90 / Amid The Great Resignation, It’s Time To ‘Productize Your Career’

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel

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Liz Li

LinkedIn

Liz Li, until recently a Senior Director of Product at LinkedIn, led product for the Content Experience (feed, creators, and content) team, helping LinkedIn members talk to people who matter to them about the things they care about. Liz worked at LinkedIn for 11 years across both monetization and consumer organizations. She launched LinkedIn’s first Sales Solutions product, led acquisition and retention for LinkedIn Premium subscriptions, and led the redesign of the consumer onboarding flows and success metrics to focus on long-term engagement, shifting the company from purely focusing on top of the funnel growth. Before LinkedIn, Liz worked on enterprise products at Accenture Technology Labs, a smaller R&D group within Accenture. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.

Not everyone experiences that polarizing, “fork in the road” moment in their career. That catalyzing realization when a choice needs to be made about which path to take. Before we get there, how do we recognize the signals telling us to step back, take stock, and unpack where we are in our personal and professional life?

Liz Li, a Senior Director of Product at LinkedIn, joins Sean and Paul for this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, introducing us to the notion of “career principles” to help us navigate that decision. “Think about your career in the same way you think about the products and solutions you build,” she says. Like getting clarity of vision for our next software product, Liz wants us to ‘productize our careers’ by crafting a vision for our future and a plan to achieve it.

“Especially for folks in product management, think of your career principles like it was a product strategy or spec – personal rules that you align your career to,” she says. “Write down your career principles in the same way you’d prepare to guide the building of your next product.”

Liz believes that for every phase of our careers, we should have a set of rules – unique to ourselves – that we set down to guide our next play. These rules help answer fundamental questions, like what job to take, what role to assume, and what project to take on.

Catch the entire pod with Liz and hear her comments about –

  • Women in tech, especially women of color, in people management roles
  • The signals to look for that tell us to reevaluate our circumstance, and think through what’s important
  • Why innovation is more than “a big idea;” there’s actually addressing the challenge and doing the work

Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Project 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] Greetings, product, folks. I’m honored to share this conversation with Liz Li with you. While I’ve learned something from every guest we’ve had on the show, either in perspective or technique or mindset, Liz shared a thought that frankly stopped me in my tracks. Her perspective on the product career allowed me to give myself permission to prioritize, shape things differently… I just thoroughly enjoyed thinking through these things with her. So without further ado, here’s our conversation with Liz Li.

Paul [00:01:08] Well, hello and welcome to the podcast. Today we are really excited to be joined by Liz Li. Liz is a Senior Director at LinkedIn, most recently leading product for the content experience, feed creators and content team, helping LinkedIn members to talk to people who matter to them about the things they care about. Liz has worked at LinkedIn for 11 years across both monetization and consumer organizations. She’s launched LinkedIn’s first Sales Solutions product, led acquisition and retention for LinkedIn Premium subscriptions, and led the redesign of the consumer onboarding flows and success metrics to focus on long-term engagement, shifting the company from purely focusing on top of the funnel growth. Before LinkedIn, Liz worked on enterprise product at Accenture Technology Labs, a smaller R&D group within Accenture. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford. Liz, welcome to the show.

Liz [00:01:52] Thank you. Really excited to be here.

Paul [00:01:54] Absolutely. So the theme I think we’re going to focus on today is this concept of career principles, which you’ve been really passionate about recently. And I’m really excited to dig into that. Just to bring us into where you are, I want to, you know, we chatted about earlier this problem, or challenge may be better said, of this transition that a product manager experiences as they transition in their career from mid to senior level, going from being an individual contributor on a team to managing people as their day to day. And I’m curious, can you share some experiences or insights that you’ve gained, this tension between the higher performance expectations from executives balanced with the higher empathy expectations from those on the teams that we serve?

