Elise Tropiano begins most days pushing a jogging stroller and trying on a three-year-old’s perspective of the world.
“We bond in that early morning time. We observe butterflies and tulips sprouting in early spring,” explains Elise of her routine, which happens even when the Chicago mornings are cold ones.
It’s good practice for what the Product Director at legal and compliance technology company Relativity spends her workday doing: taking in information from various sources and creating a unified vision of where to go next.
We sat down with Elise to hear more about what a day in the life as a PM at Relativity looks like, as well as how she got into the field and how she measures the impact she’s making on it.
Embracing the Chance to Control a Product’s Destiny
“I, like a lot of product managers, landed in this discipline almost through serendipity,” reflects Elise, who pursued a psychology major as part of a liberal arts education.
She almost went into clinical psychology, having been inspired by the way that psychological research explored the differences in the human psyche.
“I came away from it recognizing that people’s personality compasses are so multifaceted. There are so many different levers that go into motivation and decision-making and the way individuals act, behave, and learn,” says Elise.
That appreciation for the differences in people certainly helps now that she’s a manager of three other product managers, notes Elise, but it was useful even before she expanded her career into leadership, too.
Elise started her professional journey at a rotational program at a large financial company, where she was first exposed to customer support. She found that she really enjoyed creating relationships with customers and solving their problems.
But she wished she could go beyond fixing the case at hand. “A lot of the problems could only be fixed through changes in the product itself,” she says. That’s when Elise raised her hand for a role in product management. “It came from a desire to have greater control over the destiny of a product that customers were engaging in.”
Finding Her Path to Relativity
While she’d found her ideal career, Elise realized she wanted to work at a smaller company with a mission she felt more connected to. That’s when she found Relativity.
“I was really drawn to the work they do, which was to use technology to identify what happened in the context of a legal matter that is potentially instrumental to changing legal case outcomes,” explains Elise.
She started at Relativity as a product manager, and now leads other product managers across Relativity’s suite of products.
Those include various tools that together provide end-to-end support for litigation, including AI-based search and review tools. “The value that these capabilities deliver is in massive reductions in the time and costs that typically go into a litigation review,” she says.
And Elise loves that she’s not alone in caring about her company's products or the impact they make on their customers.
“I love working here because all of Relativity is so intrinsically devoted to building a product that helps our customers with their legal or investigative work,” she says. She sees it every day, including in the customer calls she regularly joins, and also in special moments like Relativity’s week-long hackathons, where engineers, product managers, designers, and others come together to work on new ideas with true enthusiasm.
“It’s such an emblematic signal of this passion that all of our teams have. We’re so excited to experiment with something that has some tie to a business need,” she says.
3 Ways Product Managers Can Make an Impact in Their Work
As a product manager, Elise spends a lot of time roadmapping. What’s the future vision for this product? How can engineering and design proposals come together into a proposal that works for everyone?
“Our role is to provide clarity around what impact we should deliver at the end of the day,” she says. And she’s given us a few tips on how other product managers can maximize their own impact:
- Embrace “ruthless prioritization.” “There’s never any shortage of ideas to ponder, or things to bring into the roadmap. You can very easily chase something that is just not part of your critical path. When you’re thinking about the roadmap, remember that no more than a few things can be done exceedingly well,” says Elise.
- Spend 80% of your time understanding the problem. “Then the solution will come much more quickly,” says Elise. “Ask, ‘Why did we get here? What is the problem that our customers are really feeling that they’re demanding a solution to?’ It’s easy to just start throwing things at the solution basket, but it’s better to understand the problem.”
- Don’t forget the importance of communication. “Product managers are the center of disciplines that learn differently. Your role is to enable all of them. That means you need to understand who you are speaking to, where they are coming into the conversation from, and how to speak to them in a way that resonates,” says Elise. “For example, the way I speak to an engineer is way different from how I speak to a designer, which is way different from how I speak to an executive. It’s such an important thing, especially as you extend your career and can do less by yourself and need to enable others. That’s rooted back in good communication.”
Karen Klein wrote her first contract when she was 11.
It laid out how much allowance she would earn for completing certain chores each week. When she got her parents to sign it, she told them that she was going to be a lawyer when she grew up.
