A few months ago, Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw published “Product Leadership”, a great book which shares stories and insights from top product managers who’ve built world class products and highly performant product teams. Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw are all well established product management experts, and as part of writing “Product Leadership” they interviewed some of the best product managers in the field about their ways of working.
The authors distinguish between product management and product leadership, stressing the need to focus more on product leadership. This book isn’t about just managing a product team; as the book states, “A product leader is ultimately responsible for the success and failure of a product, and by extension, the company itself.” This raises the question about what makes a true product leader:
- “Product is people” — The book makes a great point about the importance of people within a product management context. More and more organisations are moving away from a traditional top-down approach, whereby senior management determines ‘upstream’ what people ‘downstream’ should be doing. Companies like Spotify have been very successful in creating autonomous and cross-functional teams. The success of this approach doesn’t only come from the cross-functional and collaborative nature of Spotify teams; people within these teams are also very close to the customer. When Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw talk about ‘people’, they talk about people both within and outside of a product organisation.
- Focus on customer problems — I love how the book stresses the importance of focusing on customer problems. I liked the comment in the book from User Interface Engineering’s Jared Spool. He suggests having themes on the roadmap instead of features: “Themes are a promise to solve a problems not to build features.” Once you’ve truly understood customer problems, you can start prioritising. Banfield, Eriksson and Walkingshaw suggest that prioritisation is best done through the lens of the core product management principles: first, is it valuable; second, is it usable and third, is it feasible?
- Creating a successful product team — The book covers the ingredients of successful product teams (see Fig. 1 below). The authors point out that none of the people they interviewed mentioned hard skills, such as engineering, design or even specific product management expertise. In contrast, with product managers, the focus is much more on soft skills. One of my favourite product people, Drift CEO and cofounder David Cancel, believes that the traits of a successful product leader will always be weighted towards softer skills.”What we’re looking for are things that fit more on the qualitative side, which people hate because it’s so squishy”, Cancel explains.
- How to identify product leaders — The book rightly makes the point that hiring product leaders is hard. Experienced product people with strong soft skills are low in supply in most markets. One can derive the characteristics of good product leaders from the high level traits of a successful team (see previous point), and the book contains some helpful characteristics of good product leaders (see Fig. 2).
- Aligning team members — I’ve heard some product leaders talking about “treating your product team as a product”, and the book talks along similar lines about successful product teams. One key aspect in this respect is a product leader’s ability to align team members around a shared goal or vision.
Main learning point: “Product Leadership” is a great book for anyone interested in making the leap from being a product manager to a product leader. The book isn’t prescriptive in what makes a true product leader or how to become one; the authors have interviewed a wide range of global product leaders who share a wide range of experiences and perspectives. Because of its real life examples and lessons learned, “Product Leadership” isn’t your average ‘how to’ book. Instead, it helps readers reflect on what what product management is and what excellence in this field looks like.
Fig. 1 — Common characteristics of successful product teams — Taken from: Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw. Product Leadership, pp. 74–76
- Lifelong learning — Actively seeking new information, insights and understanding is a cornerstone to successful product management. Connected to this is an open-mindedness and coachability in all respected leaders; they don’t assume they know all the answers and constantly refactor their thinking to take in new knowledge and feedback.
- Strong communication — This is a big bucket that includes several soft skills like listening and presenting, but communication is fairly self-explanatory.
- Empathy — Deeply connected to communication is empathy — not only empathy for team members inside and outside the organisation, but for customers as well.
- Diversity — Strong leaders know that a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and demographics provides the range of perspectives needed to build a complete product experience.
- Business savvy — This characteristic is related to how product leaders understand their role in the value delivery process and their grasp of the broader business context.
- Cross-functional representation — Teams without representation see the world with strong biases. The more a product leader can bring the functional areas of a product together, the more likely the team will act in a coherent manner.
- Collocation — Working side by side with your team makes communication easier and faster.
- Autonomy — The best teams have the ability to solve problems on their own without having to run everything up the ladder. Decision-making skills and the authority to implement those decisions are critical to a team’s speed and effectiveness.
- Interdependence — This might seem almost contradictory to the autonomous point, but successful teams don’t wall themselves off from the rest of the company. Autonomy is a reference to the ability to make decisions, not a reflection on their avoidance of others.
- Accountability — The best teams place guardrails in place that allow them to see clearly when either the qualitative research isn’t paying back or the product releases are not hitting the desired outcomes.
Fig. 2 — How to identify product leaders — Taken from: Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw. Product Leadership, pp. 76–82
- Plays well with others — Product management and product leadership are people-first roles. Teams are made up of individuals who each bring their own personalities, perspective, and opinions. Understanding what makes people tick makes it easier to get the best out of them and identify when there is a problem. Being an empathic product leader doesn’t mean you have to be all things to all people but you’re able to engage emphatically with others, even if they don’t have a lot in common with them.
- Always acts and thinks “team first” — The kind of leader that needs constant recognition and praise is not likely to be the best person for this job. The top product leaders hardly ever get recognition for their hard work and dedication. Furthermore, they tend to turn any limelight they receive back on their teams.
- Is comfortable wearing lots of hats — Product leaders are typically comfortably wearing the hats of marketer, manager, technologist, customer advocate, and facilitator, to name a few. This doesn’t mean they are experts at each of these roles; rather, they are comfortable working across all areas as the role evolves or as the product demands.
- Displays curiosity — This trait relates to several others mentioned here, but needs to be addressed specifically. Having a deep interest in learning, enthusiastically accepting new challenges, encouraging others to speak up, and listening to their perspectives are all actions driven by curiosity.
- Communicates well — This might seem so obvious it’s not worth mentioning, but it’s surprising how many senior managers and leaders are poor communicators. Having the ability to share information in a clear, concise manner is a necessary and desirable skill for a product leader. Whether they’re talking, listening, writing, planing, sharing, or facilitating, the goal is always to be understood.
- Possesses selling skills — This might be controversial, but when you consider what product leaders do each day, it’s no surprise that selling is one of the things to look out for in product leaders. To be clear, this is not the type of selling associated with business development; rather, it’s not the type that works to change minds and get buy-in from others.
- Has exceptional time management skills — Shipping product is a race against time. Managing that race is a series of little decisions that collectively make up the product roadmap.
- Shows equanimity / grace under fire — Being equanimous is tightly connected to the “plays well with others” trait mentioned above. “We practice equanimity — the idea of taking all this emotional anxiety and trying to structure it, understand it, and channel it into productive output,” says Jeff Veen, Design Partner at True Ventures. Who is on the team matters much less than how the team interacts, and the number one dynamic that defined successful teams was a sense of psychological safety — a sense that the team would not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. Being able to instil this sense of psychological safety and trust is a key part of the product leader’s job.