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134 / Lessons in Product Leadership: The Art of Communication, with Gabrielle Bufrem

Hosted by Paul Gebel & Sean Flaherty




Gabrielle Bufrem

Product Leadership Coach

Gabrielle Bufrem is a fractional CPO and product coach. She also runs a course on Building Impactful Products. Previously, Gabrielle was the Head of Product at Little Otter Health, a mental health for kids startup that raised over $22M. Gabrielle has trained hundreds of product managers from startups to Fortune 500 companies and is a speaker at conferences around the world where she talks about product leadership, decision-making, and building impactful products. 

When you’re communicating as a product leader, how often do you consider what your audience needs to hear…at that precise moment in time? How do you deliver your message in a way that they can understand? Product coach Gabrielle Bufrem, in her keynote at the New York Product Conference (NYPC), says that “communication is effective only when it’s actually heard and interpreted.” In other words, just because you’ve said it doesn’t mean you’ve landed it.

Communication Is a ‘Soft Skill’?

This is especially relevant for product teams and their leaders, Gabi continues, because “product problems are people problems, and a lot of them are solved by really good communication.”

More than mere words and delivery, good communication is about timing (when to communicate). It’s about volume (how much to communicate). And it’s about perspective (audience context).

And they call communication a “soft skill.”

Timing and Context Matter

Regardless of where you are in your product management career, Gabi adds, understanding what to communicate, when to communicate it, and what that communication means in the context of your audience’s experience is vital to your effectiveness as a leader.

In our world of building software – often accompanied by lengthy, overlapping time horizons – you have to balance what you say about the long-term product vision with what you say in the short term about the next MVP release. All the factors that drive your what, when, and how – i.e., message, tone, sense of excitement vs. urgency, audience, etc. – create all sorts of variables that require close attention.

Start With Why

Perhaps Simon Sinek said it best with his book, Start with Why – a sentiment Gabi echoed during our conversation.

“Before product managers can get to how, we need to ask ourselves why. That is, ‘why am I communicating this? What am I trying to achieve?’ And if the answer doesn’t feel like something that’s helpful, is it right for me to communicate this now, or is there a different way that I can say it?”

Missed Gabi’s keynote? No worries; you can catch our conversation here, recorded live with Product Momentum!

If you were unable to attend the New York Product Conference in person, find out what you missed by reading our conference summary: Product Perspectives: Recapping the 2024 New York Product Conference.

Sean Flaherty [00:00:00] Paul. Awesome day today, man.

Paul Gebel [00:00:02] Gabi Bufrem knocked it out of the park. We just had a great conversation about product leadership and getting teams together, rallied around a vision. What did you take away from the conversation we just had?

Sean Flaherty [00:00:11] You’ve got to take perspectives like you have to make purposefully make time to separate yourself from the day to day so you’re not the fish looking at the water. It takes some perspective. It was a great conversation with Gabi.

Paul Gebel [00:00:21] Yeah, Gabrielle does a great job of bringing the context into conversations because just because you wrote it down, just because you have it in a PowerPoint on a shared drive, doesn’t mean that everybody knows it. Human beings are not Wikipedia articles, and they’re not just gonna remember everything you say. So, I think having the intuition to know when to talk about what is really important as a skill to develop early in your career, because you need to have those conversations. Sometimes they’re hard.

Sean Flaherty [00:00:48] And you don’t want to share everything all the time because it just creates anxiety. You have to figure this concept of overlaying time horizons with what to communicate is very important.

Paul Gebel [00:00:57] Yeah, powerful. It’s a very it’s a very human, people-focused problem that we’re trying to solve. And I think it really comes through in the talk we just had.

Sean Flaherty [00:01:03] Well, thanks for joining us. Let’s get after it!

Paul Gebel [00:01:05] Let’s get after it.

Paul Gebel [00:01:07] Well hey everybody. Welcome again to Product Momentum. We’re here live at the New York Product Conference with Gabrielle Bufrem. Welcome. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:01:15] Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Paul Gebel [00:01:16] Absolutely. For those who didn’t hear your talk or maybe haven’t met your work online before, can you share a little bit about what you’re working on these days and where people can find you?

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:01:25] Yeah, absolutely. So my talk was called Confessions of a First Head of Product, and it’s all the lessons that I wish I had learned before. Now, actually, look, back, our years later as a product coach. So now I coach product leaders normally VPs of Product, CPO, Heads of Product. And it’s all the lessons I wish I had known and things that I have seen help my clients a lot.

Paul Gebel [00:01:50] Amazing. Yeah. It was it was a great talk. You know, one of the things that stood out to me was your sense of timing. And what I mean by that is you have a very clear sense of when certain conversations need to happen in the life of an organization where many people would say, “well, we wrote it down one time and saved it on a shared drive”, or “we had a meeting” or there’s a but these these are really intuitive human conversations. And you pulled out this, this idea of reading the room and knowing when a group conversation happens and when an individual conversation happens. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how you learned those lessons and what that means in the context of a product organization?

