January 24, 2023

The Tosin Onibon-oje Hypothesis: Kindness is a Strength for Product Managers

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover how Tosin has experienced product management both outside and inside the software world, how to utilize kindness and empathy to be strong product leader, and how to balance business and human needs fairly at the workplace.

The Tosin Onibon-oje Hypothesis: Kindness is a Strength for Product Managers
Written By:
Holly Hester-Reilly
Holly Hester-Reilly

Tosin Onibon-oje is a highly skilled Product Lead with 15 years of experience in the industry. She is customer-focused and outcome-driven, with a proven track record of leading cross-functional teams in developing and launching innovative and successful products. She is an effective communicator who excels at building strong relationships with stakeholders at all levels. Additionally, Tosin is passionate about fostering kindness and a human-centered culture in the workplace.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover how Tosin has experienced product management both outside and inside the software world, how to utilize kindness and empathy to be strong product leader, and how to balance business and human needs fairly at the workplace.

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Resource Links

Inspired, by Marty Cagan

Escaping the Build Trap, by Melissa Perri

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott

Follow Tosin on Twitter

Follow Tosin on LinkedIn

Follow Holly on Twitter

Follow Holly on LinkedIn

Questions we explore in this episode

What was Tosin’s experience starting off as a product manager in finance and then moving into software product management?

  • In finance, Tosin had to work across many stakeholders including legal, fraud, anti-money laundering, credit, brand and marketing.
  • In finance, Tosin had to do a lot of upfront planning and timeline management.
  • In both areas, Tosin had to validate plans with evidence before moving forward.
  • In software product management, Tosin gets to work a lot more closely with the engineers.

How does Tosin apply emotional intelligence to be a better product manager?

  • Manage your responses in order to be able to meet people where they are.
  • She leads with kindness whenever possible and treats kindness as a gift.
  • Prioritize your mental health by setting and enforcing boundaries and practicing empathy.

Quotes from Tosin Onibon-oje in this episode

When I go to work on a daily basis, everyone can't be my friend, and that's absolutely okay as well. But also just because we disagree doesn't mean that we can't agree on other things.
As with all product management, you're solving a customer problem, but I'm also quite commercially minded. You have to solve a problem in a way that people are willing to pay for it and it's sustainable for the business to be able to charge people for it.
Try not to take things personal. We're here to work. And a big part of my learnings over the years where it comes to that as well is that I would continue and I would always lead with kindness. We're all coming into the workspace with different baggages.

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Holly Hester-Reilly:Hi, and welcome to The Product Science Podcast where we're helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren't afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I'm your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science. Welcome, Tosin.

Tosin Onibon-oje:Thank you very much, Holly. I am delighted to be here.

Holly Hester-Reilly:I'm so excited to have you. So I always love to hear a bit about people's journey into product management, and I'd love to hear a bit about how you got started.

Tosin Onibon-oje:Good question. So my background was data, so business intelligence, then campaign analysis, then marketing, propositions, product marketing product. So that would give me about 12, 13 years in product in total. So that's how I landed here.

Holly Hester-Reilly:So you have worked in a lot of finance products, right?

Tosin Onibon-oje:I have, yes. So I've spent about two decades approximately in finance. So initially about the first 10 years of my career after uni, bar a year or so was with a retail bank, and then the next 10 years I spent with a credit card company, which then became a digital credit sort of servicing and provision company. So it wasn't just pure credit cards alone. In the last two years I have worked in retail and I'm now working in software.

Holly Hester-Reilly:So I'd love to hear some of your thoughts as someone who's done product for longer but transitioned to software more recently. What are some of the things that you've noticed once you've moved into the software world?