Liz [00:02:35] Sure, yeah. This is super timely because I just decided that I’m going to write a few articles on this transition to share on LinkedIn. I haven’t yet. I’m working on that. But it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think two things that come to mind here are making sure to pass the baton and to teach. You’re right. So like when you become a manager, there’s a lot more like actual responsibilities on paper. As a product manager in general, I think empathy should be like a huge part of sort of the work that you do anyway, but like when you become a manager is when really sort of managing the career development of people on your team and even sometimes helping them to manage like everything else that’s going on in their lives that might affect their work actually becomes part of your responsibilities on paper. And I think that’s super important. That’s one of the newer things in management that I think as somebody who was an IC [individual contributor] moving into that really needs to pay attention to because it’s only in sort of taking care of those aspects that you can actually create the high-performing team that delivers on those high-performance expectations.

Liz [00:03:38] But on the other side, I would say it’s like making sure that you’re not doing the same things that made you successful as an IC when you become a manager, right? Like you’re no longer the person doing those things. You’ve got to pass the baton on to your team to teach them how to do those things, because that’s the only way that you’ll be able to scale as a manager while taking care of the folks on the team, but also making sure that the team delivers. You know, teach the things that made you really good as an IC so that they can start to internalize that and really sort of do that for the long term versus whatever the immediate situation at hand is.

Paul [00:04:13] One hundred percent. Learning to delegate is a challenge. That’s a big trust exercise on both sides.

Liz [00:04:17] Yeah.

Paul [00:04:18] You know, jumping a little bit deeper into your repertoire, women in product and your talks have always been, you know, a passion and focus of yours going way back. Just high level, how do you think the product community is doing? Is there a way to improve awareness? Are there things that the community can do to improve?

Liz [00:04:33] Yeah, definitely. I mean, I do think even in the last few years there’s been a lot of progress. Like what I see at LinkedIn and what I think is mirrored across the tech industry at least, is that we are making more strides sort of in their entry-level and like early levels in product management in terms of female representation. And that’s great to see that progress. But I think where there’s still challenges is in like senior and leadership level. So actually like people managers and above. And I think that the lack of representation there is even more stark if you look at women of color. In terms of what to do about that, like I think that it’s important to not look at the numbers or the stats in bulk. Because if you did that, if you just looked at like, you know, at a certain organization or company, what percentage of the product function are women? It might actually look sort of reasonable, but then what you wouldn’t see is that they’re all concentrated at like the APM or PM level, with very few at like Group Product Manager or above.

Liz [00:05:32] So I think making sure that each company or organization is actually looking sort of by level, by type of function, by IC versus manager. And I think that’s when you’ll see that there’s actually a lot more progress to be made. And I think it’s important to make those stats visible and published because then there’s, like you said, number one, there’s an awareness. I think there’s also more accountability, but also motivation. Because I think, you know, at least the women that I know in product, like, really want to help and even the men do as well. But without sort of access or awareness of the data, like, there’s not really a way to focus on sort of where the most meaningful steps should be taken. So I think, one is looking more granularly at the data, and then making sure that that’s more public and more visible so that everybody can actually help.

Paul [00:06:20] Great recap.

Sean [00:06:22] What gets measured gets managed, right? Peter Drucker.

Liz [00:06:24] Exactly.

Sean [00:06:26] I’ve never been in a 12-step program, but it’s like the first step in any 12-step program is awareness. If you can’t see the problem, you can’t deal with it.

Liz [00:06:32] Yeah, for sure.

Sean [00:06:34] And there’s a connection to what you said earlier about empathy and growth. These weren’t your words, but I captured it as empathy and having clear growth paths for people so that they can see and know where they’re going and what’s possible for them is a predecessor to long-term performance.

