10 top Tips From Product’s Finest Leaders
As we settle into the New Year we’re already looking ahead to the product leadership forums on our 2020 MTP calendar. And, to whet your appetite, here you’ll discover 10 pieces of advice from past forums, from the very best leaders* in the business along with supporting ideas from members of the Mind the Product community.
(*As our leadership forums are conducted under the Chatham House rule, you’ll not see any direct quotes from our forums. However, be assured that everything reported from our forums here comes from the most forward-thinking people in the world of product.)
1. Create Intentional Culture
If, as a leader, you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to know what the culture should be to support that journey. Your vision and its supporting culture should, therefore, be very specific about who you want to employ and how you want to work. It should help you to make choices about everything, from how you measure personal performance to what you build in your products.
2. Relight Your Cultural Fire
It’s generally true that most people don’t operate at their maximum capacity in situations that are completely comfortable. As a result, and to keep people motivated, it can be important to create a sense of urgency. Then, once that urgency is there, don’t let it slide.
- If you win in a single category, restructure your plan to drive success in others
- If you achieve your initial goals, look at what’s next to scale
- If there’s a big failure, make sure it never happens again
To fuel that all-important motivation, Head of Product, Timo suggests:
- Empowering teams by providing clear guidance on objectives/outcomes and by allowing teams to be in charge of figuring out how to achieve these
- Focusing on 1:1 coaching to help team members navigate challenges and issues
- Celebrating success and ensuring that teams learn from examples where things haven’t worked out
- Having regular career conversations
3. Identify People Management Potential
Spotting a prospective manager is a case of watching, waiting, and listening. Prospective people managers will demonstrate management attributes long before they officially become managers – you just need to spot them as they’re developing. For example, look for the people mentoring interns, running meetings, or organising initiatives for the team. If people approach you about people management opportunities, consider what’s driving them. Ask them about their motivation, and try to determine if they understand what the job entails, not just what they’ll get out of it.
Senior Director of Product, Sudi, comments: “Watch for the folks who end up as natural leaders on the team, those who aren’t officially in a leadership role. Give these individuals larger responsibilities to see if they can deliver and if the responsibility is something they like.”
4. Define What Product Management Means to Your Company
The product management role is fuzzy, and many companies don’t define what product management means to them. This isn’t fair to your current team or to anyone who wants to join them, so be explicit and deliberate. Set expectations through your job architecture, hiring, performance reviews, and growth conversations. Don’t go overboard with your product management competencies – keep these simple, clear, and realistic, and don’t expect your product managers to be an expert in everything. Good product managers should be well-rounded but have a forte.
5. Collaborate With Other Teams
A key function of product leadership is to drive collaboration with other parts of the business. This enables the organisation to make the most of its different parts, rather than having them work against one another. True collaboration takes other peoples’ perspectives, adds them to your own, and comes up with something that no one was expecting. The greater the number of perspectives, the more chance you have to solve a problem – this is exactly why cross-functional teams are so important.
Product Lead Dan aligns with this viewpoint. “Product management does nothing by itself,” he says. “It is only through the collaboration of other teams that our work is accomplished. All our objectives are measured by key results that we cannot accomplish on our own as they require activity from other people and skillsets.”
7. Create Psychological Safety
The highest performing teams admit more mistakes than any others, this is due to the psychological safety that they feel from those around them. As a leader, you can cultivate a culture of psychological safety by showing your own:
- Vulnerability – talk people through your own thinking and especially your own mistakes
- Curiosity – be interested in other people’s perspectives and ideas, and use active listening techniques to explore with them
- Empathy – come up with solutions which are based on the emotions and experiences of others
For Head of Product, Timo, the first point here is key. “One of the key things I try to practice is vulnerability,” he explains. “I’ve found that being more vulnerable in conversations makes it more likely for others to feel safe to open up. Another thing that’s key is for my team to know I have their back so I try to make sure I walk the talk at any opportunity there as well.”
8. Be Clear About Autonomy
In a Utopian world, everyone has the autonomy to do whatever they want and everyone will be very successful. However, in reality, things don’t always go that way. Leaders should tell their team members exactly what they do and don’t have autonomy over, and be clear on what they will be accountable for. By setting the right expectations in this way, you can ensure that your team members know what’s ahead of them, and enable them to find ways around any limitations they might face. After all, the ability to work around limitations requires innovation and creativity.
9. Be a More Creative Leader
Creative leaders focus on inspiration over authority, ambiguity over clarity, being real over being right, improvisation over following the manual, learning from mistakes over avoiding them, and hoping they’re right rather than acting with certainty that they will be. This is increasingly important because of the impact of Moore’s Law – we simply don’t know what’s going to happen next, and we can’t have the certainty we might have had in the past. As a result, embracing ambiguity and improvisation is key.
VP Product, Remko describes a creative leader as “someone who enables or pushes teams to think of (and test) new ways to solve problems, gets inspiration from other areas or other disciplines, and enables cross-pollination between teams.”
10. Learn From the People You Manage
Of course, reading books on management and leadership is useful, and can certainly help you in your role. However, good management itself can’t be learned from a book because there’s simply no substitute for learning by doing. Instead, management is about working with people, learning from each person and your experience of working with them.
Almost everyone we spoke to about this in the Mind the Product community agreed, including Head of Product Holly. “Every situation is unique and nuanced,” she says. “There is no substitute for having been in the trenches.”
The key to learning from your team is to pay attention to the experiences you have with the people you manage and to give time to thinking about how you handle each situation. What did you manage well and what not so well? How could you improve the experience next time? How has the person you manage developed as a result of that experience? These are important questions to ask yourself.
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