How to be a Great Product Leader
One of the challenges we've long acknowledged in the tech industry is how difficult the transition can be from a software engineer to an engineering manager due to the vast distinction in the skill set to be great at the new role. Equally challenging but less talked about is how much this same challenge exists when transitioning from a product manager to a manager of product managers, ie. a product leader.
I wanted to share some of the best practices I learned along the way making my own transition from a product manager to a product leader.
Shift your individual focus from design and execution to vision and strategy
I think one of the first challenges that new product leaders face is understanding exactly the division of labor between themselves and their team members. While you are largely given sound advice to focus on driving results through your team, it doesn't mean that when done right you are shirking all individual responsibility.
The way I think about product management is it boils down to driving the vision, strategy, design, and execution of a product area. Individual contributor product managers spend the vast majority of their time on the design and execution of their specific features and some of their time developing a vision and strategy for their features aligned to the entire product areas vision and strategy. As you become a product leader, you should be spending more of your own individual time driving the vision and strategy for the entire product area and leaving the design and execution responsibilities for individual features to your team members. Doing this right means a lot more than simply supporting your team. It involves significant individual contributor work of a new flavor to distill down the various input from your team members, your executive team, and most importantly, your customers, to create a clear and compelling vision and strategy. This work is very difficult for individual team members to take on and is best suited to be the direct responsibility for the product leader.
Create a strong system of accountability
When thinking about driving results through your team, the first order of business is establishing a strong system of accountability. While it may sound obvious, it's critically important to establish clearly what each team member is responsible for and help to shape exactly what success looks like for them.
While there are many good systems for this, my personal favorite is using quarterly OKRs defined on the individual level. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) is a goal-setting and planning framework that clearly defines the objectives or end-goals you are hoping to achieve and accompanies each of these goals with a key result, which is an easily measured objective measure to determine whether you have in fact achieved your stated goal. The goals are usually easy to define, but setting appropriately aggressive, but achievable key results is often challenging. I always ask my team members to draft OKRs and then spend significant time with them iterating on the right measure for their key results and determining appropriate forecasts and goals.
It then becomes important to ask your team to regularly monitor and report on progress against these key results during the quarter and ultimately to hold them accountable to the results by rewarding successful achievement at the end of the quarter. Such a post mortem at the end of the quarter is important not just for enforcing accountability, but becomes an incredible learning opportunity for everyone on the team for improving their own ability to forecast, determine realistic goals, and improve their ability to regularly deliver on their stated goals.
Create an equally strong system of inspection
But it takes more than a system of accountability to create a successful product team. Despite the conventional wisdom, it's rarely effective to simply "delegate and get out the way."
Instead what works is developing a strong system of inspection to regularly monitor progress, share best practices and learnings, and establish a high quality bar. The three tools I typically use for this are product reviews, weekly metric reviews, and OKR reviews.
Weekly product reviews are a great time to bring together the team's product, design, and engineering talent to share the latest designs for new features or iterations and to provide feedback from across the various teams. I find these to be highly educational for all team members, especially in sharing lessons from other parts of the product team with each other. They also are a great way to ensure a high quality bar on work without micro-managing the details.
Similarly, regularly reviewing weekly metric dashboards that cover high-level KPIs for each product area with week-over-week and year-over-year comparisons and targets become an easy way to monitor the health of the existing products and to reach out to team members when you notice interesting trends or anomalies, both good and bad.
Finally, having at least a mid-quarter OKR check-in also tends to be helpful for ensuring everyone is still tracking towards their stated goals and if not, making the appropriate adjustments on the team's work or expectations.
Focus on mentoring your bench
A key responsibility of your new role becomes regularly mentoring your team members to increase overall team capabilities. This means providing feedback early and often whenever you see areas for individual team members to take their game to the next level.
It's important to do this continually, often right after key activities, like product launches, product reviews, team presentations, etc. But to also ensure this is happening, I like to reserve regular time in 1:1s with team members to provide this feedback. I also like to use 1:1s to specifically build capabilities of individual team members in areas of development. This often is very tactical feedback on topics ranging from product design, to un-blocking roadblocks, working with specific team members, iterating on presentation materials, and so much more.
I was fortunate enough to have an incredible set of mentors that I could ask no stupid question to and always got back incredibly tactical feedback to improve my own capabilities. Given this, I want to make it safe for anyone on my team to be able to enjoy those same benefits.
The bar to hold yourself to is to ensure that when you receive constructive feedback on members of your team, you've been able to establish an action plan to address those capabilities and sometime in the future you hear from those same individuals that their feedback has been addressed. I've seen way too many teams ultimately fallback to a "sink or swim" culture where such constructive feedback on team members is left unaddressed by managers and ultimately leads to a far less effective team or worse, the failure of the individual team member. So keep the bar high on aspiring to directly take on these opportunities for growth on your team.
Always be sharpening the saw
Ultimately it becomes your responsibility to not only think about the work (ie. the results your teams are achieving), but also the "work of work", which is the processes by which work gets done on your team and to constantly aspire to improve those processes to improve quality of the team's results and team leverage.
Maybe you are constantly hearing challenges working with specific engineers or designers on the team and it needs to be addressed. Maybe teams are butting heads frequently and the division of responsibilities are not clear. Maybe you feel the quality of consumer research the team is doing is poor and needs to be vastly improved. All of these are system issues that you as a product leader are best suited to address to improve the overall quality of your entire team's output.
I hope this gives you some valuable insights on how a great product leader can build a truly high-functioning product team.
Want to accelerate your product career?
I've finally distilled my 15+ years of product experience into a course designed to help PMs master their craft. Join me for the next cohort of Mastering Product Management.
Are you building a new product?
Learn how to leverage the Deliberate Startup methodology, a modern approach to finding product/market fit. Join me for the next cohort of Finding Product/Market Fit.
Enjoyed this essay?
Get my monthly essays on product management & entrepreneurship delivered to your inbox.
Feb 02, 2016