Liz [00:06:50] Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And the one thing that I found like as a people manager as well is like sometimes a person’s own sort of career goals or development may not actually align with your product or your team, but it’s actually better to sort of find that out for sort of both sides, right. You know, ideally for them, you can work out some sort of plan or maybe another role within the company or even outside of the company that aligns better with what they want to do. And then for your team and your product, I mean, you want people that are the best fit, that are motivated by, you know, whatever it is that you’re working on, the skill sets that are being used. So I think it’s generally like just a win-win to always find, like, the best people that are fit for your product, your team.

Paul [00:07:33] So this is a really great segue into a topic that you’ve been talking a lot about recently in this intersection of sort of real-life and career and almost product-izing your career, thinking about all these good product principles and applying them to what’s important for us, what’s important for the organization. And you’ve bucketed them in this concept of career principles, but I’m not sure that that captures everything that I hope we can unpack about it. I think it’s fair to say that the impetus for this concept came out because of our new way of working in the past two years. It’s obviously caused some introspection, but what does this concept of career principles mean to you?

Liz [00:08:06] Yeah. So I think of career principles as like personal rules that you align your career to. Especially for folks in product management, I like to make the analogy to product principles. So like, as you start off building a product strategy or a spec, a frequent sort of best practice is to like write down your product principles, right? Like, what’s going to guide your building of this product? The example that I like to use is actually my Fitbit. I’ve never worked there, but one of the things that I love about my Fitbit, which I use primarily to track sleep, is that it was so easy to sort of set up out of the box. Like I literally like opened it, plugged it in, and there’s so many defaults that are already set that I didn’t need to do anything. Contrast this with, like, I had an Apple Watch for a while and I couldn’t track my sleep without, you know, downloading a bunch of third-party apps, trying to do a bunch of configurations. So in my head, I feel like, you know, I bet the Fitbit product team at some point was like, “we’re going to value simplicity over, you know, power users, right, and just really make sure there’s a ton of great defaults that the Fitbit is set to so you can go change things if you want, but everything will sort of work out of the box.”.

Liz [00:09:14] So that’s an example to me of good product principles. Sort of how I apply that to my career is, in the same way, I feel like for every sort of phase of your career, you should have some principles or rules that you set down as you think through like a next play or, what you want to do that guide your sort of decision making about, you know, what to do, what job to take, what role or what project to take.

Sean [00:09:36] So I would love to hear some examples. What are some good career principles?

Liz [00:09:40] So obviously like these are very personal to me. I think one that I’ve developed over time and I tend to trust sort of my gut a lot of like hey, like when somebody brings up a new project or a role, either it’s very exciting or it’s not. And then trying to understand why was this exciting or why was this not as exciting? And one example for me is I’ve realized that one of my sort of career principles is I value breadth of impact over depth of impact. And so what that means is like, I’d rather work on a product that impacts a whole ton of people, but maybe in a slightly superficial way or not as deep away compared to a very small number of people, but in a very deep way.

Liz [00:10:21] And how this manifested for me is, you know, I’ve been at LinkedIn for over 11 years. Maybe five years or so ago, I was leading our core growth team and considering whether or not I should move back over to the monetization side and lead premium subscriptions, which, I mean at LinkedIn’s scale, everything is sort of large, but the difference between working on products and features that would impact hundreds of millions of people to just millions of people. And I realized I did really like sort of the broad breadth of impact of working on growth, or really sort of on the consumer side of LinkedIn versus on the monetization side. And so that was a principle that I unpacked sort of in that decision making, but it’s sort of guided my decisions since in terms of, you know, as I compare roles or what roles to take.

Sean [00:11:10] I love that story, first of all. This concept of having a principle like that, like valuing breadth of impact over depth of impact, it’s a polarity, right? And it’s a choice that you make and it will change the feature decisions at the product level and I love how you’re thinking of it. It’ll change the decisions around what kind of role you want to take in the organizations and how you want to serve. And there’s probably a lot of those if you think through the different polarities that exist in the product space alone.

Liz [00:11:36] Yeah.

Sean [00:11:37] Any others that you could think of? Because I think that that was a great share, super valuable for me personally.