Tosin Onibon-oje:Good question because I tweeted about this recently in the sense that I think I was just having a really... To be fair, I'm really enjoying my role and I was having a really lovely day and I tweeted something along the lines of, "It's great to be here. How come no one's told me?" And a lot of people then came back and said, "Oh, congratulations." I think they thought I was talking about product management, but I was actually more specifically talking about the fact that I'm doing software.So what is the few difference that I'll call out? So with the product I was dealing with before, say if I take out payments specifically to think about finance, there was very much... It was a regulated industry, so a lot of the thinking had to go through multiple layer of assessment and approvals and boards to make sure that we were doing the right thing and we were designing the product correctly for the customer and all of that consideration.So you weren't just thinking about customer outcomes, you were also thinking about the company, the reputation, which you would always think about. However, there are so many elements as a product manager within finance, whereas as a software product owner, it's more on a day-to-day basis. It is more about what we are building. And I say that in the sense that I work in B2B, not because the customer isn't considered at all, but I am now much closer to an engineering team working with two engineering teams.As usual, you have your UX designer, you have your test team as well involved. So feel like I am closer on a day-to-day basis to the development of software, but also technology. Whereas before now it was around the rates and it was around what our competitors are doing on a day-to-day basis on competitor comparison pages for credit products.Today, it's really about the feedback. It's about what is our customer success manager saying? The account manager saying. You are dealing with really direct feedback and yes, you had your complaints team, but in business with software, if things go wrong, somebody will call you or send you an email or a teams message. So you're getting it in front of you straight away. You know things are working out if things aren't working. And almost in a way it's somewhat forgiven in the sense that you have some more time I find in a way to think about what are we going to do? How do we resolve this?So there is just that closer loop to software development. And the other thing I would say is I find now that a lot of the books and a lot of the conversation around products, it's more relevant to me now. So the stuff that Matt Kagan talks about and inspired when I hear about continuous improvement, the build trap, those kind of conversations are yes, I can think about that and I can challenge myself on those sort of conversations in a way that finance was just regulated and probably there was a lot of project in the product management, if that makes sense. And commercial, I think. In my old world, it was very commercial conversations that you had to be aware of.

Holly Hester-Reilly:So I guess I'm curious to hear a little more about those, how you looped people in that situation like did you have somebody from legal or security or commercial that had to be a part of all of the product planning or did they just review things at certain stages? What did that look like?

Tosin Onibon-oje:So as you get closer with the more experience you have, you know where you would have issues with a product. So if I'm delivering a credit card and that's just the way I work, I would always have legal team involved from get go. Let's start with day zero. I've got an idea of a credit proposition. I've heard about Klarna and I want to replicate what Klarna is doing. So I sit in a room, I put something on a slide. That straightaway I'm sitting by the desk of my colleagues in legal and compliance. What are your thoughts? Straightaway, I already know what is the customer journey going to be like? Those are the questions they want to ask me. What are the touch points? What information is going to be available to the customer so they know that what they are committing to?Then I know that there will be my colleagues as well in fraud, my colleagues in anti-money laundering. Again, they want to make sure that from a regulatory point of view, we're able to identify the customer, know your customer. That's quite key. Then you engage your credit team. So within the credit team, you have the decision science. You have the guys who look at the data. So decision science in terms of what is the population of this type of customer that you're trying to target?What is their behavior? What is their profile like? Are you designing a product that is going to tank the portfolio? What sort of rate are you thinking about? Those are sort of almost line by line validating the key areas of the product, which would be, what is the rate? How is customer going to be able to access it? Is it virus or could they do it via mobile? So you want to consider all of the risk factors.Then of course you're talking to operations. Do we need a card? Do we not need a card? And of course you're then making sure that you're engaging people like your brand and marketing. Do we have any data on what those customers look like and therefore when we start thinking about the research? Or who are we going to be targeting when we think about the actual deployment? Or how do we speak to them? What is the tone? All of that. So there is a few teams that we need to engage.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Quite a few, it sounds like.

Tosin Onibon-oje:One team I haven't mentioned is the tech team. So one thing is building the credit product. Then the other is how do we service them? And that's where technology comes into play. So if we are building this as in our own brand, then you have a process in terms of where are we going to deploy that and how do we service them? If we are delivering this for an external customer, think top online retailer. Again, are we going to develop APIs or are we going to have iframes on their site as well? So then the technology people start talking to each other and we then make sure that we have the right tools at the right time. This is where the project comes in to make sure that we can deliver as to whenever it is that we want to launch that product for. But yeah, so quite a lot of people to engage.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yes, quite a lot of people. It sounds like you have to do a lot of really upfront planning and research.

