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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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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Why is trust key to your company’s success?

I write about trust often on this blog, so I’ll keep this post short and to the point: Gaining and keeping the trust of those you lead is one of the top factors to your company’s ongoing success.

Think about someone you trust unconditionally. Is there anything you wouldn’t do for that person? Why? Here’s my answer: that person would never ask me to do something that was not in my best interest.

Do you lead your organization such that everything you do results in the best outcome for the people you lead? If not, why not? If you want to gain the full trust of your people, you need to show them, by your words and actions, that what they are working towards will be in their best interest. When problems arise, and things don’t go as planned, they will understand why and will move forward despite setbacks.

When you live and lead in such a way that people trust your decisions and direction, you will succeed.


The Product Management Perspective: Trust is the key to effectively working with the teams you depend on for your product’s success. Trust is key to understanding your customers and markets. Trust is a two-way street: you need to carry out your tasks in such a way that team members will trust you; you also need to trust that team members will do what they have committed to do. When you live and lead in such a way that people trust your decisions and direction, you will succeed…and so will your products!


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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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Technology is not enough

Just because you port or transition your product (software, hardware, etc.) to a model that is new/up-and-coming/exciting/proven/<fill in the blank>/ you have no guarantee it will succeed; technology is not enough to make a mediocre idea succeed. You must understand the market. If your product or idea is not what potential customers are looking it does not matter what technology you use to roll it out. If the market you are seeking to service has no need for what you are rolling out, the technology irrelevant.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is now a proven way of providing software to companies. SaaS is gaining increasing acceptance and viability for many software companies, and customers appreciate the fact that much of the work and worry of software management  is now handled by the vendor. However (and this is a BIG however), if the ideas you are promoting and selling as software are not needed in the market — i.e. if the software is not market-driven — porting it to SaaS (or any other model/technology) will not save it; in fact it will complicate it.

Last year Steve Johnson wrote an excellent article called Stop Perfuming the Pig that goes in-depth on this topic. Steve says: “No amount of perfume can overcome the stench of a technology product that people don’t need.” Amen. You have to understand the market and make sure the market needs what you are building.


The Product Management Perspective: These ideas fit squarely in the realm of product management; after all, the product manager is the voice of the market. One of (if not THE) most important responsibilities of a product manager is to have a profound understanding of the market, customers and potential customers his or her software targets. If you are not spending time doing market sensing, take a close look at where you are spending your time, clear up your calendar, and schedule time to understand the market. There are many effective ways to do this and they vary by industry, so you will need to figure out what works.The important thing is that you do it.


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Communicating with customers

When times are good, communicating with customers is easy. Travel budgets are typically flush with cash, optimism abounds and your desire to discuss company direction is high. However, in difficult times one of the first things to drop off in many companies is customer interaction. Whether because of budget cuts or the more serious problem — loss of company confidence — communicating with customers seems to go by the wayside when times get tough.

Regardless of how well your company is doing, you need to communicate with customers. In a recent IBD article, Gloria Lau emphasized the importance of customer relationships:

Get out there and make sure clients know you’re there for them. A lot of suppliers are spending time internally focused, curtailing travel expenses. Instead, this is the time when you should spend more money with customers. You need to build those relationships to let clients know you’ll be there for them in the long term. Once you have a solid relationship with customers and you help them through a crisis, their memories can be pretty long.

In difficult economic times spending money to interact with customers is a sound investment. Spending time and money on potential customers is also relevant. Chances are your competitors are not making the same effort, so make the most of your opportunities.


The Product Management Perspective: Much has been written about the importance of customer visits to the success of your products. As the product manager you have a tremendous opportunity to not only gain great insight for your products, but also to set the standard for your company with regard to communicating with your customers.


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Service providers

In today’s language the term “service provider” is often used generally to describe the company or organization from whom you get your Internet, phone and/or TV service. The emphasis seems to be on ‘provider’ not ‘service.’ It seems, in many cases, the service providers have forgotten the importance of providing service to their customers. They want to collect the money from their customers, but many do not actually provide real service.

Seth Godin wrote a cogent post about the importance of making the customer happy. In response to an experience he had calling a customer service organization, he wrote:

The only reason to answer the phone when a customer calls is to make the customer happy.

