80 / Lessons in Fearless Product Leadership

Hosted by Sean Flaherty and Paul Gebel

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Ronke Majekodunmi

PayPal

Ronke Majekodunmi (she/her) is a noteworthy leader and powerhouse in product management. She has dedicated her career to creating outstanding, world-class products, and investing her time to educate the next generation of product leaders. Her mission is to make the world of product management more accessible for female product leaders entering the field. In her current role as Senior Product Manager at PayPal, Ronke is responsible for collaborating with global stakeholders and leading the strategy and development of new products while supporting the career development of the product management teams.

Ronke has always been passionate about sharing her wisdom and experience with beginner product managers. Partnering with Product School, Ronke has the unique opportunity to contribute to a community of over one million product professionals, sharing her industry insights to help shape their effectiveness and leadership. At Product School, Ronke hosts webinars teaching the importance of utilizing soft skills, interpersonal characteristics, and building coalitions. Ronke also hosts a Product Management Certification course.

Ronke earned her Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) at the Keller Graduate School of Management at DeVry University and holds a Bachelor’s in African American Studies from the State University of New York at Albany.

Ronke actively uses her website and podcast to engage with fellow product managers and provide valuable content that helps expand their careers and create clarity from ambiguity. You can read more on www.ronkepm.com, or tune into her podcast “Product Magic” on your favorite listening platform!

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul welcome Ronke Majekodunmi, Senior Product Manager at PayPal, for an inside look at product leadership. Especially during tumultuous times, it’s the leader’s job to acknowledge the context that the team is working in and to support them both personally and professionally. This can be done in big or small ways, and she shares several easy-to-apply examples.

Ronke also points to imposter syndrome as another challenge product leaders face. What if my dev team doesn’t trust me? Am I good enough? What’ll happen if I screw this up?

Her advice is not to minimize the feelings or push them aside. But rather to embrace the vulnerability and work through it.

“To overcome this, I verbally acknowledge to myself and others, ‘I don’t have all the answers, but let’s go sort it out together,’” she said. “The scary thing is that’s actually become the secret to my success. Recognize you don’t know everything; then go out and learn as much as possible from your team.”

Listen in to catch Ronke’s insights about building trust on teams, and how making decisions “within the triangle” helps ensure that your team is working together toward a shared vision. At the end of the day, she says, “It’s everybody’s perspective that makes the product successful.”

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Paul [00:00:32] Well hello and welcome to the pod. Today, we’re excited to be joined by Ronke Majekodunmi, a Senior Product Manager at PayPal. Ronke is responsible for collaborating with global stakeholders, leading the strategy and development of new products, and supporting the career development of the product management teams she supports. Partnering with Product School, Ronke has the unique opportunity to contribute to a community of over one million product professionals, sharing her industry insights to help shape some of their effectiveness and leadership. She’s always been passionate about sharing her wisdom and experience with beginner product managers. Ronke, welcome to the show. So happy to have you.

Ronke [00:01:05] Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to chat with you guys today.

Paul [00:01:09] Absolutely, for sure. So anyone who’s spent any time in the product community has heard this term imposter syndrome. And it seems like, from diving into your reading and listening to some of the things that you’ve talked about, instead of running from it, you’ve really embraced it as part of your growth. Can you share with us how you’ve really made this part of your personal journey?

Ronke [00:01:31] Absolutely. So I kind of feel like imposter syndrome is not something you get rid of, it’s something you manage, right? Because you can be the best product manager. You know, you could be a senior director. It doesn’t matter. Occasionally, you know, I start a new project and those fears come in like, “Oh my god, what if I screw this project up?” And keep in mind, I’ve been doing this for years. So for me, I think my imposter syndrome was heightened by the fact that there is no product management degree. When I first started out 10 years ago, there was not even a certification course. You sort of had to just go in, trial by fire. And so, I mean, my imposter syndrome was everything from, “the development team will not like me, the sales team will not trust me, my boss is going to override my decisions, what if I can’t save our largest customer? What if you know, nobody on the team believes me and they think that I’m staring them down the wrong way?” And so forth.

