As the latest in our Industry Insiders series, our Principal Consultant for Product (Berlin), Tom Shingler catches up with Georgina Smallwood, Chief Product Officer at N26. Georgina leads the global Product, and Design businesses at N26. N26 is a mobile bank, operating in 27 countries and launching in the US very shortly.
With over 12 years’ experience in global digital companies such as Xero, News Ltd, REA Group, Adconion Media Group, IAB and Scout24, we were so pleased to catch up with Georgina about her thoughts on building product teams in Berlin.
Berlin Product Market
We kicked off the conversation about the feeling of the Product market in Berlin being in its infancy; there is not the same feeling of community that there is in London. This is particularly true in terms of events and Meet-Ups: In London there are a number of outlets including; Mind The Tank, Product Tank etc.
There appears to be two phases of companies: Start-ups who are trying to be successful, and those who have made it and think “oh sh*t, what next!?”. Trivago, Booking.com, Soundcloud, these are companies who got successful fast, but things change when that happens. When Georgina started a year ago at N26, their workforce was 400, whereas now they are 1200.
Georgina mentions that part of the challenge is that as companies race through their maturity from start-up to scale-up and local to global, very often the change is so rapidly that you wake up one day and realise you are in a very different company than you were 12 months ago. This seems to be commonplace in the Berlin environment, and there are not a lot of people that have worked in a hyper-growth environment and it’s so different for them. What a talented person means in that environment differs from what a talented person is in the previous environment. When companies are growing at 200%, you need to have high levels of emotional intelligence, because you are constantly building relationships. Georgina says it’s “like product management on acid”: You need to constantly be in touch with everyone who is involved in what you’re doing and continue to be involved throughout. Someone who thrives in this environment, is often different to somebody who thrives in a start-up.
We asked: In terms of retention, with this amount of growth, how are you navigating the inevitable fall out of good product managers?
“The thing with talented Product Managers, is that they want to build really cool things, and they want autonomy to make decisions, so when you’re growing at this rate, sometimes things start to “wobble” because we don’t exactly know what this new influx of people will be doing. Conversely, we do know exactly what the company wants to achieve, so there is not a huge amount of room for them to get creative. You need to find the people who are passionate about the vision and know how to innovate in everything they do.
So, Georgina thinks the key to retaining good talents is by finding talented, excited people and giving them clear outcomes to achieve. Giving them responsibility: “This is the outcome we expect, and it’s over to you to deliver it.”
Georgina speaks of her entry into the world of Product Management: “I didn’t know that I was in Product before I was.” Georgina was an Operations lead, and when people asked her what she loved about her job, her favourite part was being in-between business and tech, and ensuring that she was doing things for the customer. Product and operations management are very closely linked. Georgina was in a marketplace platform, split between customer and consumer, and this is where she realised that this intersection was the place that she loved to be; challenging and changing the way people see and think about things. What she likes is that at N26, you can surprise people when they understand how easy this way of working is. The accessibility side of things appeals massively.
How to enter into Product Management
We asked Georgina about getting into Product. Her advice for getting into the world of Product is that “if you get excited about building things and enjoy hearing feedback or connecting with people to hear what they think, then Product is for you.” If you are looking to get into Product, then having that thirst for knowledge and a learning mindset is crucial.
There’s an analogy that she speaks about in a recent book she’s read: "The Third Door". There’s one door into the nightclub, where everybody has queued up; the second door, for the VIPS, and the third door: The back door, which nobody tells you about! You must think about the other way to get to an answer/ solve a problem.
“If you’re interested in the “third door”, then you’re probably a product person.” It’s never the conventional route.”
Workplace diversity hiring
Georgina speaks of diversity in the workplace, and her experience working with people from many different backgrounds. Different backgrounds, experiences and cultures are crucial to hearing a variety of viewpoints, however, inclusion must be the main factor to consider. “Diversity doesn’t work unless you have a culture of inclusion. And this culture attracts people very willing to work together etc.”
Tom notes that once he was in a meeting and the company were only hiring from X demographic. This quota’d hiring can be damaging and exclude great talent, who just don’t meet the “diversity brief”.
Georgina notes that her mentors include Jenny McDonald, a director on the boards of many ASX listed companies, who helps Georgina when she is feeling “stuck”, particularly in reference to having been the only woman on an all-male team. This is the environment that she grew up in. They have a very transparent relationship and offer support/an opportunity to sense-check.
Georgina speaks of how she has learnt (through a few other mentors) that to be your own leader is very important, and not to simply emulate your peers. “The best way to be a great leader, is by being true to yourself, be the best you”.
She goes on to say that part of the challenge is that leadership is mostly male, and “it can be hard to be part of that team. Maybe there is more of a gap to bridge in terms of building relationships. Before I had children, I felt an urgency to move quickly, as I know the stats, as I know that when you come back after maternity leave, it’s a lot harder if you’re not “up there” already.” Additionally, her male colleagues would not understand this drive prior to her ML. Why is the other person (male) “driven” and Georgina “pushy”?
Product Mentorship Programmes in Berlin
Georgina has supported the introduction of the Women in N26 group, which involves specific coaching for leadership. There is a focus on coaching and encouraging junior females within the team. What tends to occur; where most drop-off is being seen, is at leadership level. Nurturing these women through the difficult phase breaking through to leadership, and discouraging them from moving from a fast-paced company to a more static, “easy” environment, whereby they feel like there will be less pressure if they go off for maternity leave etc. “We want them to feel like they don’t have to give up something to take the other thing.”
We wanted to know about Georgina’s involvement in any Berlin-based groups.
She mentioned the Berlin Geekettes Mentorship program. She’d enjoyed being a part of the female mentorships. Now, Georgina is beginning to get more involved in Executive or Product-leading networking, as there appears to be less communication in the European market than in London, so these groups and networks are incredibly important.
The one piece of advice that Georgina would give to her younger self is to trust your ability. “Lots of women suffer some form of imposter syndrome.” Earlier in her career, she feared failure. I constantly thought people believed I was better than I was and doubting myself even after passing the interview. “Trust the people who believe in you, then feel the fear and dive straight in”.
We want to thank Georgina for her time and for being a part of our Industry Insiders series, to share her experiences in the world of Product.For more information about our talent acquisition or if you’d like to speak to us about placing a Product Management candidate (or becoming one), get in touch. If you are looking to understand more about recruiting Product Managers, we can help with your recruitment strategy. We can offer a benchmark for a Product Manager salary or a Product Owner job description or Product Owner salary.
Consortia are a specialist Product Management Recruitment business known for placing the best Product Managers into the most innovative tech companies in London. Get in touch with us if you are looking for or recruiting Product Owners or Managers for your team.
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