Five years ago, Clover Health COO Wilson Keenan got his first job in product management. Before that, he was a line cook. It wasn't his only work experience, but it's what stood out to the man who hired him, Jim Patterson — then Chief Product Officer at Yammer, now CEO of cannabis technology startup Eaze. In fact, it fit into a broader hiring philosophy Patterson subscribes to: chefs and soldiers make excellent product managers.
“Both the military and professional kitchens are environments where there's zero tolerance for slackers and indecision — you have to be on all the time, working quickly under high pressure,” he says. “When Wilson told me he'd worked at that job for a year I thought, 'He must be good.' Otherwise you get bounced out of that industry immediately.”
Making good decisions quickly isn't the only quality PMs need that military or kitchen experience instills. There's a whole checklist Patterson looks for whenever he makes product hires:
Being able to lead without authority.
Always taking blame while giving credit away.
Strong decision-making with imperfect information.
Valuing intense preparation.
Methodical in how they recover from mistakes and crises.
Operating optimally under extreme pressure.
While very few may actually be former chefs or soldiers, this list can serve as a rubric for hiring product managers who have the raw skills to succeed in the role. In this exclusive interview, Patterson — who served in the Air Force — shares what he looks for and how he thinks about building uniquely effective product teams. He also explains Eaze's 'War Room' strategy for consistently beating its goals leveraging a similar, military-style mentality.
Product is this tough job where no one truly works for you. The engineering team doesn't report to you. They don't really have to do what you say, but you have to be their leader anyway.
If you're a cook in a restaurant or commercial kitchen, you're usually one of many, constantly handing off work to one another to achieve a highly-orchestrated result. In the military, there's strict hierarchy, but there's also a lot of teamwork among peers. In these situations, natural leaders who win the allegiance of those around them thrive.
“Being charismatic and well-spoken is important, but it’s not sufficient on its own,” says Patterson. “It's possible to learn to be a good leader, because it's really about credibility and respect.”
This is why product managers with technical ability tend to have an advantage. They start off with instant credibility because engineers feel that they speak the same language, understand the scope of challenges, and operate accordingly. These PMs don't have to be former engineers, themselves — they just have make the effort to use the right terminology and learn what projects require from an engineering perspective.
“You have to make it clear you respect what engineers do as a craft — it's not just a means to an end or a route to a company goal — it's creating something from nothing in a way that requires considerable creativity and skill,” he says. “Don't be a wet noodle leader. If you push a wet noodle, it goes nowhere. You have to pull it. Don't push or try to game engineers into doing things. Pull them with a vision for what they could build, the opportunity, and the impact they can make.”
The most important thing any PM has going for them is the trust of the engineers. You need to be able to chart a course that may not have 100% consensus — that many may not understand — but they'll follow you because they trust you. The best way to create that trust is to build a consistent track record of sound decision making with no fanfare — day in, day out.
“When you're in basic training and one person messes up, the whole unit ends up doing push-ups,” says Patterson. “It's how they reinforce that you're a team that fails and succeeds together. You learn that when you screw up, it's not just you. It affects everyone else.”
The best product managers know they have thankless jobs, and they don't mind. This is a skill unto itself. They never throw anyone else under the bus. They know as soon as they point a finger at engineering, they're done. Subtle sabotage by engineers should be the greatest fear of every PM, and it happens all the time, he says.
“No matter how many times it gets said, I still see product managers out there hung up on themselves, being dismissive of engineers, treating them like cogs in the wheel,” says Patterson. “They never last long. On more than a few occasions when I headed product, engineers would come to me and say, 'I can't work with so-and-so.' And I'd let that PM go, because there was no coming back from that.”
Given all his experience, he says this quality now helps him separate the best PMs from the rest.
“I can tell who the 'mid-level' people are. They're always selling themselves. They want to make sure that I know all the things they're working on and how hard they're working,” he says. “The top PMs understand if your team is bad, you're bad. If your team is good, you're good. The worst thing you can do as a PM is blame members of your team. If you do that, you're dead, because they will not have your back after that.”