Ronke [00:02:21] What I had to do was I had to work on myself, first of all. By that, I mean, what is this fear? Why am I so afraid, right, to make decisions? That’s the other thing, I was afraid to make decisions. And what I came to realize, and also from the help of my mentors, was that what is the worst thing to happen? The worst thing to happen is things fail, but we can iterate and move on, right, quickly. But I also had to trust other people to help me, and I would never forget and move to a new organization and I decided to try it out. And every stand-up meeting I would go, “I’m new to this, help me understand what this is or what you need, how do I go figure it out?” And it would steer me the right way.

Ronke [00:02:57] And from there I started working with the engineering teams, literally I would stick to them. I mean, I was humble, like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know, they have the answers to this,” and so forth. And what I learned is by doing that, basically what I’m saying is sharing that product vision with everybody and not caring about myself, and showing them that proof of what I have. So, for instance, I would bring them into the room with a customer when I was doing customer interviews. I do share the wealth, as you could say. That helped me a great deal. Not only if this established our trust, but for them to actually see what’s happening and why the roadmap is what it is. So that’s how I actually started to not overcome it but manage it. And like I said, until today, I’m embarking on a new project. I still have those flutters like, “Oh my god, what if I screw this up?” And I just manage it and go, “OK, you know, repeat and rinse, right, what have I done in the past, what has worked?” And kind of start from there.

Paul [00:03:45] It’s so authentic. I appreciate knowing that I’m not the only one, but I also love knowing that it is a shared experience and I think the most important part of what you just shared is the selflessness. It’s the people who come into a team with the resume, the pedigree, the company, and their background and thinking that they are God’s gift to product management are the ones who are going to live and die solo. The people who come in and rely on their team and promote the success of others and rely on the achievements of people who’ve come before them are going to be the ones who thrive because it’s not turning all on the success or failure of one person. Did I get that right?

Ronke [00:04:24] Oh, absolutely. Oh, by the way, the other thing I was going to mention is not just even product. Even when I tell the story, when I make presentations for leadership, it’s not me. It’s the triangle, the designer, the tech lead, and myself. To give an example, before COVID, all three of us would go off campus for lunch every Thursday. Just the three of us and we would talk about whatever presentation was coming up. But I wasn’t the only one telling the story in the room. All three of us would go in and tell the story. And then if our leadership said to us, “Well, why are you guys recommending this thing? Like, why are you recommending not building the north star, for instance? Why are recommending this as an MVP?” We can all answer that question together because we’ve made that decision, we understand it, and we can bring them along. And what I even found with that is it was a win, not just for me, but for the whole entire organization, because all three of us were speaking in one voice and we made decisions together. So that’s the other thing too, is I just can’t express this enough. Bring your box with you.

Paul [00:05:18] Yeah, it’s not me, us. And I love that concept of the triangle. For those who aren’t operating in teams where this is a thing, could you share what we mean by that term, triangle, just for those who aren’t initiated?

Ronke [00:05:30] Absolutely. So the triangle is you, the product manager, your design lead, and your tech lead, all three of you guys. So for instance, the designer and I would get in a room and talk about the requirements of whatever the project is, why this is important, and what metrics we want to track. He would go off and build the first iteration of it. We would bring our tech lead in, all three of us sit in a room together along with our content person, you know, who kind of sits and kind of watches us, and we kind of go through it together. Again, we’re going through that, “why is this important? What are we trying to accomplish? What is the benefit to the customer? And also what is the value to the organization?” All three of us are the first ones to sort of go through that experience together, to review that, we got all our ducks in a row before we show it to anybody outside our group, before even the rest of the scrum team sees it.

Ronke [00:06:13] Why that’s important, especially because I work for large organizations where I don’t build everything by myself in my team. We need other teams to help us. So it helps us because we can kind of anticipate what their questions are and we all present together. So that’s the box: design, tech, and product. And I cannot emphasize this enough, never make a decision outside of them. It should be a group decision.

Paul [00:06:34] Love it.

