of thinking about what you can control. Then there’s, if you think of three concentric circles, the next circle that’s slightly bigger than your sphere of control is your sphere of influence. So these are things that you can really influence, that you have the opportunity to have further conversations about, you can dig into, you can investigate and try to make an impact on. And I think the more we dig into what we can influence, we might find that we can only go so far because of this third sphere, this biggest sphere, which is called the sphere of concern, which are things that are completely outside of our control and outside of our influence. So, for example, let’s say you’re going to launch a product and it’s a mortgage product or something like that, and inflation rates are through the roof. You cannot control the influx of inflation within your market. You can’t influence it even, right? It’s completely out of your control. It’s completely out of your influence. It’s a concern that you have, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So you got to let it go.

Paul [00:17:01] Yeah.

Paul [00:17:01] You know, let’s say they want to hire a new CEO in your organization. Chances are you’re not going to be able to control that or influence it, but it’s a concern you have. You got to let that go.

Paul [00:17:11] Yeah.

Kate [00:17:12] So it’s just different ways of approaching how you think of the power of influence in our product work.

Paul [00:17:18] Yeah. You know, we just have a couple of minutes left and I only have a few questions. I’m dying to ask so many more. But just to summarize where you just took us through those concentric circles and the spheres of influence, I’m going to take a little bit of selfish indulgence and share a personal anecdote that reflects exactly what you were talking about. Early on in my career in the Navy, my operations officer drew a ship handling diagram in how you get a ship away from the pier. Even though it’s slow-moving, it’s one of the most dangerous evolutions a ship can go through. On the one hand, he drew a column that said controllables, and on the other hand, he drew a column that said uncontrollables. You can control your rudder; you can control the lines that tie the ship to the pier; you can control your engines. You can’t control the tide; you can’t control the wind; you can’t control other shipping around you.

Paul [00:18:01] And I’m going back 20 years plus to recall this story to you now, but that anecdote has stuck with me over the decades. And controlling the controllables is something that can really help address a sense of overwhelm when people are looking at a scenario and it’s, you know, everything feels big and everything feels important. And focusing on those things that we can truly control can help bring a sense of calm. And really, I think that’s what leaders do in those kinds of situations.

Kate [00:18:25] That’s a great comparison. That absolutely makes sense.

Paul [00:18:29] Getting into our last couple of questions, this is a question that we ask all of our guests in conclusion, and I’m really eager for where you might take us. It’s a simple question, deceptively simple, perhaps, but the word innovation is one that we throw around often in the product community. And if you asked ten product managers what the definition of innovation is, you’ll get ten different answers. I’m honestly just curious for yours, what would you say your definition of innovation is?

Kate [00:18:53] Experimentation.

Paul [00:18:54] Hmm.

Kate [00:18:55] I think to innovate, you have to be comfortable in building some small experiments to realize you’re not going to go from A to Z in one go. But putting together small experiments, building out hypotheses, having the discipline to test them out, to check in on them, to iterate and to keep going. And my work, I often think of the work that I do with clients as continuous improvement, right? And we create change with ourselves and with our organizations by building small experiments just like you do with the product. We create small experiments on behavior change and emotional tracking and self-reflection and all these other things, and we check in on them and we adapt and we learn and we keep going. So in my mind, innovation is change through experimentation.

Paul [00:19:44] Yeah. And that really goes back to the emotional intelligence and being self-aware, right? You have to be aware of how things influence other things, how people feel about the decisions that you make in order to do these experiments and be honest with yourself about the results without rose-colored glasses.

Kate [00:19:58] Yeah, absolutely.

Paul [00:20:00] Yeah. So the last question I’ll ask, we love to know, you know, what’s inspiring, exciting for you in the product community in terms of books or talks? We’ll obviously link your book, but what are you finding inspiration from around the community? What books do you think should be on a product manager’s bookshelf if they’re just starting out in their career?

Kate [00:20:16] If they’re just starting out in their career, oh, goodness. I feel like there’s a lot of good standards, you know, that I’m sure others have mentioned. Like, I love Matt LeMay’s book on product practice.

Paul [00:20:28] Yeah.

Kate [00:20:28] I love my friend and colleague, Petra’s book on strong product management, although I think that it gets into a little more of the leadership space. Teresa Torres’s work on discovery habits, Continuous Discovery Habits, is like a go-to. Gosh, I’m trying to think. For just your go-to getting going in product management, there’s always, you know, Marty Cagan’s book. Melissa Perri’s book, Escaping the Build Trap, is kind of a no-brainer as well.

Paul [00:20:52] Absolutely.

Kate [00:20:53] So, yeah, lots of good stuff.

Paul [00:20:55] Yeah, I love it. So thank you so much for taking the time today. I wish we had another hour to unpack these ideas. You’ve got so much sort of brimming over with the concepts and I think they are really relevant and becoming more so as we’re seeing, you know, return to work and people bumping into each other in post-pandemic ways and lots of things that are leadership challenges. But, you know, it’s always kind of the same problem with different packaging. And being able to dig into these things and your diagnosis of them has been really helpful for me. So thank you again for taking the time. It’s been a real pleasure.

Kate [00:21:26] Me too, went very quick. So thanks very much.

Paul [00:21:28] Absolutely. All right. We’ll be in touch real soon. Cheers.

Paul [00:21:34] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

Like what you see? Let’s talk now.

Reach Out