Liz [00:11:41] Yeah. One of my other sort of core principles which we sort of touched on a little bit earlier is, you know, I do care a lot about women in product and women in tech and advocating for more equity and progress there. So that in itself is a principle for me that like whatever role that I take in whatever organization or company should allow me to continue that work, even if that’s not the work itself. So I have also thought about that, right? There are organizations or companies where the product is to, you know, make progress on DEI or DIBs. And I’ve thought about, “Do I ever want to work for a company or a product on that?” And maybe that might be true in the future, but at least up until now, I’ve always thought I might be even more effective just being a senior female leader within an organization and a company. And from that operational position, I might be even more better equipped to advocate for women within that company and the organization. So that’s also something where, like, one, being able to focus on that as part of my career is a principle, but two, like, it doesn’t have to be the work itself. It can be sort of around the work.

Sean [00:12:46] For sure. I think those two principles are tightly related. So you have an opportunity to really make a huge impact, have this incredible story to be told, or you could actually go do the work and do deeper work. And that’s a choice that you’ve been very clear about in your career. And I love that. That’s very telling and it’s great advice.

Liz [00:13:06] Thanks.

Paul [00:13:07] So key in on a word that Sean used a minute ago, there was sort of a polarizing moment for you where the principle came into real stark relief, like, “this is obviously a guided principle that I’m making this decision and not this decision, I’m accepting the opportunity cost.” But not everybody has those polarizing moments available to catalyze a principle for them right in front of them. How would you say, you know, for someone who’s not taken stock of their career principles for themselves ever or in a while, or perhaps they’re just vague and need some definition, what would you say is a good signal for someone to consider, you know, this is a time to step back, take stock and maybe even unpack, what is the process of even doing that? How do you start to think about these things?

Liz [00:13:47] Yeah. I think if you haven’t felt a need and you’re happy doing what you do then maybe you don’t need to, right?

Paul [00:13:53] Fair enough.

Liz [00:13:54] Like, don’t fix what’s not broken. But I know a lot of people are feeling this right now. Right. We talk a lot about the great resignation. Really, it’s more of a reshuffle. So I think a lot of people are thinking through these types of things and being more introspective. I think some signs are like, if you’re feeling restless or burnt out or bored or just something doesn’t feel right, and like over an extended period of time. Because obviously, like even in the best of jobs, you’ll have days where it’s like, “I hate this,” but if that’s happening week after week, I think that’s sort of a good time to step back and be like, “Hey, maybe what was working for me before is not. What’s changed in my life, either personally or professionally, that I should reevaluate and think through, like, what’s important to me now? What are my values now?” And start to do that.

Liz [00:14:38] And I think a good practice is to actually come up with examples. And you can always start small, right? Like even within your own company. Think about somebody else’s job. Like, “would I want that person’s job?” “Yes.” If yes, why? Right, like what about that person’s job is attractive? Or like, “if I don’t want that person’s job, why? What about that person’s job is not attractive?” And then try to kind of distill down through doing that a couple of times, what are the patterns that I see? I feel like it’s sort of, once you name it, once you write it down, then you kind of like really understand it better and then that can guide how you make your future decisions.

Paul [00:15:14] Yeah. I teach at an undergrad business course at RIT here in Rochester for seniors and upperclassmen about to graduate. And one of the things that we talk a lot about is if you don’t have this forcing function of a decision that you have to make and you’re figuring your values out for maybe the first time and articulating a vision, there’s a way that you can almost reverse engineer it by looking backwards at decisions you’ve made in the past.

Liz [00:15:37] Yeah.

Paul [00:15:37] You know, you took the road less traveled. That is a value judgment on your behalf. And you can say, “I chose this versus that because this is important to me.” It might seem passive or innate in the moment, but if you take a moment to look backwards, you can kind of distill into these career principles what is important to you and what’s not.

Liz [00:15:55] Yeah, definitely. That’s a great idea. Yeah.