When things go well, you want a PM who gets out of the way and points to everyone else. Not everyone is capable of this.
If you crave approval, this job isn't for you.
The best way to root out this mentality is to pay attention to pronouns. In an interview, does a PM candidate say 'I' and 'me' a lot? Or do they say 'we', 'my team' and 'us.' “People can't help it. I'll actually start to count the number of times they say each thing. I've been in interviews where someone says 'I' 50 times — 'I did this, I did that.' They came from a big company. There's no way they did all of that alone.”
Especially at a startup, you want your product managers to be servant-leaders. Do they have a history of operating in service to engineers, to designers, to fellow PMs? How has this manifested?
“It's the little things. When they order pizza for the team, who gets the first slice? Do they wait until others have gotten theirs?” Patterson says. “Do they show up to meetings not just on time but early? It's a show of respect for other people’s time.” Some of this may be hard to suss out while interviewing someone, but it's easy to observe and correct once you have them on board to maximize success.
Military service drills you in making quick decisions with imperfect information. It's the basis of one of Patterson's favorite sayings: “Mostly right, never in doubt.” That's what PMs need to be too.
It's also why the Air Force created the OODA Loop — which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The key is, every time the loop finishes, it's starts all over again, integrating new information prompted by the last action. It's been used for years to train pilots to make quick decisions in extremely high-pressured situations.
The OODA Loop is also a helpful tool for product managers, who — Patterson argues — should assume that the data they have is always imperfect and will never be perfect. “A lot of people find it very difficult to pull the trigger on something until they feel like they have all the info, they gather, gather, gather and never act,” he says. “Like pilots, PMs can't do this. They'll never ship on time if they do.”
Instead, they need to keep running the loop — taking in all the information available to them, deciphering what it means, making firm decisions, and deploying them. It requires both endurance — because you have to keep at it day after day — and the precision to make the smartest possible decision at any given point.
“I look for PMs who are more about perfecting process than perfecting outcomes,” he says. “If there was a bad outcome, I want someone who will backtrack to figure out what information went into the decision. Maybe it's the best that could have possibly been done given the data on hand. Maybe it's the process of how the decision got made that could be better.” By asking these questions, good PMs can drive constant improvement over time.
At highly-rated, Michelin star restaurants, there's a concept called 'Mise en Place' — roughly translating to 'Everything in Its Place.' It refers to the rigorously thought out organization of ingredients and tools needed in a busy kitchen, allowing all kitchen staff to operate as fast and as seamlessly as possible once they start cooking. In Patterson's experience, the best PMs perform their own 'Mise en Place' process before executing on products.
“Think about how complicated it is for kitchens to take hundreds of ingredients every day and combine them beautifully and consistently so that hot, gorgeous dishes all come out at the same time, every time for dozens of tables,” he says. “This level of performance requires near perfection at high velocity. The process that diners actually see is just the assembly. All the real work was done starting in the morning before the doors open.”
At a startup, the PM is the head chef, and the engineers are the individual cooks whose considerable talents and care create the ultimate product. In this environment, creating solid specs, furnishing resources when needed, and clearing pathways for productivity is the vital prep work. The best PMs focus their time and energy on this phase of the process.
Just like in kitchens, PMs need to anticipate and smooth out handoffs of work between people — engineers and designers, for example. There's very little margin for error. If one person falls behind, the entire 'kitchen' gets backed up. The more prepared you are for these scenarios, the easier it is to dig yourself out.
You want to create muscle memory for your team.
If your organization and prep are both strong, people will know exactly where to go for what they need, who to talk to for answers, where to get new data, how to handle issues that pop up. It will be the same and work every time. How can you promote muscle memory for engineers, the way you cooks have muscle memory for where to find a whisk or the salt.
