What are we? Are we…?

October 19, 2021

We just finished our fall meetings, which overall went well (NPS scores in the 80s) but I did receive some criticism, which I’d like to respond to.

But first, this Tuesday morning made me love Brooklyn all over again…the soft slant light, the dry yet doughy autumn air, which carries better than any other season the toasty smells of a nearby bakery, and the crackling my feet make crunching red oak leaves…mmm mmm.

I begin with this because today of all days I want to respond in an open-hearted way to a member, Tom, who was unhappy with an experiment I tried for the fall.

Among the three keynote speakers, I invited the beautiful writer, Barbara Becker, author of Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind. 

Becker was an unusual choice. She does not write about leadership, product management, or business. She writes about living and dying, something many of us are dealing with more in our lives, especially, but not only, because of the pandemic.

The experiment I wanted to try was this: would dealing with such a difficult issue help open up our vulnerability on other more professional topics? And would seeing members talk about losing spouses, children, parents – and the tears (and joy) that comes with speaking of those who have shaped us – help all of us build an environment of trust that would help us be more supportive of each other?

For many of you, this experiment worked. I see it in your feedback and in your notes to me. You loved Barbara’s book and were deeply moved by her talk and by the members who joined the keynote and shared their tears about people they have lost.

You also were really touched by the Heartwood exercise that each council did immediately after the talk. That exercise asked each member to reflect on three people (or events like divorce or job loss) that have shaped them.

You loved this exercise and you did feel closer to your fellow members.

But for some, including Tom, the exercise went too far. 

As a result, he asked me a good question: what are we? 

Are we a therapy community? 

Or, are we a professional community? 

My quick answer, which I did not give since I’ve learned not to trust quick answers, was “we are not a therapy community – we are not therapists after all” (my other quick answer was, “We are Devo.” 😉 

But, seriously, this is a good question. 

If we are not a therapy community, why do I promote asking for help so much? 

And, if we are not a therapy community, why do so many members say the help they get on their professional challenges can feel “therapeutic” (their word)?

And, if we are not a therapy community, why do we help members on personal topics like aging parents, death, depressed daughters, etc?

And, further, if we are not a therapy community, why in my writing do I work so hard to show you my own vulnerability and share so much of my own personal story?

And, certainly, if we are not a therapy community, why did I invite Barbara Becker? 

After thinking about this for two weeks and talking with other members and moderators and colleagues, I came to the conclusion that I have no easy or even good answer. 

I certainly don’t have a good word to describe what we are. 

But let me share several words that I hope get close.

We are primarily a professional community here to help each other build great products, companies, and careers. 

We focus on “asking for help” because, as my mother taught me, it’s one of the best habits to develop if you want to go beyond what you think is professionally possible.

Having said all of this, we are also a place for professionals to (optionally) share personal challenges. 

We have Roundtables, Peer Coaching Calls, and 1:1 Coaching where you *can* open up both professional questions and *optionally*  on difficult personal issues that are impacting your ability to lead well: aging parents, depressed or suicidal spouses or children, inner critics, and, frankly, *anything* you want help with. 

The important word here, though, is optional

Yes, I will continue to lobby for you to open up and ask for help on anything and everything that is impacting you as a human (and thus as a leader).

And from time to time I will bring in high integrity writers and thinkers like Barbara Becker. 

But whether you want to journey beyond the professional is up to you.

In Tom’s case, he felt some level of pressure to be more vulnerable on topics he did not want to talk about. 

And I think we may have stepped a bit too far by not just having the talk, but having the Heartwood exercise in each council. That exercise did not feel voluntary. 

And I see his point. There was no easy way to opt-out.

I apologize to you, Tom, for that. 

I want to invite you to ask for help on anything that will help you lead better, but I do *not* want to coerce you or pressure you to talk about anything you are not ready to discuss.

That is my commitment to you and to everyone.

Step with us as far as you like.

You decide.

It’s your choice.

And back to the beginning of this newsletter, if you have fine fall weather like we do in Brooklyn today, then please step outside and breathe the smells, sounds, and texture of autumn.

