New Book on Product Leadership

Product Leadership: How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams

We’ve written a book for product leaders. It’s a book that’s long overdue. I’ve had the pleasure of writing this book alongside the genius of Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw. It’ll be published by O’Reilly in late Spring and we’ll be doing an official book launch at the Mind The Product event in San Francisco on June 13th 2017. If you’d like to pre-order or get updates, that info is at the bottom of this article.

The Pain and Frustrations are Real

“I don’t know what we should be focusing on?”

“How do I know if I’m a good leader?”

“How am I supposed to get product shipped when I don’t have any authority?”

“I’m spending all my time managing people, which is the last thing I thought I’d be doing.”

If this sounds familiar then you’re not alone. We’ve been hearing complaints and concerns like this for years. Product managers, who had been product designers or engineers just a few years before, were now struggling with the demands of managing others.

In 2015 I wrote Design Leadership (published by O’Reilly) and the stories were the strikingly similar. Designers had grown into leadership roles and many felt terribly unprepared. Some felt like imposters. Product managers and leaders are no different. We’ve collected advice, insights and ideas from some of the top product professionals in the world. We’re stoked to start sharing it with you.

Below are a few selected excerpts from the book to whet your palette.

Not New, Just Newly Visible

For the uninitiated it might seem like product leaders are a relatively new animal in the jungle of software product design and development. The truth is they have quietly been making digital organizations successful for decades. What is new, is the popularity of the product leader and the attention their work is attracting. We’ve seen product leadership in many forms over the years, but it’s not until recently that the role of Product Leader has become recognized in the realm of digital products. This leadership role is sometimes different from the product manager role. The do not always manage others and often their contribution looks decidedly like other executive jobs — guiding the broader organization along a path, not focused on group tasks. Reminiscent of executive leadership, the best product leaders come from a wide range of backgrounds and are forged in their environment, learning on the job and through the experience of their company and the market.

The authors of this book feel that there is a real challenge ahead for product leaders. The most pressing one being, that of identity. As mentioned above, leadership is not the same as management. In our current product environment, we need better leaders, not just better managers. This is true of the product roles too. We have found in our experience that there is too much emphasis on creating, training and hiring product managers and not enough on leadership. This is apparent in the significant amount of literature and commentary that is available on the rise of the product manager, with very little attention given to the leadership role. Technical product roles are well described and documented while leadership roles in product organizations remain fuzzy and ill-defined. The purpose of this book is to clarify this ambiguity and expose the characteristics of great product leadership.

What makes Product Leadership Unique

Product leadership “Has a lot in common with all types of leadership roles, which is simply that your day-to-day execution work becomes less important than how you actually lead a team to accomplish something” says Mina Radhakrishnan, the first Head of Product at Uber. That difference between how much you do as a person, versus how much you enable others to do what they do is a common factor across all leadership roles, whether it’s product leadership, or marketing leadership, or engineering leadership.

“But the difference with product leadership is that it becomes especially important to focus on strategy, and to really think about how all of the different elements come together to have a cohesion with the company strategy. Essentially the product strategy is the company strategy” she adds. Ultimately a product leader is responsible for that product strategy but can’t build anything by themselves. They are part of something larger than themselves. They have to lead engineering, marketing, design, etc towards that company strategy, all without the executive authority common to senior leadership roles.

The book explores this tension between technical and soft skills. In what seems like an eternal battle of what to focus on, we ask leaders how they find time to master their craft and learn to manage their teams. There is no single answer, no elixir to the problem, but our interviews reveal strategies and solutions that product leaders can experiment with and ultimately implement.

Managing Living Breathing Products

Once the product is out there in the big wide world the product leader finds yet another pull on their attention. The Product Manager is going to be spending their time poring over data again. They’re watching how customers use the product, going out and talking to customers about the product. Generally eating, sleeping and breathing the product.

Did it solve the right problem? Do the customers understand the product’s value? Is it solving their problem? Will they pay for the product? Then they do it all over again. When done optimally, this is not a waterfall process. There is too much to be gained from iterating in short cycles. In larger product organizations with mature product lines, the product managers and leaders are probably not doing these things step by step for just one product or feature. They’re doing this for a dozen products or features at any one time, all at different stages in their life cycle, switching from strategy to tactics in the blink of an eye.

Mina Radhakrishnan says “A lot of people say the product manager is like the CEO, or the captain of the ship. I don’t really think of it that way, because when you describe things like that it makes it seem as though you’re making the decisions, or you’re driving how everything works together.” For Radhakrishnan and the hundreds of senior product leaders just like her, the reality is very different. “To me the product manager is really the person who works with everybody else to define and say, ‘This is how this things should work, and this is why it should work in that way.’”

