The Difference Between Black Box and White Box Product Leadership by@noaganot

The Difference Between Black Box and White Box Product Leadership

The Difference Between Black Box and White Box Product Leadership is not a zero-sum game. Here are two styles that define the spectrum, and a guide that will help you find your sweet spot between them. Black Box: Give Me My Goals and Leave Me Alone. White Box: Be Fully Transparent and Make Sure You Agree to Everything, I’ve heard numerous times: "I've heard this numerous times, and the CEO wants to every little detail, and I can’t understand this"
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Noa Ganot

Product-Market Fit Consultant and Executive Product Mentor

There is an inherent conflict between the product leader and the CEO, which can often be summarized into one question: who has the final say. To start resolving it, remember that it is not a zero-sum game. Here are two leadership styles that define the spectrum, and a guide that will help you find your sweet spot between them.

As product leaders, we are always struggling to find the right balance between bringing our own agenda to the table and working so that the entire system around us can align accordingly. In the sweet spot, they work well together with no contradiction, but most of us are not in the sweet spot at all, at least most of the time.

I have discussed this conflict as it is manifested in your relationship with your employees — how can you, as a manager of managers, let them lead but also stay in control. Today I want to talk about how you do that with your own manager. It is always harder because it is tied directly to your performance and to the expectations that (you think) your manager has from you.

To start, let’s understand that your product leadership style (in that specific dimension) lies on a spectrum. On one side of it, there is full independence, and on the other side, there is a full dependency on your manager. It is important to note that leadership cannot happen on either of these sides. It sounds trivial for the dependency side, but here is the truth regarding the independence side: not only leadership doesn’t require full independence, they often contradict each other.

The reason is that leadership is tied with impact, not with how you operate, and when you are on either side of the spectrum your ability to make an impact is limited. Let’s get right to it and see why, and more importantly — what can you do about it.

Black Box: Give Me My Goals and Leave Me Alone

A close friend recently told me that he is having the same conflict with his manager ever since he joined the company: he wants to be able to say the final word on matters related to his domain, while his manager wants, well, the same thing for himself. It is important to say that my friend is phenomenal at his job. The department that he manages achieves amazing results and beats its goals time and again. And still, it seems that this is not enough, as my friend unfortunately found in his yearly performance review.

In product leadership, this connection is even weaker, since product goals (and product leadership as a whole) are never a standalone thing. Meeting your own goals is never enough since the entire organization needs to align around them and act their part accordingly.

If you identified yourself in my friend’s story, I’m guessing that you can feel on a daily basis that it doesn’t work as well as you hoped it would. We have enough conflicts that are built into our role, there is no reason to add additional unnecessary ones.

To start moving away from this style, here are a few first steps that you can take. They are deliberately small steps so that you can feel comfortable taking them. Remember that they will not take you to the other side of the spectrum, only shift you a little closer towards the right balance.

First, accept the fact that your manager wants to have a say. Put yourself in their shoes — wouldn’t you want the same?

Next, remember that having a say doesn’t mean that they override your decisions all the time. It mostly means that they want to be part of the discussion and make sure the decision you are making is also taking their point of view into account.

Following these steps means that you need to work harder to convince them that your decisions are the right ones. But here is the thing: you would need to convince so many other people as well for this decision to make the impact you want to make, that you better have the right arguments to get everyone on board.

I remember that one of my product managers once came to me super frustrated with the engineers who keep challenging him and the direction that he wanted to take them in. My answer was that these questions are great — they should help him make sure he is making the right decisions.

So if you have good answers, don’t feel underestimated just because you need to share them, and if you don’t have good answers, go do your homework, because even when you do have the final word you want to make sure you took everything into consideration.

White Box: I’ll Be Fully Transparent and Make Sure You Agree to Everything

I’ve heard this complaint numerous times: the CEO wants to control every little detail, and I can’t make any decisions myself. It’s true for the details as well as the more strategic decisions — not that we ever get to discuss them since we spend our time in endless discussions about the bits and pieces of everything.

Sounds familiar? I have good news for you: while some of it has to do with the personality of the specific people involved, you can impact it more easily than you think. That’s because most of the time, the way you manage the situation is actually causing it to get worse and repeat itself.

Let me explain how.

I’m a big fan of transparency. I think it is a must-have for effective leadership in any position. But transparency has a pitfall that if goes unnoticed can turn into a slippery slope: if everyone knows everything there is to know, who makes the call?

Here, it is your own personality that comes into play: how fond are you of decisions made in consensus? How important is it for you to keep everyone happy? If the answer to these questions is “a lot”, you are most likely already on the slippery slope. Because not all decisions can be made in consensus, and in fact, even when consensus exists some people tend to wait for others to conclude and avoid leading to a decision themselves altogether.

To start moving away from this paradigm, remember that when the CEO wants to discuss every little detail it is usually a matter of trust. And nothing hurts trust more than a leader who is afraid to make decisions. How can they trust you if you don’t trust yourself?

The next time you enter the room (or the zoom 😉 ), make sure you are ready to make a decision. It’s ok for your manager to want to review everything, but act as if it is your call to make and they are just your advisors. You want to listen to what they have to say because they might have a wider point of view or see things that you have missed. But at the same time, don’t mix the fact that they ask questions with your responsibility to make the right call.

And making the right call implies that you are first and foremost making a call. Keep it yours even if the other side thinks it’s theirs. I often encourage my mentees to push the boundaries and try to get pushback on their decisions. Not feedback and discussion, real pushback. When you are willing to have an open discussion, consider everything, and make the right decision (which is not necessarily the one you entered the room with, but might as well be), pushback is very rare. Try it yourself and let me know how it went (I’m reading everything you send me).

Generating trust takes time, but if you act according to the advice above and start owning decisions instead of waiting for others to decide, you will see that trust is built much quicker than you thought. When you start owning the decision, you shift the entire discussion towards goals and considerations rather than the details themselves. Trust me (since I’ve been there myself as a manager and also seen it with my mentees many times), once your manager sees that you see the problem similarly to how they see it, and they see time and again that you are making good decisions, they will be happy to give you more freedom. But to get to that point you need to proactively start taking this freedom yourself without them giving it to you. It works like a magic flywheel, but you have to start the magic yourself.

Now is the time to test yourself: what is your leadership style? Are you closer to the black or white box side? You are most likely somewhere between them, but check if where you are at works well for you. If it doesn’t, which direction do you need to move in? Take a small step in the right direction. Not only will it make you a better leader and expand your comfort zone, but it will also help you deliver better results for the company. It’s all about impact, remember?

📖 My free e-book “ Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you at www.ganotnoa.com/ebook

Originally published at https://ganotnoa.com on February 16, 2021.

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