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Interviews / Product Managers

Balancing the Grind with Lea Hickman, Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group

Lea Hickman is a Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, a company created to share senior level experience and best practices with technology companies.

Starting her career at IBM where she was building applications for Fortune 500 companies, Lea has led at Netscape, Macromedia, Adobe and InVision.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Sure thing. I have spent the past 30 years building technology products. In the late eighties I went to work for IBM where I became part of the consulting organization. I built custom applications for large enterprise clients.

From there I went to Netscape where I had the opportunity to have multiple roles from Technology Evangelist, to Product Marketing to my first foray into Product Management.

In the early 2000s I joined a very small startup that was acquired by Rational Software. From there I was recruited by the President of Products at Macromedia where I worked on new product offerings. I left Macromedia after 7 years and coincidentally went back to work at Adobe.

I started Adobe in Product Marketing and had various senior roles in Product Marketing and Product Management. I was lucky enough to have been there when they went through the transformation to the Creative Cloud and proud to say that my team was responsible for creating the vision to launching the initial Beta.

My final role at Adobe was running the consumer business. I left after about two years and decided to take some time off. My final operational role was head of PM for InVision.

After a year, I joined Silicon Valley Product Group as a partner and I have been lucky enough to spend my time working with product teams of all shapes and sizes, not to mention working with my fellow partners which has been the highlight of my career.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Well, given the timing of this, my day in the life looks very different now. I will walk you through both the before and current.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a lot of time traveling and working on site with product teams and executive teams. The onsite days would either be spent in assessment interviews or in workshops.

On interview days, I am in about 8-14 meetings where I interview many different people in the product organization so I can gain insights as to how they are building products so I can tailor the workshop effectively.

On workshop days, I spend 8 hours speaking and facilitating the products teams through learning all of the best practices around product discovery and delivery. These days are super fun but demanding. You would be amazed at how challenging it is to speak for 8 hours straight while keeping the energy in the room up.

Currently, my days look a little different. I usually have one or two Zoom calls with clients. I am working on a virtual workshop for the teams that are all working remotely.

I am also spending a lot of time writing. I try to keep my working hours limited through the day to the same time daily. I like to be in my office from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

My current role does allow for a tremendous amount of flexibility. Of course now, remote working is essential. I am a big fan of structure and routine. There is something to be said for building muscle memory.

My routine is very straight forward. I try to do this regardless of where I am in the world. I usually wake up between 5:30 and 6:00am. I grab coffee, go through my email, read the headlines and do the New York Times crossword puzzle.

I also spend time writing in my journal. I feel like that wakes my brain. I get to my office at 8:30am. Even with working remotely, I still get ready for the day. You never know who you are going to have a video call with.

If I have something scheduled, I will dress accordingly. If not, I am in workout clothes. When I end my day at 12:30, I usually grab some lunch. Now, I try to do this with my two kids who are at home. Grace is 18 and virtually attending Fordham University. Lilly is 16 and is also attending an online school now.

After lunch I do some sort of exercise. We might do family tennis, a run or a bike ride.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I think it has meant different things and has looked very different throughout my career. I remember very early on I would bring my oldest daughter, Emily, to Netscape in her baby carrier and park her in my cube while I worked on something after hours.

I also remember her hanging out with the CTO of Macromedia in his office while the teams were working on Saturdays to get a product launched.

For me there has always been a blending of work and home. My husband and I have also tried to take turns in terms of who is holding the more demanding job. There was a point in time where it was too much and we needed to reset.

For example, I remember one time in particular I was flying to India and he was flying back from China and the kids were being cared for by our Nanny and that made me very anxious. Not because our Nanny wasn’t fully capable and caring, it was more about it not being sustainable for the plan we had for our family.

Throughout the years, we have made trade offs. I have taken steps back in my career purposely because Tim was starting a new company, for example. I have had to resign from a role because of a family illness where I needed to be the primary care giver.

I think the way I have achieved some level of balance is by constantly checking in. I am sure we will have to keep doing that as the economy starts to come online again.

Another thing I try to do is to have family time be family time. I have gotten very good at going off grid. I have also gotten really good at ignoring email after dinner. I think it is important for my teenagers to see that. No devices at dinner is really important to me.

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5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

I think one of the techniques I learned a long time ago was GTD or Getting Things Done by David Allen. I am a huge fan. I am the queen of the todo list. For example, if it is after dinner and something pops in my head or I forgot to do something that day, I will pop it in my Todo Inbox.

The next morning when I am having my coffee and doing my morning routing, I will prioritize it. Because it is part of my routine and I know I have time dedicated to triage it, I don’t get stressed out.

It’s funny because this is how my kids communicate with me. Lilly, my 16 year old daughter asks me to put things on my todo list. I think that is especially important now because everything is so interrupt driven.

Another thing that was a game changer for me a few years ago was getting off social media, specifically FaceBook and Instagram. It gave me so much time and peace of mind back. My anxiety level plummeted after making that decision. You would be amazed at how much time I got back.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I already mentioned Getting Things Done. Marty Cagan’s book Inspired is really important to me. My career has been built on what I have learned from him.

I like Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things. There are so many great books out there. I also love podcasts. One that stands out to me is the NPR podcast by Guy Raz, How I Built This. When I travel it is my goto.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I am a planner. I like to plan out my day. It’s part of what I spend my coffee time doing. I also like doing it before anyone else in the house is up. It’s my me time. Usually when Tim gets up, we check in with each other and discuss our plans.

Also, as a family, we try to do one fun thing together a day. It is usually something we can all look forward to. I also have family dinner on the calendar at the same time every day.

Obviously this will likely change when I start traveling again but I have to say it is my favorite part of this quarantine.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although she has spoken a bit on the subject already. I really think anyone who has raised children while striving to achieve a career goal is interesting to me. I just think it forces you to create some level of balance which is good. Back in my single days, I had a very unhealthy balance.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Just that I believe we can have it all: a fulfilling home life, a thriving career and success. I am just not sure it is possible to have it all at the same time. It’s ok to make trade offs. I also think it evolves over time. I think you just have to keep an eye on it, check in and be humble enough to adjust.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.