Inspiration

74 / Crafting A Product Vision Begins With 'Scaling Trust'

Hosted by Sean Flaherty and Paul Gebel

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About Mamuna Oladipo
mamuna-oladipo
Mamuna Oladipo
Shopify

As a product executive with over 10 years of overseeing global teams, Mamuna Oladipo has diverse experience leading product management, product marketing, product design, and strategy development in the B2B and B2C markets. Mamuna is currently the Vice President of Product at Shopify, where she drives product vision and strategy to ensure constant delivery of value to merchants globally.

Prior to her role at Shopify, Mamuna was the SVP of Product, Design and Engineering at Kickstarter, the VP of Product at SeamlessDocs, and before that, VP of Product Marketing & Design at The Orchard, a division of Sony Music. She built the product marketing and product design teams from the ground up, formalizing go-to-market strategies across functions. She earned her MBA from the University of Maryland while working full time for Bloomberg Government where she not only gained her product foundation but played an integral role in building out the new Bloomberg vertical company.

With a deep focus on the client journey, Mamuna prides herself on aligning organizations to a vision and is passionate about building products that provide compelling and delightful experiences for users.

Among the many lessons Shopify’s Mamuna Oladipo has learned in her career is that communicating a product vision isn’t a “one-and-done” exercise. Working with such diverse audiences requires product leaders to create a narrative around the vision and communicate it multiple times, in different ways. Not everyone, she explains, digests information in the same way or at the same pace.

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Mamuna joins Sean and Paul to share her vast experience leading product teams across a broad range of industries. Currently VP of Product at Shopify, Mamuna’s experience includes service at Kickstarter, SeamlessDocs, and The Orchard, a division of Sony Music.

“A product leader’s view of the world is a lot better than their teammates’,” she says. “They can’t always see what we see. So our job is to help them get up there as efficiently as possible. We do that by ‘scaling trust’,” which is a sort of shorthand for deepening team cohesion, understanding customers’ needs, and thinking holistically about our product. It’s a significant investment, Mamuna adds, but it’s critical to communicating product vision and delivering value to your users.

Check out our pod conversation with Mamuna, and catch more of her insights –

  • Product work is people work. Spend time with the people who use your product and who build your product.
  • Change is going to happen. Learn to embrace it so you can minimize its impact on your team.
  • Words matter. Adapt your vocabulary – and your approach – to communicate the product narrative to diverse audiences.

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] Hey, Sean, how are you doing?

Sean [00:00:32] Good, Paul. What an inspiring conversation.

Paul [00:00:37] I can’t think of a better way to start my day than having a conversation like that. We talked about scaling trust, talked about building empathy, translating between different requirements and voices and perspectives, just really great practical leadership lessons.

Sean [00:00:52] And we are so lucky to be able to have these conversations with such amazing leaders in our industry. So I can’t wait to get after this with the audience. This is a great interview.

Paul [00:01:01] Let’s do it.

Sean [00:01:02] All right. Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:01:06] Hello, and welcome to the pod. Today, we’re excited to be joined by Mamuna Oladipo. She’s a leading product executive with a track record of building products that have scaled to millions of users. She’s currently the VP of Product at Shopify, but before this, she was senior VP of Product Design and Engineering at Kickstarter, where she managed the product management, product design, brand design, and engineering teams. Prior to that, she was Vice President of Product, at SeamlessDocs and Vice President of Product Marketing and Design at Sony Music Entertainment. She has nine years of experience and product and has demonstrated the ability to work at the strategic level, generating bold and innovative ideas for growth, creating partnerships to generate results, and targeting opportunities in growth markets. According to her colleagues, Mamuna takes on challenges holistically and effectively, handles curveballs calmly and cleverly, and approaches people sincerely and gracefully. She’s an inspiration who makes it happen. Mamuna, thanks for joining us.

Mamuna [00:01:58] Wow, what an intro. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m excited to be here with you both.

Paul [00:02:02] Absolutely.

Sean [00:02:03] What a background you have, like going from Bloomberg to Kickstarter to Shopify. How exciting for you.

