PALM – a new leadership model for Product Leaders

Adrienne Tan

Starting any new role can be daunting. Stepping up into a leadership role is especially daunting. Product leadership is made even more challenging, as there are very few models (if any) that cover the complexities and requirements of this -broad role which varies significantly between organisations. Up until now, Product Leaders have had to rely on the approaches and frameworks designed specifically for product managers, which focus more on the technical aspects of the role, or use generic leadership practices that are not always appropriate for the unique experience of being a Product Leader.

Whilst organisations may differ in how they describe the Product Leader role, which is often determined by the stage, size and culture of the business, experience tells us that the role sits at the apex of the operational business. Product Leaders are often seen as both ‘Deliverers and Do-ers’  and so struggle to be seen as strategic and equal partners at the executive table.

This is slowly changing with a call for ‘real’ product leadership that has the capacity to influence and champion a product culture. A culture that sees Product as central to supporting the strategic direction of the business and where Product Leaders’ choices, decisions, and actions, are intrinsic to the achievement or failure of the business.

A new Product Management leadership model

We have developed a new leadership model – the Product Adaptive Leadership Model (PALM) that offers a path for Product Leaders to examine their current practices, apply new ways of solving problems, and improve their product leadership performance.


PALM - Product Adaptive Leadership Model

Designing PALM has brought together years of experience, insight and collective wisdom in the space of Product Management/Development (Brainmates) and Leadership Development (Conversus Leaders). PALM is based on the integration of two distinct and equally important capabilities, mindsets and skillsets:

  • Technical skills – these skills solve known problems using expertise, tools and resources that are already available
  • Adaptive skills – these are the skills needed to manage the more ‘human’ side of the business, where there is a need to explore and often challenge the values, beliefs and habits that impede progress.

This work is based on the Harvard Model of Adaptive Leadership (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky).

How PALM helps you move from Product Management to Product Leadership

As Product Leaders move from managing products to leading people who are managing products, they enter new territory.  This territory needs leaders to combine their technical know-how and expertise with the reflective practices, mindsets and capacity to work with and through their people.

“The most common leadership failure stems from trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.” (Ron Heifetz)

PALM weaves the two skillsets together, recognising that great leadership requires linking and developing the awareness, skills and practice of both.  Product Leaders that master both adaptive and technical skills increase their scope of influence, work across functional boundaries, access necessary resources, and deliver the best possible Product outcome for the business.

PALM describes, connects and enables Product Leaders to manage the technical aspects and adaptive practices simultaneously, with neither being more or less important. As Product Leaders take up their role and assume responsibility for their tasks, they embrace the full spectrum of what it means to be accountable for enabling progress through others. Only by building high performing teams can they deliver on the Product Strategy.

Product Leadership is dynamic and changes frequently. While PALM prescribes a set of core practices and capabilities it recognises that the role of a Product Leader develops in an organic way. The technical and adaptive skills are intrinsically linked in a way that they scaffold the essential set of Product Leadership practices. By applying their technical skills, Product Leaders set the vision and define the direction. By influencing and inspiring others, aligning and leading teams and creating transformational change — they use their adaptive skills.


What technical expertise, resources and toolkits can I bring to this situation AND what do I need to be aware of within myself (behaviours, attitudes, values, assumptions) and others (skills, talents, personalities, dynamics) that could enable progress?

The 7 key practices for Product Leadership excellence

PALM suggests that aspiring Product Leaders need to use both technical and adaptive skills to master the 7 Key Practices that are necessary for success. These are:

  1. Self-awareness. Building a practice of self-reflection to confront, acknowledge and shape a personal Product leadership style.
  2. Strategising and planning. Discovering, co-designing and developing collective accountability for delivering products that achieve the company’s strategic goal
  3. Resourcing and staffing. Articulating and structuring a high-performing, successful Product team.
  4. Enabling and empowering teams and individuals. Developing a learning culture to maximise team potential.
  5. Market sensing. Observing and responding to the changes and the challenges the market presents for new and existing Products.
  6. Communicating Product impact. Getting the right level of attention on the issues that matter through effective communication with all stakeholders.
  7. Championing Product culture. Influencing the organisational culture and transforming established practices into Product-led behaviours.

Leadership is less about what you produce on your own and more about how you go about enabling others to do their best work. Leadership is really about the human condition.

Specific Product leadership challenges

Leaders are only successful when they adapt to suit the organisation they practise in. For Product Leaders there are specific challenges, both opportunities and constraints, which they may come across in their organisation. These include:

  • Having responsibility for Product outcomes, but limited authority over individual contributors.
  • Needing to get the best out of multidisciplinary teams with different backgrounds, perspectives and needs.
  • Needing to cross organisational boundaries (siloes) to enable different organisational divisions to work collaboratively for success.
  • Working in a structure with blurred reporting relationships.
  • Holding multiple roles, as both an expert contributor and a leader.
  • Managing teams that have been specifically structured to enable innovation and so are self-organising and autonomous
  • Responding to the changing needs and priorities of the Product Lifecycle.
  • Juggling multiple demands from different organisational areas – from engineering and design, to marketing and business development
  • Understanding the financial, marketing, operational, legal and regulatory environment of their Product(s)
  • Managing upwards -levels of authority and accountability

In this blog I’ve looked at why there is a need for a new Product Leadership model as well as the different skills, practices and challenges which an aspiring Product Leader will need to master and overcome to be successful. In my next blog on Product Leadership I’ll delve more deeply into each of the Practice Areas identified above.

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Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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