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:02:27] Yeah, absolutely. So I think I’ve been pretty surprised even by how much leaders are like, “Oh, well, we wrote at one time or we talked about this one said, like, how do people not know?” And then the truth is, we talk about it all the time. We think about it all the time. But whenever we’re communicating, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we’re communicating with and really understand, what do they want to learn? What do they want to hear, and how do we communicate it out to them in a way that makes sense, right? So I say that communication is only effective when it’s actually heard by other people and interpreted. So just because you’re saying it doesn’t mean it’s landing it. And most problems are people problems, and a lot of them are solved by really good communication.

Sean Flaherty [00:03:11] Yeah. But there is this dichotomy of how much do you share now versus how much. Because when you’re trying to build a product, you have to think about the very long term in order to architect it well up front. But you got to get stuff delivered now, that was a key point in your message. You have to deliver. So how do you balance that sort of dichotomy? It’s a challenge.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:03:31] Yeah, definitely a challenge. I think the key things for me are having a really strong product vision. So having a very clear, what does a world look like 3 to 5 years from now when our product is changing the lives of the people we care about and making sure everyone knows that everyone knows who we’re building for, everyone knows that future and they can get excited, but also getting people really excited about the boring stuff that they need to do. Like today. That’s actually setting the stage for that thing to actually be able to happen. So I do think there’s some levers you need to pull.

And it does depend. Right? It depends on which stage the company is at, and it depends how the morale of the team is going. And it’s about communicating both. But I would say mostly communicating about what the team needs to do right right now.

Paul Gebel [00:04:17] Yeah, yeah. But one of the things that stood out to me that we were chatting before we hit record a few days ago, and one of the things that really stuck with me was your idea of as you grow up through leadership to higher levels in the organization, you really have to become much more in tune with the idea of Us problems. My problems.  Their problems. And it’s a learned skill. And I will admit, I’ve learned that the hard way at my, my default is maximum transparency. And yeah that can be a risk. The higher you go in an organization.

Sean Flaherty [00:04:47] Not always the right choice because then you create anxiety for people. It’s not necessary in the moment.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:04:54] Exactly.

Paul Gebel [00:04:54] So I’m wondering can you unpack that a little bit more about how, as you’ve grown in leadership and dealing with CPOs and heads of product, how do you coach them along those lines of learning what to communicate and when and what that means in the context of the scale that you’re at?

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:05:09] I think a core question that I ask, that’s a great question, by the way, because it really is about and I’m the same way, I love transparency, I love involving people. And to be super transparent. Again, I want to make sure people know that that’s a good thing. Right? So start with the intention is amazing. You know, when you’re going to get great things from involving people, they feel bought in, they feel part of it. It’s great.  But you need to figure out the how. And I think that is where it can be tricky. Okay. So one of the core things I talk about a lot is that you need to understand and ask yourself the question, why am I communicating this? What am I trying to achieve with this?  And if the answer doesn’t really feel like something that’s helpful, to your report or to someone on your team, then you need to ask yourself, is it actually the right thing for me to communicate this right now, or is there a different way that I can say it? They still feel involved. It’s not either frustrating or disconcerting, or unnerving for people, right?

Paul Gebel [00:06:11] And it’s not about being deceptive or even coercive. Human beings just aren’t Wikipedia articles. We don’t need to be comprehensive, and sometimes it’s actually counterproductive.

Sean Flaherty [00:06:23] Too much detail is paralyzing.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:06:24] And I talk a lot about being the shit umbrella for the team. Right. And I think it’s like, as a leader, you need to you need to protect your team. A lot of the time. I mean, if I was to tell people everything that I heard when I was running product, I don’t think they would be there anymore. Right? But I needed to filter out, if you like. What is a me problem? What is an Us problem? What’s a them problem? Yeah, and of course their problems are my problems, too. But the me problems I need to keep to myself.

Paul Gebel [00:06:52] So since you went there, I have to share one quick anecdote. The shit umbrella is kind of correlated to a leadership metaphor that my first executive officer in the Navy used called a dung beetle leadership mindset. Dung beetles keep it from rolling downhill. Unless, you know, it’s going to roll downhill. Unless you stop it. So be a dung beetle leader.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:07:11] Yes, exactly, I like that. That is pretty amazing.

Paul Gebel [00:07:15] The other thing that really came out to me in your talk was the idea of context changing as you grow up. So a lot of the content of leadership tactics and communication doesn’t change. It’s your context that changes around perspective.

Sean Flaherty [00:07:29] I love that slide, you had the fuzzy dots and then the focus dots. It’s like you know it’s hard to see the water when you’re the fish.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:07:37] Yeah. Exactly.

