Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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Why leaders need a long-term vision

Why are you in business? What drives your daily activities—your long-term vision or making the numbers this quarter? If you’re a board member, do you incentivize your executives to make a long-term contribution for the company or to keep the shareholders happy this quarter? If these questions cause you any discomfort, your priorities might be out-of-line with your core values.

In a recent interview with McKinsey & Company, Bill George—Harvard Business School professor and former Medtronic CEO—said the following: Anyone who’s willing to postpone the long-term strategies to make the short-term numbers is in route to going out of business.

In the full interview—Bill George on rethinking capitalism—Mr. George discusses important topics including insisting on the long term, managing expectations and creating lasting value. I recommend you spend a few minutes listening to Bill’s interview; it’s well worth your time.


The Product Management Perspective: One of the key aspects of product management is creating a long-term vision for a product/portfolio. Some are uncomfortable putting too much effort in looking to the future because things change. The core of this discomfort is not so much that things might change, as it is that they will be perceived as being wrong.

Don’t let the possibility that you’ll be wrong stop you from looking towards the future. Regardless of whether you end up right or wrong (or anywhere in between), the efforts you put into planning for the future will pay off. You will learn things you would have missed had you not tried. Be the leader—the CEO—of your product and create a long-term vision of how it will create value for your customers.


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Focus on what’s most important

You get results based on the things you focus on most intently.

Most people are driven to increase their performance and expand their abilities. They understand the need to work hard in areas for which they have great passion.

Regardless of how many things you want to accomplish, you must focus on the most important and let other things — which in the right context may be very good things — go by the wayside. Tom Peters sheds an interesting perspective on focus with the following quote:

Leaders focus on the soft stuff — people, values, character, commitment, a cause. All of that was supposed to be too (indefinable) to count in business. Yet it’s the stuff that real leaders take care of first. That’s why leadership is an art, not a science.

Focus on what you want to achieve. The results will speak for themselves.


The Product Management Perspective: Product management takes complete focus. Recently a friend told me his company’s CEO decided that their engineering managers would also be responsible for product requirements and roadmaps. Their (few) ‘product managers’ will only focus on marketing their products.

It’s never easy to predict how things will turn out in the future, but if I were a betting man I would NOT bet on this move. They will lose focus on what the product means to the market/people who use it. For a product to succeed, you need to have someone—a product manager—completely focused on its success.


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How to lead without blinders

Several years ago I wrote that you can’t fake leadership. Becoming a leader requires a careful combination of confidence and humility. Leading an organization requires focusing intently in key areas. Successful leaders lead with their eyes wide open.

In my “day job” as a product manager I create software products that help companies fight against internal fraud. I was recently given the honor of publishing an article in Wired Innovation Insights—Blinders at the C-Level Can Cost You Billions—which discusses the perils of the “not-in-my-company” attitude, and the importance of incorporating active risk-management strategies to mitigate the insider threat. Though it focuses mostly on insider fraud, the article has valuable lessons for all leaders about focusing on the right things and not getting blindsided by the vulnerabilities your organization faces.

You can’t fake leadership, especially if you’re wearing blinders!


The Product Management Perspective: One of the best ways product managers can avoid getting caught with their blinders on is to proactively listen to your customers.


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How do leaders deal with change?

Change is one of the inevitable aspects of business, and life in general. Some people find it difficult to deal with change, and their attitude towards it limits their growth. Others embrace change and deal with it in positive ways.

Leaders have to deal with change personally and also help their people stay positive. Here are three simple, yet powerful ways leaders deal with change effectively:

Be flexible: Don’t get set in your ways. Know ahead of time that things are going to change, and when they do, embrace and move forward. If you’re rigid and inflexible, changes will still come and they will be painful.

Be accountable: When situations change, take charge. Take responsibility for what is happening and work to help others deal with the changes. Lead out in facing the moment and dealing with it head-on. Others will follow and they will appreciate you for your efforts.

Look to the future: Your attitude towards change will determine how it influences you. If you worry and fret about what is happening, it will have a negative affect. If you look for the positives in the situation, and move forward with confidence, everything that changes in your life will have a positive outcome, and your attitude will help others.