Sean [00:06:35] Yeah, Paul has a mantra he uses with his team about triangles fostering strong teams, right?

Ronke [00:06:40] Exactly.

Paul [00:06:41] Absolutely.

Sean [00:06:42] I want to go back to the imposter syndrome, this relationship between confidence and competence. So you come to the table with a level of competence, but you always feel like there’s something you don’t know. And, you know, there’s this relationship between these two things. But as a product leader, you’re producing something that didn’t exist before in all cases. So you can’t possibly know all there is to know to be 100 percent confident. So there is this function that product leaders have of creating this future that people can step into. And I think that’s really important to acknowledge and recognize that if you didn’t have some sense of imposter syndrome, if you didn’t have a little bit of that, that wouldn’t be healthy.

Ronke [00:07:21] I completely agree.

Sean [00:07:23] You have to be that leader that kind of helps people step into this future if you’re going to produce a really great product.

Ronke [00:07:31] Yeah Sean, thank you for mentioning that and I completely agree. And by the way, now I’m actually very comfortable years later, right, it took me some time. Now I’m very comfortable that as I am embarking on these new projects that I might turn back on, I’ve told my boss, “I don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re going to figure it out together.” Right? “So me and you, we’re going to go talk to sales together to figure out, you know what customers are asking for, but they’ll be in the room with me. We’re going to go talk to our relationship managers together to understand what are they hearing from customers that are happy? But what else are they hearing? And we’re going to talk to our PMMs to figure out what the competitive analyses are.” But we go together and we try to figure it out, and now I’m actually very comfortable to say, “I don’t have the answers, I don’t know what this will be, but let’s go sort it out together.” The scary thing is that’s actually the secret to my success.

Sean [00:08:18] I don’t think that’s so scary. Great to share.

Ronke [00:08:21] Thank you.

Sean [00:08:22] In our pre-call you talked about, and you just mentioned it too, like, involving the team in more of what’s going on in sales and involving the team in terms of failures too. Like, why did the product fail? And analyzing why customers are leaving through the numbers and statistics you talked about. So I’d like to hear a little bit more about how you do that at PayPal.

Ronke [00:08:40] Sure. So I’ve been doing this for every organization that I’ve worked at for, I want to say the last 10 years. So what I do is, first I understand the sales pipeline. I work with the sales team to understand what kind of merchants they’re looking at, what kind of customers they’re looking at, firms, you name it, in the sales pipeline. And then I ask to go with them to those pitch meetings just to understand how they are bundling and trying to sell the products. That’s one of the first things I do when I’m new to an organization.

Ronke [00:09:05] But then what I also do is when we win a deal, I communicate the why to the rest of the team, to not just the scrum team, but to my design partners, my content partners. I know most people don’t think the content designers should know this, but I think it’s important, right? We’re all in it together, and I communicate it to everybody: “here’s why we won this deal, here’s why they’ve picked us apart from the rest of the competitors.”.

Ronke [00:09:29] And then the other thing that I do is every month I would go find the number of customers that renewed their deal with us and why they stayed with us and I’ll communicate that as well. And if we lost a deal, let’s say, for instance, either through sales, like a new prospect didn’t come through, they went to a competitor. We want to know why, if they’re willing to answer those questions for us. But also let’s say a customer, they didn’t renew their contract, we’d want to know why. Did they go to competitors because of a feature that we didn’t have?

Ronke [00:09:54] The reason why I started to do this, I realized it worked two years ago was because then the team understands why the product roadmap looks the way that it does, right? They then understand why the product roadmap looks the way that it does. They also understand why we’re making certain pivots. So let’s say, for instance, to save a huge merchant, I come to them and I say, guys, we sort of have to deviate a little bit and build this feature, but here’s how I believe we can sell it to everybody else, and there are more amendable, right? Because no developer wants to work on code that they’re not going to maintain, right, for everybody. They’re a little bit more amenable. But those are the things that help to tell that story.

