What It Means to Be a Product Leader

The best product managers are also great leaders. They have to be great leaders if they want to create an inspiring vision, rally their teams, and pursue massive opportunities. So what does it mean to be a Product Leader?

Product Leadership consists of three pillars:

  • Operational leadership
  • People leadership
  • Thought leadership

Operational Leadership

Simply put, operational leadership is about having impact. It’s about execution, about getting the most important stuff done.

At the foundation of operational leadership is problem-solving. PMs are constantly solving problems — deciding which customers to serve, which needs are important, which capabilities to use, which product bets to make. Each of these decisions is an exercise in problem-solving. “With my limited eng and design resources, what product features will I fund to have the greatest possible impact?” As issues crop up during the product delivery process — new requirements, implementation challenges, competitor moves — PMs lead their teams to solve these problems as they arise. When attacking a broad, open-ended problem, great PMs take a structured, hypothesis-driven approach and quickly focus on the main drivers.

Great operational product leaders are data-driven, grasp the details, and make wise decisions. They have an uncanny ability to prioritize — to separate the important from the low-impact.

They take accountability for the success and the impact of their product. They bring a healthy urgency to solving problems and shipping product, and they demonstrate strong work ethic. They are able to manage projects well — sequence and track milestones, anticipate and resolve issues, and communicate updates and decisions.

It’s critical that PMs tie their product activities to metrics that help move the business forward. The metrics could be related to customer adoption, product usage, or revenue. This metrics-orientation is what enables PMs to prioritize effectively, and also showcase the impact that their products are having.

As PMs become more senior, they take on more scope and have even more impact. Their products move even more critical metrics for the company, and their impact extends beyond their own company to the broader market.

In addition to delivering impact for their own product area, great operational leaders advocate and sponsor process improvements to help their team and the company to become more effective and efficient.

People Leadership

It’s not enough to demonstrate operational excellence — great PMs have to be able to influence teams and bring people along with them. That’s where people leadership comes in.

The hallmarks of people leadership are the three C’s: collaboration, communication, and coaching.

Collaboration means meeting commitments, respecting others, and finding common ground. I wrote extensively about this in my post “Works Well with Others.” Good collaborators builds trust with their teams, and set the stage for the team working in unison.

Communication encompasses both written and verbal communication. Great communicators are structured, crisp, and articulate in their thinking, writing, and speaking. They know how to customize their communication depending on the audience and the situation. With execs, for example, they hit the most important points, create memorable phrases and sound bytes, and save details for later. With engineers, they focus on the “why” as much as the “what.”

The best people leaders have gravitas and presence: they are able to command attention and respect from others, either in a small meeting or large group presentation. And they are consummate public speakers: they can stand in front of a large audience, make a persuasive pitch, and motivate their listeners to take action.

Coaching and mentoring are important elements of people leadership for all PMs, from an entry level PM to an executive leading a large team. The easiest way for PMs to coach and mentor others is by sharing their expertise and domain knowledge with their team of engineers and designers. And the PM should be the expert in customer needs and the competitive landscape. So by teaching others and sharing knowledge, the PM effectively becomes an informal mentor.

As PMs become more senior, the coaching extends to more junior PMs and engineers on the broader team. PMs can provide effective feedback to improve both individual and team performance. As PM leaders begin to manage other PMs, they develop their team by helping them to build the skills, experiences, and confidence to take on greater scope and impact themselves.

Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is all about strategy, creativity and vision.

Thought leaders think strategically and holistically about a market opportunity. They have a deep understanding of customer needs and market trends. They develop hypotheses about where the market is, and critically, where it’s going. They synthesize customer needs, and develop unique insights that others may not see. These unique insights often form the basis of competitive advantage.

In addition to anticipating customer needs (current and future), PM thought leaders have an appreciation for the competitive landscape. They understand who the direct and the indirect competitors are. They know the relative strengths and weaknesses of each competitor. They are able to connect the dots between competitor moves to predict where the competition is going.

Finally, PM thought leaders understand what makes their own company unique and differentiated. “What does our company excel at, what unique assets do we have, what do we stand for in our customers minds?”

The best thought leaders then synthesize their knowledge of customers and the market; their understanding of competitors and the landscape; and their beliefs about the company’s unique capabilities and core competencies. They use this synthesized perspective to develop a strategic vision.

To develop the vision, PMs have to be creative and imaginative. They have to think differently than others, and imagine a future that others are not yet able to see. Their vision paints a picture of what the world can look like when their products have hit the market. The most compelling visions tackle enormous problems, challenge the status quo, and have transformative impact.

How It All Fits Together

Great product leaders exhibit three kinds of leadership: Operational, People, and Thought Leadership. None of these forms of leadership are mutually exclusive — in fact, the best product leaders are able to create mutually reinforcing benefits from each.

For example, a PM leader who excels at Operational Leadership and has huge impact, builds the credibility to influence others via People Leadership.

Similarly, a PM leader who demonstrates Thought Leadership with a clear and compelling vision can inspire teams to follow her, resulting in People Leadership. As she expands the scope of her People Leadership, she is able to motivate large teams to tackle enormous problems and ship amazing products, resulting in Operational Leadership.

The best product leaders bring together all three aspects of leadership — Operational, People, and Thought Leadership — in order to have transformative impact. And that’s the kind of impact that all product leaders aspire to have.

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