Tosin Onibon-oje:You do, and you never stop to be honest. So all of those, at any point in time, you would always have some market knowledge who your competitors are. You know to some extent what rate you are going to apply. So if we are talking prime customer, if it was a top retailer, high street retailer, a top online retailer, I know sort of what rate. And then therefore you can begin to determine what the profile of the book would look like. So of course then there'll be the commercial angle to think about.So all of those two consider, but throughout because there are so many moving parts, you have to make sure that from your zero idea, there is a project delivery element as well to what you are doing aside the product itself because dates are quite key when it comes to credit products. There's a cyclical behavior if you want to launch a card, do you want to do it at Christmas? Do you want to do it at summer? What are you supporting then? Or do you want to do in January for example? So those are things that you need to think about and therefore why are you continuing to talk to everyone in the company? So you make sure you're not missing or you are not working to blind spots.

Holly Hester-Reilly:And so how has that translated for you now that you're working more directly with software?

Tosin Onibon-oje:Good question. I think one thing for me is that engagement element. So one of the feedback I have had is, "Oh, we really like the way you get everyone involved." I smile because it was something I had to do and it's now obviously become parts of me. So for example, there's a functionality that I'm thinking about and on the get-go... So one, we've already spoken to my colleagues in professional services, the BA's, done some analysis. We've then broken that down into epics and how we are going to build.Then I've taken that one step. I've then now gone back to my colleagues across the business across whether it's sales, customer service, and we also have another team called professional services. So they usually do the deployment of the software itself, brought them on board and said, "Look, I know you've all been talking about this functionality, but this is where we are." And it was a fantastic session. I think just the fact that, one, they know. They know the technology and they know what it is that they've been asking for, and now they're in a position where me as a product owner, I'm actually now consulting them and validating what it is that we're building.And then taking that one step forward and saying, "If you like it, I've got a whole load of tickets from customers that have said they want to see this." We're probably not going to be able to do everything from day one. But now I want to take it to them. I want to show them what this product might look like and I want to get their feedback so we know that we're building the right thing. And manage the expectation in terms of what are we going to have on day one and why we might not have all of the stuff they want.That's to come later on this month. Again, that's being received quite positively as well. So for me, that's one key area where that's transferred over. It's that constant engagement is that... And maybe not primarily linked to what I used to do. Maybe it's a personality thing around being risk averse. So I'm constantly considering what could go wrong. Have we thought about this? Have we thought about have you spoken to this? What's the worst case scenario? How do we plan for contingency? So those are things I would say that I've considered through as well.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. So I'm curious, you say might be part of your personality that you're so risk averse. Does that come out in other parts of your life

Tosin Onibon-oje:About things like I don't go on fairground rides. I do not. I do not like heights and I am absolutely comfortable. I keep saying this to my friend that I would die happy if there are parts of this world that I never get to because they're too far for me to get to, which is quite boring. I mean my kids are now nine and 11, so I think I have done the pretentious parents of, "I'm really not scared of that. I'm quite okay. Come on guys, let's go type parenting."So whatever they can do now, it's on them. If they don't go on heights, then that's on them. That would not be on me. So I tried not to pass it on to my kids. So I've done my bit now, introduce them to the world and then left them to it. But I am. I think in those things I'm very okay not doing quite a lot of things if it's going to cause me too much fear.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Well, you touched on being a parent. I'm curious to hear if you're open to talking a little bit about how that works for you with being a product manager.

