Great product leaders have great vision

Today, Trade Me is hosting its first-ever offsite for the newly minted People Leaders Group, made up of the 130-odd people who manage staff at the company. Naturally, one of the main themes of the day is leadership.

One of the best books I’ve read on the topic is called The Leadership Challenge. Since 1982, the two authors of the book have asked people all over the world the same question: What values, personal traits or characteristics do you look for and admire in a leader?

Over 30+ years the data has been strikingly consistent across decades, genders, different types of organisations, and ages. The four most important characteristics of admired leaders is that they are honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. (If you’re interested, here is a TEDx talk on the topic.)

Hopefully most product managers are honest and competent. But being forward-looking and inspiring, those are much harder than the first two. In fact, in the book, they state that “expressing a vision is the most difficult of all the leadership skills”.

And because ‘practice makes perfect’, every three months we ask our Heads of Product to re-articulate their product vision.

It’s funny, you would think the product vision wouldn’t change over such a short timeframe. But every time, the vision seems to get a little bit clearer, and a little more inspiring. Sometimes it’s just a single word that changes, like the Marketplace strategic roadmap review yesterday. (I think this is a really healthy sign: product managers should sweat every single word in a vision statement. Every word ought to fight for its right to belong.) And the good thing is that every time we pick up a vision statement, turn it around and look at it from every angle, it seems that the “most difficult leadership skill” gets a little easier.