Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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Leadership and listening

Positive and effective communication starts with listening. When you listen first and ask questions second, you come away with a much better understanding of what the other person wanted you to know. If you need to communicate something to another person, state it quickly and then listen to their response. When you participate in meetings, listen to what the others have to say. Fight the impulse to talk; listen attentively and you’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Recently I had an eye-opening experience with learning by listening. My son invited me to attend a session with renowned sports performance enhancement coach Dr. Craig Manning. The only stipulation from my son was…”you have to set back and listen, and not make any comments.” [Those who know me well know I like to chime in and share my wisdom, so this would be a challenge for me.]

I accepted. I went to the session and for a full hour I sat still and listened. It was an amazing experience. Even though Dr. Manning was teaching my son, I learned some remarkable things about myself. I discovered actions I can take to improve my life and my work. All of this came because I listened (not only to Dr. Manning, but also to my son).

If you want to be happier, work more effectively, or improve your leadership, take the time to listen. Don’t just hear what people say, pause and reflect on what they really mean. Ask questions that will help you to better understand what the other person is saying. Listen, and become a better leader.


The Product Management Perspective: You work with a lot of different people, most of whom have opinions about your product. A well-known mantra in product management is “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” While I agree the gist of this statement, I find value in listening to others’ opinions. The act of listening to others brings knowledge and enlightenment to us. Even if we end up doing something totally different from what the other person suggested, we all benefit from listening and considering alternatives.


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Three characteristics of great leaders

If you want to be a great leader, you have to be a great follower. All the great leaders I have studied talk about the people who encouraged and inspired them to do great things. In almost every case, it wasn’t just one person who inspired them; it was a number of people. You will find some level of the following three characteristics in all great leaders:

  1. They study successful people: They have devoted significant time and energy to studying great leaders of the past and present. They take careful note of the results that have made others successful and find ways to incorporate the learning into their daily life.
  2. They take direction: Great leaders are willing to take direction from others. The ‘others’ could be a spouse, a boss or a religious leader. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter; they respect others and are willing to listen and take direction. They learn to trust in guidance outside themselves.
  3. They are humble: Most great leaders, both past and present, are humble, unassuming people. By ‘humble’ I do not mean weak or simple, but modest and self-effacing. They have a way of inspiring greatness in others while not drawing attention to their own successes. They look for ways to help others build confidence and find happiness in the successes of the people they help.

Think & Grow RichI can think of many leaders (past and present) who embody these characteristics in their lives. Napoleon Hill exemplifies a leader who was a great follower. He studied the lives of successful people for more than 20 years and compiled his findings in the book Think and Grow Rich.

He coined phrases like “thoughts are things” and “the mastermind” and quotes such as “whatever the mind of a man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” The interesting thing about Hill’s success as a leader was that he did not set out to become a leader. He humbly agreed to a challenge by Andrew Carnegie to learn about his secret and take it to the world. In part because of his willingness to be a follower (and a learner) he became a world-renowned author and leader.

Who are some of the great leaders you look up to? Do they exhibit these characteristics?


The Product Management Perspective: As the product manager you are on the front line for your products. You carry a huge responsibility for their success. Read about and study successful people (both inside and outside of PM). Be humble and open to taking direction from others. Incorporate these characteristics into your behavior and you will find increased success with your products.


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Developing Leadership Skills Early in your Career

Guest post by Caroline Ross

One thing that many young professionals don’t understand about the job market is that leadership plays a huge role in getting hired. As a former hiring manager and supervisor, I can say that the recent grads who have succeeded most in the workforce are those who’ve had intentional leadership experiences in college and after they’ve graduated. These are the types that succeed, so these were the types that I hired. If you’re worried about finding the right job early in your career, focus on leadership. Here’s how:

1. Don’t just join organizations; lead organizations
Many college students join various student organizations for the express purpose of padding their resume. They tend to do the same after college. When I see a laundry list of student or professional organizations on an applicant’s resume, this demonstrates to me that you aren’t very committed. Instead, join one organization that you’re truly passionate about, no matter what that organization is, and endeavor to become a leader within that organization. It’s much better to have one organization of which you were the president or chairman, instead of having several organizations on your resume that you were only semi-involved with.

2. Practice public speaking skills by joining Toast Masters or taking a speech course
Solid communication skills are important in every facet of the adult world, whether it’s during an interview, at work, or even in your personal relationships. A good, confident speaker, in my eyes, is a leader. As such, take the time to learn the basics of good public speaking. Most cities have at least one Toast Master’s chapter, and most schools also offer speaking courses, which you can still take as a continuing education course after you’ve graduated. Avail yourself of these opportunities to improve your ability to communicate and persuade.