Tosin Onibon-oje:I saw something that was on tweet where someone said product management is being like a parent. And I could relate to that, but I think the number one thing, it's the busyness of it for me as well. I've joked about this. I have moments of hyperfocus and once you've sort of gotten through the day and you've been distracted with team's messages or meetings or whatnot, coincidentally the time that I'm beginning to do my deep thinking is the time that the kids do arrive home and they want to talk to you. They might want to watch TV, which they're not allowed to during the week, but they do get away with it sometimes.But it's just that sort of, "Oh, we want this or what about this homework?" I am constantly aware that sometimes I have to physically pull myself away from the computer. I think that's a key thing. You have to, as a product manager... And I know that it's probably the same for a lot of people, but you and I would both know with products there is just that you are not responsible for everything, but you are just aware of where things could fall. And therefore the accountability element means that you are constantly, at least for me anyway, I'm trying to think, have we thought about X, Y, and Z?Whether it's a commercial element, but more today it's around what we are building? Who am I supposed to speak to? Is the backlog okay? What actions did I take from this meeting and have I sorted out what meetings do I have later on in the week? Do I have the answers for those? Yeah, I think that it's just hard. I enjoy what I do, but I'm constantly having to remind myself of the balance.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. And I think that reminding ourselves of the balance is also a key skill in product management that we're always trying to balance all the different demands from different stakeholders and different users and all of those things. So sometimes I do feel like it's kind of more of the same at home.

Tosin Onibon-oje:Absolutely. I think what I've also realized as well earlier in my career that I was quite sensitive. As my older daughter is preteen now, you as a parent have to not react, and that's quite a key skill for work. When people present problems, you almost want to say, "Come on, clearly you know what the answer here is. You know I'm not going to do this." But actually rather than that, you have conversations or sometimes people are stressed out, so your response might not be what they want to hear and just managing that in a way that helps us move better as teens. But yeah, there is that element as well of sort of emotional intelligence in dealing with different personalities.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah, I think the emotional intelligence is really important. It was actually something that someone gave me advice on early on in my product management career. They were like, "You need to develop your emotional intelligence." And I went and read the Harvard Business Review on emotional intelligence and I was like, "Oh, what am I doing?"

Tosin Onibon-oje:Yeah. I mean, recently I've read Radical Candour and there was another book that one of my friends recommended, The Art of War.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Oh yeah?

Tosin Onibon-oje:And there's a third one around something to do with dealing with not being liked. I can't remember the title of the book. But again, so these are all good books where it just comes to try not to take things personal. We're here to work. And a big part of my learnings over the years where it comes to that as well is that I would continue and I would always lead with kindness. We're all coming into the workspace with different baggages. We've talked about me being a parent, but also we're trying to earn a paycheck.So there is that balance and that we are not always feeling our best. So of course there are boundaries and people shouldn't take advantage of anyone's kind nature. I would always stipulate and make sure that those boundaries remain, but that as much as I can, that kindness always leads and kindness is a better approach. And then people sort of know how to deal with you and they know what they'll hear from you and receive from you.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. I like that. Kindness is really important. So I'm curious if there's any lessons you've learned in your own journey about emotional intelligence? Any stories from the workplace?

Tosin Onibon-oje:Right. One thing I have dealt with over many years was trying to get to a place where I'm prioritizing my own mental health. I know you did say emotional intelligence, but for me it's all part of it. I think I've always led with my heart and I think as you come up the ladder, the kind person and the kind nature isn't a threat, it's fine. But once you begin to get to a position of leadership and you are asking, or sometimes almost it feels like bit like you are making demands of other people's and not even feels like that's the reality is you are making demands of other people's time resource.Then you would have to balance out that kindness. You can't continually use that. I think I battled quite a bit with expecting everyone to still be nice and cuddly and sweet to me as I've always had in my career. So it's quite a tough world out there.So for me that journeys has been about one really appreciating that kindness is a gift and it is a skill. Actually, it isn't my own emotional strength. It forms part of my emotional strength, but also there are boundaries to draw. When I go to work on a daily basis, everyone can't be my friend, and that's absolutely okay as well. But also just because we disagree doesn't mean that we can't agree on other things. So the person I disagreed with yesterday will be out for lunch tomorrow and we're all good and dandy because it's in that moment, whatever it is that you're discussing or agreeing on, that's what's important.Values though, my values are core to me. So things like integrity, as I said kindness. So I accept that those are my values and I'm driven by them and they're core to me, but that's not always the case with other people. And you treat people accordingly. But I'm a high, high empath. So the whole process of accepting that actually I would walk into a room and I'm carrying other people's emotions, but that's not my responsibility and being able to just let that be. But yeah, those are some of the things I've learned over the years, setting those boundaries, acknowledging kindness is a gift, is a strength. And just knowing my own values and accepting others for where they come in and meet me.