With love,


P.S. A topic for another day: Part of the reason I invited Barbara is because she is an all-too-rare great writer whose pen flows with love and with care for the craft of language – and when I find those rare writers, I tend to invite them to come talk whatever their topic. I will continue to do that but it will be optional whether you want to attend.

P.P.S. The third and final fall keynote is coming up in November on hybrid work. See below. You AND your teams should join us!

Fall Keynotes

  • The Hows and Whys of Hybrid Work – Thu, Nov 11 @4pm ET
    Jaime Teevan, Chief Scientist for Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices
    with moderator Ron Pessner, Vice President of Product Microsoft Office

    To registerClick here to email Britany Chism (register your teams to join too!)

    Jaime Teevan, Chief Scientist for Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices, is charged with creating the future of productivity at Microsoft and for its customers. As part of that effort, she helps lead the New Future of Work: the largest research initiative in Microsoft’s history with hundreds of researchers from across Microsoft, LinkedIn, and GitHub. Their task is simple (and very hard): make this new future of work – in office, remote, and especially hybrid – possible and productive. Jaime Teevan, and moderator Ron Pessner, will provide an overview of what Microsoft has learned and will offer tips for effective and inclusive hybrid work.
    Jaime Teevan is Chief Scientist for Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices, where she is responsible for driving research-backed innovation in the company’s core products. Previously she was the Technical Advisor to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, where she led the Productivity team. Dr. Teevan uses AI to help people accomplish their goals, developing the first personalized search algorithm used by Bing and introducing microproductivity into Office. Her groundbreaking research has earned her numerous awards, including the Technology Review TR35 Young Innovator and Karen Spärck Jones awards. She holds a Ph.D. from MIT and a B.S. from Yale, and is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington.
    Ron Pessner, a longtime CG Councils member, is in charge of collaboration across the Microsoft 365 collaboration suite (th that span across Word, Excel, PPT, etc). He has spent 18 years at Microsoft and has done a number of things including GM for Games for Windows, senior role at Xbox, led Windows 10 for Window Phone, and multiple roles in the Office organization. Prior to Microsoft he worked with a number of startups in the early days of the web and mobile internet. 

First Two Fall Keynotes 

  • Heartwood: The Art of Living With the End in Mind
    Barbara Becker, Author

    To access recording (Council members only)Click here to email Britany Chism
     For our second Fall Meeting keynote, Barbara Becker, author of Heartwood invites us into a conversation about the art of living.Members of our Councils are facing difficult life moments now, as they have in the past and as we each will in the future. With this talk we help to further deepen the trust and safe space needed for members to be vulnerable, to find support and connection, and, of course, to ask for help throughout the meetings and beyond.We also hope to reveal, for your own reflection, the individuals and events in your life that shaped who you have become as a person. In work, and in our daily lives, we aren’t often granted the opportunity to name and to process the people we love, the challenges we face, and the difficulties that become part of us – that become our own Heartwood.Bio: 
    Barbara Becker is an ordained interfaith minister and has sat with hundreds of people at the end of their lives. Barbara speaks on a wide range of topics, including deepening our sense of meaning and spirituality and mid-career pivots.  She has dedicated more than twenty-five years to partnering with human-rights advocates around the world in pursuit of peace and interreligious understanding. She has worked with the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and teaches at Columbia University.
  • The What & Why of Continuous Discovery
    Teresa Torres, Author, Speaker, and Product Discovery Coach

    Most product teams are starting to adopt discovery best practices (e.g. interviewing customers, usability testing, experimenting). However, many of us are still stuck in a project world. We do research to kick off a project, we usability test right before we hand off to engineers, and our primary means for experimenting is a/b testing. These methods are better than nothing, but the best product teams are shifting from a project mindset to a continuous mindset. In this talk, we’ll explore the key differences between project-based discovery and continuous discovery and give your team a clear benchmark to aspire to.

