HR Talks with IT Leaders ep. 5: Mariya Rashkovska on product teams, talent development, and measuring your success as a leader

HR Talks with IT leaders is a campaign organized by Bica and our goal is to give more visibility to the knowledge of how great tech teams are built. Every week, we will meet with accomplished entrepreneurs and managers who will share their personal experience and what’s their approach to leadership, communication, hiring, talent development and much more.

For the fifth article of our series, we met with Mariya Rashkovska — ex Head of Product Management at PubGalaxy and co-founder of ProductTank Sofia — the first and biggest local product community. Rashkovska is a well-known product specialist in the Bulgarian IT ecosystem. Throughout the years, she occupied product management positions at acclaimed companies, such as Telerik and Financial Times. In May 2020, she joined the team of PubGalaxy — a Bulgarian adtech scaleup that helps publishers worldwide maximize their ad revenue through its end-to-end website monetization platform.

In your experience, what are the prerequisites for the development of a strong product team?

In a nutshell, leadership, effective management and hiring. First, the product management head needs to clearly communicate with every member of their team the long-term vision for the product as well as the company strategy and the objectives aligned with it. Then, each product team needs to be assigned a clear area of ownership, so that they can autonomously work towards achieving their goals — this is especially important when multiple teams are working to improve the same platform.

All this, however, would still not make a difference without the third crucial component of an effective product team — having the right people in place. Going a bit deeper into the hiring process, a team lead should optimize for hiring people with the skills that are a good fit for the product the company is developing. Not every product manager is suitable for every product or project. For example, a product that is based on machine learning would probably require someone with great data analysis skills whereas a product that requires impeccable user experience would need a person with an eye and passion for UX design.

Determining the right person for the current product life-cycle stage is also vital. Working on a product that is still just a concept or an MVP requires strong entrepreneurial skills as well as the ability to define and prioritize solutions in a complex unstructured environment. Working on a mature product on the other hand is very different because the boundaries there are already well-defined.

How do you identify the right candidates for your team in the first place?

As a team lead, I usually start by analyzing the personality type and skill set a given position would require. Based on that, I design interview questions and tasks that assess the candidate’s motivation and skills. Those can include situational questions that dig into the person’s past experience or case questions where the candidate is expected to demonstrate their creativity, business thinking and breadth of theoretical frameworks on the spot. The words a candidate uses to describe their previous experience can tell a lot about the specific responsibilities he has had and the extent to which he understands the topic we are discussing. Depending on the specifics of the position, there can also be specific questions that check their ability to juggle with data or to think logically. Soft skills are assessed through behavioral questions and there are dedicated interviews with members of the team that check for culture fit which is also very important. Finally, candidates usually have a take-home case where they have to come up with a solution to a particular problem after researching on their own. The purpose of this is to observe their strategic thinking and approach rather than the right answer.

What’s your strategy for talent development and creating more product leaders in the local ecosystem?

Using everyone’s strong sides instead of focusing on their weaknesses. At PubGalaxy, every 6 months, we create the so-called “personal growth maps” in which every employee discusses with his team leader their strong and weak points and areas of interest. When it comes to areas that need further development, the two then come up with means to make them stronger through educational training, additional resources, or suitable tasks, and projects in the area.

The role of the team leader in this process is to stimulate and help people to continuously develop new skills and gain knowledge. We have regular feedback sessions at which we discuss what could be improved and what is working well. We strive to focus on every person’s strong sides and assign projects that they are interested and motivated to work on. The ultimate goal is to continuously develop people which in turn would make the product (and the company) stronger.

What is actually your approach to giving feedback?

I like to give it on the spot at the time an issue arises in a transparent way. This enables the person to respond immediately and engage in a productive discussion while the situation is still fresh in their mind (as opposed to having a feedback session every 6 months for example). During the discussion, I focus on the impact of the mistake that a person has made and try to make them understand why and how important it is to be corrected. Then we discuss and agree on better ways or alternative techniques to use next time.

How would you measure your success as a leader?

First and foremost of course a successful leader must achieve the company goals. In addition to that, at PubGalaxy we conduct quarterly surveys in which each employee can assess the performance of their direct manager by answering 17 structured questions. This is a very useful approach which helps us stay on top of best practices for effective leadership.

Finally, I ask myself if the members of my team would enjoy having a drink with me after work. Such reality check questions help you understand whether or not the rest of your team like your approach to leading and if they accept you as a part of the team. The successful leader has built an emotional connection with their colleagues. It is when team members get inspired by your enthusiasm and see you as a mentor. As a result, they become passionate to develop side by side with you and to develop the company.

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