4 Traits of Successful Product Leaders

Product managers may or may not be the “CEOs of product,” but how do you boss around a bunch of CEOs? Leading a product management organization is a unique role in modern technology companies, and one that was quite uncommon until fairly recently.

As the tech world has gradually embraced the value product management brings to a company to help advance its mission and find success, a new crop of executives are emerging to manage these many-hat-wearing product managers. This largely uncharted territory comes with some unique challenges.

While many roles in an organization are highly measurable—salespeople hitting their quotas, customer support issue turnaround time, system uptime, etc.—there’s really no magic metric for product management. This makes leading a group of these individuals even trickier.

Who are product leaders, anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a former engineer to be a product leader. In a survey of 70 top product executives, only 36% had a technical background. But at the same time, product leaders still need to understand technical concepts and be able to talk about them with knowledge and authority.

“To earn the respect of and lead teams of engineers, the product manager must understand the technical underpinnings, how things work and the engineering trade-offs,” says Groupon’s Jeff Holden.

But far more important than their technical chops, product leaders are thinking in business terms and meeting big picture goals for the company, not just an individual product.

“They’re entrepreneurial at heart, think big and want to make their product great because they’re passionate about it” says ex-Googler Jonathan Rosenberg. “That kind of person does well at both ends of the cycle.”

1. Having a plan and a vision, communicating it well and sticking to it

Elon Musk published his initial “Master Plan” for Tesla Motors in 2006, then updated it ten years later. “Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people,” Musk wrote. “However, the main reason was to explain how our actions fit into a larger picture, so that they would seem less random.”

Of course, not everyone is thinking quite that far ahead or has much of an audience for their audacious vision. But within their own company, product leaders must deliver similar plans to their colleagues if they want to establish and maintain their position of leadership.

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“To develop the vision, PMs have to be creative and imaginative,” says Ameet Ranadive of Twitter, “They have to think differently than others, and imagine a future that others are not yet able to see. Their vision paints a picture of what the world can look like when their products have hit the market. The most compelling visions tackle enormous problems, challenge the status quo, and have transformative impact.”

2. Thinking big picture while sweating the details

Traits of product leaders

Product managers are the Swiss Army knives of the organization, and their leader needs all the bottle openers, toothpicks and tiny scissors that might come in handy.

“You need somebody in the role who is a jack of all trades, who understands the technical details, the customer issues and the industry trends, and can work with the sales force,” says Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.

This ability to take input from various stakeholders, departments and channels and speak their language is essential to establishing themselves as a trusted partner who can get up to speed and provide useful input.

“They’re able to think about business issues, they’re able to think about support issues, they’re able to think about technical issues, and are able to switch disciplines, but also zoom in and zoom out in a really flexible and fluent way,” says Steve Vassallo of Foundation Capital.

And the best product leaders bring a little psychic prowess to the role, not only being able to meet the demands of their current customers, but seeing what current and potential customers want before they realize it themselves.

“Great product leaders have an amazing sense of vision and intuition about where markets are going, how customer preferences will evolve, and how to delight end users with great usability,” says Spark Capital’s Rob Go. “They totally get that relying on customers to tell you what to build has major limits and can yield uninspiring products.”

While narrowing down the metrics and KPIs for individual products and teams is essential for their ability to focus and move quickly, as the executive leading the show, a product leader must be tracking and well-versed in all of these numbers, both how everything is currently performing and what it all means when you put everything together.

“Most great product leaders are metrics obsessed,” Go adds. “They have an unbelievably precise sense of the drivers of product success and have figured out how to measure and optimize against these drivers. Doing each of these well is really difficult in their own rights, and it’s really rare to find an individual who can do both.”

It’s also the product leader’s job to determine if the right metrics are being emphasized as strategies shift and market dynamics evolve.

3. Creating conditions where individual PMs can succeed

Scale your team according to current needs

One of the most critical tasks a product leader faces is making life easier for their teams. Product managers shouldn’t be individually having to set the tone for their role in the organization; effective product leaders have already laid the groundwork for this in advance.

“We have to get out ahead of the confusion: draw role boundaries; give what-do-product-managers-do presentations at other departments’ staff meetings; push for decisions on strategy and evidence; evangelize the idea of curated products; unclutter roadmaps; relentlessly sell the subtle value of product management,” says product management guru Rich Mironov. “Persuade others that having a strong product team is a net positive for the company.”

Creating a product management-friendly culture might be a product leader’s most essential job. But it’s more than just getting the rest of the company to understand and accept the role of product managers, it’s transforming how the company approaches every decision and putting a product and customer focus at the forefront.

“They understand that they need to make mistakes in order to learn, but they need to make them quickly and mitigate the risks. They understand the need for continuous innovation. They know that great products are the result of true collaboration. They respect and value their designers and engineers,” says Marty Cagan of the Silicon Valley Product Group. “A strong VP Product will understand the importance of a strong product culture, and will be able to give real examples of his own experiences with product culture and have concrete plans for instilling this culture in your company.”

A well-constructed and effective internal organization is also essential for a product leader and his or her team to be successful. When PM teams get too big, it’s time to add a layer of management by introducing group product managers.

“If you have many direct reports, you’re unable to scale insights and communication on a 1:1 basis. The team will start to feel disconnected,” says Pandora’s Jack Krawczyk. “And as a manager, you are effectively setting up roadblocks. A large part of the job is to remove obstacles for your team, not create them.”

4. Embracing leadership while stepping back from the front lines

Transitioning from product manager to a product leader can be difficult. Your day changes drastically from deep diving into the details and working in the trenches with engineers and designers to managing a staff and working with the executive team.

Changing focus upward and outward means your team is making a lot of critical decisions and moves that will determine whether you’re perceived as a success or a failure. This requires a lot of trust in your team and restraint to let them make their own path… mistakes and all.

“They are judged by the success of the team. What I found is great leaders don’t shirk that responsibility. They embrace it, even in failure,” says LinkedIn and eBay veteran Adam Nash. “There is that old saying that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. Not when there’s a great leader involved.”

Delegation of tasks and ownership also means you’re not the “idea” person anymore. While you play a part in the overall direction, your team members are now calling a lot of the shots on individual product decisions.

“The key to being a strong product leader isn’t coming up with the ideas yourself,” Krawczyk adds. “It’s about listening to your team, identifying what works best and determining how to best apply it across the entire group.”

Of course, management isn’t for everyone. Giving up control of a specific product and taking on the responsibility of managing a staff and mentoring other product managers is a major shift in pretty much every aspect of your day-to-day life. But great product leaders realize that as a lone soldier, you can only accomplish so much. But guiding a team of talented, passionate contributors with clear direction and sound judgment can lead to great things.

About the Author

Heather McCloskey
Heather J. McCloskey, Inbound & Content Marketing Manager at UserVoice, is a former broadcast news producer. When she's not writing pieces about product management and customer support here, she can be found putting pedal to the metal behind a sewing machine or painting watercolor comics.

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