3. Be involved at work and speak up
Every day, there are hundreds of hidden opportunities to develop leadership skills. One of the easiest ways to do so is to speak up during work meetings and be involved, even if you aren’t required to speak. Of course, offer your opinion in an appropriate manner so others will be receptive. You’ll not only learn the art of speaking, but you’ll also learn how to express your opinions in a clear and convincing manner, which matters a great deal in your future career. You can also practice leadership through greater involvement in other areas, like volunteering with a local organization.

Of course, you aren’t going to start your career off being the best possible leader that you can be. Leadership is an art that’s developed throughout your whole life. But if you take the time to practice early, you’ll be much more successful when it comes time to finding a job that suits your talents.  Good luck!

Caroline Ross is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. She particularly enjoys giving students advice about their future careers and personal development. Check out more Caroline’s writing at www.accreditedonlineuniversities.com. Caroline welcomes your comments below!


The Product Management Perspective: Learning is (or it should be) a life-long endeavor. Make learning and leadership development a focus in your work as a product manager and you will find new avenues of success in your career.


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What is Strategic Leadership?

Guest post by Sarah Rawson

Throughout the ages, leaders and followers alike have wondered whether the process of leadership depends on inborn traits or whether it can be taught. Great leaders are either born or trained. Still, some people who strive for leadership never quite achieve it. This leads many people to believe that there must be some factors out of a person’s control.

For people who fear that they were not born a leader, hope is not lost. Leadership skills can be taught. Through education and the learning of new leadership strategies, people can understand what it takes to lead a group. Strategic leadership is particularly popular as a concept in emerging businesses, or any business looking for a competitive advantage. Through strategic leadership, a leader can guide a group or company through transitions, suggest creative yet practical ideas, see the big picture, and build relationships with other teams and organizations.

What is different about strategic leadership?
In general, a leader gives directions, organizes, and delegates. But a strategic leader does all of the above with a core focus on strategy. Businesses without long-term goals, a clear strategy and good communication between departments struggle to thrive. With strategic leaders in your company, who have achieved a strategic leadership education, you can ensure your company thrives instead of being forced to grow without a strategy. Operating without clear strategy could ultimately leave you with the potential to be doomed to failure. Strategic leaders must be able to select talent and encourage people in their teams to learn and grow each year through developing additional skills in line with the company strategy, taking on challenging tasks in order to increase their on-the-job education, and so on.

Leaders that Change the Game
Kevin Panozza started a SalesForce in Australia out of the ashes of a failed airline he used to work for. Starting with just 10 staff, he built the company into over 5000 staff in just 12 years, serving various high profile clients. Where call centers are notoriously known for their low morale and high staff turnover, Kevin decided to follow a non traditional strategy with regards to his employees. He ditched the corporate dress code and formalities and created a casual yet focused and staff-centered work environment, which vastly contributed to staff morale and the success of his company.

Steve Jobs is another strategic leader who’s absence was sorely felt when he originally left Apple. On his return the whole climate changed, and the company returned to regain it’s coveted position. Larry Page and Sergey Brin also took Google to great heights by employing strategic leadership. Furthermore, what all the above-mentioned leaders had in common is that they were never shy of bringing in speakers and coaches to train their staff, to push them further and to foster a culture of leaders within their respective organizations.

Can anyone be a strategic leader?
While you might not be what some people consider a natural-born leader, you are still able to learn to be a strategic leader. Education in strategic leadership, including seminars, short courses, and even Master’s in Strategic Leadership programs, will enable you to succeed in leadership contexts. Your focus will be on creating value within the businesses or companies where you work – and not just monetarily, but in less tangible measures such as in talent and drive. If this sounds exciting, you have the potential to be a strategic leader.

What can you do with strategic leadership skills?
Once you have developed the capacity to lead while keeping the big picture in mind, these talents can be applied anywhere from the home to the largest businesses in the world. You’ll be a calmer and happier person when you are not concerned about your leadership skills. This will have the effect of relaxing your team, which can help them do better in their jobs. You will be able to encourage great performance out of people in all areas of life while ensuring everyone is in touch with what is going on.

How do you learn about strategic leadership?
Books and short courses only go so far. If you have completed an undergraduate education, you may wish to pursue this field as a way to lead or improve your leadership, learn about effective decision-making, and develop life skills applicable to other contexts. Even if you have been working full-time, you can go back to school.

Schools worldwide offer various forms of Master’s programs designed for career professionals who want to enhance their abilities. Strategic leadership skills are useful in all areas of your life, and by developing these skills you can grow as a professional and as a person.

Sarah Rawson is a freelance writer and is also studying for her MS in Strategic Management. Her articles appear on various higher education blogs.


