In the few years of product management experience, I’ve been led by a great set of product heads/leads. They’ve left so much of a mark on my growth as a product manager that I can remember exactly how they’d deal with a situation. Whether it was Anmol Bhatia of MyDala/Lenskart fame, Anuj Rathi of Wallmart/Flipkart/Swiggy fame or Prasad Gupte, of the Shukran/Babble fame, each one of them have taught me lessons on product thinking and product management.
Analysing their leadership patterns, I’ve come to realize that there are 6 things they did consistently (apart from the traditional manager/leadership) that made them great in my eyes. It goes without saying, of course, that each product leader brings in their flavor of product leadership — varying on factors of working environment, team structure and composition. But the following are, in my opinion, 6 non-negotiable product leadership qualities:
1. Clear and Consistent Communication
Any product domain has the excitement and frustration of changing business priorities. Exciting because you never know what’s coming next, frustrating because, well, you never know what’s coming next. As working class product managers, we (should) ask ‘which direction and how fast?’ making magic along the way. And while we’re aware of the tides of changing business environments, a clear communication that a business goal is short-term and could potentially change in the next few days/weeks, is far more favorable than a communication that states that the business goal is permanent, only to have it moved down to the lowest end of the priority table, a few days/weeks later.
Consistent communication is essential, whether in a group or a 1–1 setting. That shows the group is going together, wherever it may be… And that there is a personal focus, in a 1–1 setting.
Communication to other teams is also essential. Many a times, my sprints have gone smoother only because my Product Lead addressed the development team, re-affirming his confidence in my team. This not only validates authority of the product manager (remember, product managers have no authority — influence is our only pressure tactic), but rallies the troops, so to speak, in the right direction.
2. Validating or setting priority
One of my product leads, would only ask what my priorities were — and in case they were off, he’d help me re-prioritise. Prioritization itself is a very personal topic — what I consider is very important maybe least important to you, but it falls on a product lead to explain and ensure consensus on reprioritized items.
It wasn’t important to me that something was re-prioritized to a lower value, it was important to know why it was done so… This validation/setting of priorities helped me ensure that the work I was doing was going to benefit the business.
3. Clearing Obstacles
Since most of us work on influence, there may be a time when a particular function (I’m looking at you, technology folks) may not follow the general direction. It then falls upon the Product Lead to come swooping in to clear those obstacles, whether they are personnel related or function related.
We product managers need someone who looks ahead and clears the path, while we focus on the work at hand.
4. Marketing the product function & the team
We run on reputation. Our entire creed and influence works only due to the reputation & respect we command across the streams. And the best person to speak highly of the product function and the team is the Product Lead. Fair representation — bringing forth opinions from within the team to the leadership — and promoting the work done by the team is a non-negotiable expectation.
The product lead should be a political mastermind — never playing the game, but always vigilant of the winds that blow.
5. Grooming for the bigger game
Let’s face it. Only a few of work at the big named organizations of Facebook, Google, Amazon etc. Most of us have a medium level of volume and are striving to reach the higher volume achieved by those orgs. A sense of complacency falls onto a product manager who has done work at similar volume levels — volumes by work or by customers. It falls on the experienced Product Lead to demonstrate the pitfalls in our approaches at scale and how we can improve it. This also means that there is a close look at the approaches used by product managers on the ground, and grooming of that approach to ensure scale. This follows from traditional development practices of ‘writing for scale’.
Also, the Lead is expected to know where we can improve — both professionally and personally. Sometimes, we need a 10,000 kms view of ourselves to ensure we’re going the right way.
6. Drawing the line between Product and function
This one is a tricky expectation — there are times when we product folks cross the thick line between our function and those of UX, Tech, Data etc. It may happen due to our ability to understand some of things better, or because we might have an opinion which we’re adamant about. In such cases, a Product Lead should help us know where we can meddle in the business of others and where we cannot.
A good example is process optimization within a function like marketing. Marketing teams are traditionally run in a chaotic fashion — the nature of business and requirements tend to create an atmosphere of chaos where maintaining order is an overhead that gets in the way. Our general tendency is to then figure out what we, as product folks, can do to reduce the overheads and bring in a process that works. An experienced Lead will intervene and decide, depending upon the workload,maturity of the teams involved, business mechanics and political know-how, to assist or not. That direction is an essential expectation from the head.
I’ll conclude this piece with the following:
Only those who’ve mastered their trade, known the top, would have been able to satisfy the above 6 expectations. I’ve been fortunate to have been led, and still be led, by those who’ve had only the best interest for their team at heart. Find yourself a good product lead, and stick to them.
Do you expect more or less from your Lead? If you’re a product lead, do you think these expectations are fair? If no, then join us in the exciting comments sections where your opinions will be taken out of context :)
See you there!