“Building High Performance Teams”: Stephanie J. Neill, Vice President, Product, Twitch at Amazon (Video + Transcript)

December 27, 2023

Have you wondered how to scale effective product leadership? In this ELEVATE session, Stephanie J. Neill (Vice President, Product, Twitch at Amazon) will discuss how a high-performance product team is crucial to shipping the right product at the right time. From evolving responsibilities and onboarding new team members, attendees will learn how product leaders can build teams with big impact, and what it takes to do the same at your organization.


Stephanie J. Neill discusses high-performing product teams and scaling effective product leadership. She emphasizes the importance of creating a high-performance culture and outlines the key elements of a high-performing product team, including clarity of purpose, psychological safety, and effective processes. Neill also highlights the importance of team composition, incentives, and managing underperformers.


Stephanie J. Neill: Thanks for having me Angie. And hi everybody. Wish I could see you. So I’m Stephanie and I’m here to talk to you today about high-performing product teams as well as how to scale effective product leadership. I do want to say before I get started, I lost my voice inconveniently today, so if my voice is cutting out, it’s not your computer, it’s just me. But yeah, hopefully it stays strong. Alrighty. So a quick intro. I’ve been doing product basically my entire career and close to I guess two decades now, I’ve been leading high-performing product teams. I’ve worked across a number of big tech conglomerates generally on e-commerce or content marketplace type sites as well as platforms and services. So the internal guts, all the fun stuff across federal government as well as private sector. I tend to enjoy leading smaller teams, so I’d say my sweet spot’s probably around 20. Smaller teams with outsized impact working on a mission-critical endeavor that helps vulnerable populations.

I guess the last part is probably the most important to me. I really want to feel like I’m having impact on people who need it. And then personally, I’ve lived all over the world as the child of a diplomat does, moving every couple of years. So I think it’s probably pretty small on the slide, but you can see a lot of the little blue dots just littered around. I’m also a Enneagram three for those in the know, which is basically very success-oriented and driven, but I guess always wanting to feel that I’m bringing value in everything that I do, which I think is probably a universal trait, but they ascribe it to the number threes. I’m also a Pisces, so sensitive and confused, I guess. Two fish swimming in different directions. And then I don’t have this on here, but I’m a big I little D on the DISC assessment, which means I’m basically a megaphone.

I love to amplify people and ideas and concepts that align with what I believe. And then I’m also a ENTJ, a commander personality, so very focused on getting shit done. And yeah, in general, I love these little personality tests and I actually see them as great tools for teams, to be honest, to compare and talk about themselves because one, it creates self-awareness, but it also creates shared awareness across the teams of why certain people might behave certain ways or might think certain ways. Of course the disclaimer is these are pseudoscience, so it’s really just a fun thing, but I think it really helps with culture and getting to know each other and all that. So that’s part of why I wanted to share with you today.

So a lot of you have probably seen this adage, I’m sure it’s been across the internet forever, but people plus process equals performance. I very much subscribe to this philosophy, and as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been leading teams for far longer than I’ve actually been shipping products, like hands-on product. And as many of you probably know from experience, when you move into management, you get further and further from a lot of the aspects of PM that initially drew you to it and gave you life. So there’s no more exhilaration of a launch day when you know you’re accountable for success or failure. There’s no more knowing every detail of how things work or what your customers need. You have to rely on others for that and you should, because no one person can keep all of this in their brain. And there’s no more deep camaraderie that comes with the pain and challenge of shipping a product with your building partners.

So this can be a huge mindset shift for people who move up into higher leadership. How I flipped that in order to keep my personal product power source strong was really to continue to apply product thinking at a more detailed level by thinking of my team as a product portfolio, like not the actual products they were managing. Of course, practically speaking, that is a portfolio, but thinking about the actual people as products in my portfolio. And so really looking at them and understanding what’s their vision for themselves and how does this company, how does this role, how do I fit into that and what does success in their life look like? What are they really trying to accomplish and achieve? Where are they’re trying to go? And then working with them to really put together a plan. So to me, each team member is a product and their success is ultimately my success, which is ultimately the company’s success. So this is sort of like the cynical take on servant leadership, but you’d be surprised at how easily you can manage your career and yourself like a product as well.

