Relationship-Based Development

Rohit Karanam

Senior Director, Product Management at Seismic



Building strong, genuine, and lasting relationships is one of the key characteristics of my leadership style that spills over to my private life as well. I am one of those people that are immensely keen to invest in building relationships. By building relationships, I don’t mean hanging out for a bear or grabbing a coffee, but taking a candid, genuine interest in their professional and personal life and career development.

As a manager, I am particularly interested to learn about my team members and help them in their growth. Product folks are typically doing well in one area while not excelling in others. I like to help my reports become more well-rounded and outstanding in at least a few areas. Though they may not work directly in all those areas, they should have some idea of how the sales funnel works or how a design is done.

Actions taken

First and foremost, I would assess where my reports are at that moment: what they know and what they don’t. To achieve that, I would have an honest conversation with them in which I would keep re-emphasizing that there is no shame in not knowing something. I would try to encourage them to identify their areas of improvement and be open about identifying those. My main task would be to understand their downsides and how I can help them improve.

Then, I would try to understand what areas they are mainly interested in. Some product managers can talk day and night about technical stuff: features, velocity, and all the geeky stuff. But there are product managers who are more inclined to project management. They are quite structured, organized, and methodical in their approach, and their mind is the mind of a project manager, not a product manager. In the end, some PMs are heavily business-oriented and consider features only as a tool to further the business.

There is no right or wrong. An organization needs all those different skill sets. Everyone plays a meaningful part in getting a product out the door. But you can’t put a technical PM in a business team role, or vice versa. Imagine putting a business-oriented PM as a front face to Engineering and what kind of miscommunication it could entail. This is why I pay the greatest attention in my evaluation assessment to their areas of interest and potential to grow in other areas. Having an honest conversation can often trigger people to start reflecting and telling what they like or what drove them to product management and why.

As things narrow down, I would come up with actionable items that my reports should be working on. There are many areas I am not overly familiar with, but I am also a lifelong learner who is keen to learn and push my own boundaries. So, I like to show by example how exciting the process of learning and growing is. I believe that my approach helps strengthen trust between my team and me as I expose my own vulnerabilities through learning. Trust is critical because of an existing power relationship between a manager and their reports and my reports need to be confident that I would not use any information and backstab them.

Why do I call this approach relationship-based development? Because at the foundation of all my efforts is relationship building. I am always available to my team members, not only as their manager but as someone who is willing to help them out. I will never try to position myself as someone who is above them or play the hierarchy card. On the contrary, I will be there to share their concerns and their successes. I feel privileged when my reports approach me with: “I am stuck here; any ideas what I can do next?” That gives me much more joy than when they approach me to share the news of a successful feature delivery or launch.

In the end, I feel I should mention one more thing. I will not stay with the same company my entire life, nor do I expect my team members to do so. We are here at this moment, and we should seize it. They can learn a great deal from me, and I am happy to share my knowledge and experience. Some of those learnings they will be able to apply here and now; others they will carry somewhere else. I am not building relationships only for the present but for the future too.

Lessons learned

  • When coaching people, it is critical to acknowledge and nurture their individuality and authenticity. I am not in the business of making robots. I am in the business of dealing with people. When you deal with people, you will find all different kinds of personalities and backgrounds. Each mind and each person behaves differently. Rather than putting people in a box, I like the diversity each of them brings with them. When one person on my team thinks we should do A and the other thinks we should B, we have a spectrum of thoughts that they are bringing into the team.
  • I try to avoid being instructional. Neither I am in possession of one absolute truth, nor am I convinced that there is one. Instead, I am telling people to take some things from my approach, modify it or use it if applicable in their context.
  • Emotions are that hidden power that resides in each of us. How do we harness it? You can show people the direction, but when it comes to emotions, teaching is not what helps. Relationships are always based on emotions, and we should mature in order to understand how to use them best.
  • How do I define success? When product managers with different skill sets and aspirations have an opportunity to attain those. If they can get out of the vicious circle of repetitiveness and be able to improve by creating their own path outgrowing their current role, that is a success. Embrace new challenges, learn new things and keep practicing -- that is the path that leads to success.

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Rohit Karanam

Senior Director, Product Management at Seismic

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthIndividual Contributor Roles

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