Years ago I had received a promotion to a new position—product manager—that I had been working on for more than a year. For the next nine months I worked eagerly to learn what I needed to do to succeed in the role, and I put those things into practice. My manager gave me high reviews and things were looking up. Then the unexpected happened…the company downsized and I was out of a job.

It was difficult at first, but I immediately set my sights on a young company that was starting to get a lot of attention in the industry. They had an opening for the position I wanted. I did my homework, got advice from mentors, researched the company, and prepared myself in every way I could imagine for the interviews. It took a while to get through the process (I later found out that more than 100 people had applied for the job), but I got the job. It was the perfect job for me at that point in my career. This change opened up new opportunities for me to grow as a leader. I never would have pursued it without the unexpected change.

When changes occur, don’t shy away or act like they didn’t happen. Face them head-on, look to the future, and make the best of the situation. Then look for ways to move forward and help others deal with them in a positive way.


The Product Management Perspective: Product managers deal with change in many ways. Changes in the market can be the most difficult to detect and deal with, and yet these are among the most important for product success. Set aside time to do market research to make sure you know what’s going on in the market your product serves. Set aside time for customer visits, learn what’s important to them and make sensible decisions based on what you find.


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Are you a leader in product innovation?

What drives innovation in your company or organization? Do you have a group of “thinkers” who come up with the new ideas? Do you watch the trends of competitors or others close to your market? Do you look outside your corporate world for clues to where you should go next?

In a recent MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work post the author Eric von Hippel asserts that company leaders focus too much on what’s next based on their internal product innovators, and they do not listen enough to the people using the products. On the topic of who are the real product innovators, von Hippel says:

It’s consumers not the product innovators who should be viewed as the new experts. A new school of innovation thinking says that product innovators who work for manufacturers have received far too much credit for product innovation, while product users have received far too little


The Product Management Perspective: The topic of product innovation goes to the roots of every product manager. Most forward-looking organizations rely on product managers to innovate their products, to assure their viability to the market, with the end goal of increased sales revenue. Visiting your customers—whether consumers at a tradeshow or large enterprise customers at their place of business—is key to the innovation and future success of your products. If you (or your boss) need motivation for looking to the outside for product innovation, I recommend the article three reasons to visit customers.


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Three Ways to Get Your Team Excited About a Boring Product

Guest post by Guy Ascher

It’s hard to get amped up about selling razor blades, but somehow Dollar Shave Club has pulled it off. It’s one of the most successful new startup companies and it sells items that most people couldn’t give two hoots about. The secret is in the marketing. If you sell a boring product – toilet paper, pens, razors, water bottles, fishing supplies – you need to figure out a way to excite your employees. If they’re not excited, they can’t sell your company. If they can’t sell your company, you’re going to be out of business in short-order.

Tell A Story About Your Product

One of the best ways to breathe life into a boring product is to give it a story. It doesn’t always work, but most products do have one. Maybe your company started out of your parent’s basement. You were tinkering with your bedroom fan, and you figured out how to get those blades to spin 30 per cent faster.

You blew up a few test fans in the process but, at the end of the day, you had yourself the coolest room in the whole house. Later on, you decided to see if you could create massive fans for other people that would replace expensive air conditioning units. After several years – success.

Sound like a silly story? Maybe it is, but it’s the kind of thing really does exist out there. By the way, there is a company out there with an interesting fan story – it’s called “Big Ass Fans.” They make industrial and residential fan units that are unlike any other fan you can buy. Are employees excited about selling the company? You bet they are.

Create An Emotional Experience

Part of selling involves getting your prospects emotionally committed to your marketing message. If your prospects aren’t invested, they won’t care what you have to say. Creating an emotional experience can be tough, but one of the best ways to pull it off is to personalize your marketing messages.

Use surveys as a barrier to your email list. Make users fill out a short survey. Why? So you can provide customized advice about their problem. Most people are comfortable with answering a few questions, especially if the payoff is personalized service. No one wants to be “just another number.”

Another way to connect emotionally with your audience is to use high-quality video. Try to communicate your message with music and stunning visuals. Usually, this will win out over an obvious sales pitch. For example, the “embrace life” promotion is an ad that shows the benefits of wearing your seat belt.