Sean Flaherty [00:07:38] So you have to find ways to take you have to purposefully find ways to take different perspectives.  I thought that was profound.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:07:45] Yeah. Oh, awesome. Yeah I think, yeah, it’s honestly like a core part of why I love my job today is that as a product leadership coach, I get to give perspective to people. It’s all that I do because I am on the outside and a lot of companies are l, oh, we want you to be here three days a week. And I’m like, no, I can’t be it. Because if I’m there for that long, I’ll start adopting your culture and I’ll be too inside, and I’ll actually lose a lot of the value that I have to you from being outside perspective. So I do think it’s yeah, having a coach really helps.  And it really helps too when we were talking about the other piece around the you problem and the them problem and the you both problem, like a lot of product leaders don’t have people they can share these problems with. They can’t go to their CEO and be like, I have zero clue what to do here. Like that’s not really an option. You know, part of the reason why I think, a lot of people like having other product people as friends.  And we all hang out together and it’s great. But also part of the reason why it’s very interesting when you have someone that you can share these things with and actually get perspective.

Paul Gebel [00:08:51] Absolutely. And one of the things that you were very open about was the idea that at some point you’re going to be embarrassed about where you were. And as you grow up, we should take stock of where we’ve come from because it informs who we are today.  And I’m wondering if you could share, you know, sort of the journey that you’ve been on to get to where you are. And, and if that can be made practical, if we’re still early in our career, we’re still product owner, team product manager. How do these lessons apply? Should we start cataloging things, thinking about conversations differently? Do you have to wait until you’re a CPO to start thinking these things?

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:09:26] Yeah, I think the answer is definitely no. You definitely don’t need to wait until you’re CPO. I would say, yeah, some of the core things for me were and and I think they all came from what innately felt right. So I think I did invest alot and did things that I love. So I always love diversity. So I’ve actually done nine industries so far, which some people are like “what I’ve only done one industry, is that right or wrong?” And I’m like, oh, it depends. I the diversity, and the diversity allowed me to learn different things.

I tell people all the time, before working for anyone else, you work for yourself, right? So you need to figure out, where do you want to go and what are the things that you could do in order to get that? So I’d say saying yes to things a lot was a way. So people are like, oh, would you move to Singapore to help us there? And I was like, yeah, sure, I’ll move. Other people were like, you’re insane. You’re just moving. You just moved to Paris. Like, now you’re moving to Singapore. And I was like, yeah, I’ll move. Not forever. And it’ll be a great opportunity, right? I also think another thing is seeking out mentors. I actually I feel so lucky, I have incredible mentors that have honestly pushed me to go beyond what I even thought was possible. And they’ve just been incredible sounding boards to me. And now I’m very proud to call them friends too.

Sean Flaherty [00:10:45] There’s a lot to that adage about the five people you spend the most time with.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:10:48] Yes.

Sean Flaherty [00:10:49] Where you focus here on your own personal growth and learning. And I couldn’t agree more. You gotta invest in the self. Because you got to if you don’t take care of number one, how could you possibly be leading others. For sure.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:11:01] Absolutely. Yeah. And I think I always tell people and I ask my clients this all the time, what’s the story that you want to tell. What are we trying to tell here? And what do we have in order to tell the story? And what do we need to go get.

Paul Gebel [00:11:13] Right. Yeah. Human beings are storytelling creatures. We don’t understand the world through spreadsheets and facts and figures. We understand the world through the stories that we tell each other and that the shared experience. And I love the way that you bring such a human element to these conversations that are so often just riddled with vanity metrics and and scaling and up and to the right. And while those things are important to track, they have their place. But it’s this is a people. You said it before. This is a people problem.

Sean Flaherty [00:11:42] All problems are people problems. I talked about that yesterday.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:11:44] That’s right. Yeah, yeah. And I’d say too one exercise I actually have my clients do is I have them catalog what brings them joy and energy and what takes away joy and energy. And it’s a simple list. And I think people should do that all the time. And that can help you guide what you want to do next. Yeah. If you’re like, well, I’ll be honest. Like when I did a lot of product stuff, I wasn’t I don’t think I was like the best PM ever, you know, I just wasn’t. And I definitely learned that when I started managing some like really, really epic PMs, but I had other skills. I was a good communicator. I loved coaching people and mentoring them. So those were always on my happy energy column. And there are other things that were not. And there isn’t a right or wrong answer, but there’s a right or wrong answer for you.

Paul Gebel [00:12:29] Absolutely. Totally agree.

Sean Flaherty [00:12:31] For sure. Well, thank you for joining us, it’s a great conversation and your keynote was spectacular. Where can people find out about what you do?

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:12:41] The best way would be LinkedIn or my website, which is just

Sean Flaherty [00:12:47] Yeah, we’ll put both links on the page for the website. I think the podcast and yeah, awesome.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:12:52] Great. Thank you.

Paul Gebel [00:12:53] So much. Thanks for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure. Really learned a lot.

Gabrielle Bufrem [00:12:56] It’s so fun. Yeah. Thank you. Cheers.


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