Sean [00:15:57] Yeah. So for me, an example, going back in the history of ITX, in the early days, we could become a staffing agency or we could be a product company. And we really wanted to focus on innovation. Like, innovation is a core value for me. Like, I want to do things that are innovative, not be the person just taking the orders from our customers and doing what we’re told to do. Like, we want to be at the forefront of that sort of thing. And I think without thinking about it, that’s been one of the things that’s helped us drive a lot of our decisions going forward. So on that note, I would love to hear from you how you define innovation.

Liz [00:16:26] Hm. That’s a great question. I think when you’re solving problems in a different way that either people haven’t thought of before, or really more that just people haven’t tried to implement before. Because I feel like most things people have thought of before, but nobody ever like, you know, took the step to actually go and address it. So I think it’s, yeah, like new or novel ways of thinking and solutions.

Paul [00:16:49] There is a piece in there about actually getting up and doing it then, right?

Liz [00:16:52] Yeah.

Paul [00:16:53] You’ve thought about it and now go do it. I think that’s a missing piece in a lot of people’s definitions of innovation. It’s not just the idea.

Liz [00:17:00] Yeah, for sure.

Sean [00:17:01] It doesn’t matter until some human behavior occurs, you know.

Liz [00:17:04] Yeah.

Sean [00:17:05] You have to do it.

Paul [00:17:06] You know, before we wrap up, I have one more question for you. You mentioned something to me that stuck with me since the pre-production call that we had. And you mentioned a comment almost in passing about how your career is allowed to be a means to the end. Your career is allowed to be the engine for your, quote-unquote, real life. And there is, I would say, I don’t know if I would call it a flaw, maybe for the sake of conversation, it’s a flaw. But I think of my career as my career and my real life as my real life. And, you know, it was a really kind of freeing comment, I’m not sure if you even remember saying it, but it was this concept of, your career goals are allowed to be real-life goals. I am a product manager so that I can be a better husband and dad. I’m a product manager so that I can accomplish the education goals that I have for my family. It seems so simple, but it really has stuck with me over the time since we’ve spoke last. And I really just wanted to say I appreciate it and wondered if you could share a bit more about how you came to that realization?

Liz [00:17:59] Yeah. I totally believe in it and I feel like it’s probably a lot more prominent or relevant for people in the last two years with the pandemic, with like so many things going wrong is like really thinking through what matters to you. And I just think it’s so different depending on the person, right? And I’ve never really ascribed to this idea that, “oh, like, if you find work that you’re passionate about, you’ll never work like a day in your life.” Like, you know, work is still just work sometimes, right? And I’m sure for some people they feel that way. But I think it’s okay if you don’t feel that way. Like, it’s okay if your work is a means to like financial independence and freedom for yourself or your family. And it’s okay if that’s your value, right? Say, like the compensation matters a lot because you want to have this lifestyle and freedom for your family.

Liz [00:18:46] And so, I don’t know. I think that’s been a gradual realization for me. I think my natural tendency is as a people pleaser and to sometimes, like, glom onto like the peer pressure, the culture around me. So as you mentioned, I went to Stanford, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley. Tons of like entrepreneurship, startup culture. And I think there’s a lot of pressure when you go to Stanford to like be an entrepreneur and, you know, do that thing I just said, right. Like, find the thing that you’re passionate about and go start a company about it. And I think for a long time I was like, “Oh, should I be doing that? Like, Is that what I’m supposed to do?” And I think just, you know, as I grew older and matured and really tried to understand myself a lot more, I realized that’s not really me. I wouldn’t ever rule that out. But it’s not like an inherent desire that I need to go and like create something completely sort of brand new in this world.

Liz [00:19:39] And I think, yeah, just over time realizing there’s a lot of quote-unquote truisms in the industry or in business that aren’t really true. They’re really just maybe like what the majority wants to do or what they think they want to do. So I think it’s important to really kind of get back to the basics of, you know, what matters to you. Do you want a more relaxed job so that you can spend time with your family and friends? Or, you know, maybe the work is what makes you tick and you really want to, like, put your full self into it. But I think it’s just so different for every person.

