He spoke to Econsultancy about why he needs empathy to be effective in his role, what it means to lead a squad, and the advice he would give to a product manager just starting out today.
Please describe your job: What do you do?
Simba Sagwete: My job is split into three roles.
Firstly, each person at AND Digital is part of a small, tight-knit team called a squad. I’m a line manager for the 12 people in my squad and am responsible for their performance, professional development, wellbeing and happiness.
Secondly, six squads make up a Club (that’s what we call our business units) and we’re all based at the same office. We have a lot of autonomy in a Club and I’m part of the leadership team for mine, helping make decisions when it comes to our people and clients.
Lastly, most of my day-to-day work is product management and coaching, depending on what our clients need.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
Simba Sagwete: AND Digital believes in flat organisation structures. With this in mind, each Club has 80-100 people in six squads, with some specialist roles and a leadership team. I lead a squad, hence the Squad Lead job title.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Simba Sagwete: Empathy is a really big one. The most important thing I do is making sure people in my squad are in the right client roles. It’s a balancing act between what’s best for them, what’s best for our clients, and what’s best for AND. It’s not always easy to keep everyone happy, but we’re a people-focussed company so I spend a lot of time in 1-1s drawing out each person’s motivations and aspirations.
The core of what I do day-to-day is software product management. This is another difficult balancing act between efficiently building products that meet customer needs, while generating commercial value.
Effective stakeholder management is also key in my role. I regularly speak to people outside the team who care about the product, especially end users. It’s key that everyone involved in the product understands our approach and reasoning, even if they don’t agree with it. There are always more things to do than time to do it, so prioritisation is a key skill. My role isn’t always easy, but it’s very rewarding.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Simba Sagwete: I spend most of my time working with a scrum team, focussed on a digital product. I’m currently working with a client to build a new digital service from the ground up, which feels a lot like working for a startup because the work is so varied.
I also get involved with initiatives around our Club. For example, we’re currently looking at how we can make the progression and competency model fairer and more transparent. It’s already better than anything I’ve come across before – with opportunities to progress every three months – but there is always room to make things better..
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
Simba Sagwete: It’s challenging, which makes it really rewarding because I feel like I’m learning every day. I also enjoy helping other people with their own professional growth. AND Digital has great people and a fantastic culture, so I really feel like I can bring my whole self to work. We all enjoy working together and building great products alongside our clients. If there’s anything that ‘sucks’, it’s being a leader and occasionally having to make unpopular decisions.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
Simba Sagwete: With client work, it varies depending on the product I’m working on. In my internal role, our ‘North Star’ metrics are around the engagement and happiness of our people. When AND Digital was set up in 2014, one of our goals was to be a Best Company to Work For in the UK. Our best placing so far is 15th, but we’re constantly looking for feedback to find opportunities to improve.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
Simba Sagwete: Post-it notes and whiteboards. I love facilitating collaboration and getting groups of people together to solve problems. It takes diverse perspectives to come up with great solutions.
How did you end up at AND, and where might you go from here?
Simba Sagwete: I joined in 2015, having been a product manager for a few years. I’ll be here for as long as my role continues to challenge me and, given the rate at which we keep growing, that might be a while. I was employee number 70 and we’re now just over 600.
I also have a very distant desire to start my own business, but it might always be just that – a distant desire.
Which work has impressed you lately?
Simba Sagwete: I’ve really enjoyed watching Monzo go from ‘a pre-paid card for young people’ to a proper bank that’s ready to take over the USA. I really buy into their mission and I love their focus on making it easier for everyone to manage their money. As well as being a minor investor, them being a UK company in London gives me an emotional attachment to their success.
What advice would you give a product manager starting out today?
Simba Sagwete: I guess it would be not to assume everyone around you knows what they’re doing and to question authority figures. The world is put together by ordinary people doing extraordinary things and the ‘Think Different’ Apple ad campaign sums it up for me: “Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who actually do”.