7 practices to master to excel as a Product Leader

Adrienne Tan

Up until now, Product Leaders have had to rely on the approaches and frameworks designed specifically for Product Managers or use generic leadership practices which don’t necessarily cover the unique leadership challenges Product Leaders experience.

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 integrates two distinct, but equally important skillsets: ‘technical skills and ‘adaptive skills’ as well as 7 Key Practices of Product Leadership.

In my previous blog I looked at the mindsets as well as the need for this framework, in this blog I’ll examine the 7 Key Practices of Product Leadership more deeply.

The 7 key practices of PALM

PALM - Product Adaptive Leadership Model

  1. Self-awareness

Many Product Leaders start a new role by focusing outwards. They identify their key stakeholders, make sense of the organisational social and political environment, review the organisational structures, look at information flow etc. Often, they leave very little time to look inwards. This is a mistake, particularly if you are new to leadership.

To step into leadership and be effective in the role, you need to have a strong sense of your own stories. Without self-reflection, there is an increased possibility of stumbling when trying to work with others. PALM emphasises the need for Product Leaders to lead themselves before leading others. It explores the intent of the Product Leader and asks: “What kind of leader do you want to be?” It asks how your assumptions, values, talents and motivations help or hinder you in becoming the leader you want to be.

PALM considers the multiple expectations on Product Leaders and explores how self-awareness can provide a deeper understanding of one’s role and where to draw the lines.  Great leadership requires moving away from your comfort zone, where there is competence, familiarity, and control. Product Leaders need to develop a level of self-knowledge and self-confidence to be able to work outside their comfort zone – to become more comfortable operating competently amid uncertainty and ambiguity.

To be a successful leaders and contributors, Product Leaders need to sustain their own energy and look after themselves. This often goes unnoticed as the pace of development and deadlines increases. Product Leaders need to understand their role, learn not to overcommit and not to de-prioritise leadership, especially when pressed for time.

  1. Strategising and planning

A well thought out and shared vision and strategy provides the baseline for all further activities.  It remains the ‘north star’ that anchors the work that Product Leaders need to do, and identifies the stakeholders they need to engage. The leadership work for strategising and planning is demanding as it requires a broad skillset and the ability to successfully navigate between the big picture and the product details.

The role of a Product Leader is to continuously bridge the range of thinking of different stakeholders, both inside and outside the organisation, and translate organisational goals and business strategies into executable plans.  These plans offer Product teams clarity, giving them direction, empowering them to select the important customer problems to solve, the new opportunities to harness, at a time when the market is ready and willing to exchange value. If there isn’t a clearly articulated product vision and product strategy that galvanises the team and anchors their roadmaps and backlogs, not only are the team’s efforts wasted but so too are the opportunities.

There are a number of useful, tried and tested tools to develop a Product Strategy (e.g. Jobs To Be Done, Value Curve Analysis, Business Model Innovation). While these tools represent the technical aspects of a good strategic plan they don’t help with the adaptive skills needed to make the plan happen. Product Leaders need to collaborate with, and seek input from, a range of stakeholders and their teams, to collectively craft and hold a shared vision. To do this Product Leaders need to be open and willing to listen to (and incorporate) different ideas and to master the arts of collaboration and co-design.

By providing the space and opportunity for significant decision makers’ opinions to be heard, Product Leaders will enhance the quality of the strategy, empower their teams and other stakeholders and share Product Ownership. This makes it much more likely that their strategy will be widely endorsed, followed and ultimately more likely to be successful.

  1. Resourcing and staffing

Resourcing and staffing need to be high on all leaders’ agendas, as it is only through good people that the leader can be effective. The composition, skills and attitude of people in the team remain the foundations of a well-functioning, high-performing team.

There is no one size fits all for resourcing a team. Every Product Team is as different as the business it supports. Resourcing needs to take into consideration both the technical expertise as well as the relevant values, attitudes and ways of working that any new hire will bring to the team. Paying attention to people skills such as collaborative decision-making, constructive conflict resolution, attentive listening and working with feedback all go a long way to building a strong team.

Taking the time to clearly define the team structure and the range of skills required to achieve the strategy is an important leadership task. As are:

  • Designing considered job descriptions
  • Developing clear and transparent hiring processes
  • Ensuring that enough time is spent with every new hire

Product Leaders should not be tempted to speed up the process or to outsource the resourcing of the team. If they are using their influence well, Product Leaders will be able to engage others (including line managers, HR partners and external providers) to help them acquire the right people.  Creating strong and successful teams is almost always in the power of the Product Leader.

  1. Enabling and empowering teams and individuals

Having a functional team structure, clarity of roles, and a culture that enables people to perform their work without barriers is critical to realising the Product strategy and goals. Successful leaders are reflected in the success of their team; and likewise, poor leaders are revealed by their team’s failures.

Product Leaders should focus on:

  • Curating the right team
  • Providing an environment for learning
  • Clearing any impediments that prevent the team from good Product practices and
  • Facilitating conversations that help connect the dots

If all of these aspects are in place the whole team will be able to work together to uncover valuable customer problems and collaboratively design solutions.