The Product Management Perspective: Leadership is the key to successful product management. Eric Hoffer says it well: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” Always have a learning mindset. Be strategic in your role as product manager.


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The desire to learn

One of the key tenets of leadership is learning. Great leaders are learners. They read voraciously. They write and teach what they learn. Learning is as much a part of their life as eating.

Cultivating the desire to learn is vital to your success as a leader. Tip 5 in Management Tips: Harvard Business Review states the following:

Successful leaders keep their minds open to new things because they know that no matter how high their level of mastery, there is always more to discover…. When facing challenges, even ones you’ve faced many times before, adopt a learner’s approach—ask questions or find new ways to solve problems.

I never get tired of this great quote by Eric Hoffer: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Cultivate your desire to learn. Let that desire drive you to succeed.


The Product Management Perspective: Technology and markets evolve and change more rapidly every year. To be a successful product manager you must be a learner. Encourage learning among your peers, but don’t just talk about it, show it by your actions. Recommend books, forward links to blog posts or write an article in your company newsletter. You will become the go-to leader in your organization.


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Lean startup, lean company

“I explained the theory of the Lean Startup, repeating my definition: an organization designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” This definition comes from Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

As the title indicates, the book’s content is geared towards people starting new businesses. While that is the primary focus, what I found extremely interesting about The Lean Startup was the number of action items that work equally well for established companies as they do for startups. Innovation is innovation, no matter where it’s applied and regardless of its source.

The Lean Startup delivers a lot of great insight for leadership and product management. Here are some of the things that struck a chord with me:

  • Success can be learned: Successful startups and great new products aren’t just luck. You can put processes in place that will greatly increase the chances for success. “Startup success can be engineered by following the right process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.”
  • Five key principles: The book focuses on five key principles:
  1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere: “The concept of entrepreneurship includes anyone who works within my definition of a startup” (see above).
  2. Entrepreneurship is management: “A startup is an institution, not just a product, and so it requires a new kind of management specifically geared to its context of extreme uncertainty.”
  3. Validated learning: “Startups exist to learn how to build a sustainable business.”
  4. Build-Measure-Learn: “The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere.”
  5. Innovation accounting: “This requires a new kind of accounting designed for startups—and the people who hold them accountable.
  • Pivot or persevere: The Lean Startup method helps you decide when you need to keep going with an idea or make a change (‘pivot’). “Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path.”
  • Build an “innovation factory:” I cannot over emphasize this point: the Lean Startup method works for all companies. “Established companies need to figure out how to accomplish what Scot Cook [founder of Intuit] did in 1983 [he found out people wanted to use their computers to keep track of their check books], but on an industrial scale and with an established cohort of managers steeped in traditional management culture.”
  • Continual learning: A key to success is the ability to learn as you go and make adjustments along the way. “Validated learning is the process of demonstrating empirically that a team has discovered valuable truths about a startup’s present and future business prospects.” Ries gives a detailed personal example of this concept from his work at IMVU.
  • Don’t capitulate: Don’t just give in to what customers think they want. “We adopted the view that our job was to find a synthesis between our vision and what customers would accept; it wasn’t to capitulate to what customers thought they wanted or to tell customers what they ought to want.”
  • Ask hard questions: In every venture you need to ask ‘why am I doing this?’ “The question is not ‘Can this product be built?’ The more pertinent questions are ‘Should this product be built?’ and ‘Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?’” Push your team to answer four questions:
  1. Do consumers recognize that they have the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. If there was a solution, would they buy it?
  3. Would they buy it from us?
  4. Can we build a solution for that problem?
  • Solve problems: In every effort, make sure you’re solving problems. “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.”
  • Create, then test: Create a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) then test to make sure you’re on the right track. “The MVP is that version of the product that enables a full turn of the Build-Measure-Learn look with a minimum amount of effort and the least amount of development time.”
  • Fail quickly: The most successful companies recognized what worked and more importantly, what didn’t work. “What differentiates the success stories from the failures is that the successful entrepreneurs had the foresight, the ability, and the tools to discover which parts of their plans were working brilliantly and which were misguided, and adapt their strategies accordingly.”
  • Genchi Gembutsu: This is a Japanese phrase usually translated as a directive to “go and see for yourself.” You need to get out of the office. “You cannot be sure you really understand any part of any business problem unless you go and see for yourself firsthand.” You need extensive contact with potential customers to understand them sufficiently.

The Lean Startup is replete with stories and real-world examples to help you grasp the concepts. Eric Ries does a great job of bringing out important theories and models that will help you succeed whether you’re starting a new company or creating new products at an established corporation.


The Product Management Perspective: Every product manager in the world should study The Lean Startup and apply its teachings in day-to-day work and strategic planning. Unfortunately product managers get so embroiled in plans and stories and PRDs that we don’t stop and evaluate what’s really going on with the products.

