#GirlsWhoProduct: Tanja Lau

Tanja is an entrepreneur, product leader and working mum based in Switzerland. After co-founding and scaling several start-ups in Madrid, Munich and Zurich, she is now leading her own company Product Academy as part-time CEO (40%) while also taking care of her two toddlers. Like Alice in Wonderland, Tanja usually thinks of “as many as six impossible things before breakfast” and can’t go one day without eating chocolate.

Listen to this interview and discover how Tanja balances part-time entrepreneurship and family time in order to find a sustainable work-life balance.

By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on January 7th, 2020

K: How did you end up in product, in the first place?

Looking back, I think I’ve been in product much longer than I thought, althought this might not be reflected in my job titles. I entered the field as a program manager for conferences in the publishing industry. After that, I worked as an account and marketing manager for a network of high potentials. I was in charge of conferences, events and a book series. Even though those were actually products, the job was never called product management. So I didn’t know I was part of the global family of product people. Only looking backwards, I realized I’ve been in this field for more than 12 years.

My real start into digital product management happened when I decided to co-found my first startup in Madrid with a couple of Spaniards whom I met at UC Berkeley. That was a spur of the moment thing. Since I didn’t speak any Spanish back then, I couldn’t talk to investors. I couldn’t talk to clients or customers either. The part where I could contribute the most was by coordinating and working with the developers when we were building the platform from scratch. I did it without knowing what I was getting myself into. And I loved it so much that afterwards I’ve always been a part of the start-up scene.

K: As you have mentioned, you spontaneously co-founded your first start-up in Madrid in 2012 without speaking a single word of Spanish. What was the most challenging about it?

It was a very overwhelming experience because everything was new. The job itself was new, the country was new. I had known my co-fonders just for a couple of months. Adapting to the whole rhythm of us working very late and very hard was not easy for me. I think I only slept four hours at night for a couple of months in a row. I was really pushing myself to my physical limits. Also, socially speaking, I felt lonely sometimes. I think that the circumstances in general were not ideal for me to do something so challenging. But at the same time, I would never want to miss that experience. I built my confidence by pushing my own limits, even though it seemed so scary for me and my family. I’m really happy I did it anyways.

K: What have you found to be most rewarding about working in product management?

I’m the type of person who gets bored very easily. This happened to me in a lot of other jobs. But with product management, I think this never happens because the skill set we need is so vast: from business to tech, design, user experience and more. You’re never done learning. Every customer is a new experience, every product is a new experience. There’s just so much more out there that you can do and learn. So I think I will never get bored doing this job. At the very core, product management is about the art of decision making, and I’m really fascinated by it. The decision making process in product management can come from intuition, from data or from combining these two things. This is something I am very interested in.

K: What do you see as your professional mission in this field?

With Product Academy, we’re in the business of upskilling people and encouraging them to enter the field of product management. But in the end, my true “Why” with this company is to encourage and help companies to practice the art of being a learning organization. This topic is very interesting to me. You can actually never “become” a learning organisation, but you can embark on the adventure of practicing these skills and accept the fact that you will never be done learning.

Learning organisations have the habit of not being so reactive and they know how to take the future into their own hands. They keep reinventing themselves and accept the responsibility they have in this world. This is really something that I feel is worth pursuing. That’s why I’m trying to help organizations grow beyond just building a product department. Because I think as long as we’re just talking about departments, we’re still far away from becoming a truly learning organization. It is all about understanding that we are all part of the puzzle. I help people understand what we need in order to become this kind of learning organization, what kind of culture and circumstances we need to create and to thrive the most. It’s not just about having a couple of people getting better at their job. It is about helping the whole organization to move forward.

K: On your website you have presented your mission as “Empowering Product People.” What is the meaning that you put into the word “empowering”?

