An interview with Ebony Shears, Vice President of Product at Forbes.
Ebony started in a variety of different jobs in different industries, from banking to digital media to television production. She landed a job at Forbes six years ago as a Project Manager. She progressed rapidly to become VP of Product in six short years.
We spoke to Ebony about how she became a Product Leader and the profound changes Forbes is experiencing undergoing a Product-Led Transformation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your Product Management career?
I think I’m one of those “I’ve got an unconventional path to Product people”.
I started at Forbes almost six years ago and to this day, it is the only place that I’ve formally worked in Product.
I had an entire career before Product. I started my career in banking, moved into the media industry after banking, working in digital media publishing, and was then an Entrepreneur for a little while doing strategic communications and events.
After this, I was a Television Producer but left television to re-enter the digital space, doing digital strategy as well as video content strategy.
I then worked for a startup. When I left there, I freelanced and started to think about what it was that I actually wanted to do. I had worked with Product people, most recently at that startup, and so I felt I had a general sense of what Product people do.
I’ve always been the person in my profession who was the problem solver.
I looked back on my very long career in the media business and based on what I was good at in production and what I liked doing, I decided to do one of the Product Boot Camps run by Product School.
Afterwards, Product School connected me with the Project Manager position at Forbes. I was shocked. I kept on thinking “Forbes, like the magazine!”.
Forbes, just in terms of digital, was not on my radar at all but during the interview process, I learned very quickly how focused Forbes is on innovation and on developing its digital media presence. And you know, our business has changed quite a bit in the last six years…that was my path into the Product.
Where do you see the profession heading?
My hope for where it’s heading is twofold.
Number one, that there is a more unified understanding of what Product Management is. From one company to the next, the role of a Product Manager can mean something completely different.
I think it can make it a challenge for people who are looking to break into Product Management and can also be a challenge for people who are mentoring.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been in a workshop or a conference and the Product Management concepts being spoken about were confusing. My hope would be that there’s just a little bit more agreement on basic Product Principles.
The other thing that I would like to see develop is clear intention around giving Product teams and Product Managers outcomes to deliver.
We all have been hearing a lot of the outcomes versus output debate – it’s something that’s been talked about for a very long time. And it definitely feels to me like we are heading more and more in the direction of being able to give Product people and Product teams problems to solve, opportunities to uncover, end goals to accomplish, and then sending them off to figure out the best ways to do that.
What do you think it will take for large mature companies to become Product-Led in the future?
It requires Transformation. Forbes has undergone a phase of Digital Transformation but I think that this next phase is exciting. We are looking at what it might take to be Product-Led. It aligns with a lot of changes that relate to our overall business strategy and a new direction for our business.
Forbes intends to go public at some point in the near future and along with that comes a lot of expectations around growth and having a clear and articulated strategy.
To me, the alignment of Product work with the business strategy is core to any large mature organisation. I have witnessed times in the past where other people have struggled trying to push forward Product initiatives when it didn’t align with the business. So, trying to align Product initiatives to business strategy is the first step in transforming a company.
For us, there’s a real opportunity right now to deliver on that alignment across the company. That real alignment, across the business and product is the thing that you can’t do without.
What do you think would happen if a company does not transform into a Product-Led company?
Growth and scaling are always difficult. Growth can be difficult when operating in the digital space but in order to grow, you need to be a Product-Led organisation.
For companies where the Product is the company, it’s very easy to get caught up chasing shiny things or chasing what a big customer asked for.
That is certainly not what it means to be Product-Led. It’s probably more aligned with being Sales-Led or Customer-Led, and I think it’s difficult to see these differences.
I’ve seen instances where it’s difficult to grow because you end up with a Product that doesn’t really have a point of view. It only solves a portion of customer problems.
There’s an entire opportunity space out there that you’re not addressing because you’ve boxed yourself into a Product that solves a very specific problem for 1 customer, not universal ones.
For a company like Forbes, we have a newly established strategic growth team in our company, which is really focused on a lot of the initiatives around growth, but they also lean heavily on Product initiatives because one cannot happen without the other.