If you’re not doing this or you are unable to do this, do not answer the phone. There is no middle ground on this discussion. There are no half measures. Saving 50 cents a call with a complicated phone tree is a false savings. Think of all the money you’ll save if you just stop answering altogether. Think of all the money you’ll make if you just make people happy.

It comes down to the leadership through which the attitude is established in an organization. Focus on becoming a service provider and you will make people happy.


The Product Management Perspective: The importance of customer service in product management cannot be overstated. To the extent product managers focus on understanding and serving their customers their products will do likewise.


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Before its time

My good friend Saeed wrote a great post on why Product Management is everything! He makes this claim based on a Harvard Business Review article written in 1991 by Regis McKenna called Marketing is Everything. Saeed does a great job describing how the claims McKenna made, about marketing, really pointed to product management; specifically technology-based product management. The only problem was, McKenna did not know about product management or have a good catch-phrase to describe it at the time. After several quotes from the article and well-thought-out supporting commentary, Saeed asserts the following:

It should be clear where McKenna was heading with this. This new type of Marketing–that understands technology, the market, customer needs, and the competition; that works with partners, suppliers, vendors as well as customers; that integrates the customers into the development process to produce superior products and services–is what we today call Product Management.

Whether he intended it to be so or not, what Regis McKenna, one of the luminaries of high-tech marketing was saying, was that the critical function that companies must adopt to thrive in the market is Product Management.

It’s enjoyable to see how the discipline of product management has evolved, and good to know its importance was understood before its time. So what’s the new discipline evolving today that doesn’t yet have a name?


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Know your market

Knowing the market and understanding customers requires getting out of the office. You need to listen to the people who are in the trenches using your product or perhaps your competitor’s products. Understanding their needs, their pains, their ideas for doing things better help product managers tune into the market. After all, it’s the people in the market who become the customers that pay for the products and services they need. To understand how products will be successful, product managers will know the target customers and what drives them to buy their products.

The work of interviewing customers is a critical aspect of knowing your market. Customers respond positively to one-on-one interaction with product managers. They appreciate feeling like they have a role in setting product direction.  They want to be innovative, and the act of a product manager taking time to listen to them talk gives them a feeling of empowerment that they are really making a difference. They also like to talk about themselves. Tuned in product managers take time to listen to and really understand their customers. They ask well-thought-out questions to lead the conversation, but let the customer do most of the talking. They listen to what’s being said and ask pertinent follow-up questions to confirm what they heard. They visit with customers at their place of business (and without the sales rep). Customers will gladly show how their company operates and how they use products if their input will be used, and if they feel they are not being ‘sold to’ by the people onsite (for this reason it’s best to go without the sales rep).


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The tuned in product manager

I recently wrote a post about the great new book Tuned In: Uncover the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs. This book has wide application to different types of organizations, markets and individuals. Anyone looking for ways to improve their success will be well-served by reading and applying the principles in Tuned In.

I have found particular application to of the Tuned In principles to product management. Product managers succeed when their products succeed. Their products succeed when they solve previously unresolved problems, or existing problems in new ways. The tuned in product manager identifies problems that the market wants to solve and provides context to help the company create the solution. Successful product managers are:

  • Tuned in to the market: Tuned in product managers understand their customers and also their potential customers (the untapped market). Many great blog posts exist about understanding existing customers. Knowing your potential customers — i.e. the market — can be more tricky. Finding places where potential customers gather (either in-person or on-line) and spending time with them is one way I’ve discovered to gather important market data. Relevant industry trade shows can be a great option to meet with non-customers. Tuned in product managers discover unresolved problems and find ways to create products that will fill the unmet needs.
  • Tuned in to the product team: Tuned in product managers lead the product team with market facts. They know their team members, understand what inspires them and provide relevant product direction. They work to instill confidence in their ability to lead the products and the team in the right direction. They know what motivates the team to go above and beyond their normal abilities. They take the initiative to make important decisions, and then stand behind those decisions. They foster productivity on the team.

Tuned in product managers are the driving force behind the products that become resonators in their markets. They pay attention to details and provide context to enable their teams to succeed. And ultimately, they have fun doing it!

For more information on this topic please see the article Steve Johnson and I co-wrote: The Tuned-In Product Manager. Join us on July 11 as we present a webinar titled Tuned In Product Teams. Pragmatic Marketing has also published an article I wrote: Five Factors of Leadership. Check out the Tuned In landing page for other great events and articles associated with the Tuned In release.

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