Mamuna [00:02:09] Yeah, thank you. You know, I think it’s been great for the experience and you get to kind of test what you know in different spaces, which has been great for me.

Paul [00:02:16] 100 percent. You know, in talks that I’ve heard you give, you’ve used the phrase ‘scaling trust,’ which intrigues me. And you’ve kind of used it, I believe, as shorthand to represent this overall concept of team cohesion, solving customers’ needs, holistic product thinking. But I’d love to hear, in your own words, you’ve been on a journey, what does scaling trust mean to you today?

Mamuna [00:02:36] Yeah, I mean, you’re so right. There’s so many things jumbled into that phrase. But when I first sort of imagine it I think about the person who’s at the top of the ladder and they’re looking down to like, get their team up. But everyone on the team is at the bottom of the ladder working their way up and they can’t see what you see up there, which is like, you know, the promised land. And so your job is to make sure that they get up there as efficiently as possible. So to get to the top, you have to deliver value to the customer, your business must be thriving. To deliver value to your customer, you know, you have to understand who they are, what their needs are. So you have to somehow, as that leader, get the team excited and motivated to build that thing so that they can get up there.

Mamuna [00:03:15] And operationally, you have to ensure they trust you, right? So you’re telling them to move forward and they’re like, “Well, what is that next step look like?” And so you have to make sure that they believe that you are taking them in the right direction and then they have to also trust each other. So what are you doing as a leader to also ensure that they are working together, they’re communicating, they understand what each other are doing, and it’s in the best interest of the full group. So, you know, if your team’s broken at the core, I feel like that’s kind of where you start. And for me, it’s like just scaling down trust to ensure that you all know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for, and who you’re doing it with, even.

Sean [00:03:52] I find it interesting that there’s this pattern when people go up in an organization where you’re not focusing so much on the product and the users anymore, you’re really focusing on your team.

Mamuna [00:04:02] Yeah.

Sean [00:04:02] That’s what we’re talking about here. And I love your analogy of the ladder. I use it a lot as well because I think it’s it’s just an easy visual construct for us to remember and recognize that every experience we produce for our people is like a rung on the ladder and an opportunity to move them up or to move them down. And the larger the group of people you’re leading, obviously, Shopify, this is your role is more about the people you’re leading than it is about even your products or your customers, right? And that experience that they have is really, really important.

Mamuna [00:04:33] A hundred percent, I mean, you also have that layer on in there engagement and retention, right? So you want to ensure that you take the time to build people into your organization, you build that trust, they get that context. Now you want to keep them there because you want them to continue to pour into your organization. But at the same time, you have to make sure you’re also pouring into them. That’s part of that trust and that connection that you’re building with the individuals across your team.

Sean [00:04:59] You can’t build products that people trust if you don’t have people that you trust on your team.

Mamuna [00:05:04] Exactly. Exactly

Paul [00:05:05] Yeah. And I think one more kind of nuance about the ladder analogy, it’s not as if the product manager has any kind of positional authority, you know, often over their teams. Often it’s just influencing without authority, the phrase that we’ve kind of co-opted is the product manager’s mantra. But as we talk about moving up the ladder to see that promised land you talk about, it’s really because where the teams live and produce every day tends to be very tactical. We’re trying to get the next feature, the next plug-in, the next user interview, and it’s hard to keep both of those ends of the ladder in perspective. So I think it’s a helpful analogy visually that way, too.

Mamuna [00:05:39] Yeah, it really is. And I find that as a leader, I didn’t always have that understanding of perspective, and it definitely took some good lessons to get that understanding and to understand my responsibility to get people up that ladder and get them that context, but also make sure that they feel like they are contributing to the bigger vision, the bigger direction without seeing it themselves a lot of the time.

Paul [00:06:02] Yeah. I want to shift gears a bit and talk about the people on the team, specifically. Product leaders, as a community, we’re developing a vernacular. We use a lot of the same words. We watch a lot of the same talks. We go to a lot of the same conferences and you know, we tend to have a lot of common framework together, but we don’t often have the same one-to-one applicability. A product owner at one company is not necessarily the same thing as a product owner at a different company. What do you believe is true for every product leader on a team? And what maybe are some things that we can start to look at to identify as differences to know what kind of organization or what kind of team we may be leading?