As a product management coach, I am encountering a lot of product people who feel helpless, burnt out and overwhelmed by their job. I want to help them feel better and be happier in a more sustainable way. We cannot keep burning out our product people. They are too scarce a resource. Often it’s a systemic issue. They might be used as scapegoats when things go wrong. What happens is that sometimes we don’t have a real purpose to go after, because the whole company is just trying to get more revenue. This is not really fulfilling on a personal level. That is one of the reasons why product managers are stressed out. Sometimes they do not know how to say “no”and how to focus more on what is really important because everybody keeps pulling and stretching them very thin. Or, maybe, the organizations don’t have the structures where people can recognize the value of the work that product people are doing every day. All these things can make you feel powerless, stressed out and overwhelmed. And I’m trying to turn things around to help them understand: What are the next baby steps they can take within their organization to move towards an ecosystem where they can provide value and feel good about it? Or I try to encourage them to look for companies where they can experience a different appreciation for their job, which is really hard.

K: You really make it clear that family comes first for you. I feel like in the modern world this philosophy is not very welcomed anymore. To be a good worker you need to devote all of your time and all of your energy to the workplace and never stop demonstrating to your employers that you are fully committed. This consequently tends to benefit men and disadvantage women in the workplace. What makes women feel more stressed about their career and motherhood. How do you manage to prioritize your family life that well?

It was never something that I could imagine myself doing otherwise. It would have never crossed my mind to be ashamed of being a mother, having to hide the fact that I have children. I think this is part of who I am. Part of my superpower is that I am a mom. I learned so much by being a mother that I’m feeding my learnings back into the way I’m working nowadays. We need to be courageous about our role as parents and leaders. It’s just one of the many roles that we have, which doesn’t make the other roles less or more important.

It’s always hard to talk about society in general. But I think there are certain areas and industries that have recognized that they need more female talent for their companies. For example, for most companies it is quite hard to find more male developers because they’re basically all employed and working. Tapping into the pool of really talented women in tech is something that makes a lot of business sense. There are still a lot of women out there who would like to get back to work, but feel there is no suitable workplace where they can combine their roles as parents and employees in a satisfying way.

There are countless studies that show diversity as a key factor for the success of teams. I think more and more employers understand the importance of becoming more diverse from a business point of view. And sooner or later, they will probably also start embracing this from a more empathetic point of view: caring about society in general. Thinking from human to human. We might need to wait for a couple of years to see more women in leadership positions.

Is it the input (=how much time and energy I am putting in) or the output (how many emails I write, how many meetings I attend) that defines the value of my work? Or isn’t it rather the outcome, the value that I am creating, that makes all the difference and should be the reason for me being employed and considered a valuable part of the company?

I think that as long as we’re driven by input-output thinking instead of outcome thinking, we will keep having a misunderstanding about what creates value at work. It’s a shortcoming of how certain managers lead. It is really hard to set good goals in terms of clearly defining and breaking down the outcomes that you want to achieve. Ot at least it is much harder than just tracking the hours that somebody spends in the office. But as soon as you start moving away from output and input and start talking about outcome, it will become much easier to find a work set-up where everyone can create value. Even if you’re working part time. If you’re counting hours and you see somebody else offers more hours at work, that doesn’t mean that they offer more value.

It’s a mindset shift that we need to undertake to make women feel better and more confident at work, even if they might bring less time to work. At the same time, we need to move away from the stigma of men having to work full-time. In Switzerland, for example, it is common for men to work only 80% of the full working hours. You see a lot of dads during the weekdays in the city with their babies in the carriers. And that’s lovely. Even though I think we still need to make it more common to see men working even less than 80% of the time. That will allow women to move towards more flexible time models where you don’t define your work load in terms of hours spent at work, but in terms of value you bring to the table. For example, we could find a more fluid concept where you have certain times a year where you have more energy you can dedicate to work. And then instead, during the school holidays, you could maybe dedicate more time to family. The industry needs to adapt more to our lifecycle as parents for us to bring the most value and feel really good about combining work and family life. And this goes for people without children, too. There is a strong trend towards seeking purpose outside of work, taking sabbaticals and recalibrating often. Employers who truly understand and embrace this will have a clear advantage on the job market in the future.

K: What are your personal thoughts on what it means for moms to strive for “having it all?”