    Bio: Teresa Torres is an internationally acclaimed author, speaker, coach, and longtime friend of the Councils (she was a moderator of one of our Product Councils at one point). She’s coached hundreds of teams at companies of all sizes, from early-stage start-ups to global enterprises, in a variety of industries and has taught more than 7,000 through her Product Talk Academy. She’s the author of the recently published book, Continuous Discovery Habits, and blogs at ProductTalk.org.\

Previous 2021 Talks

  • Clubhouse and the Audio Revolution (not recorded)
    Jonathan Ehrlich, Partner, Foundation Capital
     Two things to know about Jonathan Ehrlich:
    1) he co-led the seed round in Clubhouse and was thus the first venture capitalist to spot its potential;
    2) he’s a Councils alum with an interesting career arc.We held an informal conversation with Jonathan about Clubhouse, the future of audio, and Jonathan’s career journey from a mostly offline retailer in Canada to relocating to Silicon Valley and reinventing himself.

    Jonathan Ehrlich is a Partner at Foundation Capital who invests in early early-stage consumer, marketplace, commerce, and SaaS startups and technologies. He joined Foundation Capital in 2013 as a partner after spending nine months with the firm as an entrepreneur-in-residence. Before joining Foundation Capital, Jonathan spent 17 years as an operator during which he founded three companies, built a $100M+ revenue business, and ran marketing for Facebook. He is the first institutional investor in Clubhouse and currently sits on the board of Bulletin and Chord. His Foundation and personal investments include Shelf Engine, Mainstreet, Truepill, Hooked, WayUp, League, Front, and Flexport. When not working, he can be found on his bike or chasing his four kids around.
  • JTBD in Large Distributed Environments
    Jay Haynes, Founder & CEO, thrv.com

    Jobs To Be Done has proven to be an effective methodology for building much better holistic end-to-end products and customer experiences.

    *But* CG Council member companies with large distributed environments are finding it difficult to apply JTBD in effective ways.

    Jay Haynes, CEO of thrv, and a global expert on JTBD will come and speak to the Councils community on this specific challenge of using the methodology in large, complex technology environments.
  • Groundwork: Get Better at Making Better Products
    Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin, co-Authors of Groundwork

    Product leaders are all too familiar with the one to two-year period it typically takes to train and coach PMs. Product leaders hire smart people and then work with them individually, guiding them through how to think about product management, and watching them develop. Vidya Dinamani and Heather Samarin wanted a much faster way to help cultivate efficient and effective product managers that consistently create products that delight customers, regardless of the industry, the environment, and the development methodology that the team employed. They took years of experience as product executives and working with hundreds of teams as product coaches to create a framework to Get Better at Making Better Products.

    The design philosophy and methodology behind Groundwork was created to help product leaders be confident that their teams were committed to solving the right customer problems, minimizing costly rework by using individualized needs, and leveraging actionable personas in big and small product decisions. Vidya and Heather want Groundwork to help product teams have a much higher chance of success in the market—and help every product manager shine.

    Join Vidya and Heather as they share the background, principles, and methodology behind the Groundwork to help you, and your team, get better at making better products. 
  • Making the Case for Empowering Your People
    Marty Cagan, Partner, Silicon Valley Product Group
    Talk Type: Product, Leadership Development, Culture
    Audience/Roles: All Roles

    From Marty: “I have long been interested in the difference between how the best companies work, and the rest. Working with both types of organizations for so many years, there are many differences ranging from culture to process to staffing to roles to techniques. But at its core, strong product companies empower their people, and most of the rest do not. My focus over the past few years has been tackling this issue head-on, which means the product leadership. In this talk, we’ll discuss why this model consistently yields better results, and what’s necessary to transform to work like the best.”

    Marty’s Bio: Marty Cagan is the founding partner of the Silicon Valley Product Group, which he created to pursue his interests in helping others create successful products through his writing, speaking, advising and coaching. Before starting SVPG, Marty served as an executive responsible for defining and building products for some of the most successful companies in the world, including Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay.As part of his work with SVPG, Marty advises tech companies of all sizes and stages, stretching far beyond Silicon Valley. Marty is the author of the industry-leading book for product teams, INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love, and the upcoming book EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products. Marty is an invited speaker at major conferences and top companies across the globe.
  • See talks from the last month and beyond here.​

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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