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124 / Mastering Product Management: ‘Zooming Out’ for Strategic Clarity, with Shelly Kalish

Hosted by Paul Gebel




Shelly Kalish


Shelly Kalish has been in product for over 10 years, mainly at American Express and Meta (Facebook), where she moved from Senior Product Manager to Senior Director. She is a global product leader with a focus on outcomes and impact in mobile and web product development. Throughout her career, Shelly has worked to define and socialize product vision and strategy in organizations of all sizes, ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, in both B2B and B2C industries. Shelly is widely recognized for her ability to build, lead, and grow high-performing teams that are customer-centric and exceptional at execution. She remains passionate about helping customers achieve their goals, and she excels in creating strategies and product roadmaps that drive innovation and growth.


In product, it’s easy to lock in on a user-focused or customer-centric mindset. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if we lose sight of the bigger picture. As product managers, we have a business to run. We have team members to grow and develop. We’re responsible for broader financial metrics. Shelly Kalish describes this “zooming out” approach as a way to take a more macro view of our role and establish some context for it.

In this episode of Product Momentum, Paul Gebel is joined by Shelly Kalish, a global product leader with over ten years of experience at companies like Meta/Facebook, American Express, and now SitterCity.

“Zooming out is centered on taking a step back from our product to be able to see a bigger picture,” Shelly adds. “It’s everything from learning about market trends, technology, competition, etc. And it requires us to understand the goals of the business from the perspective of sales, marketing, and finance.” Put another way, it requires communication, that critical skill underlying the “three-legged stool” of product management: impact, optics, and execution.

Shelly also discusses the importance of “zooming in” not only in operational terms of examining the day-to-day optics and communication strategies,but also how we can grow to be a general asset for the organizations and teams we serve as product leaders. This zoom-in, zoom-out approach can be useful both for product growth as well as our individual career growth, Shelly explains.

Be sure to catch the entire episode to hear Shelly’s thoughts about:

  • How lateral growth can revitalize your career
  • How to prioritize and manage your seemingly endless to-do list
  • How inclusivity and creativity drive innovation

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 folks, really excited to share this conversation with Shelly Kalish with you. She is a prolific writer, talking about things from strategy to career development. I had the opportunity to see her this year in New York City at the product conference there, and I’ve been looking forward to chatting with her ever since. Her thoughts on how to zoom out and take a long lens look at your career, zooming in and looking at the day-to-day optics and communication strategies, but also just how to be a general asset for the organizations that we find ourselves in as product leaders. I am positive that there’s going to be something valuable for you to take away and apply to your career and your teams coming out of this conversation. So enough intro and let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:23] Hello and welcome to the pod. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Shelly Kalish. Shelly has been in product for over ten years, mainly at American Express and Meta/Facebook, where she moved from Senior Product Manager to Senior Director. She’s currently serving as Senior Product Director at Sittercity, but she’s widely recognized for her ability to build, lead, and grow high-performing teams that are customer-centric and exceptional at execution. She’s passionate about helping customers achieve their goals and excels in creating strategies and product roadmaps that drive innovation and growth. Shelly, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today.

Shelly [00:01:55] Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Paul [00:01:57] Absolutely. You’ve had a really interesting journey and I’m really excited to dig into it. Can we maybe start at a high level and just unpack some of the ideas that we talked about, especially in regard to this idea you called the zooming out as part of your daily routine as a product manager? It’s important to set ourselves up for success. So I’m wondering if you can maybe start us off around this idea of getting ourselves situated and thinking about things a little bit differently.

Shelly [00:02:23] Yeah, absolutely. So zooming out to me is really looking at it at the macro view. It’s centered on taking a step back from our product to be able to see the bigger picture and establish some context. It’s everything to do from learning about market trends, technology, competition, and whatever else is important and relevant to your product and/or company and/or industry. And it really centers on understanding the goals of the business from the sales perspective, marketing, and finance. In larger companies, it could also be understanding what the lines of business are up to and how it all really connects so that you can identify the areas of opportunity and make your product the very best.