Holly Hester-Reilly:So going back to working with software engineers, have you had any interesting experiences there working with the software engineering team on how you all show up to work together?

Tosin Onibon-oje:Yes. So I've worked with very different engineers and my current team at the moment, I would just say they are phenomenal, phenomenal team. Very, very experienced. Amazingly, I have got two engineering managers that work really close with two BAs, one senior and then the junior BA and then the scrum master. We're all women. We're all women.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Oh, that's amazing.

Tosin Onibon-oje:All right. So we have a daily sync. Where we all sort of have a good laugh and even say for example, this morning was a little bit tough because we're talking about stuff that's going on. We're coming to the end of the cycle and we're just doing a check-in with our goals and the rest of it. So there was some tough conversations to have today, but even then there is just that huge respect for each other's capabilities.They're constantly checking in on me. Am I okay? Because I'm about three months into my role. But yeah, I just really enjoy how we all show up. We go from one minute talking about nodes and hot fixes to talking about our hair colors and hairstyle. I just really love it. I love the respect and the honesty that we have there. And in the past and in some teams as well, some of my old teams I've worked in, I've always respect intelligence and experience.I know that in some of my old teams, I think people might have just taken that as... "Oh, she probably just doesn't know a lot." So you'd realize, "All right. Okay. The fact that I'm respecting you doesn't mean I'm an idiot." We had to go through that of realigning the relationship, this is what I need to do. Okay. This is what I'm going to do, but this is your area. So I think all of that though, I'm finding comes down to things like culture where people are in their career and I will not underestimate also the company, how people are feeling about what they do and how they're showing up on a day-to-day basis. All of that has an impact on how they relate with their product manager or product owner.

Holly Hester-Reilly:What kind of software does the company you work for build?

Tosin Onibon-oje:So we build software for the CFO's office. So if you think about... Some of our competitors are the SAP and the Oracles, but we helping accountants and the finance office, run data, large set of data and the outputs of that in a compliant way. That's what we do.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Do you feel like that has an impact on the culture at your company?

Tosin Onibon-oje:I think yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we do... Within the company, you have people who've been there, some of the engineers have been there for 25 years. They were celebrating recently, but I'm talking higher than 10. And then some of us who've probably joined the company in the last sort of two, three years. What you do have though in terms of the culture of the company is that solid knowledge. You have a set of people who have either been in accounting in their previous roles and then they're helping deploy and integrate and implement software into tier one, tier two companies. And then you have the engineers who are building the tool and have built a tool for many years.So for me, I find that it's a really, really intelligent culture, but some of the personalities as well, many... In fact, many of the people have met, it's quite personable. Because there is very strong sales team, but there is that sort of flair that comes into it as well. So people are just... We help each other. I'm here to help deliver and prioritize functionalities and set strategy and vision and communicate that through what's on our roadmap. So I find people quite helpful and very knowledgeable on a day-to-day basis.

Holly Hester-Reilly:That's really good. It's not that common I feel to come across software teams where people have been there for 10 plus years.

Tosin Onibon-oje:So because this is my first software team, I don't know what normal is, but I feel totally blessed to be surrounded by such knowledge. Especially as I'm just joining the team, some of the conversations I can step back and I can think more from a strategic point of view in terms of what it is we're building. Why should we be building? Ask those questions. And I can't remember what it is, whether it was Matt Kagan and that sort of said this, but you hear about product managers or about what, let the engineers talk about how. So there is that little risk of me sort of delving into how they build because I wouldn't know. I wouldn't know what to suggest in there at all. And it just keeps that line clean I guess. But no, we work really well together and I feel totally blessed to be where I am.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. Another thing that you mentioned that I want to touch on is you mentioned having BA's. What is the role of the BA and how do they relate to your role?