Sean [00:20:12] Yeah, I think you’re on to something there. It’s definitely a spectrum, right, and people that go, and I’ve been guilty of this. I get very focused on my work sometimes and it’s like, you go overboard, you know. And there is this culture, this pressure, to almost be in love with your work. And I think you’re right. And I think all people struggle with that dilemma. And you have days where you are fully on and then you have days when you’re not fully on and that’s the reality. And I think it’s okay if you recognize that it’s okay to be in both places and it’s okay to have on days and off days, and we need to be a little bit more gentle with ourselves. To a lot of my leaders, I like to say, “if anybody else talked to you the way you talked to yourself, you’d probably punch him in the throat,” right. Like, we’re very hard on ourselves because we want to perform and we want to build great products, but we have to take a step back and be real people, too. So that’s great advice.

Sean [00:20:56] I’m going to take a minute, if you don’t mind, and kind of summarize some of the key points that I heard in my words. So please correct me if I’ve gotten any of this stuff wrong. First thing I captured as a key takeaway here is that empathy and really understanding your people and how they’re growing is a predecessor to sustainable long-term team performance.

Liz [00:21:13] Yeah.

Sean [00:21:14] Two, awareness of team diversity is a necessity for solving the problem. So like, let’s get serious about at least bringing awareness to the industry and to the problem so that we can all start working on it together. Number three, product principles in general, having values for your team and having your team come up with some product principles at that level. We didn’t talk too much about that, but I captured that and it really struck a chord with me. Number four, have career principles. And I don’t know many people that do, so that’s kind of like a brilliant insight, like, “hey, have you thought about your own principles specifically in the context of your career?” And know what the polarities are. If you have some clear polarities where it will help you make decisions, it can be a powerful tool in your human toolbox, so to speak.

Sean [00:21:55] Number five, if you’re experiencing malaise, apathy, or burnout, that should be a sign that you should probably go back to your principles or create principles if you don’t have them and figure out what the heck you’re doing with your work and your career and your life. And then lastly, the thing we just talked about, there’s a lot of pressure to love your work and you need to make space in your life to be a real human and understand that it can’t be all about work. And you want to set the example, really, either.

Liz [00:22:18] Yeah.

Sean [00:22:18] Did I capture it pretty good?

Liz [00:22:19] Yeah, I think that’s pretty good. The only thing I’ll add is, like, on the career principles, I think it’s helpful to have them before you need them so that you’re not sort of susceptible to the sort of peer pressures, right. Like, there’s always going to be maybe a role that pays more money or a company that is like the media darling and seems sort of sexy and exciting. And I think understanding if those things do matter to you or not before that kind of decision comes up can help you make, I think, a more thoughtful decision.

Paul [00:22:47] Hmm. This has been great. I have one more question before we let you go, and we ask it of our guests. What have you been reading? What’s been inspiring to you lately? Who have you been listening to that a project manager might key into to get some insights that you’re getting value from?

Liz [00:23:04] Sure. I haven’t been reading any business books lately, but actually one sort of creator I’ll mention, and I follow them on LinkedIn, is Lily Zheng. They are an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I just find their posts super insightful. So I totally recommend folks to follow them on LinkedIn.

Paul [00:23:26] Outstanding. Thanks. We’ll definitely check them out. Liz, this has been great. Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us. I’ve gotten a ton of value out and I’m sure our listeners will too.

Liz [00:23:35] Thank you so much for having me on. This was fun.

Sean [00:23:38] Thank you so much for all the work you do for the industry and for being a voice for women in product and for building great products. So thank you.

Liz [00:23:45] Thanks. Yeah, it’s been my pleasure.

Paul [00:23:49] 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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