Paul [00:03:12] Yeah, I love this idea because first of all, zooming out and sort of scaling out is an important reminder for everybody, but especially in product, because we often fall into mindsets of X-obsessed or X-centric, you know, user-obsessed or customer-centric, and we kind of lose sight of the bigger picture. We do have a business to run. We have people on teams to grow and build. We have, you know, broader financial metrics. And I think that when product managers really leverage the knowledge that, really, if we’re being honest, only we have in the business, right? We talk to all of these stakeholders around the place. And I think that there’s something to be said for product management as a general management skill.

Paul [00:03:51] And I think one of the things that we can take away, and I’m interested in your take on more is this idea of communication not just as style or mode, but really we have a lot of knowledge that can help others within our organizations, inside and outside. What are some ideas that you’ve had about communication, kind of unpacking this idea of communication as a make-or-break skill for product? What does that mean to you when you think about where we can go with this as product leaders?

Shelly [00:04:17] Yeah, I think communication is probably one of the most important skills, especially soft skills. And I remember I was recently trying to research around communication and how many times it gets brought up in just different product gurus and leaders talking about it. And I actually even surveyed the LinkedIn community like, “What’s the most important thing? Is it creating strategy? Is it executing that strategy or is it communicating that strategy?” And honestly, it was the communication part that got the most votes, because ultimately it’s about, how do you evangelize, how do you get alignment, how do you really understand the idea of collaboration and influencing across and up and down?

Shelly [00:04:59] And also as a leader, how do you use that communication to promote the work of your team and champion the work of your team so that they can get recognized and also create alignment? You know, we talk a lot about Shreyas Doshi and his whole (LNO) framework, and optics is a really big component of that. And to me, at the core of optics is really communication. It’s really about, how do we leverage our knowledge base and communicate that out and discuss it and share ideas and use that to influence, but also create alignment in everything that we do?

Paul [00:05:37] So I want to pull on this a little bit more, because I think the idea of optics doesn’t really fit into, you know, in an Agile mold or an operational efficiency kind of methodology. In fact, in many sides of businesses and teams, it might even be seen as, you know, over-communicating could be waste. Or if we’re taking so much time, we’ll be moving slower. So some of the counterpoints to this idea might be hesitant to jump into this idea and really lean in because it can slow things down. My hypothesis is that you do kind of have to go slow to go fast. You do have to take that time to discover and empathize. Is that what you mean by optics, or is there a side of it that you want to pull on a little bit more?

Shelly [00:06:15] Yeah, that’s part of it. I think, sure, if you are spending your entire day in meetings trying to influence and just trying to align, that’s probably not a good use of time and that’s more of a time management and prioritization discussion. For me, optics is really about communicating and evangelizing your product in the right way. I like to say, “If you build something but no one knows about it, does it really count? Is it really going to be successful?”.

Shelly [00:06:42] So it’s an important thing that a product manager should focus on, especially if they want to grow their career. But it’s often the last thing that many work on, especially newer and less-tenured product managers. I think leaders need to spend a core part of their time in optics. And it’s really a two-way focus, right? It’s really, the first is understanding what the goals are of the teams that you’re working with. And then it’s also about how are you communicating outwardly about what your goals, and where are those aligning or not aligning, and how do you really work together to listen and help each other and ask for feedback and share? And then, yes, ultimately it’s about managing meetings effectively so that it’s not a waste.

Paul [00:07:28] Right. Yeah, I love that two-way focus because what it speaks to me is, we often fall into the trap of, “I need to document and share everything,” but we also need to be better questioners. We need to get information in ways that can be consumed and often translate that information along the way from technical stakeholders to non and vice versa. And I think that this is a really critical skill. It’s not just about being able to build analytics dashboards and do A-B testing. It’s really about connecting with the people on our teams and ultimately the users that benefit from hopefully all of our hard work, right?

Shelly [00:08:00] Yeah. I mean, if you’re asking questions of your users, you should also be asking questions of your stakeholders, which are internal users of your product, essentially.