Generally speaking, “having it all” or “wanting it all” starts with knowing what you want. Some things that you want are stable over time and some things that you want might be fluctuating. It’s not something that is the same every single day. The important thing for me is not to accumulate too much debt in certain areas, because this happened to me in the past. For example, sometimes I did not treat my body in a very sustainable way for months, and at a certain point I realised that I was a tipping point where I could just break down. The same goes when you don’t have enough time for yourself and feel like you are missing out on certain areas of your soul. Of course, it’s not easy to be balanced every day in every area of your life. But what I do is keeping score of the main areas of my life and see if there is a tendency to accumulate a lot of debt. I believe it is important to make time to reflect on how you feel in different areas of your life and be aware of what you need. If you accumulate technical debt in a product, it might eventually crash. The same goes for us as humans.

And the second important thing is not to limit our thinking in terms of what is possible. Just because I’m a mom, that doesn’t mean that I cannot have a successful work life anymore or that I cannot be in a leadership position. I think a lot of these things start in our head. I don’t like other people telling me what I can or cannot do. This is up to me to decide, right? So if I decide that this is not the time to pursue my career, that’s fine. A lot of pressure comes from within ourselves, because we want to please somebody from the outside. The society, our parents, our partner or whoever it is. As long as we externalize this, it’s really hard to feel true joy and to be in flow with yourself. I think we need to let go and stop comparing ourselves all the time.

K: If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself as a young mother, what would it be?

What I learned the hard way now is that I need far more support and help than I ever needed in my life. And that is something that I’m not very used to. I never learned how to ask for help because I have been very autonomous so far. I considered it to be one of my strengths. And now I needed to understand that it is actually a strength to know when it’s time to ask for help. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If I just drain myself, I’m not doing my family or my employer any favor. Recognizing that asking for help is not a weakness was one of the most important lessons for me. And I think generally speaking, I would try to treat myself a little more kindly and adjust my own expectations.

K: Back in 2016, when you were pregnant with your first kid, did you feel you were prepared for the challenges that were coming for your career?

I didn’t have any clue what was coming! I was in a leadership position back then and, of course, I talked to my employer to discuss what kind of workload I could handle after I return from maternity leave. We agreed on 70% ot that time. But this was all theory because you don’t know what kind of mother you’re going to be, what kind of child you are going to have. So my daughter Maya, for example, didn’t sleep for more than 1.5 hours in a row until she turned 18 months. With our son Matteo now it is kind of the same story. So I haven’t slept properly in three years. I didn’t know that before and what this would do to me as a person. As we say in product management, “planning is everything, but the plan is nothing.” So you need to be able to adjust later on.

So, of course, I wasn’t prepared. Nobody is ever really prepared to be a parent. But at the same time we are biologically wired to do this and we have the skills and intuition that are needed. If you follow your gut, you will make the right choices.

In my case, I started with a reduced workload and my employer was very supportive about it, but my goals and my workload itself never changed. I was working less hours, but I had the same amount of work to handle with the same amount of people. For me it didn’t work. I kept ramping up my hours again to at least not miss out on the salary. But this didn’t feel right for my family and I ended up missing the second part of my own wedding because I broke down on that day. And this showed me in a brutal way that the status quo was not sustainable. Neither at work nor at home.

I decided to quit my job, tp take some time off and recalibrate. That was when I realized that I wanted to work two days a week and that the rest of my time should be reserved for my family and other things in life. Now I had a plan. But since it’s really hard to find a challenging job working two days a week, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Today, I am self-employed as founder of my own company, because now I can orchestrate my work days around my family and not the other way around. Going back to your question, I was not prepared, but I learned a lot about what I need and what I want. Understanding it was the first step towards changing my work environment.

K: Have you ever applied the skills you used in your career on raising your kids?

Product Management is a great way to prepare for parenting. Having kids is like full-time stakeholder management with very, very demanding stakeholders. What I learned in my job before and what I apply every day in my family is, for example, saying “no” gracefully to my kids. Prioritizing all the time. Adapting to the reality that changes every minute. For example, I wake up with a plan on what to do with the kids, and they wake up cranky. We have to adjust the plan all the time, but that way I stay flexible. And that is something that I learned a lot doing product management.

It’s also the other way around: A lot of things that I learned with my kids, I can now apply to my work life. For example, truly listening is something that I am now practicing as a mother every day when my kids throw a tantrum or talk to me. I think I did a bad job doing this before as a manager. There are so many things that we can learn from our kids and by being a parent in general.