Mamuna [00:06:37] I mean, true, right, is always that you have to embrace change, like change is inevitable. And you know, while your job isn’t to just accept shifting grounds, your job is to know that it’s going to happen and try to minimize that impact for your team. And, you know, regardless of what role you’re in across organizations or within a product team, how senior you are, some amount of change is going to happen, whether the roadmap changes or there’s change a prioritization or a change strategically, whatever it may be. So part of your role is to take that and say, “OK, how do I make sure that my team is as like, maybe not as impacted by this change as possible?”.

Mamuna [00:07:14] I also think that you also have to understand that you are working with people that have different backgrounds and levels of understanding, so you have to invest time in ensuring that everyone’s moving in that same direction. So your ability to communicate and direct vision and bring people along is also going to be just consistent across whatever role or level you are. I think the idea you had mentioned before around, you know, being a product person, you’re sometimes leading directly, sometimes you’re leading indirectly. So it’s important for you to just make sure that you are connecting people to that customer need and that value in ensuring that your teams are always touching back to why they’re doing things. I think building a nice process around some regular cadence of that is going to be important.

Mamuna [00:07:56] I think in the times when I’ve worked between multiple functions and then also incorporated those external factors that may pop in from time to time, I think that’s where you start to see some variability in what as a leader you may experience. You know, in that you may have different things around psychological safety that you have to be able to create for your team. So with COVID and leading the teams, I had to realize, after some time, that I had to invest more in just like the deep, one-on-one, conversations with individuals to create that sense of security in their roles. You have to focus on developing that trust and connection with people. You have to, you know, there’s a lot in there that you have to really dive deep into that you can’t necessarily say that every single person is going to have the same approach because the situation is going to be very different.

Paul [00:08:45] Yeah.

Sean [00:08:46] Yeah. So you talked about making sure that your team understands the why. Like, why are we building this product? What is it for? And I think that’s tightly correlated with this concept that floats around our industry called vision.

Mamuna [00:08:59] Mm.

Sean [00:09:00] I’d love to know, you know, leading products that are as big as the products that you’re leading with such diverse audiences, how do you think about vision? How do you articulate it to your team when you know it needs to be updated, when you need to pivot? How do you think about that stuff?

Mamuna [00:09:14] Yeah, I mean, I think for me, the first thing I have to do is be able to connect with the why personally and I have to be able to speak with it from conviction. So a lot of times what I’ll do is I’ll start to spend time speaking to customers or users. I will start to just really dive deeper into their problems. I will try to make sure that I myself am using the thing that I am also speaking about so I can understand what specifically the problem was speaking to. And then I look at my team, so I start to just ask an understanding of what do we know to be true? What do they think we’re doing and try to see what the disconnects are, the gaps in understanding are.

Mamuna [00:09:48] And then my focus there is just thinking about the narrative. I’ve made mistakes in the past where I have just gone forward and created my own story, and I just talk to people and say, “Hey, this is where we’re going,” and it just completely misses the mark because I don’t know what they don’t know. And so by spending time speaking to my teams, I can understand where their potential gaps in their understanding are. And the focus there is that, you know, once you communicate a vision, once you communicate that narrative, that story about where we’re going, you want to kind of push it as far forward as you comfortably can.

Mamuna [00:10:17] But you also have to say it multiple times in different ways because not everyone digests information the same way. And I’ve learned this lesson multiple times. Sometimes it’s written and it’s giving them a document and going to ask questions, and then it’s telling them out loud and allowing them to ask questions. It’s breaking up into chunks and doing workshops. It’s bringing them together to work on your pieces. I’ve also found that it’s important for me to spend a lot of time with my senior leaders when I’m developing that vision to ensure that they have the same level of understanding and direction that I also have. Because that’s also where you start to see a breakdown in communication if you both are saying something different.

Mamuna [00:10:55] And then from there, as you start to scale the communication further, it’s nice when you have not just your voice, but everyone else’s voices, your senior leaders around you also saying the same thing. So it’s not up to you to be in every single meeting to reiterate the direction or thinking. You have however many people around you also saying the same things. But you know, I think vision is that step of saying, “OK, we’re going in a direction,” but there are so many pieces that go into really communicating that vision and ensuring people understand it.