In a restaurant, the cooking can't stop no matter what. If you're off the rails or backed up or 'in the weeds' as chefs call it, you have to get back on track without stopping or slowing down. In the military, you may find yourself in a position where your decision-making and execution are life or death for others. You can't crack or say you don't know. As a PM, you have a ship date, and the fate of your product or even your company depends on your ability to keep going no matter what.
In all of these situations, a leader needs almost robotic presence of mind, and it's ideally triggered when the heat is on.
It's that feeling of being 'zoned in' and the ability to see things in slow motion — so you can start pulling them apart and working the problem. You can get a bunch of people in a room and unemotionally make a list of what's going wrong, possible solutions, the tasks you need to get there, and who is going to handle them. It's the mindset that allows you to take a crisis and turn it into a checklist.
“For me, this definitely comes from the military and basic training,” says Patterson. “For example, they put all this pressure on you around making your bed perfectly, shining your boots and all that — making you do jumping jacks in the bed you just made and then yelling at you because your bed is now messed up — and it sounds silly until you realize they're psychologically preparing you to be methodical under fire.”
As first a PM and now CEO, this experience has made him preternaturally calm in stressful situations. “I'm able to detach because getting emotional or upset is only counter-productive,” he says. “I'll tell people they did a good job after the fact, but during, it's all about getting it done. People see you as the leader and look to you for certainty. If you melt down, it's over.”
Recently at Eaze, Patterson has combined all of the qualities above into a new approach for the whole company. They've created a War Room, transforming their largest conference room into a mission control center of sorts. Around the table sit single representatives from each internal team — product, engineering, operations, customer support, marketing etc. — everyone necessary to solve any problem. On the big screens at the front are dashboards showing the daily goal for deliveries plotted as an ascending curve, and how they're tracking so far (rendered as a real-time dotted line). The all-day objective is to stay above that line. If you do, you 'Win the Day.'
“We started with our long-term goals in terms of growth and operational efficiency, and where we want to be. We boiled those down into monthly goals — like we want to do X thousand deliveries this month,” says Patterson. “Then we modeled literally day by day based on historical patterns — like higher demand on Fridays and Saturdays than Mondays and Tuesdays — to create a minute-by-minute daily goal.”
The 'Win the Day' team staffs the War Room from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day, but the members rotate. There will be a new ops specialist or engineer each day. But no matter where they rank on their own teams, the group in the War Room has the authority to make decisions in the moment. If deliveries start to track below the goal, they can choose to pull levers to lift that metric — like sending emails or offering discounts to generate demand. If a bug arises, they can all jump on fixing the issue and mitigating its impact at once.
If we win every day, we win the week. If we win the weeks, we win the month. If we win the months, we win the year.
“It's a military strategy, to get people in a room to facilitate fast, efficient communication and action,” says Patterson. “It also exposes a range of people to this skill set, and connects them more immediately to how the company is doing and the operational side of our business.”
Importantly, those in the War Room can call on and leverage their entire team behind them to help them problem-solve. You're allowed to raise hell if something's going to prevent us from winning the day, and whatever can be done to help becomes the priority. In this way, the 'Win the Day' strategy focuses the entire company around a shared goal. Everyone's activities in some way support and roll up to this one focal point.
In large part, the War Room concept was born out of the attributes Patterson believes make PMs great. It pulls the team toward a goal, rather than pushing them. Setting it up required a lot of thought, care and preparation so that individuals can act immediately, with muscle memory. It demands good judgment with limited data. And it teaches everyone who takes a seat how to react calmly and precisely at a moment's notice.
“In the military, they call the team at the front line the 'tip of the spear' but everyone behind them is the handle that's necessary to give them the support and force to be lethal,” he says. “It’s interesting to see this spear idea making everyone feel more connected to our customers and company goals. It's set off a whole cultural shift that's made us more deliberate and faster on our feet at the same time.”
Art by Hero Images/Stone Collection/Getty Images.