Brian Crofts


The Rise of Product Leadership

Let’s not refer to a product manager as a generalist, a Swiss Army knife, or “CEO of a product.” Instead, let’s refer to product manager as a product leader. Because inspiring leaders are what we aspire to become.

“Your title makes you a manager, your people determine whether or not you’re a leader.”

— Brad Smith

Let’s also think about what happens with average product management leadership. A year after your exciting launch, you slip into delivering “expected refinements” and get bogged down — overwhelmed even, by the amount of “things to build:” a punch list of fixes and improvements begins to grow, innovation slowly dies and energy subsides.

It is then essential that every product leader understands what it really means to master their craft to help ensure their venture’s success. Product development can’t simply be managed — it must be led — with expertise.

Learning from Leonardo da Vinci

As the story goes, da Vinci would steal cadavers and study them inside his studio.

He would meticulously investigate the muscular and skeletal structures and patterns, and then draw what he saw. He would “sweat the details” in service of a greater vision — to help further realize his many masterpieces.

I appreciate his desire to better understand his subject, in the pursuit of perfection — or mastery of his craft. It was his competitive advantage throughout the renaissance.

When it comes to the craft of product leadership, there are many areas to master. And although this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it does represent the core capabilities required to be a great product leader — it is what I expect from myself and each member in my organization.

The Four Be’s of Product Leadership

  1. Be Customer-Backed: the ability to translate customer pain into meaningful insights and action

Big innovation requires big insights.

And in order to achieve big insights, a product leader (and team) need inspiration. This can come from a variety of places, but mostly from working closely with customers and developing empathy.

Below are few ways to connect, some more common than others, but all are in service to understanding how you can solve your customers’ problems.

Follow-Me-Home: Carefully watch and examine what people are actually doing. Observing a customer performing a task while at their job is much more insightful than them telling you what they do

Apprenticeship: A method of developing empathy by actually “walking in the shoes” of your customers. This approach can help best understand your customers ‘jobs to be done.’

In-depth Interviews: To learn, we must listen more than we talk. By asking good questions you can understand the choices customers make as well as the why behind their behaviors.

Emotional Discovery Creating experiences for your team that simulates similar emotions of what your customers are feeling. (We went to the skate park to simulate the feeling of taking leap of faith when starting a new business)

After every interaction with a customer, we ask ourselves: was there anything that surprised us? What pain did we see?

“Entrepreneurs who manage to master the art of empathy have an uncanny habit of disrupting the world they live in. When you can step into your customers’ shoes — and see the world from their perspective, not yours — it’s easier to walk miles ahead of the competition.”

You can find a more detailed write-up of each approach here.

It is also important to work closely with customers early on in the design stage. I’ve spent many hours “paper prototyping” with actual clients (and prospects) for additional insights and inspiration. The only part of the approach that has changed over time is the medium we use.

2. Be Data-Driven: the ability to lead with a hypothesis, validate with data, and distill into insights/next steps

Data can also provide new insights into customer behavior. Often, it does a better job demonstrating what a customer actually does vs. what they say they do. It can highlight friction. It can trump the loudest opinion in the room. It’s what keeps us honest — in other words, it highlights “the biggest lie we are telling ourselves.” There are many ways to obtain and organize data. Below are a few examples from past products.

Data Queries: Goal — highlight trends in product usage between your different products to help justify allocation of resources across multiple products. Example —At Namely, running a SQL query to better understand the breakdown between hourly and salary workers to inform a product investment.

Cohort Optimization: Goal — Identify the areas in your product experience that are causing a concerning amount of friction. Example — At TurboTax Personal Pro, identifying a large percentage of customers stuck in the search experience that impacted conversion.

A/B Testing: Goal — Optimizing your product experience through rapid iteration and experimentation. Example — At TurboTax, experimenting with various channels to optimize our GTM strategy.

Net Promoter Score: Goal — Measure customer sentiment by asking a customer their likelihood to recommend your product to a friend or colleague. Example — At Pendo, we tie aspects of user’s behavior to their score to better understand they why behind their response. It helps increase the value of NPS and becomes much more actionable.

But don’t forget about your intuition. In fact, your intuition almost always defines how you approach your data.

When you’re faced with comprehending a large amount of data, your intuition helps you contextualize and understand it. Don’t be afraid to embrace it — to trust it.

3. Be the visionary i.e. have the ability to inspire problem solving

President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time, in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”

It’s critical that product leaders have a product vision that is customer-backed, meaningful, and ultimately measurable. It also needs to be continually communicated. Once is never enough. As my last CEO Brad Smith used to say, “repetition doesn’t ruin the prayer.” It is the job of a product leader to unite the team on a common goal.

Send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. It’s “customer-backed” (safely), meaningful (first to the moon), and measurable (by the end of the decade).

4. Be a builder.

Low fidelity sketches that ultimately shaped some of my products

Engineers and designers build. Product leaders build. Some product leaders build by writing SQL queries to pull data to complete a well written spec. Other product leaders like to sketch paper prototypes to conduct “hallway tests.”

With new tools like Pendo, product leaders can launch in-app messaging, polling, and guided walk throughs (without any help from engineers).

Showing off her in-product message via product Slack channel

It’s never been more exciting to be building products. It’s never been more fun to be a product leader. But the business requires us to be better. We have a charge to master our craft. Irrespective of the industry, the phase of growth, the tenure of the business, product leaders need to be customer-backed, data-driven, and visionary.

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