Paul [00:10:30] Love it. I think there’s something about this process of becoming sort of comfortable in leading a team, communicating the strategy, you know, understanding the why. I think there is something under the surface that is important to bring to light. And it’s this piece of the imposter syndrome, the facing your fear of failure, that you have to realize that there is a part of you that wants to embrace the insecurity because it keeps you in your comfort zone. It’s easier to say, “they’re smarter than me, they’re more hardworking than me, they’re better talented, they’re better placed, they’re…” Whatever the excuse is or whatever the fear is that you’re facing, there is a piece of you that wants to hold on to that because it can allow us a sneaky kind of comfort zone. It can keep us safe, if you will, in a bit of a box. And I was wondering if you could just kind of unpack that facing the fear of failure piece in a way that might help some people think about what is keeping them back and what piece of that is really themself.

Sean [00:11:29] If I can expand on that just a little bit.

Ronke [00:11:30] Sure.

Sean [00:11:31] Paul and I have talked about this ad nauseam, but it seems as though there’s a natural tendency for teams to want to move towards that. Like, “Hey, if I don’t have to take on this responsibility, I can blame it on this other thing that I don’t know.” It’s just an easier thing to do, and it’s like people will tend to move into that comfort zone if you don’t pull them out of it.

Ronke [00:11:49] So I would say this, so that fear of failure, for me, I came to handle that better. A couple of years ago, I worked for an organization where it was a small organization, and when I came in, I realized that we were only building for 10 percent of the market, not for, you know, a larger subset of the market. And there were blind spots and I was afraid to use my voice. Right. This is what it is, as product managers, you have to use your voice. But eventually, I did use my voice. And what happened was by the time I used my voice, we had already built it and we went to go show a couple of customers and they were like, “yeah, I’m not going to use that.” And these customers were mid-market, they were in the middle.

Ronke [00:12:26] So then we went back and we iterated. And that taught me a lesson. Oh, by the way, we spent over millions of dollars trying to build this product. Ultimately, we got it working to the point where we could release it and, you know, sort of pilot it. But what that taught me was, “OK, Ronke, you’ve worked on a product that it’s not perfect, it’s not even doing what you wanted it to do in the market. You know, in perspective, it did fail. What did you learn from this?” And what I learned from it is I don’t want to work for organizations where cannot use my voice. If something is going wrong, I have to be able to say something.

Ronke [00:12:57] And that’s what I told junior PMs now that, decide which kind of organization you want to work in. If you want to work in a product-led organization, great, then you’re going to go out and you’re going to do market research. You’re going to try to get the answers and remove those blind spots. If you work for an engineering-led organization, chances are they’re not going to listen to you or the customer. You have to decide where you’re comfortable. For me, I’m product-led all the way. I want to know what customers are thinking. So those are the lessons there for me. And ever since then, I use my voice over time. It is very hard to keep me quiet, but that’s one of the ways I’ve managed that imposter syndrome and not staying in my comfort zone.

Ronke [00:13:32] And also, the other thing I’ve learned is this every single product experience I’ve had has made me the exceptional PM I am today. So I’ve learned from the failures. I’ve learned from the successes. Now the funny thing about imposter syndrome is even when you are successful, you question it, right? I can’t tell you how many times I look at stats and I’m going, “That’s not correct, you know, are people really using this?” You know, that’s part of managing it, right? You know, you sort of go, “OK, alright, OK, this is great, this works, now, let’s move on to the next thing, let’s remove those blind spots, let’s try to figure out how to iterate on this and make this even better.” So those are how I’ve kind of managed those. I think that when you fail, it makes you a better PM. But what you learn from that failure determines, you know, how you handle it, how quickly you get up, determines what kind of PM you will be.

Paul [00:14:17] I love the blend of humility and confidence. I think that that is a really selfless, honest way to approach the journey. I wondered if we could turn the page a bit. It’s tough to talk about all of this philosophy without the context of the time in which we’re living in. 2020 and 2021 were an interesting time to be in tech. We were all kind of alone together, working on our teams in our houses, on our couches, and you’ve really written a lot about what that journey was and how that impacted you and your teams. Can you share just a bit and unpack a few thoughts about how this context of the time that we’re living through is shaping you as a product manager?