Tosin Onibon-oje:This is good. So my old life, I would've been the BA and the PM as well. But the BA actually if you think of quite a mature product, we've got systems that have been there, as I said, 20 years. There have been different decisions about different functionalities that's been built together. So whenever it is that we have a request about whether it's a bug and some of our clients are on-prem as well, so say if you have an issue come up and it's a bug or it's a specific change request, that saves me time from digging into what is their architecture and is this what we want to do? How long is it going to take us to do what we need to do? That's what the BA does.The BA knows about technology. Of course, we have to work with architects as well, but the BA truly understands the products very well and therefore it means that between both of us, we are able to ensure that we're building the right products.

Holly Hester-Reilly:That's interesting. I don't come across a lot of product managers that still have BAs where they work these days.

Tosin Onibon-oje:Don't tell anyone. Don't tell anyone. To be fair, it's a complicated product. So to simply have a product manager, a product in... And maybe there is a sense of, "Yes, that's what you're supposed to do in Agile," but we would lose a lot of knowledge in that if we didn't have that because it just means that I'm spending a lot of my time in understanding how things are plugged together and then handing it over and shooting across the engineers to build. But yeah, it just creates that extra layer of sanity when things come in for us to do the assessment. You are right, but I find it really helpful.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. It sounds like it helps with your ability to get your work done because you've got more hands on deck. So I'm wondering if you have any advice for people who want to transition over to software product management from other kinds of product management?

Tosin Onibon-oje:So I guess that one thing I would say is know your why. I did some kind of assessment a couple of years ago where someone said, "Oh, your personality would probably suit work in the software." I remember sort of thinking, "Yeah, you look great." And now that I think about it, I was like, "I wonder what it was about my personality that made them say, "I should work there in software." So the number one thing I would say, if somebody wanted to work in softwares, why? Why do you want to work in software?Make sure you're comfortable with that. So what advice would I give? I think ultimately as with all product management, you're solving a customer problem, but I'm also quite commercially minded. You have to solve a problem in a way that people are willing to pay for it and it's sustainable for the business to be able to charge people for it.So those are the things that I would consider. And knowing that that's your north star, so to speak, then what have you got to give? So what is it about you? What is it about your personality? What is it about your skillset that you believe you can apply? So those are three things. One is what is your why? Two, you're trying to solve a problem that you're trying to solve it in a commercially viable way. And three, think about the value about you that you are adding and you are bringing to the table to solve those problems.But if someone is, for example, looking for work, it is okay that sometimes you will apply for many roles and you might not get it because teams are just set up so differently and you just would not know in some cases what it is that hiring managers are looking for. But once you are confident about your why, it means that you are better in targeting the right company and the right problem to solve. Because again, third, you know what your skillset, what it is that you're bringing, and you know exactly where it is that you are trying to add that value to. But yeah, those would be my thoughts.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you for sharing those. And where can people find you if they want to follow you?

Tosin Onibon-oje:So I am @ToniBono, so T-O-N-I-B-O-N-O on Twitter. And I am also Tosin Onibon-oje. So that's T-O-S-I-N and surname, O-N-I-B-O-N hyphen O-J-E on LinkedIn. So that is me. But just to say that on my Twitter, I do talk about things that are not products. So you'll have to bear with me. I am a multi-dimension person. So my Twitter page is not just products, but you are very welcome because I will engage in product conversations and I'm always open to answer product questions.

Holly Hester-Reilly:Awesome. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Tosin Onibon-oje:Thank you, Holly. It's been fantastic talking.

Holly Hester-Reilly:The Product Science Podcast is brought to you by H2R Product science. We teach startup founders and product leaders how to use the product science method to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams, and businesses. Learn more at h2rproductscience.com.Enjoying this episode? Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss next week's episode. I also encourage you to visit us at productsciencepodcast.com to sign up for more information and resources from me and our guests. If you like the show, a rating and review would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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