Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Speak the language

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A long time ago I took the opportunity to dedicate two years of service to my church in Argentina. Prior to heading to South America I spent two months in intensive language training. I learned more in the first week than I had in two years of high school Spanish. By the time the two months were up I felt confident I could speak the language. Then I took the flight to Buenos Aires and disembarked the plane. I heard people speaking, but their words didn’t register. I struggled to understand how the Spanish I learned before was so different than what I was hearing.

Within a few days I began to pick out the nuances of Castellano (Argentina’s brand of Spanish) and within a couple of months I understood most of what people were saying (though speaking took a few more months of study and hard work). I wasn’t able to speak the language effectively until I was actually in the country and forced to communicate with the people.

My experience learning to speak with the people in Argentina applies to life in general: to really understand people you have to spend time with them, listen, study what they say and learn their customs. You have to immerse yourself in their culture and let go of old ideas and pre-conceived notions. Too many times leaders or managers think if they say their word the people will understand what they mean and become motivated to do what they say. Too often they miss the simple point that until you speak their language they will not understand.


The Product Management Perspective: The need to speak the language hit home with me in recent months while working on a major product release. The marketing team has a message they want to send about the new product. The sales team wants to know how the software will benefit their current customers and how they message it to new customers. The developers want specifics on how to develop every aspect of the new software application. The executive team wants to know when we’re shipping. The product management team needs to fill in all the gaps.

The most effective way I’ve found to “fill in the gaps” is to understand what people (on the other teams) are looking for and communicate with them in a ‘language’ they understand. This requires that you spend time with each team understanding their goals and requirements and then communicate with them in a way that gets the message across in the ‘language’ they understand. It’s more of an art than a science. I have a long way to go in perfecting the art; however, I’ve found that spending time with the different teams pays dividends in those difficult times where communication is key.

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