What do some of the best product leaders you’ve worked with look like?

Albert Hardy
Product Team Tonic
Published in
4 min readNov 7, 2021

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Have you ever wondered or if you’re hiring — what are the key things to look out for in a product leader that will help create the impact you’re looking for?

Scribed Board from the session

Product leadership is hard. Books have been written how top product managers launch awesome products and build successful teams. But rightly noted: what gets you to a senior product manager, won’t make you successful as a product leader. With changing expectation in an (increasingly) uncertain world, product leaders must evolve and adapt.

And so, this topic attracts me because the conversations and stories about what remain important and relevant come directly from product practitioners in the regions. Here’s what I learned:

Champion Product Management cause

  • Product Leaders (PL) bridge the context from management — They help connect the dots — guide members to do the right thing, the right way by identifying high value activities and clarifying priorities of companies
  • Empower members with the right processes and tools to make the work sustainable — recognizing the need for research and learning from data
  • Evangelize the role of Product Management in creating values — not just end up as project manager / coordinator

Build support and trust across different part of organisations

  • Being clear of intention and strategy to adopt (what the team will and will not do)
  • Model behavior: empathy, vulnerabilities and prioritisation
  • Willingness to be vulnerable about weaknesses and gap (instead of being know-it-all),
  • Willingness to request for collaboration / support from others,
  • Willingness to bring the right skills into the process (incl. from outside if necessary) and to embrace difficult conversations
  • Demonstrate commitment to “I mean what I say”

Hold the vision and clarity for both team and product

  • PL is akin to the captain of a ship — he keeps the long term outcome in mind, holds steady the course, removes blockers and enables the team to do the work.
  • Communicate clear and coherent vision to shape the product and inspire team in the organisation: Good PL is able to both go high to share vision and go low to work with the team overcome challenges

Identify and fill the gap

  • PL jobs are seldom fully captured in job descriptions (JD) and companies may not voice the “gaps” very clearly. Effective Prod Leader often steps outside JD: taking initiative to listen to different voices, gathering data and having that hard conversation with the leadership team on areas they can contribute and areas where they need more support to get things done (try to find the gaps and consider whether you can help solve them before joining as new Product Leader)
  • Example of those gaps: craft, practices, strategy, vision, people and teams, who may care about different things from what PL has in mind.
  • Good PL can make the team feels being heard by creating space for conversations and facilitating a collaborative process instead of mandating strategy (e.g. use Open Space, consider Whole Group Process from 8 Patterns of Open Business Agility)
  • Good PL also bring into discussion “Working Agreement” of team members (not just identifying Goals & OKRs) to establish alignment, build consensus for ownership

Have the guts to ask hard questions

  • Be aware that PL may be given seemingly clear briefs which results in a unhappy situation when the update is not aligned with management’s preconceived solutions.
  • Good PL will have the courage to ask hard questions to management (e.g. “What is the question you’re not asking me?”) about things that they may not tell you upfront.

Become multiplier for the teams

  • PL does not create value alone, but maximise chances for success. The value add they create comes from the team (the people they inspire, the work they do)

Reflecting above notes, this would be my personal takeaways:

Leader is of service to others — Have the courage, humility and willingness to bring clarity and create capacity for the team to flourish

highlighting 3 guiding principles:

  • Clarity — Even if the original vision is given, as a PL you have to bring clarity : clear view of meaning, purpose and direction. Only then, teams and individuals can make better choices for the product and themselves.
  • Capacity —The essence of leadership is, among others, to bring out the best in people.
  • Courage — This is about our willingness to (respectfully) question old beliefs and what we’ve assumed is true as well as humility to embrace our human vulnerability, i.e. to show up and face “fear of the unknown”.

The most effective leadership today — at all levels — isn’t about technical expertise and having all the answers — it’s about being human, showing vulnerability, connecting with people, and being able to unleash their potential — Leaders, Stop Trying to Be Heroes

This is a summary reflection for Product Tonic Unconference 2021 that took place on 23 Oct 2021. The sessions were facilitated through Open Space Technology (OST) and was attended by over participants working in the Product space.

Thank you to all participants who shared their learning goals to help all of us become better product leaders.

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