Paul [00:08:08] Hundred percent. So I want to get a little bit more in the weeds. So we’ve been talking kind of strategically and organizationally. For a product manager who’s looking at your career and thinking, “One day that might be me.” You’ve been super successful at some of the biggest companies and have really cool stories to share. What’s something that we can talk about in terms of maybe a little bit more crunchy analytics like KPIs or ways that we can measure and really kind of take back to our teams today and implement? It’s kind of the flipside of zooming out is zooming in, right? How do we get into that different kind of mindset?

Shelly [00:08:41] Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment on my career. I look at my career and I’m like, “I haven’t done enough.” And I look at other product leaders that I admire being like, “How can I learn from them?” So I appreciate that call out.

Shelly [00:08:54] In terms of the analytics side, or in other words, the zooming-in aspect of it. It’s really about, to me again, the micro view. So that’s the opposite of the zooming out and the macro, where it’s the specific product area and so many companies, if you, you know, think about the names of the world, it’s really product execution and analytics come to play. Like, you won’t be able to get into those companies unless you go through a really in-depth product execution interview. And to me, it’s really about identifying the problems and opportunities, but also understanding, how do you measure what those problems are? How do you know if you’re going to focus on a problem and focus on a solution to that problem, that you focused on the right solution, right? How are you going to be able to measure that success in the best way?

Shelly [00:09:43] And it’s really understanding your product inside and out so that you can look at the data from many different angles. You want to be able to look at it from, you know, segmentation and also marrying the qualitative and quantitative data to draw that picture of, how is your product performing? Is it successful? Where do I need to dive deeper into? What do I need to optimize? What do I need to even maybe get rid of and deprecate? And I think it’s also really important to use it as a measure of health, right? Like, “How healthy is my product?” And the health of the product from obviously error rates and bugs and things like that is obviously important, but also health in terms of, what are the most critical areas that you need to spend more time on to help your product and also your company grow and get better?

Shelly [00:10:32] And so it’s, again, manipulating views of the dashboard, of the analytics that you have, but I also want to call out that it’s also really important, again, to look at it from a qualitative perspective. So, you know, you’re looking at the user feedback, you’re understanding how that user feedback actually translates into what is happening from the quantitative data perspective, and really identifying patterns that make sense for you to keep track of. Whether it’s jotting down notes or copy-pasting information so that day over day you can identify them and leverage it, ultimately, also, as well, for optics and discussions.

Paul [00:11:12] Yeah. And this kind of rounds out that full sort of three-legged stool of impact, optics, and now execution. And your call out of qualitative metrics is, you know, calling back to a paper Jared Spool wrote, I mean, it’s going on ten years ago now, but it really made an impression on me when I read it for the first time. There was an obsession with sort of quantitative metrics and a lot of the vanity metrics like MAUs and conversion rates and a lot of the things that don’t always matter from product to product in the same way.

Paul [00:11:37] And qualitative metrics are often, I won’t say dismissed, but they’re not as easy to get your head around as it is to get a percent conversion or a number. But I think qualitative metrics have a real place in our toolkit as product people to be able to understand the stories that are happening around our product, because it’s not about the product itself, it’s about the experience, the impact on the world, hopefully making somebody’s life a little bit easier, better, more fulfilling in some way, shape, or form. So I think that that’s an unsung hero, an unsung tool in our toolbox for product people.

Paul [00:12:09] I want to shift gears just slightly about taking this balanced view of product managers, now that we’ve kind of unpacked the levels of perspective. And you alluded to it already in time management and you know, obviously, meetings are everybody’s favorite thing to dunk on, but the importance of prioritizing tasks and organizing them. What are some ways that we can help product managers, especially those sort of breaking into the career and trying to level up their career? How can you focus on these things to think about what needs to get done? Because there are so many different stakeholders asking for so many different things.

Shelly [00:12:41] Yeah, I think if you were to ask me like, how do I balance all three, I don’t. Like frankly, there’s no way you can. What I do try to do is identify for a given day or week or month what area I need to focus on and why. So I think on a given day, you can’t be able to do everything, right? That’s just, again, not smart time management. And sure, most product people I know are super ambitious and I would like to say, “I can do it all.” But let’s be realistic. If we really want to focus on, you know, having a good work-life balance and being able to do our job well, I think we also need to learn that focusing on, you know, one thing or a few things that you can actually move and influence is more important than trying to do everything not at 100%.