The visuals are stunning and, even though there’s no dialog in the video, the message is crystal-clear.

Create a Personality For Your Company

How do you create a personality surrounding your company when you sell something as boring as contact lenses? The same way Apple creates its personality when selling something as “boring” as a computer. In the 1980s, no one used computers the way they do now. Apple was a key player in getting the marketplace excited about a hunk of metal, some plastic, and a keyboard.

The same can be said of Zappos. Who gets excited about shoes? These people do. Find something that you can use as a point of differentiation. Maybe you offer premium-quality products that are visually stunning. Maybe you have the best customer service in the world – and can prove it.

Whatever your angle, create a personality or “gimmick” surrounding your products and your company. It’ll make it a lot easier for our employees to get jazzed up about something that’s otherwise not very exciting.

Guy Ascher studied Marketing at the University of Newcastle in the UK. After years of working for marketing firms in Manchester, London and then eventually New York, he moved on to consulting small businesses on a their marketing needs. His articles focus on helping smaller businesses compete with well-established brands using new techniques or technology.


The Product Management Perspective: The key to making your product exciting is to make sure it’s the best product in the market. Focusing on sound product management principles will help you focus on this goal.


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Why do nice companies finish first?

In a recent post we found out why nice companies finish first. Throughout the book the author quotes successful leaders that show how companies (and people) that are nice experience more success than their less kind counterparts. Here are a few of my favorites:

 “We feel customers are our friends, and we talk to them like friends. What you hear is amazing.” –Nazim Ahmed

“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter.” –Walt Disney

“Frankly, you can’t be a jerk and be successful in the service business for a long period of time. When you’re in the service business, reputation is everything.” –Kenneth Chenault

“Superior customer service has always been and always will be the cornerstone of our brand and is a cultural attribute that differentiates us from the rest of the pack.” –Chris McCormick

“The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.” –Henry Ford

“Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” –Warren Bennis

“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” –Oscar Wilde

And from the author himself:

“Lesson number one: it pays to be a nice guy. Second: always stand behind a pompous ass whenever possible. Your niceness will be thrown into dramatic high relief.” –Peter Shankman

“There’s no way to institutionalize or ‘corporatize’ niceness—your HR department is never going to come up with a management structure that magically creates a collegial atmosphere. It has to come from the top, and from there it will filter down through managers, supervisors, staffers and so on.” –Peter Shankman


The Product Management Perspective: Do nice product managers finish first? I’d love to know what you think; please leave a comment.


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Key elements of leadership and product management

Most technology companies are comprised of people and teams that discover, define, design, develop and deliver products to the market. Their success depends largely on how well these teams work together to produce great products and services. The role of product manager has become increasingly important to the success of the products and the companies; it has become increasingly strategic.

One aspect of the role of product management that makes it both enjoyable and difficult is the fact that, in most companies, the people on whom product managers depend to successfully release products do not report to them. Product managers have to act as the catalyst to drive unity and direction on the team without having management authority over the people (from other teams) they depend on for their success. This situation requires product managers to be leaders.

The following quotes by great leaders — while not written specifically to product managers — shed a light on key elements of leadership and product management:

Customer visits: ”A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” – John Le Care

Product direction: ”Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” – General Colin Powell

Responsibility: “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.” - John Maxwell

Team leadership: ”All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common; it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people…. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” - John Kenneth Galbraith

Time management: “Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers.” - Dee Hock

Not all product managers will one-day lead their company in an executive roll. However, to increase the likelihood for success (with both products and careers), product managers should work diligently to become leaders in their organizations.


The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager you have the opportunity to build great products and have a very positive influence on your overall organization. Your influence can go a long way to building a great company.


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Are you building a great organization?

Whether you lead a classroom of school children or a major corporation, you should frequently ask yourself the question “am I building a great organization?” Why should you try to build a great organization? Because doing so is, for the most part, as easy as building a good one (see Good to Great chapter 9).

Here are five posts from Lead on Purpose that will help you build a great organization:

1. Taking leadership to the next level

2. The pursuit of something better

3. Developing a climate of trust

4. Leadership and collaboration

5. Becoming a decisive leader


The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager you have the opportunity to build great products and have a very positive influence on your overall organization. Your influence can go a long way to building a great company.

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