What are the qualities of a great Product Leader? What is it that makes a Product Manager standout?
Building great products is a difficult and complex job; but also fascinating. To become a successful Product Manager, you need to be both visionary and pragmatic. Great ‘product guys’ are passionate about their initiatives; they are ready to spend all their energy in forming and driving great ideas to market; they are strategic thinkers and have the ability to see product opportunities when others are lost in noise and ambiguity.
In fact, I prefer using ‘leadership’ over ‘management’ in the title: Product Leaders don’t just manage a product; they envision great products out of the blue; they spot those critical differences between a great product and an average one; they know how to build a product from scratch — how to shape the scope, where to focus and how to prioritize features; they can make epic things happen — by timely releasing the right instances of their envisions.
Great Product Leaders connect the technology and commercial worlds to create value — for the users and the business. They act as the CEO for the product — they have a bold vision, a strategy, the resources and the ambition to make the whole initiative successful — in the best possible way!
But, what are the qualities of a great Product Leader? What is it that makes a product manager standout?
In a digital context, great Product Leaders need to combine a wide range of skills and competencies. Whatever the actual title is — Product Manager, Architect, Chief Product Officer etc. — this role has an extra source of difficulty: the rapid change of technology and the unprecedented pace of technology innovation. Thus, Product Leaders need to have deep understanding of the technology landscape and relevant experience — ideally through various technical roles.
The following discuss the core qualities and abilities of a successful Product Leader.
This is essential — product leaders demonstrate a special mindset which is the basis for success; they are enthusiastic about designing and building products people love; they are driven by innovation, but at the same time they stay connected with reality via clear objectives and systematic measurement of performance and success.
To have a successful career in product management, you need to have big thinking but also be aware of constraints and priorities. You have to best leverage the available resources towards the right instance of your product.
Product & User sense
Thinking of products is not as easy as it may sound. After 20 years in the technology innovation and product development space, I’ve witnessed promising ideas being forgotten or misunderstood — in all cases with significant opportunity cost. I’ve met teams struggling to really understand the notion of a product and the underlying product development process.
As a great Product Leader, you need to have a holistic, strategic view of what the product is, how it can be built and how it will become successful. You need to quickly spot the real product opportunities and identify the commercial ‘landscape’ — that is, competition and key-players in the market, the potential partnerships, the technology, the differentiators and candidate monetization models.
You need to be able to start with an idea, derive a concept and define a product with clarity
Thinking of products also implies thinking as a user: you need to have a ‘user mentality’ and empathy to relate with user problems, frequent needs and expectations.
As you think of a product, you must be able to define and measure success with clarity. Success is a multidimensional construct which will help you align with your overall strategy, priorities and goals.
Modern digital products are complicated: success is based on a mix of technology, usability, business models, marketing and operational excellence — must all work together in harmony to drive user engagement, value creation and monetization. Product Leaders ‘make things happen’ by applying the vision, defining the roadmap and wisely steering the efforts of talented multidisciplinary teams.
In a typical scenario, product managers interact with designers, software engineers, data scientists, marketing and commercial people. Being able to understand the language, the perspective as long as the capabilities of each domain in the context of your product, is crucial.
For example, think of a consumer facing product: a good product manager understands the principles of User Experience, the user engagement measurement frameworks and the underlying enabling technologies. At the same time, the PM interprets insights and makes informed decisions — as part of a continuous improvement process and knows when and how to incorporate methods and techniques such as experimentation and user-testing. A good PM in this context, is able to spot opportunities to define and delivery superior UX powered by advanced back-end technologies or analytical models.
Strong technical background
In a digital context, a strong technical background is a must for a great Product Leader. Defining outstanding products heavily depends on the understanding of both the capabilities and the constraints of technology. While you can always delegate certain technical workstreams and decisions to your technical advisors, it is always a major plus to have a solid technical background and deep understanding of the ‘state of the art’, the global technology trends and the competition.
On the other hand, too much focus on the technology side might impact your ability to focus — especially if you come from pure engineering background: technology excellence is one only part of your product’s success — you need to balance it with commercial, operational and other aspects.
The commercial element is key. Product Leaders need to identify the right monetization strategies and business models to ensure viability for the product; to introduce innovation, not only at the core product, but also at the commercial level — novel ways to drive monetization and growth.
Ability to execute
Defining great products is only a part of the story. As a product leader, you need to set the roadmap, drive execution and ‘make it happen’. During this journey, it is critical to measure all key aspects of the engineering/ product development process and also incorporate customer feedback loops as early as possible. Successful PMs use these data streams to steer, adapt and make those hard decisions separating success from failure. To successfully execute, you also need deep understanding of practices and frameworks such as agile engineering.
A strong Innovation mindset
Successful Product Leaders realize the value of innovation for product development and establish the right processes to empower a special culture — fostering ideas sharing, collaboration, creativeness and experimentation. Mastering innovation practices and tools (such as design thinking, design sprints etc.) is key here. At the same time, judgement is required on when to apply such practices and at what extend to allow outcomes to impact your product.
Ability to setup the right framework
Product development is a complex process. In terms of methodologies and tools, there are multiple options available and this is where things can become tricky — as you need to know what to apply, when and how to use the results in making product decisions. For example, is findings from user-research strong enough to kill a feature? When to use A/B testing to decide on feature variants? How to model, analyse and interpret user feedback? How to weight qualitative vs quantitative feedback? How to incorporate new feature ideas in the product backlog?
There are several schools of thought for product development and innovation. Tools and techniques range from innovation workshops and design sprints to real agile engineering, rapid prototyping and experimentation — for testing ideas and understanding users. In all cases you need to understand the frameworks and achieve clarity on what to use when and how to interpret your findings in the right context.
A unique leadership style
There’s a lot written about different leadership styles and the ‘effective business leader’. But in my opinion, leading people is different than leading a product: yes, as a product leader you need to inspire and energize your team and all involved stakeholders; you need to show your passion for your product and demonstrate a clear vision and your strategy to get there; to show your commitment and belief in your overall goal.
But in the case of a real Product Leader, all the above should happen naturally, without special effort or even awareness: product leaders are obsessed with product success, they are enthusiastic about making an impact; they share, explain and advocate their ideas; they support an open culture of innovation, information sharing and collaboration. These, naturally inspire people to follow and support the efforts: when people believe in your product vision, they engage, they become part of it and ultimately part of the success; this way product members grow, succeed, they get recognized and they evolve as leaders.
As you develop your leadership style, you should focus on inspiring and influencing over managing and controlling people. Leading great products to success also leads to great product engineering teams.
Great products are built by great teams which are inspired by passionate, skillful visionaries. To become one, you need a natural propensity in building great stuff and a wide combination of skills — from software engineering, and visualization to monetization and growth.