Sean [00:11:22] Brilliant. Brilliant what you said, by the way. So I almost heard like, job one of a product leader is to make sure that the vision is in a narrative form that can align people. Yeah?

Mamuna [00:11:33] Yes.

Sean [00:11:34] And I also heard almost a formula in there, like vision is this combination of knowing really, really well, having a clear, crisp understanding of who we serve, what problems we solve so that we can paint this picture of the future, the narrative for the people that we’re leading.

Mamuna [00:11:47] Yes, exactly.

Sean [00:11:49] Brilliant. Loved it.

Paul [00:11:51] So as a product leader, I’ve found, you know, sometimes I become fixated, probably just a personality flaw on hard skills, analytics, engagement rates. You know, even some of the more traditional project management metrics like scope, schedule, and budget. And it’s easy to look at things that you can measure and feel like you have control. And it’s often, you know, in these moments that I personally will sideline the more qualitative measures of product leadership. You use the word humility in facing product problems and team challenges. Can you share some insight on why it might be important to focus on those things that are hard to measure in teams?

Mamuna [00:12:29] Yeah. So I would say last year with COVID was probably one of the more challenging times, just professionally in trying to level up as a leader while also trying to keep all the pieces going and flowing in the right direction. Previously, I was very also fixated on those harder skills. You know, when I’d interview, I focused very much on, you know, analytics and the data points. I think that they come in and you’d start to see them push the teams forward. But in times of maybe where it needs like a softer touch, they were maybe not able to hone into those skills. But I never really caught it or understood it until last year when I was leading through COVID and there was a number of things going on and I myself was very focused on, “OK, how do I just keep the team moving forward? How do I ensure that they are hitting their goals and delivering and all that fun stuff?”

Mamuna [00:13:25] And the people around me clearly just needed, like, an ear. They just wanted to know that they were safe in their spaces. They wanted to know that they were of value. And that connection to me, where I understood that value at this point wasn’t delivering the product, it was more so, for them knowing that they mattered was important. And so it was a true moment of humility because it was very much, I was saying certain things in meetings where I was like, “Okay, directionally, here’s where it going.” And then I’d hear rumblings. Not to me directly, but through teams where people come to me and say, “Hey, I don’t know if that landed well,” or maybe, “you know, try to incorporate more of this.” And I spent time digging into teams. I told them I needed help to understand how to move this forward. And it was a humbling moment because I did have to slow down, I did have to take a couple of steps back and realize that maybe pushing the teams in the direction wasn’t the right move at the time and that I needed to focus more on the individuals on the team. So we paused and I started to think about what we needed to do to come together.

Sean [00:14:27] I love that. This is what I believe to be the difference between strategy and tactics. Tactics are the skills we deploy to go and build the products that we build and ultimately we have to make a return on investment and these are hard numbers and hard things that we can actually measure, put objectives and key results in place for the problems that we’re solving. You can see tactically, are we doing the thing that we set out to do? But the strategy is the subjective stuff. It’s the people. It’s all about, how are we orienting our people towards the vision, like you described it earlier. How are we building things that people actually care about in the world? And you know, the only real way, I believe, you can know that, we started the question out with metrics is to measure the behaviors of the people in your ecosystem to be able to look at, you know, are they behaving as though they trust us and are they behaving as though there’s some sense of loyalty and engagement here? And ultimately, are we building things that they love and that they’ll share with their friends and family? Love that. So you talk a lot about humility in your work too. You know, your Twitter feed, the stuff that you speak on at Industry… I think humility is a really important thing in our space and I’d just like to hear your thoughts on that.

