Are your Product leaders good enough?

Adrienne Tan

Long before I started Brainmates, my colleagues and I used to joke that the people who were promoted at a large company where I worked, were those who were terrible at their jobs. Promoting these people got them out of the way of folks who were actually doing the job well.

The scenario I describe is best articulated by Lawrence Peters in his book The Peter Principle.

Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.”

This means,

“Given enough time and enough promotion levels, every position in a firm will be occupied by someone who can’t do the job.

Whilst this is not the case in every organisation, there is a general perception in the Australian job market that people are promoted because of tenure rather than capability and skill, particularly in large organisations.

I worry that this is becoming the case with Product Leaders too.

Leaders are born and made

Product Leaders who claim the title without actively seeking formal leadership learning and coaching are doing a disservice to those who serve their people and this great profession. While learning is a necessity for great leadership, the love, passion and drive of Product Leaders to lead people are equally important. It saddens me to say that this is also missing in droves.

In the ongoing debate about whether leaders are born or are made, the reality is, it’s both. First, there should be a desire and the will to be a leader. This is imperative, and possibly inherent or instinctive.

But natural leadership instincts, such as courage and conviction, need to be nurtured and honed into more specific leadership skills such as decision making and prioritisation. Further, The Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing & Management Review (2013) outlines that leadership is much more than instincts and skills. It is a combination of attributes:

“Leadership is carrying out a process by applying leadership attributes such as belief, values, ethics, character, knowledge and skills.”

It goes on to state:

“Good leaders develop through a never-ending process of self–study, education, training, and experience.”

The act of leadership is complex. But, true leaders genuinely take pride in continuously becoming better, working hard to hone their skills at more effectively leading their team.

As Jim Collins says,

The highest level of leader “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”.

A Product Leader is more than a Senior Product Manager

The Product Manager is often seen as the leader of a single product. It is rarely formally acknowledged as a leadership position in an organisational structure.

Product Managers must bring the Product Vision to life, they have to wrangle multiple product requests with aplomb, steer the success of the Product through the efforts of others and much, much more. These activities require leadership skills.

Dan Olsen sums it up beautifully,

“With great responsibility comes no power.” 

If you’re a Product Manager, it would seem logical to shift seamlessly into a Product Leader role, given that you’re already in an informal leadership position.

However, the two are not the same. Product Leader is a different flavour of leadership. The Product Manager role trades on customer knowledge and the ability to wield certain tools to expose insights. The Product Leader is the enabler, creating the right environment for Product Managers to perform.

For the Product Manager, leadership is established through collaboration.

Product Leaders, however, have recognised authority, which has enormous value when used appropriately. Authority can be employed in problematic situations that can be solved with known resources or solutions. In this situation, the Leader can flex his or her authority by providing instructions to the team to use known solutions to solve the problem.

Some Product Managers who take the next step up to Product Leader often believe that they trade on authority, rarely having the experience to investigate and use other leadership tools. Some may not also have a genuine desire to leave their ego in the bin, to nurture individual Product Managers so that they may perform at their best.

It takes a lot more to become a leader of great product folks.

The making of Product Leaders

The Product Leader role encompasses shades of grey with blocks of white and black at either end.

At one end of the Product Leadership continuum, Leaders need the ability to execute (but not execute) the work of a Product Manager. Having hard Product skills is important as a Product Leader. They should be able to:

  • Communicate and defend a worthy Roadmap that demonstrates the Product path for the next 12-18 months.
  • Read and make sense of analytics.
  • Recognise when the Product reaches Market Fit (or not).
  • Know the levers that drive Product success.

Product Leaders need to be capable of doing Product Manager work so they can:

  1. Build trust
  2. Coach their team
  3. Step in to course correct if required.

A Product Leader without these Product Manager skills means that trust may become an issue, where the team doesn’t fully believe that the Leader knows what she/he is doing and may be slow to respond to suggestions and requests.

Product Leaders need to identify situations when they need to course correct when a team member isn’t getting the right results, when a technique or process may be inaccurate or irrelevant, or when alternative ways of obtaining the outcome are required.

A Product Leader needs these skills at the same time as they shouldn’t be executing them.

Essential leadership skills and behaviours of a Product Leader

At the other end of the Product Leadership continuum, they need to have skills that every leadership role should exhibit such as:

  • Communication
  • Self-Awareness
  • Influence

Like all leaders, Product Leaders must also be engaged with their team and stakeholders, emotionally in control of their responses, humble, a wise listener and set expectations.

However, Product Leaders must exhibit specific product behaviours to lead successful product teams to build successful products.

  • Constantly communicate the organisation vision and goals to their teams so that these are embedded in the product goals
  • Consistently evangelise the strategic value of Product Management – top-to-bottom of the organisation
  • Persuasively work to change the financial process that better support Agile ways of working
  • Faithfully guard the Product team’s time and capacity to perform strategic work, not just delivery and operational tasks
  • Conscientiously support junior team members by having an established Product Management Framework, tools and guidance to perform their work
  • Generously coach and encourage a growth mindset, learning and experimentation
  • Routinely asks questions about the customer and the market
  • Decisively pivot when the desired product results are not achieved
  • Charismatically share the product narrative with the entire organisation

And when required, promptly obtain and offer answers to problems that the team cannot solve.

Leaders should be more

Product leaders bring more than skills and experience. They are different from any other type of leader. They’re the master dot connector.

They need to have a deep understanding of what great Product Management looks like and be wired to lead a team of people:

  1. Whose role is so misunderstood – you won’t find a person in any organisation who can succinctly explain the role of the Product Manager
  2. Whose conversations are so varied – from customer to tech to finance
  3. Whose job spans a large number of tasks
  4. With outcomes that are never clearly expressed

More importantly, they must be an intentional learner – personally learning the market, reading about the craft, speaking to customers and presenting to the community.

It’s time to ask, “is your Product Leader good enough?”

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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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