K: If you had the power to change one thing in the business market for working mothers, what would you change?

It’s a tough question because there’s so many little things that you could do. But I guess the biggest impact that I see is if having more leaders who lead with empathy and who trust their employees, the kind of leaders who manage by outcomes and not by outputs. This could create a work environment in which mothers at different levels of workload could really thrive and create value. We need a different kind of leadership. I believe that men are totally capable of doing this. It’s not that we have to have only female leaders to be happy at work as women. We need to see more empathy at work and to set the goals in a better way.

K: What is a good day for Tanja — a good mom and for Tanja — a good professional?

For both those hats that I wear, if the kids are healthy and nobody’s sick, that is a good day. Then as for me as a mom, a good day is when I am in flow with kids, when we feel that we want to do the same kind of things and are mindful about each other’s feelings. When we just enjoy exploring the world together and nobody is throwing a tantrum all the time. Getting a little bit of sleep at least is also great. I think for mothers there’s a high correlation between how well we slept and how good the days are.

And as professional…I think it starts in the same way. The worst thing that can happen is that somebody gets sick. Then I’m in trouble because I only have two work days a week, and I cannot miss any of them. Whenever this happens, I accumulate a huge backlog of work that is really hard to reduce over time. That’s why health comes first.

At work, I love exploring new business ideas. I come up with a lot of new ideas when running. I love starting new projects. I’m not the kind of person who runs things over the long term. Providing the initial fire you need to light up and then finding other people who are better suited to take over, this is my thing. I love meeting inspiring people like I did excessively in 2019. I met so many great trainers and mentors, and this is really amazing about my job.

K: You have mentioned that “serendipity” is your favourite word. It is almost a life philosophy for you. In the fast moving world, how to stay devoted to yourself and pay attention to this sixth sense?

Serendipity is really my all-time favorite word. There’s no similar word in German, I guess. At least I haven’t found one. What I love about the concept of serendipity is that it’s not about stumbling through life and suddenly having good things happening to you by chance, without any clue where you’re headed. Serendipity, for me at least, means that you have a question that you pursue, you have a goal or a direction, but you still stay open to the possibility of finding something that you didn’t expect. Serendipity is about the possibility of recreating yourself and the world.

I have another term that I love using for myself and for this kind of state. I call it elastic stability. In the past couple of years, after traveling and relocating a lot, I found out that I actually need and enjoy stability. I need to have my loving family and my home. I’m even becoming more bourgeois, owning a house in the suburbs, and a part of it really scares me. But I am keeping this elasticity in my life. Like having the possibility of one day doing a sabbatical and traveling the world with my family, meeting new people every day and doing a lot of new things all the time: trying new hobbies, recipes, restaurants… It becomes less scary that way and I don’t feel boxed in. So I have the right balance between stability and new things happening in my life, having serendipity happening in my life. Elastic stability is the kind of state that I’m always looking for.

K: You launched a project for women called LevelUp. Could you tell us more about it?

This project was born even before Product Academy was announced. One night, when I was breastfeeding my son, I had this idea of creating a mentoring program for women in product. I thought of creating a way to support each other, to encourage women to join this field from related roles like UX or tech. So I created a very intense and condensed six months mentoring program where you combine six workshop days with a personal mentor and coach from companies such as Zalando, Google, Booking.com, etc.

I believe that in order to offer a very condensed learning experience a lot of work should be done at home first. That is why we send out a quite extensive amount of pre-reading material to the participants prior to each workshop day. This enables us to use our time for the things you cannot do by yourself, like for group discussion and exercises. So we don’t repeat the stuff that is in the books. We just apply it and then we discuss it. This method helps us to create the unique value of these workshop days. Then you head back home and your mentor helps you digest the learnings and apply them to your work at your current company. So over time, you can put all the bits and pieces together and experience what modern product management feels like. The program has been very successful in Switzerland, and I’m doing two more editions in summer. The summer editions are starting in May both in Berlin and in Switzerland and they are now accepting applications until February 16. So if you are a female product manager at the beginning of your career or, feel free to apply.

Check out the next summer edition of Level Up! In Zurich https://www.productacademy.ch/levelup

Cannot make it to Zurich? Apply for Level Up! Berlin. Learn more here.