Ronke [00:14:59] Oh, absolutely. So we came home March 10th of 2020, was when my organization said, “OK, you guys go home.” And of course, me and my coworkers, we’re all like, “they’re overreacting.”

Paul [00:15:10] We’ll be back in two weeks.

Ronke [00:15:11] It’s like, “we’ll be back in a few months.” You know, a month went by. I was still home. You know, and then and so forth, and so then in the summer of 2020, a couple of things happened, right? George Floyd was killed. The day George Floyd was killed, I will never forget that morning. I logged on to my laptop like I normally did. I had meetings. One of my coworkers called me and she was crying on the phone. She was new to the US, so she had never seen or experienced anything like this. And of course, I did my best to help her through it. And, you know, used all the nice wording I’m supposed to use to help someone through something like that.

Ronke [00:15:44] But throughout the rest of my meeting that day, I pretended like that didn’t happen, right? Like, the world hadn’t changed. And it bothered me because I was not okay, right? There were things going on in the world and I just was not OK. And that’s why I write about that blog, Leadership in Tumultuous Times, right? So you have COVID, you have the world changing because of George Floyd and what was going on, you know, you have racial reckoning going on. And it’s like, we sort of pretend like that’s not happening, but it really is, and it’s impacting all of us. This is how I dealt with it.

Ronke [00:16:15] So I went for my pity moments, which I did. But like I said in that blog, one of my mentors actually helped me through it. She helped me to see that I can either continue to deal with my own self-pity and stay there, or I can actually change the narrative and get myself out of it and try to be of service, not just to my own family, but to my colleagues. So I started the random Slack calls: “Hey, how are you doing?” Even if all we did was, I had an engineer who all we did was talk about who was the best Avenge, if it was, I’m Captain America, he thinks it’s Thor. We’d literally spend 15 minutes arguing about that. But I was checking in on them and seeing what they were doing, and that’s sort of how it started for me.

Ronke [00:16:55] And then Product School kind of came along and I got a chance to start doing product talks and sharing my insights as a product manager and so forth. And then I realized that there were other blogs like Leadership in Tumultuous Times that I wanted to write, but I didn’t have a place to put it. So then, as again, we’re home, right? So I contacted one of my best friends, I’m like, “help me build the site.” And that’s why there’s RonkePM.com today. And I started posting my thoughts about product management, my thoughts about the world, my thoughts about how it’s so important that we mentor young women in product management, and so forth. And that’s how that came to be. So in essence, I decided to use my leadership voice because I wasn’t using it.

Sean [00:17:36] it’s a good thing. One of your other blog posts that kind of resonated with me was the post on gratefulness, you know, ameliorating effectiveness.

Ronke [00:17:44] Yes. Again, right, because of that imposter syndrome and one product is successful, I always have to go, “OK, Ronke, you didn’t do this yourself, right, a lot of people did this; how do we celebrate that?” So in that blog, a lot of what I wrote I did. Before COVID, I would just bring random donut Wednesdays. I would do that. A lot of my scrum teams are from other countries. One young lady, in particular, got her driver’s license. We celebrated. And so forth. If there was an engagement, we celebrated it. But what I did was I formed a community around my scrum team and we celebrate the big and small things.

Ronke [00:18:18] And not only that but when I go to present to leadership, if you recall, I mentioned the triangle going to do that presentation. At the end of my presentation is always the list of everybody that worked on the projects, right? Because I felt like everybody should know I come with a village. I may be the product manager speaking about the project, but there’s a whole entire village behind me from different parts of the yard that make this happen. I talk about even writing thank you notes, not just to the individual person going above and beyond, but to their boss letting them know how their work is contributing to the mission and vision of our organization.