A decade and a half later, her mom brought out that piece of paper again—this time as a gift for Karen’s law school graduation.
Since then, Karen has written and reviewed a lot more contracts, as well as merger and acquisition deals, IPOs, and internal documents responding to regulatory bodies, including as the current Chief Legal Officer at global legal and compliance technology company Relativity.
While she set out on the path to be a lawyer of her own volition—“I was really good at arguing, and it got me into a lot of trouble at school, so maybe that’s where it came from!” she says, smiling—her career hasn’t been entirely self-directed. Karen attributes a lot of her success to having people believe in her and invest in her career, and we sat down with her to hear more about how she found those mentors and how she pays back their guidance by being a mentor herself.
In-House and On a Team
After finishing law school, Karen started her career at a law firm. That’s where she found her first mentor in one of the partners she worked for.
“I spent 90% of my time working for him, and he was a mentor before I even knew what a mentor was,” she says. “He not only assigned me great work, but he took the extra time to put things in context. After a meeting or a call, he’d sit and talk with me about what had happened, why the client asked the things that they did, why they were concerned, and ask for my perspective.”
Karen credits that mentor with helping her level up from being a person who executes well on tasks to being a person who understands strategically what needs to be done and why it matters. That knowledge set her up well for her next career step.
Even before joining the firm, Karen knew she’d one day like to move in-house. A self-proclaimed “deal junkie,” her favorite projects were ones that had her learn a lot about a client and their business in order to prepare a deal for them. “But then you wouldn’t hear from the client till the next deal, and I was like, ‘Well, I learned all about their business—I want to apply those things now,’” she says.
Being in-house would also let Karen fulfill what she describes as an inherited drive to build a business. “My parents owned and ran a construction company, and it stuck with me. I saw the stress that owning your own business created, but that mentality of building something and being part of something spoke to me,” she says. “The pride in helping to build something, that was enduring, and influenced me in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time.”
So when Larry—who was in-house counsel at a Chicago-based tech company, her then-firm’s largest client—called Karen and asked her if she’d like to join him there, she immediately said yes, though she did tell him that she knew little to nothing about technology.
“‘That’s okay,’” Karen remembers him saying. “‘You’re smart, you understand contracts and liability. We can teach you the tech part.’”
And teach her he did. That first move led to Karen spending 17 years in travel tech, including at places like Orbitz, Kayak, HotelTonight. Other general counsel she worked with became additional mentors, helping her come up the curve on regulatory issues and how to build a team.
A Full Circle Moment
When Relativity came calling, Karen had joined Ticketmaster only a year before, and was planning to stay there for the remainder of her career. It was pre-pandemic, and she was happy with the challenges and the teams she was building. She took a meeting with Relativity’s CEO just to get to know him as someone influential in the Chicago tech community that Karen so valued, and that was the beginning of her new job at Relativity.
“Once you meet Mike, you want to work with Mike,” says Karen, laughing. “It had this pull of nostalgia, that I could round out my career coming back to a Chicago software company, which is how I started out in-house. There were all these exciting things in store for the company, and it seemed right.”
Karen’s actual transition took a little longer—the pandemic had started, and she didn’t want to leave her team in its first few chaotic months—but she officially joined Relativity a year and a half ago, and now serves as its Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary.
3 Lessons and 4 Tips for Mentorship
Reflecting on her career, Karen says she’s learned three main lessons from all the mentors that have guided her:
- How to embrace feedback. “I have some rough edges, and I had a CEO say to me once, ‘You know, Karen, you’re really effective, but you could be even more effective if…’” she says. “And that made me feel inspired to actually do better.”
- How to get outside of her comfort zone. Multiple mentors have told Karen she was ready to learn something new long before she knew that herself. “It was inspiring to me that he was willing to invite me along,” she says of one general counsel she worked for who gave her the opportunity to sit second chair while he navigated antitrust issues for the company.
- How to have faith in herself. “Everyone has to do something for the first time at some point,” says Karen of her fear of making the leap to senior positions like General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer. “Having people who put that faith and trust in me really helped me make leaps in my career I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make.”