So, but today we’re going to talk about high-performing product teams. So one disclaimer I do want to give is that when I say product teams, I don’t actually just mean PM at all by any stretch and you can apply these principles to that, but I’m actually more thinking of the people who are accountable for building the right product in the right way at the right time for the right users. So not just the PMs, but really the triad of tech leads and UX designers as well as all the service-oriented groups who help make product launches a major success. So I’ll start with a definition. What does good look like for a high-performing product team? So I’ll state the obvious. A high-performing product team is one that accomplishes the outcome that they set out to achieve, assuming it was the right outcome, but I don’t actually see that as sufficient.

You can death march a team to success, they can achieve success or people can have a really great time together, but be chasing, I guess, the wrong outcome or not even moving any needles toward it. So I really see it more as a high performing team is one that accomplishes the outcome they set out to achieve, but they have fun doing it and they want to keep doing it together. And that last part is important. I’m going to double click on that in a sec. So that’s effectively the outcome or the output. You could measure it as an output. That you want them driving measurable impact to success metrics that matter to the business, and you want them aligned on values while also having high trust. So we talked about this people plus process equals performance construct. That is great and it does work well for a team, but it’s not necessarily scalable.

The way to make it scalable is to actually create that culture. So you’re not really creating a high performance team. It’s not what you’re really seeking to create. It’s really you’re seeking to create a high performance culture because culture will become self-sustaining, and that is how you can scale it. It’ll monitor people. It won’t be just you sort of having to look and check every box and make sure that every corner of your earth is tidy and perfect. There will be people within the culture who will do that. My favorite definition of culture that I’ve ever heard, I think about it all the time. Culture is the worst behavior that a leader is willing to tolerate. And I believe that so wholeheartedly. If you let infighting happen, if you let bad incentives be built, if you let people be rude to each other, it will detract from your goal of having high performing teams that are sustainable.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that it’s obvious to all I think, product is a journey. It’s not about shipping one big success and then like woo-hoo we’re done. So it’s easy for I think a team to get together and stay focused on a specific goal and make something happen, but it’s not sustainable over time and product needs to be sustainable. So it’s about consistently delivering value to your customers, having fun while you’re doing it, and you can measure the success in terms of team retention I think is a clear one. Team learning velocity, which to me is really, it’s really about how fast are we validating insights by shipping, so shipping does really matter. And then ultimately, what’s the impact to key metrics over time?

So I tried to sort these into the people, process sort of performance framework there, but the conditions that you as a leader at the highest level need to set, it’s really clarity. Clarity on outcomes. What does it mean to perform? What are the results that actually matter to the business and to our customers and how does that work in concert? So as the leader, you have to set clear expectations of what good looks like and how we know if we’ve achieved it or if we’re achieving it, but also the guardrails of how do we know we’re not achieving it? The team needs that structure, that top-down structure to be able to work backward from. And then you do need, I shorthanded this as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but you do need to start there. It is incredibly, like psychological safety for me is probably the most important factor for a team in order for them to really bring their all to bear and for everyone to trust that their special expertise and we’ll complement each other, we will find a way to complement each other.

And actually there’s a book, Culture Code. I forget who wrote it, but I really liked the way he described sort of a low trust culture versus high trust. Low trust is like everyone is like alone, scared guard dog barking at social threats, which creates interpersonal conflict and just all sorts of noise versus a high trust culture, which is basically a pack of wolves hunting down a shared goal together and winning together. And then lastly, but honestly probably most important because these are your feedback mechanisms of whether what you’re doing is even working. You need to have the right guardrails and mechanisms to take the guesswork as well as the busy work out of the repeated activities that lead to success.

So I’m going to talk a little bit more about each of these. Sorry for so much text on a slide. Hopefully it’s useful if we can share these slides. But talking about the leadership expectations, the clarity of expectations, there’s really three dimensions to shared purpose, right? So you need a vision, you need success metrics and you need guardrail metrics. That’s still important, but taken together, that’s purpose. Right. And in order to really institute shared purpose, you need the clarity, you need shared clarity of that purpose. People all need to understand. I often see these pithy sort of like vision statements or strategy statements, and those are good, but they can be interpreted many ways. So you need to ensure that there’s a shared understanding, a shared clarity against that purpose.