Ronke [00:18:53] And I get this question a lot from a lot of PMs, “that is their job anyway, why do you have to go the extra mile?” Because they went the extra mile. They worked overtime to get this done. Yes, we’re all being paid to do this, but they trusted my judgment and followed our product vision, and I need to be able to thank them for that. And also other people will even say to me, “Well, other people are getting promotions, but you’re not.” That’s OK. That’s OK. You know, my opportunities will come, but I have to make sure that I’m expressing gratitude and telling their bosses for promotion purposes how well they’re doing.

Paul [00:19:26] I love how that’s just as much product management as any agile coaching or roadmap release plan exercising. Taking care of the human element and taking care of your people is just as much product management as any other part of the job. I’m really glad that you pulled that out.

Ronke [00:19:41] Yeah. I think on my website somewhere, I think I even put it. And that’s another reason why I also started a podcast. Product Magic is, it’s not my perspective, right? It’s everybody’s perspective that made the product successful: the content designer, the designers, the engineers, the rest of the scrum team, you know, other people in other parts of the organization, right? Legal that gets me out of trouble to make sure I don’t put things I shouldn’t put. Compliance that makes sure, “Hey, don’t get us sued,” right, and on the news, and so forth. But to me, all those people and their perspectives create product magic. And so I always say my job as a product manager is to build people and products. If you build people, you build products.

Paul [00:20:23] Love it. One thing that we ask all of our guests is, how would you define innovation?

Ronke [00:20:28] Innovation to me means freedom, freedom for the team. Meaning I go to the team and I say, “Hey, guys, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve for,” and means stepping away and letting them dream big. And I don’t put restrictions. I don’t put limitations. I tell them to go. Even the things they don’t think are feasible. I’m like, “Let’s go see, what’s the worst that will happen?” The worst that will happen is you will come back and say to me, “we need to rebuild the whole entire platform.” We can negotiate after that, but I don’t put any restrictions. To me, innovation is autonomy. Trusting the team to go and figure out how to solve this problem, not for now, but for the future, so that our customers will grow with us.

Ronke [00:21:08] That, to me, is innovation, and I’ll give you an example of that: iPad. When iPad first came out, everybody felt Steve Jobs was crazy. I will never forget, the market analysis back then was, “Why would I use this? I have a laptop.” But iPad is one of the most used tablets in the world, and it keeps growing. I personally have had so many iPads. Right now I have two at home and I go to bed with my iPad. It’s a product that wasn’t just for the now back then, but it’s also for the future. I cannot imagine going anywhere without my iPad. I want to create products like that, that change humanity. And so to me, there cannot be any restrictions.

Sean [00:21:42] I love that answer. That may be my favorite answer yet to that question. What are you reading these days that you might recommend to our audience?

Ronke [00:21:50] OK. So I’m, reading, there’s a book called How to Lead. Forgive me, I don’t remember the author’s name right now, but it basically talks about how people that are really successful, like Oprah, like Warren Buffett, are one of the most humbling people you will ever be around. Warren Buffett is incredibly rich, but he still behaves like that person from, I believe he came from Nebraska, forgive me if I got it wrong. But he still says thank you to people. He is just as humble as they come.

Ronke [00:22:21] And so I always remind myself, no matter how successful I am, if I ever lose that gratefulness and that gratitude, then something’s wrong. And also, I’m just going to leave this with the listeners as well. I came to the US when I was 11 years old. I’m an immigrant from Nigeria. I went to high school in the US, I went to college in the U.S. I established my career in the U.S. I work at one of the best companies in the U.S. I’ve done well and I’m looking forward to doing well. But what’s gotten me there is that gratitude and the ability to kind of take a step back and bring everybody with me, not just me, but with me. And that’s what this book has taught me is to continue to do that, no matter how big you get.

Sean [00:23:00] All right. Well, thank you.

Ronke [00:23:02] Yeah.

Paul [00:23:02] It’s been an honor.

Sean [00:23:03] Yeah, it’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time out of your day. I heard today is a holiday for PayPal, so you took the day off.

Ronke [00:23:11] Yes.

Sean [00:23:12] Really appreciate that.

Ronke [00:23:13] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Paul [00:23:15] Cheers.

Ronke [00:23:15] Bye.

Paul [00:23:19] 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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