Though she’s now reached an apex in her career, Karen isn’t above seeking out new mentors—including her peers, like other executives at Relativity—and is certainly excited about being able to pay forward all that she’s learned. Her top tips for making the most of a mentorship relationship include:
- Build relationships everywhere. Finding mentors is all about having a connection with people, says Karen. “Trust lets you be comfortable reaching out and asking for that bit of advice, or to bounce ideas off of someone,” she says. “Whether you jump on the phone, or Slack someone, you want a connection that isn’t 100% about the transactional aspects of the work.”
- Agree on the goal. “Establish upfront what you both want from the relationship. What are you seeking from it? What will be in it for them?” she says. “Sometimes people are looking for a place to vent, but that’s not really mentorship.”
- Treat mentorship like a project. That means come prepared with agendas for every meeting, advises Karen. “I’m a list person, so I’ve written down lists of things I wanted some feedback on, or questions I had,” she says. “Of course, leave time for relationship building, to talk about how someone’s life is going. But have specific things that you’re hoping to get out of even a more casual conversation.”
- Circle back and share successes. “One of the biggest satisfactions mentors get is seeing career progressions,” says Karen. “When you make the next step or leap in your career, or something good happens, have a conversation with your mentor to say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate the time you spent with me; here’s what came of it.’ It gives your mentor their own career satisfaction and continual feedback we all want and need.”
💎 Looking for ways to improve your customer experience? Tune in to catch three top tips to boost your client support skills!
📼 Press PLAY to hear tips from Carolyn VanderMolen, Manager of Customer Support at Relativity. She mastered these customer experience skills during her tenure in customer support.
📼 Tip #1: Practice Clear Communication - The first of Carolyn's top tips to deliver the best customer experience is to practice clear communication. A crucial part of that is active listening. You'll increase the chance of hearing and effectively solving your customers' real problems, resulting in happier customers! Use phrases like "let me make sure I've got this right". Make sure you repeat the problem back in your own words to show you understand. If you're the product expert, you should be able to discuss features and use cases in an insightful way and show your customers how the product can benefit them.
📼 Tip #2: Lead With Empathy - Empathy will improve your customer experience by helping to create solutions that all parties are happy with (and offering a memorable experience!). A certain phrase here and there can make customers feel more at ease. For example: "I know how important this issue is to you", or "Of course! We'll solve it as quickly as possible". Don't miss Carolyn's 3-step method to stay consistent in tone and process.
One Last Key Tip To Boost Your Customer Experience Skills
The third tip is to maintain a positive attitude! What does Carolyn mean by that? In today's world, most customer interactions are not face-to-face. When handling customer requests via telephone, a smile can come through in your tone of voice!
📨 Are you interested in joining Relativity? They have open positions! To learn more, click here.
Get to Know Carolyn
Carolyn is an experienced Information Technology Support Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the computer software industry. Skilled in Microsoft and Windows Administration platforms, Technical Support Management, VoIP, user-facing IT Support, and Customer Satisfaction, she's a strong information technology professional, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) focused in Psychology from DePaul University.
More About Relativity
Headquartered in Chicago with offices around the world, Relativity creates intuitive software that helps law firms, government agencies, financial institutions, and other major corporations quickly find the truth in data. The company journey began in the e-discovery space and evolved to develop broader legal and compliance SaaS solutions like RelativityOne and Relativity Trace.
Its 1,200+ employees have worked to grow the organization and the power behind its platform, resulting in more than 300,000 enabled users in 48+ countries. In addition to providing a simply powerful platform for their users, Relativity has been named one of Chicago's Top Workplaces by the Chicago Tribune for 10 consecutive years and continues to scale their team globally. As the company grows, they continue to seek individuals that will bring their whole, authentic self to their team.
Join Relativity in the transformation of the legal industry and play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the practice of law and beyond. The company doesn't believe in 'ideal' candidates, so if you see a job that sparks your interest, go for it! Wherever you're from, however you identify, and whatever experience you have, you can belong at Relativity.
There's a phrase in her native Polish that Monika Wąż reminds herself of each day: "If you don't learn, you're just going backward."
The Associate Product Manager at legal and compliance technology company Relativity says she would believe in a growth-centered approach to work even if she wasn't in the tech field, but that it's especially important because she is.
