Updated: Sep 23, 2022
I went on a three day course on Product Leadership a few months ago. The course laid out some strategy frameworks and generic leadership tools, but at the end of the training I still didn’t feel like I could answer the question - what is Product Leadership?
So, I turned to Google. My research turned up two definitions, that Product Leadership is either:
The senior people who lead a team of Product Managers, or
The act of championing a product within a company
Again, these don’t work for me. In trying to figure out why, I asked the question - what is Leadership?
I am a big fan of Brené Brown and all her work. Following her advice resonates with the times that I have felt authentic and genuine in my interactions with others. She defines a leader as:
“anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential. Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It's about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.”
If you aren’t familiar with Brené Brown’s work I will pause here to share with you an important aspect of it. She is a highly respected academic and industry practitioner, so all her books, podcasts, talks etc. are based on years of extensive research and working with organisations around the world.
Her work has been instructive in the move away from the 1980s depiction of a leader as loud, risk-taking, arrogant, and "know it all". More modern views of what makes great leadership incorporate a broader and more inclusive skill set.
Effective leadership requires vulnerability, empathy, and kindness. It is setting a vision and collaborating with your team on how to get there. Then holding yourself and those around you accountable.
So, how does this understanding of leadership apply when we consider product management?
Defining Product Management
This feels obvious, but for clarity I think it is worth looking at. This time, Google’s response was more aligned and I will take the wikipedia definition:
“Product management is the business process of planning, developing, launching, and managing a product or service. It includes the entire lifecycle of a product, from ideation to development to go to market.”
However, as a visual person, I often answer such questions with the famous venn diagram developed by Martin Eriksson, and described in his blog here, puts a very complicated and challenging role into a neat summary.
I feel that it is from this unique position between the business, technology and the customers that Product Managers can be the best leaders.
A new definition of Product Leadership?
In my view, the definitions of Product Leadership we started with describe what your responsibilities might be in specific roles, but don’t cover how leadership can apply to a product role.
My definition of Product Leadership is using your unique position between the business, the technology and the user, to develop your product for the better.
There is no other role like this. No other role that gives you the chance to gain so many different perspectives - and you are the only one who will have this! Yes, the customer knows themselves the best, and engineers will know the technology the best, and the CEO will know the business best. But you are the only one who takes all these competing perspectives and synthesises them into a roadmap, features, go-to-market plan etc.
What makes great product leadership?
So, how can you be a great product leader? Firstly, fully owning your unique position is going to be a big step. You have a perspective no one else has and you need to assert that in all you do.
Beyond that, there are 3 tools you can practice to be an amazing product leader.
We do this really badly, most of the time. Active listening that is. How many times does your hand wander to your phone during a meeting? Or does a notification on your screen distract you from the conversation you are having?
It is HARD to maintain focus on really listening to someone for an extended period of time, but the benefits are huge. To get a feel for the impact of active listening, there is a simple exercise you can do with your team. Take turns to talk to one another, for a minute at a time. First time with the person you are talking to not paying attention, the second time using all these tips.
When actively listening, you will be:
Keeping eye contact
Paraphrasing what you are hearing and playing back to check you’ve understood
The benefits you will have as a Product Manager are twofold. One is that you will have a stronger relationship with the person you are listening to. The other is you will have a better understanding about what they’ve just told you, as active listening reduces the risk of false assumptions being made. Whether that is an engineer explaining why there is some tech debt that needs addressing, or a customer testing a prototype for you and explaining their experience, it all builds your position of strength in the middle of the venn diagram.
If your leadership strength is in the middle of that venn diagram, then you need to be able to strongly empathise with those who are the experts. Why? If you can really feel their joy, excitement, or frustration then you are going to be more convincing by feeding that emotion into the recommendation you make.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It might be easy to imagine empathising with a customer’s pain point, so let’s think about another scenario.
Your VP has a new strategy, they are really excited about it and take you through all the ways it’s going to grow revenue and blow your competitors out of the water. You can feel that excitement! However, it is going to require a major pivot on your roadmap and you know your engineers are going to be frustrated. Bringing that excitement to the discussion you have with engineers, while empathising with their frustration, can help bring them on the pivot with you.
No matter the amount of authority your organisational structure may bestow on your role, collaborating is a critical leadership tool. No one likes being told what to do!
When you are looking at a problem, think about who else is impacted by that problem. For example, if you are tasked to drive down the number of calls the customer service team receives, that team will probably have some good ideas. They will also be impacted by the change you make. Involving them in the process by which you solve the problem brings them along with you and will mean more buy-in for your recommendations.
Product Leadership for all
Product Leadership is about using your unique position in the grey area between the business, technology and user to develop the best version of your product. This broader definition encompasses what it truly means to be a leader and opens it up for Product Managers on any level. Fully appreciating this position you hold will allow you to utilise your leadership and product skills to build better products and be a better product manager.
What to level up Product Leadership in your Product team? Get in touch to see how I can help.