Ted Lasso's Guide to Product Leadership

What we can learn from this optimistic soccer coach

Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps product teams get aligned around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.

Happy days folks, happy days! The new season of Ted Lasso kicks off later this week and Meredith and I couldn't be more excited. In anticipation of the premier, we're tearing through a rewatch of the first season to catch ourselves up. If you haven’t watched season 1, you should!

If you're rechecking the description of this newsletter, let me assure you — yes, this is still a newsletter for product leaders. And no, I'm not getting a kickback from Apple to promote one of their shows (though I'll happily take one if it can be arranged). There's a whole lot any leader can learn from Ted Lasso's style of coaching, but there are lessons that are particularly relevant to product leaders.

There is something that really struck me about Ted Lasso, the experienced American football coach who finds himself thrust into leading a run-of-the-mill team in a new country, for a sport he has no experience with — soccer. He's not phased by the fact he's never coached a soccer team before, let alone watched a game — but he has the confidence that he can turn the team around. Why's that? Let's look at what makes Ted Lasso a successful leader and draw some parallels to the product world.

You don't have to be an expert

Ted Lasso barely knows a soccer formation from a Marmite sandwich and doesn't pretend to either. He's open about how little he knows, and is willing to listen and learn from those who are more knowledgeable. He knows faking it doesn't build trust, doesn't make you look smart, nor does it work.

Great product leaders know they don't have to be experts in a particular subject matter to be successful. That's why you see product leaders move comfortably from one industry to another, because the relevance isn't in the subject, but the understanding of the process and the people that make it work. When expertise is needed, they turn to those with the know-how.

Run experiments to help you make decisions

Ted's no dummy. While he seeks feedback and advice from others, he's not willing to bet the farm in one shot, no matter how good an idea sounds. On a new idea he's quick to hear it out, but he needs to evaluate it before committing to it.

"We're gonna try it on and see if it fits. It might not." — Ted Lasso

Creating a culture of experimentation is a corner stone of a successful product leader. Blindly saying yes or no to ideas without examining evidence gets many organizations into rough waters. Testing doesn't have to be slow or expensive, and nor does it go against progress or innovation. It's the path to it. It's also just a smart use of resources.

Plan for outcomes and be flexible on how you get there

Ted Lasso has a goal to build a solid team. To achieve that goal he is continuously adapting his approach as more information is made available to him. The more he learns, the more he fine tunes his approach, or realizes he has to try a different angle altogether. To do this successfully he reminds others that change is worth embracing, even if it's uncomfortable.

Product leaders know that getting too attached to a solution can blind your judgement in achieving the outcomes that matter most. This means accepting that some things won't work out and that it can be more useful to alter course than to keep going in the wrong direction. A comfort with flexibility is necessary and will make you stronger.

Teamwork makes the dream work

We've been over the fact Ted Lasso is no soccer expert. If his expertise isn't in the knowledge of the game, then what is it? It's understanding people. His processes and methods all revolve around understanding people so that he can create a unified team. He goes beyond individual motivations, diving into how a group functions together — where it is strong and where it is weak.

We often overlook the people side of product leadership. We stress the need in understanding customers and users, but great product leaders understand their teams to a greater degree. You are there to guide a path forward to a successful product and to do that you need to guide the people who will actually make that happen. Product leadership has nothing to do with sitting in an ivory tower that others aspire to one day join. It's about creating a culture that promotes transparent acknowledgment of strengths and weaknesses so that the entire team can work together towards a common goal.

Be vulnerable and show others you're human

Ted Lasso's optimism isn't impervious. It cracks, and he lets others see it. Rather than it being something that shocks his team into seeing a great person fail — it does the opposite. It makes Ted more human, and makes them like him more. In Ted, they begin to see more of themselves.

To be a great leader, you need to show you don't always know the path forward. You can't always have the answers. Creating the expectation that you do is one that is doomed to fail, and yet, some try. If you want to truly build a connection with your team and with your customers, showing your own faults and weaknesses can go a long way into building meaningful relationships.

If there's one thing that you can take from this post, it's that you should watch Ted Lasso. If there are two things, then the other is that product leadership requires us to embrace our imperfections. Ted Lasso has a quiet confidence to him that can be easily misinterpreted as blind confidence. It's a confidence found in someone that has a proven, yet adaptable process, is excited and optimistic for the outcomes, and is accepting of setbacks as a natural part of any journey.

We are imperfect beings. Rather than using that as a disadvantage, it's actually our super power. Accepting the imperfection, the need for change, and the difficulty that awaits us, means we'll be better prepared for the curveballs that will undoubtedly come our way. As much as we want to control outcomes and anticipate all scenarios, we can’t — so we need to seek the help of others, be adaptable, and believe that we can do it.

And remember, as Ted Lasso says:

“Hey, takin’ on a challenge is a lot like ridin’ a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”

Thank you for coming to my Ted talk (groan, sorry, I had to).