Mamuna [00:15:35] I mean, I think the thing that resonates with me is that we all started from somewhere and we all had to work to where we are today and the people that are working with us or for us are oftentimes in the place where maybe we started or where we were in the middle. And it’s important to just slow down and understand how you felt in those times and how you have to sort of bring people along, you have to support them, you have to connect with them. People don’t want to feel like they’re being pushed in a direction. They want to feel like they have a choice. And I think that you have to, as a leader, be human and give people the opportunity to connect and choose to follow you as their leader. You know, if a person can’t connect with you, they likely won’t make that choice. And so you have to, if you’re stumbling, you know, I’m the first one to say it: “I’m not the smartest person in the room. I don’t know a thing.” Because I want people to understand that it’s OK for them to also say it. Let’s all band together to help the person who doesn’t know or to help provide them with whatever they need to get to a point where they can be successful. But I think you have to kind of bring that air of, “I have to know everything,” down to a point where it’s like, “it’s OK, we’re all human in this room together, how can we get to that point together?”

Paul [00:16:50] Yeah. That’s actually a great lead-in. I don’t think that you can have a path similar to yours without working with lots of different types of people too. You know, when you’re dealing with a product launch, there are customers, there’s teams. But even within these teams, there’s engineers, there’s designers, there’s business stakeholders, all sorts of different perspectives that are coming to the table. There’s a famous, or infamous now, maybe, Venn diagram of business, design, and technology with product in the center of all three. It may be becoming outdated, but I think many of us have seen it before and resonate to some degree with it. When we’re talking to these people on teams and bringing different viewpoints and different skill sets, different goals together. How do you reconcile the different languages and goals and struggles that people face? I hear you talk about rallying the team, and I understand it to be true. I think the thing that’s difficult, the thing that’s almost a make or break skill is being able to speak those different languages at the flip of a switch and translate on the fly.

Mamuna [00:17:50] Yes. Another hard lesson learned here, as I took over during my time at Kickstarter, when I took over engineering and I was also leading design and product, I didn’t understand that difference. And I would say something and people would automatically say, “You know, you’re too much of a product leader.” And they could not connect with me as engineers because they felt like I wasn’t speaking to them. And, you know, they kept saying it, and I didn’t understand what that meant. And then the more time I spent just one-on-one with individuals, I started to understand, you know, I didn’t have empathy for what they needed in order to be successful, in order to feel connected to what I was saying.

Mamuna [00:18:35] So then I just started to practice, just even in terms of my vocabulary, the things I would say, you know, if I was in my engineering group, I wouldn’t repurpose the same thing I would say for my product and design folks. If I was with my design team, I wouldn’t say… But the thing is, at the core, I was saying the same thing. It was just how I said it. And you have to think about the different groups and what they are needing from you. When I was leading engineering, for the place that we were in at the time, they needed awareness and understanding that everything that was being asked for was not easy. It was not simple, and they wanted that, you know, awareness and understanding of what I was saying and acknowledgment that they were working hard, as was everyone else, but acknowledgment of the technical complexity of what was being asked for it.

Mamuna [00:19:21] And in that, I would speak about the challenges and opportunities for growth and development. And that was exciting. On the product side, it was they wanted more strategic ownership and they wanted to feel like they were owners of their space. So giving them that energy and direction. For the design team, a lot of times they want to dive deeper into the users into giving them the latitude to understand, you know, how to dive into research and where to leverage our data and giving them a space to kind of own their different domains. But when I bring them all together, you know, I could say this all together and understand who I’m speaking to, even though I’m speaking to the same groups at the same time, you kind of have to weave bits and pieces for each group together. And I think that really helped to bring all of the groups together in the end. Because in the beginning, I would speak to product or I’d speak to design or I’d speak to engineering while they were together and it would be sort of divisive because they would walk away and say, “Oh, she didn’t even acknowledge the engineering side or the design side,” or whatever it may be. So that was a good lesson learned that I keep close to me now.

Sean [00:20:20] Awesome. And in our pre-production call before this, we had a brief conversation about product leader superpowers and you talked about feedback as a superpower, which relates directly to this. And I think feedback is like one of the most important things we do as product leaders is to take these signals that we hear from the engineering team, from the development team, from the market, from the customers, from the stakeholders, and assemble it into something that we can actually use to prioritize. So when we put the product in market and we get this positive feedback, it’s like fuel for our culture. And then the negative feedback, I think if it comes from customers or engineers or designers that are authentically investing in the future of our products, that they actually care about it, it’s like gold. And we often take that negative feedback and we try to sweep it under the rug or kind of quietly take care of it. But my belief is we should be celebrating it.

