When it comes to product management, rookies and seasoned veterans often share one thing in common: they are responsible for successful products yet don’t have authority over individual contributors. To be effective, product managers must learn to influence, and therefore must learn to become leaders. The evolution is one of the most challenging, impactful and satisfying journeys you could ever take. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach and everyone’s experience and circumstances differ, there are some guidelines you can follow. In this article, I’ll provide a quick framework for going beyond just being a product manager, and instead being a product and thought leader.
While there are a lot of conversations regarding the differences between product managers and product owners, I rarely see anyone talking about product leadership. That’s unfortunate because while there are many talented product folks passionately solving big problems at the intersection of business, creativity, engineering, and people, only a few of them are great leaders.
To figure out how to become a better product leader, let us first understand the difference between management and leadership. Peter Drucker, father of modern management theory, offers the best, in my opinion, definition of management vs leadership: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Product managers are given a vision, a team, goals and tools to build and launch great products that, hopefully, will solve problems for customers. Product leaders set the vision, define the direction, influence and inspire others, align and lead teams, and create value that results in transformational change. To join the latter group, master the following tactics.
1. Create value that extends beyond your own team
As product managers, we become so embedded in our own teams and products that we sometimes may not have a clear view of the big picture at the organization and industry level. In this way, we can end up operating within a bubble, counting on our superiors to keep us in sync with the “outside” world. Hence, to become a product leader, start looking beyond your immediate role and try to identify opportunities to create value that can bring a positive change to the entire organization.
One way to approach this task is to start reaching out to and spending time with other teams and product managers. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss big questions about the company’s strategy, spot inefficiencies and think of ways to improve them, connect with colleagues and product leaders outside your organization. For example, you could pilot a design sprint with your team, volunteer to facilitate it for others, get feedback and pioneer it across the entire organization.
2. Learn and get mentored
To learn, grow, and improve we need help from others. The best performers in every field (athletes, artists, business professionals and others) have coaches or mentors who guide them, provide feedback and push them to their limits so that they can become better versions of themselves over time. They learn and practice daily. We, product managers, are no different.
Start with your boss: talk with them about your desire to become a better leader, ask for advice and guidance, inquire about learning opportunities and enroll in a leadership or strategy course. For example, you could take the Disruptive Strategy course online or attend one of the big product conferences. Next, bring takeaways back to your company, share knowledge with others, pilot some of the new tactics you learned with your team, recommend what works to others, get feedback and, with the help of your boss, roll it out to the rest of organization.
3. Become a thought leader
As we live and operate within our own product bubble, it becomes more and more difficult to get out of it and influence folks outside of your team. To make yourself heard and earn reputation as a thought leader, get involved in your local product management or product design community first, then bring your learnings back to the organization. Starting small and working your way up is more accessible than trying to get on the stage of a big industry conference.
Organize or start speaking at your local Product Tank meetup, start sharing industry news and don’t be afraid to express your opinions even if they appear to be unpopular. As long as you are passionate about something and can stand your ground, you’ll earn respect and recognition.
The path to leadership is not a clear one, nor is there a fast track to an overnight transformation. However, with enough determination, awareness, passion and guidance from others you will be in a great position to embark on an exciting journey full of growth, fulfillment and impact — a journey at the end of which there is a natural shift from serving yourself to serving others, from seeing what’s in front of you to identifying what’s next.