Shelly [00:13:30] And so for me, it’s really about focusing on all of the areas, the impact, the optics, the execution in a way where I need to know, “Where is my product at, where is my company at?” And knowing that, I know, “Okay, today I’m close to, you know, getting this out to market. I need to focus on the optics part. I need to make sure from a go-to-market perspective we’re in a good place. I need to make sure that the leadership knows this is coming and this is an area that’s going to have a lot of impact and can be a really big success for our product.” So it really, again, just the best answer I have is it depends on your day-to-day work and responsibilities as a product person and being able to firstly know when you start your day or you start your week, what era you need to focus on more and why to really help you balance all of them.

Paul [00:14:24] Yeah. First of all, I appreciate the honesty. I was under the impression that you were some kind of superhuman with 34 hours in your day.

Paul [00:14:32] The kind of things that go through my mind thinking about this is that there is, I think, an opportunity, talking through some of the ideas that you unpacked in the 2023 New York Product Conference about lateral growth. There’s an opportunity for us as product leaders to, you know, maybe do things that help the organization that aren’t specifically tied to our product or even product management at all but are adjacent to these skills, communication being the one that we’ve talked about already. Organizations even outside of the product domain obviously struggle with communication. And I think that there are ways that we can think about our career, not just going from title to title and laddering up, but also growing ourselves more broadly as humans and business leaders and product managers. What are some of the other things that come to mind, reflecting on maybe some of the ideas you unpacked in New York City that can help a product manager reignite their career? What comes to mind as sort of the traditional versus lateral growth that’s important to you?

Shelly [00:15:26] Yeah. I think it was obvious from my conference topic that it’s an area that I’m super passionate about and lateral growth or, you know, zigzagging your career, horizontal movement, horizontal growth are all ways that I talk about it sometimes. And it’s really, I think, focusing first on yourself and understanding, “What are my strengths, what are the things that excite me and motivate me so that I can reignite my career?” Whether it be in product and going from a Product Manager to a Senior Product Manager to a Director title, to going from product management, maybe to UXR, or again, an adjacent path.

Shelly [00:16:07] And so it really to me is about first, again, understanding yourself, your strengths, and your interests and then understanding, “Okay, let’s look at my career again almost as like a product. What are the areas that I need to perhaps focus on, right? Where are my areas of opportunity that I am interested in growing more? Maybe I haven’t done enough customer research, but I really, really love it and I don’t have enough opportunity there. Can I increase my scope? Can I take on some projects there before maybe even going into customer research? Or maybe I can grow my career as both a product and design leader because I’ve been able to tap into both types of skills.”

Shelly [00:16:49] So it’s really understanding how you can branch out in ways that are not limited to one particular field or direction and really understand, like, what types of problems are you interested in? So for me, for example, one of the reasons I love working at Sittercity is I have always said that parenting on top of product is my passion, and being able to marry the two is amazing. And also being able to work in a marketplace, in a consumer marketplace, was something that I was really, really interested in. Those are problems that I think are super interesting to me. Problems that parents have are interesting to me. And so I was really, really excited about that and I focused a lot of my energy into looking for those types of opportunities as well. So to me lateral growth is about developing in multiple areas of knowledge versus the traditional vertical trajectory, which is like a specialized expertise, which is great and I think is still needed and important. You know, ML and AI are great examples of that, but I think it’s a balance of both, and understanding that and knowing what’s best for you as well.

Paul [00:17:57] Yeah. You didn’t use the word resilience, but as you were talking through sort of work-life balance and organizations that can withstand this, I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with another guest on the podcast. Her name is Marsha Acker, and one of the things that she said that stuck with me that you just reminded me of was, “We don’t need resilient people; we need resilient organizations.” Because obviously, nobody has 34 hours in their day. Nobody has the perfect work-life balance. Nobody has omniscience when it comes to communication within the orgs. But if we can work to build resilient organizations, then we allow people to have rough days from time to time, to be complicated and, you know, be out of alignment with work-life balance and get back into it.