K: You are half-Italian by blood. How much of Italian do you actually feel in yourself?

It’s a really hard question, because I think it’s always easy to think in stereotypes, but it’s not always a good thing. I don’t know how much of my passion is defined by my origin. I know that my Italian grandfather and me, we have lots of things in common. He was kind of an entrepreneurial engineer, he just didn’t have the education or the means to put that in action because he was born at a different time. And I think part of his spirit lives on me. I’m always looking for these new adventures and new projects that I can create. I also live some of the values that are typical for Italy, like hospitality and family first. But I couldn’t tell you how much in terms of percentage I feel Italian or not.

K: If you could take a sabbatical with your family in the near future, what would be the 5 must-to-see place in your list?

I haven’t put a lot of thought into the potential destinations. But I really love the thought of being on the way and reinventing ourselves as a family, exploring us in different cultures and contexts. There is a couple of destinations that are still on my bucket list, such as South Africa, Australia. I love national parks, for example, like the ones in the US and Canada. I have been there, but there are still many of them to explore. I would really like to attend a yoga retreat in India one day, not sure if that’s a good thing for the kids, but I personally would love to do so.

K: And if you could write a book about your life, what would be the title?

This is really difficult to answer. I already had this plan of writing a book one day, but I’m not sure yet what it would be about. So let us call it Serendipity for now.

K: What advice would you give to women who want to get into product profession and leadership in general?

It’s really important that you understand why you want to get into this field. Find out more about your personal why, and then find the environment that matches it. Because there’s so many different types of product work that you could do. Even a leadership position in product can look very differently depending on the environment you are in. So I myself was really determined to become a line manager for many years because I thought that was the cool thing to do. But nowadays, I am trying to look more for what matches my values and my style of working, my life situation at the moment. I am actually running my company without any employees and believe in a new and much more flexible way of working. I am much happier this way than I ever was as a line manager.

So, I would start with what it is that you want to do and what it is that makes you happy, and then find the right environment. The good thing is that for sure there will be a company that matches what you’re looking for in product. Instead of just trying to enter product management at any cost without a clue of what you like to do, have a plan and then let yourself be surprised about what you will find along the way — serendipity style :)

Rapid-fire questions:

K: Dark chocolate or white chocolate?

Dark, definitely

K: Running or Diving?

Running

K: Zurich or Bern?

Bern

K: Reading a book of Umberto Eco or watching the New York Yankees baseball game?

Umberto Eco

K: A stand up improv show or a staged drama piece?

A stand up improv show

K: Travelling by car or by boat?

By boat

K: Giving a workshop or giving a public talk?

Giving a workshop

K: Organisations for people or people for organisations?

Organisations for people

K: Recognition or Money

Recognition

K: Meeting the sunrise or “Seeing off” the setting sun

Sunrise

Get connected with Tanja by email at tanja@productacademy.ch , drop her a message on LinkedIn.

Tanja recommends must 📚 on product and leadership:

BOOKS:

PODCASTS:

TED TALKS:

This project was made possible thanks to our partnership with Zalando Tech. #GirlsWhoProduct is a series of interviews with women that have been able to beat the ‘product’ ceiling and get into the profession. Our mission is to inspire, connect and empower more women to get into product roles and help them consider ‘product’ as a venue of personal and professional growth.

About Productized

Productized organizes different activities with the intention to boost the product community around the world. It was created by professionals from the engineering and design space, with a history of co-founding several pioneering projects in Portugal such as TEDx, Beta-i, Startup Weekend and Silicon Valley comes to Lisbon.

About Productized Masterclasses

The Productized Masterclasses are 2 days of hands-on masterclasses and insightful keynote speakers. On 27 & 28 May you’ll enjoy 4 masterclasses of your choice, get practical tips, and network with your peers. Come and meet Dan Olsen, Kandis O’Brien, Radhika Dutt, Ken Sandy, or Daniel Zacarias, among many others and get ready to be inspired to learn more about Enterprise Product and Consumer Product! SAVE THE DATE — MAY 27–28 2021

Want to be a part of the Productized community? Sign up for our newsletter here.

Through workshops, courses and coaching, we seek to contribute to the relationship between people and their organizations to build better products. Welcome!