You also need to make sure that there’s actual alignment to that purpose because some people might not understand it very well, but just frankly disagree. And in many cases people can be kind of passive, I guess, aggressive against that. And it can keep people from rowing in the same direction with all their might. Some people might be just coasting on the oars or even digging into the water. And then that leads to empowerment and that empowerment of the team assigned, the accountable team to go after that shared purpose as hard as they can. So these are the three sort of management dimensions or leadership dimensions that I think are really important for you as the leader. And then of course, yeah, from a people perspective. So attending to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Again, psychological safety is super, super important.

I really don’t believe that you can accomplish great things for very long when that is lacking. I also think as a piece of that, we need to create space for more voices. So I often observe on teams, there are certain personalities that are very comfortable speaking up and sharing their opinion or sharing their thoughts or sharing their disagreements. But then there’s often many more that are not comfortable doing that. And so I take a lot of time with the teams and I instill this in my leaders as well to pause. I will oftentimes ask a question in meetings, and then I will sit there for an uncomfortably long period of time just looking at the team and smiling until someone is uncomfortable enough to speak up. Or for folks that I know are more introverted or less comfortable speaking up, I’ll ask them a very specific question.

I’ll be like, Hey, Fred, blah, blah, blah, because I was thinking, and then I’ll talk for about 30 seconds intentionally to buy them time to process or give them something to key off of. And then I repeat the question anyway, Fred, I’d really love to hear your opinion on X. So just those little tricks, like it creates a warmth I think, for people and a welcomingness that lets them bring their best to the table. And then being really explicit about your values, even writing them down honestly. What are your values? And then working with the team to develop team values, which I believe is great as a shared exercise because it makes everybody really think deeply about what they care about in terms of delivering value to this audience and solving the types of problems that they’re here to solve.

And then I also want to talk a bit about, I should highlight a bit about team composition. For people, it really matters. So I strongly believe in the triad, so PM, UX, and tech lead as the core components of the builder team. And I feel when you are missing any one of those, you’re not going to get to the right outcomes. You also want to guard against ratios. So if the ratios are off, for instance, if the PM to engineering ratio is more than one to 10, 10 is like a max, right? They call it a two pizza team at Amazon. If you go beyond that, which I also see too often, the PMs get so stretched thin that it becomes this feed the beast mentality where they’re just, they’re not thinking about the right work, they’re just thinking about getting engineers work. And that can, again, take away from the team being able to target and hit their outcomes that they want to and achieve their outcomes.

Of course, bad incentives, that’s like the quickest way down the wrong path. So you have to be careful. I know in some companies I’ve worked for, paths to promotion can sometimes create engineer or create an environment where engineers will seek out really specific types of work rather than doing maybe the less sexy, important work. So just making sure, like that’s just an example, but bad incentives are everywhere. So making sure that you’re really thinking about how are you incentivizing the team and how are you reinforcing it with your feedback mechanisms? What do you praise? What do you recognize? The people that you promote, what are the traits that they exhibit? And then I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about making sure that you’re actively managing underperformers and thinking about the mix of people you have. If you have too many type A personalities, if they’re going to be like beta fish in one pot, you need them in their separate. So you need to think about who are the people that I’m bringing together and am I setting them up for success?

Woo. That was more than I expected to say on that one, but I just, I really care about people, I guess. And then as far as process goes, you need accountability checkpoints. So opportunity assessment, like make sure the team is coming to you and speaking with you. Oh shoot, I’m already up. Is speaking with you. Make sure co-escalation paths are clear and not fraught with terror. Make sure there’s an emphasis on learning and make sure that product teams are really doing proper stakeholder management and they’re communicating internally as well as getting information internally. Oh, and you have to make it insanely easy for them to access customers. That’s the last one I’ll say. And I look forward to seeing you all again.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Stephanie. Everyone connect with her LinkedIn and we’ll hop to our next session now. Thank you so much.

Stephanie J. Neill: Thanks everyone.

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