Paul [00:18:37] And when I’m hearing you think about these things and especially your role now at SitterCity, I think that there’s a kernel of truth here that’s kind of a throughline that organizations need to understand, especially in the post-pandemic world, that we’re all kind of still adjusting to that I think that there’s a role for product managers to play in the organizations that we live that can help organizations be more resilient, that can help people show up and not have a complete picture and still be learning and growing. And lateral growth ties right back into this. It’s part and parcel of if organizations can understand that this is how actual human beings work, we’re going to make places that are much more fulfilling and products that are much more helpful because it’s in our DNA now. It’s not a question in there. I’m just wondering out loud how you would respond to that.

Shelly [00:19:22] Absolutely, one hundred percent, I think learning is growth and it’s so important for organizations to recognize that you’re not going to get the perfect person in any role. It’s, you know, how well does that person fit into the organization and how can we help them grow and challenge them? And yeah, in terms of resilience, I think resilient organizations are super, super important because, you know, they foster a great culture and psychological safety and that ability and appetite to learn. But I also think it’s important as we think about our career in the long term to have resilience because you’re going to get a lot of no’s, right, whether you are a founder trying to, you know, get your first round of funding or you’re a person out of college looking for a job. It’s a hard real world out there. And I think, one, if organizations realize that and, two, if people realize that and both are more resilient, it will be a much stronger place in the world as well.

Paul [00:20:17] Yeah. I could talk about this for another hour with you but unfortunately, you only have time for another couple of questions. One of the questions that we ask all of our guests as we wrap up, and I encourage you to take this wherever you want. The question is usually posed, how do you define innovation? But I’d be curious to know if you have an anecdote or, you know, some of the places that you’ve been and seen products iterated on, sort of a practical example rather than just a textbook definition would be helpful. But take it as you will. How do you define innovation?

Shelly [00:20:43] Wow, that’s a good one. I think to me, innovation is really inclusivity plus creativity. And what I mean by that and, you know, giving maybe an anecdote is, I’ve been in many organizations where priorities and things are just cascaded down like, “Go do this and go deliver on this and this is what I think we need to do,” and that’s it. Whether it’s the feature factory model or whatnot, but where I’ve seen product teams and people be the most successful is when you give someone a problem and say, “Go innovate,” right? “Go be and do what you need to and really search and seek out those diverse opinions.” And again, that’s where also the inclusivity comes in to allow people to brainstorm and be creative and kind of just even go crazy with the ideas. And then when you come together and you have a full picture and an inclusive picture of everyone’s ideas of how to solve a problem and how to really reach your goal, I think that’s when innovation truly can thrive.

Paul [00:21:49] You know, we ask that question of every guest, and I’m always floored at how many different variations on the theme we get. I love your answer, “inclusivity plus creativity.” And I think that you didn’t use, again, I’m putting words in your mouth. I apologize. But you didn’t use the word trust. But it’s really about trusting your team to ideate and come back together and work together as a team. And I think that’s a really important piece that gets overlooked in a lot of the innovation talk. As we close, I’m curious, where do you go for your inspiration and learning? What podcasts or books do you think should be on a product manager’s desk reference for learning and growing? What are you reading lately and what are you watching and listening to that might be helpful for somebody else?

Shelly [00:22:27] Yeah. As I, you know, go back to like the zooming out, the best way to do it is talk to friends and listen to podcasts. I think where I go for my inspiration is, you know, I love Marty Cagan’s books and blog, so I’m going to call that out. I love Lenny’s podcast, obviously this podcast, and mostly any product podcast that, you know, can really deliver value is super great. I subscribe to a couple of newsletters as well. But honestly, I think my favorite place is really just talking to friends and people in the industry, again, because that’s where ideas just blossom and you can really just have conversations that help you really figure out how to do your best in your day-to-day and understand where product is going as a discipline.

Paul [00:23:12] Shelly, it’s been an honor getting a peek inside your brain and understanding a bit more about your story. I really appreciate you taking the time out, so thanks for joining us today.

Shelly [00:23:20] Of course. Thank you.

Paul [00:23:21] Cheers.

Paul [00:23:25] 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.

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