“Product management is the glue that holds together all the various functions and roles across a company that speak different languages” adds Ken Norton, Product Partner at GV (previously called Google Ventures), “it’s like the universal communicator in Star Trek. A hub of communication between all these different groups. A product isn’t going to be successful without that glue holding those teams together.” This underlines the greatest challenge for product managers — that the job is not just about the hard skills outlined above, but almost more so about the soft skills of persuasion, storytelling, vision setting, and communication. Great product leaders need to present and communicate their ideas to others in clear, concise ways. These often overlooked soft skills are critical to any leader but even more so in the life of a Product Leader.

What do Product Managers Worry About?

In a recent Mind the Product survey, 49% product managers said that their foremost challenge is being able to conduct proper market research to validate whether the market truly needs what they’re building. When we look at only the responses from enterprise software PMs, this figure jumps up to 62%. That means that a massive 2/3rds of enterprise product leaders are currently worrying about which projects to cut and which to keep. In a word, prioritization.

Extrapolating from this, an enterprise product leader will have to dedicate a significant amount of their time to communicating to others that their projects won’t be in the next product release. That’s a lot of tough conversations and a lot of unhappy people. If it sounds stressful, you’re right. Nothing is more stressful than having to make tough decisions and then communicate those decisions to potentially disappointed people.

That’s not the only thing that keeps product professionals tossing and turning at night. Hiring the right talent. Training those people and bringing a coherent team together might be a contender for prioritization as the number one headache. Depending on the stage of the organization, finding the right team can be the most challenging part of the job. If that isn’t enough to give product leaders hives they still need to manage ‘up’ to their executive teams and investors while herding the cats on partner team projects. Fortunately this isn’t new for the people we interviewed and their advice might give you the first good night’s sleep since you took the reins of your product organization.

Evaluating the Success of Your Work

Success is subjective but the accuracy of how it’s measured is fairly objective. Having a clear set of metrics or criteria that define how your organization is meeting its goals is an essential part of the product manager’s role. For some managers it’ll be reframing business goals into measurable metrics like customer acquisition, net promoter score, and lifetime value. For others, especially those product managers managing complex or mature products, their metrics might be event more granular. Ultimately all metrics should connect to how the product delivers on it’s value proposition. “Customers.” Affirms David Cancel of Drift. “All of our metrics are geared on the customer, and whether that’s usage or activation. Qualitative stuff is actually more important. What we’re hearing from customers. What they’re actually saying. Whether it’s feedback directly when we’re talking to them. We talk to them everyday.”

The idea that measuring success and failure isn’t entirely a quantitative exercise was repeated several times in the interviews. True Ventures’ Design Partner Jeff Veen reaffirmed this trend, “I will agree that in the sort of post Agile-Lean world, I think we were overly quantitative. I just think we’re getting better at it rather than the pendulum swinging back to qualitative.” David Cancel supports this idea of qualitative feedback guiding product decisions, “Any kind of qualitative written, or voice, or visual feedback you have — we’re taking that as understanding. Are we getting closer to solving the pain that they’re having? And then are we starting to do that at scale? And then are we discovering new pains? Then when we invest in that new pain, are we seeing the kind of usage that we think is normal? These might initially be wrong because the use-case might be different. And if we’re wrong, what is the right usage for this thing? We’re constantly looking at all those things at a customer level, at a cohort level, a feature level, and all levels, a plan side level, at a buyer level, or a user level, all these different ways. And all the teams are kind of measured against those customer goals.”

Getting the balance right between qualitative and quantitative, it turns out, is the key to unlocking true customer insight. We can’t emphasize this enough. Neither is more important. Embracing both is the answer. Teams that have been more metrics driven struggle to make the leap to qualitative research driven methods. The reasons behind this struggle appear to be about a resistance to practicing the art of listening.

The excuse that doing this work takes too much time comes up a lot. The solution is to reframe the work of qualitative research as an investment in future time savings. By creating the space to learn how to practice and hone those skills is going to reduce the possibility of future failure. Doing the work upfront though has proven immensely valuable and has a track record of a much better work product. Shipping and then measuring your impact takes a lot of time and effort to get right as an individual and as a team.

We don’t imagine that this book will answer all the questions product leaders have. What we do expect is that it will start a conversation that eventually leads to answers for most of us. If we talk about these things we’ll all get smarter and more confident about our choices.

Be part of the conversation and sign up for updates at our book site.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

You can follow us on the twitters at @rmbanfield @bfgmartin and @nwalkingshaw

The book will be published by O’Reilly and on shelves in May 2017. You can pre-order the book on Amazon or directly from O’Reilly.