Great Product Leaders strive to create an environment where groups of talented individuals can make great things happen by feeling trusted and supported, striving to achieve stretch goals, and being more autonomous in their decision making. An empowered team owns its work, is authorised to make the right decisions, and is able to work independently. Empowered teams are happier and create more successful Products, and allow the Product Leader to spend more time connecting the layers of people and strategy in the organisation.

  1. Market sensing

Markets move quickly and in unpredictable ways. They are inherently complex because they are much greater than the sum of the competitors. Markets are an amalgamation of customer sentiments, detractors, suppliers, competitors, partners, value chains, laws, political opinions, spending power, replacement Products, influencers, recent company investments and so much more.

There are so many shifting elements in markets that connect to make a system, a system where Products exist and grow. Product Leaders need to move beyond the limitations of what is visible and embrace the complexities of connected and fluid systems. One of the most challenging aspects of any Product organisation is knowing what Products to build or services to provide. There are so many ‘voices’ and distractions vying for attention that it makes it difficult to know where to invest time and efforts.

By thinking and acting systemically, good Product Leaders are able to extract themselves from the day to day and ‘get on the balcony’. This means they can gain distance and perspective to be able to diagnose the dynamics, interactions and sentiments being expressed by different parts of the system, both inside and outside the business. From the metaphorical balcony, Product Leaders will be able to grasp the nature of the challenges and opportunities at hand, map the network of important relationships, and assess the value of the Product.

Product Leaders need to be proactive. They need to acquire knowledge and discern which stakeholders in the broader system can provide the most valuable data (customers to vendors, to suppliers, sale teams) and how best to collect and evaluate that information. Product Leaders need to conscientiously embed themselves in the market, analysing and translating the data to make meaning of how their Products are currently performing and make predictions of how they may perform in the future.

Market sensing means that the team and the Product Leader need to be adaptable and responsive to the information. Product Leaders need to assume change will happen, and they need to be ready to adapt to this change by supporting their teams to be flexible, willing to make mistakes and make midcourse corrections. Having a vision that can accommodate unexpected externalities, and a team that has been involved and informed  means being able to adapt faster to change. 

  1. Communicating Product impact

Product Leaders, and their team, spend their energy and resources exploring and developing valuable Products for their customers. Over the Product Lifecycle, Product Leaders need to be able to quantify and communicate the impact that Product Development has made on the business.

In order to get attention on the value of the Product role, Leaders need to have an ongoing focus on the commercial implications of Product Development. They do this by collecting and collating analytics, financial metrics, and technical data and linking it to their strategic goals. To do this effectively, Product Leaders need to have the technical skills to make sense of the quantitative and qualitative facts and figures and then combine this with adaptive skills to clearly communicate it to a range of stakeholders (including the executive team) in a language that they can understand.

Communication is a process. It’s an ongoing, essential element of building trust in the required strategic relationships. Communicating Product Strategy and its impact needs to take into consideration the nature of the target audience. The Product Leader needs to be able to respond to the needs, agendas and motives of all stakeholders and be willing, patient and available to go over the same ground more than once. People need to be told things multiple times, in different ways at different times for it to sink in.

Communicating effectively needs to be done with great empathy. Just like great Products, great communication puts the audience (customer) at the centre and crafts communication which meets their needs. Product Leaders need to be sensitive to the audience context, and reflect on how they are presenting facts, whether they are using jargon (which could include or marginalise), the relationships and power dynamics and how willing are they in opening up dialogue.

Product Leaders need to take time to properly prepare their communication. At a minimum this includes ensuring they have all the necessary information, deciding how their messages can be communicated most effectively (a meeting, an informal conversation, a presentation, an email, a blog or all of these) and then self-reflecting on any of their own triggers that may interfere with clear, effective communication.

  1. Championing Product culture

The real work of leadership is being able to challenge the status quo and disrupt the organisation’s narrative. In many organisations there is still a need to shift the organisational paradigm and bring the idea of a Product Culture to the forefront.  The Product Leader has the responsibility of educating and instilling a Product <Mindset across the organisation.

Having a {Product Culture is about having the Product at the heart of the business, and it being granted the attention it needs. This means that everyone in the company is an advocate for Product Discovery, design and development. This means taking the time to explore  customer problems and the solutions that will solve those problems in ‘margin enhancing ways’. As part of the everyday role, Product Leaders have access to a broad group of people, they straddle the divide between functional areas in the business and bring disparate individuals and teams together to achieve a common outcome. The Product Leader role is therefore best placed to challenge the status quo and nudge attention towards the integration of Product into the organisation’s culture.

As Product Leaders it is easy to become so embedded in teams and Products that we lose a clear view of the big picture at the organisation and ndustry level. If this happens, Product Teams can end up operating within a bubble, out of sync with the ‘outside’ world. Product Leaders need to look beyond their immediate role and try to identify opportunities to create value that can bring a positive change to the entire organisation.

To influence right across the organisation Product Leaders truly need to step into and own their power. One way to do this is to reach out to, and spend time with, other teams and leaders and then:

  • Ask questions about their part of the business.
  • Actively provide ongoing feedback
  • Align Product strategy to the broader organisation strategy
  • Speaking up on behalf of other teams and team members, to help them to amplify their impact.

It is up to us as Product Leaders to show everyone where Product fits. We need to make sure that everyone in an organisation understands how their role relates to the Product and why the Product is important to their, and the organisation’s, success.

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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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