Mamuna [00:21:13] 100 percent. I like to, when I first come into an organization, really work on how we view feedback and I like to just really normalize it. And so there’s no real good, there’s no bad, it’s just the value of feedback altogether. The first thing you want to do is create that shared sort of understanding for the purpose and value of that feedback. You want to really tout the benefits you want to convey the value of learning. You want to keep people curious and just really talk about the essential knowledge that comes from that feedback. And once everyone is clear that learning is an important goal and that feedback is a function of that learning, then I think that feedback is perceived as potentially less scary and you’re willing to accept it, be open to it, and include it more in your process. And then I think part of the next step is to think about how you really train your team on, I don’t know, like I see feedback as you have your customer feedback and then you have your internal just how you operate as a leader. You know, you have your system for how you all take in feedback, whether it’s you as an individual with your team or as your customers. And you want to think about how you all just normalize that into your process. So there is no sweeping under the rug, right. You want to shine everything in the same way, celebrate it all the same. And so you want to make sure you give everything that same equal weighting.

Sean [00:22:30] I love that. You know, one of the things I try to instill in my team as we talk about feedback is that if people have feedback for you and they don’t care about your future, what do they do with it typically, right? They tell everybody else. They’re not telling you, they’re telling everybody else. So when they tell you, it’s like a sign that they actually care, it’s like, really important.

Paul [00:22:50] Yeah. As we’re wrapping up our time together, we have a couple of questions that we ask all of our guests on the show, and one of them is, just off the cuff, what does innovation mean to you? How would you define innovation?

Mamuna [00:23:04] I feel like innovation is one of those words that sometimes gets bandied about a lot. It’s a shiny thing. But for me, it’s like constant learning, constant improvement. It’s thinking about the future of where you can go and trying to really get your teams to form around that idea, a concept product, that opportunity. And so I guess it kind of is that shiny thing that you can kind of move towards, but I see it more practically if that makes sense. And I try to think about how you can realistically get to that point, versus just like, I don’t know if ever really want to get there, but having a process to move in that direction for your teams. So you have a number of processes, you have people who are comfortable with not knowing, who are comfortable working in a looser space of work. I don’t know, it can be exciting.

Paul [00:23:53] You threw that in almost as a footnote, but that half comment, “I don’t know if you ever want to get there,” that’s honestly the really interesting thing to me. It’s almost strategically moving the goalposts every time we almost get there. “Oh, here’s this other thing that we can improve upon.” Great answer.

Mamuna [00:24:06] That’s exciting about that.

Paul [00:24:07] I really love that.

Sean [00:24:08] This has been an inspiring half an hour with you, Mamuna. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. On that note, what’s inspiring you lately? What are you reading or who do you follow that’s inspiring you?

Mamuna [00:24:18] You know, I was just thinking about this yesterday. I’ve been trying to revamp my library of things that I read and consume. I listen to a lot of podcasts as of late. I read a lot on management, leadership, mentorship, how to guide teams, a lot in like Harvard Business Review. I read a lot on UX and design how you build user experience. I listened to an interesting podcast the other day about value paths. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on just onboarding and how you onboard successfully. And I have been spending a lot of time in The First 90 Days. And so they have a lot of really good, just like worksheets that kind of walk you through how to best prepare yourself as a leader. So I’ve been going through that. And then prior to that, I was reading a lot about Radical Candor that I recommend, by Kim Scott, which was just a solid book. And then there is another book that I also read prior to that was Own the Room, which just helps you find, like, your authentic voice as a leader. And so that was so helpful as I worked my way through last year and trying to find my voice and ensuring that, you know, I’m continuously learning and growing as a leader myself.

Paul [00:25:37] Great stuff.

Sean [00:25:38] Thank you for your time. This has been a fantastic interview, I think our audience is really going to love it.

Mamuna [00:25:43] Thank you so much for your time and having me here.

Paul [00:25:46] Cheers.

Paul [00:25:49] 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.