"Technology is changing all the time; there are more and more people learning new skills each day, and you need to keep up," she says.
Yes, that can sound overwhelming. But if you're Monika, it also sounds incredibly motivating.
"Continuing to learn at work is important to me because my job is something I really enjoy and I don't feel that my work is just about finishing tasks in a day," she says. "I don't want to spend eight, nine hours a day doing something I don't like and that's never been the case while I've worked at Relativity."
We sat down with Monika to hear more about how she built her confidence, how that confidence helped her find her dream career, and how she's paying it forward now.
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
Monika's first role at Relativity was in technical support.
She'd come into tech indirectly, having completed a master's in economics and working in a few administrative roles where she interfaced with tech companies when licensing their software. Early in her career, she says she was always the "Go-to IT person who helped with Outlook or Word" and that it was those earlier experiences that showed her she was really interested in how technology worked.
So, after doing some postgrad studies in SQL and database management, she took a job in technical support at Relativity because she thought they had the best product and culture of all the companies that had extended offers to her. "I felt that they really cared, I wasn't just another resume to them," she says. "Even in the interview, they took the time to show me how they worked, and I quickly felt like part of the company."
But even though she was qualified for the role, Monika initially struggled with her confidence.
"When I joined, I had a lot of doubts about myself, my knowledge, if I was the right person," she says. "At first, I wasn't confident taking customer calls. I wanted to provide the best support possible to clients, but I worried that I may not have all the right answers. Thanks to my awesome manager back then, I realized that I had time and space to learn, and that Relativity would support me."
That support included English lessons and trips to Relativity's Chicago headquarters for in-depth training and teambuilding. "At the beginning, it was really hard for me to speak up, especially in bigger meetings when you have a lot of people, mostly who were native English speakers," she says.
That changed as she started taking the language lessons and saw how her coworkers embraced everything she brought to the table. She focused on one thing at a time, and eventually grew comfortable taking phone calls with customers and talking in big meetings.
"At Relativity, I found that if they didn't understand something I said, they always asked and tried to make sure that I felt comfortable, that I know my English is not a problem here, that we are all here to serve our clients and try to do everything to support everyone," says Monika.
"No one is reading your mind"
A couple years into her Relativity career, Monika had a realization.
Her favorite part of her support role was problem-solving. But all of the fixes she was creating for clients were short-term – she wanted to create a lasting impact and solve longer-term problems.
"I started thinking, 'How can we continue to make improvements to make the product the best it can be?'" she says.
Initially, she felt a bit of fear come back when thinking about taking on a new challenge, but Monika squashed it and decided to talk to her manager and to Relativity's product team about roles in product. She also took online courses on product management.
A few months after she'd started talking to the product team—with the approval of her then-manager, who fully supported her transition to a new role—Monika interviewed for a job as an Associate Product Manager, which she got. "They saw potential in me, and they saw that my knowledge from support about the product would be really useful on the product team as well," she says.
Now, Monika speaks with customers regularly, but on more strategic product improvements to make Relativity's offerings more intuitive, more relevant and more helpful to their needs.
"I'm an example of how Relativity gives you space to grow in your career," reflects Monika, who hopes other people will follow suit. "If you're interested in something, just ask! Ask for advice, show you want to move somewhere, because no one is reading your mind, and you won't move forward if you don't try!"
One golden rule for your career
Monika's advice for people considering big career changes is fairly straightforward: don't be afraid to ask, don't be afraid to try, and make sure you listen, not just talk, as you navigate your different options.
All of that boils down to her own golden rule: be the type of coworker that you'd like to have.
Whether that means answering questions from a coworker who's curious about your team, volunteering on a new project to help someone out, or giving advice to new hires, Monika stresses how a good company culture that supports growth and learning requires each individual to make time to help others, even when they don't feel like experts themselves.
And solidifying her own confidence in her work has allowed Monika to reach out to help others, too, whether in support, product, or other parts of the company.
"In general, people want to help," she says. "Sometimes people think they can be mentors to others only when they know everything. But there's always someone with less experience, someone younger, someone newer on the job, and we can teach them how to do their job better or give them advice! Pay forward your knowledge to help others succeed and achieve their career goals."