A Good share of development is now done using some form of Agile. Make the effort to be agile in product definition and customer input. Don’t be too prideful to throw away your great idea that customers don’t latch onto. Put your focus and efforts into growing your products’ market share and revenue. Ultimately, nothing else really matters.


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Leadership and learning

One of the key tenets of leadership is the learning. Great leaders are learners. They read voraciously. They write and teach what they learn. Learning is as much a part of their life as eating. These are a few of my favorite quotes that illustrate the importance of learning:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. -Eric Hoffer
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. -John F. Kennedy
Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence. -Colin Powell

Make it your objective to be a life-long learner; every aspect of your life will benefit.

The Product Management Perspective: Technology continues to evolve ever more rapidly. Markets change quickly. User interests come on speedily and then change overnight. How can you — the product manager — keep up? You have to be a learner. You read books, magazines and other resources that provide relevant information. You read blogs and follow thought-leaders on Twitter; you watch what they are talking about learn as much as you can. Most importantly, you open the door to new ideas and new ways of doing your job.


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Five ways to make yourself more valuable

In a down economy when things get tough, people get nervous. Some employees feel nervous about keeping their jobs. They get in the “hunker down” mode and do everything they can protect their job. Do you know anyone who behaves that way?

The people who are the most secure in their careers follow similar patterns of behavior. They understand competition exists. They recognize the steps they need to take to succeed. They manage their fears in the face of threats. They know life is a journey and look forward to every turn.

One of the keys to success is in understanding the value you bring to your organization and taking steps to increase it over time. The following five actions will help you increase your value and enhance your self-confidence:

  1. Improve skills and knowledge: Instead of hunkering down and running below the radar, take specific actions to improve your skills. Look for opportunities for training. If the company will not/cannot spring for it this year, look for learning opportunities online. Read books. Read blogs. Make an effort to learn new skills and practice them as much as you can in your current job. Remember the cogent words of Eric Hoffer: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
  2. Help others: One of the best antidotes to self-pity and fear is to help other people. When you make the effort to assist someone else to become better at what they do, you become better yourself. When you help others your confidence grows and you increase your value to those around you.
  3. Develop trust: People naturally want to surround themselves with people they trust. Developing trust takes time and consistent effort. Trust goes two ways: you need to behave in such a way that people will trust you will do what you say. And equally important, you need to trust others. Developing relationships of trust increases your value.
  4. Believe in yourself: As your skills increase, you gain more experience, you begin to understand your significance to your organization. Trials and difficult circumstances can diminish these feelings, but they should not. Believing in yourself, your skills, and your ability to succeed — without becoming arrogant — is a good thing. Never forget the people who have helped you increase your value along the way.
  5. Work yourself out of the job: This one may not make sense at face value. If you work yourself out of the current job, what will you do? The idea is to work effectively and close the loop on what you are doing. Think in terms of projects: each one has a beginning and an end. You plan what you are going to do, work at it and when it’s finished you move on to the next project. When your project is successful, it’s easier to land the next project. Jobs are the same way. Make your work so effective and make it run so well that anyone could step in and take over. As you do that you will automatically make yourself more valuable to your company, and they will have no choice but to promote you or find something more challenging for you to do.


The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager you are in a unique position to create value. Your role lends itself to working with many people in different parts of the company and with customers and others external to the organization. Practicing the five actions listed above will increase your value to your company and accelerate your career growth. And when you work yourself out of the product management position, perhaps you’ll find yourself in an executive’s chair.

Disclosure: Many thanks to my good friend Steve Reiser for the initial ideas on this post.


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Motivating leadership

The number of leadership blogs that take up space in my feed reader is growing. Two recent posts struck a chord with me:

In his post The Opportunity to Influence, Mark Sanborn points to the passing of the torch from Mark Spitz to Michael Phelps. Mark quotes Spitz’s comment that Phelps now has the burden to inspire youth. Mark goes on to say: “Maybe Spitz’s comment was taken out of context or incomplete as quoted. I hope so. He seems like a good egg, so I’m puzzled about why he’d think he had to inspire anyone and secondarily why he considered that a burden.” Building up others should never be seen as a burden; it’s an opportunity that drives people to become leaders.

The second post is from Art Petty: Back to School. Art discusses the exuberance shown by many children as they head back to school after summer break. They love learning and it shows on their faces. Art makes the point that many working adults lose the fire to learn when school is over and they get into the work routine. He says:

One of the things we often lose as busy working adults is that sense of excitement about learning. It’s easy to let years and even decades slip by and focus on everything but our own self-development.  Sure, we attend mandated training in our company and possibly even the periodic seminar to earn the Continuing Education Units (CEUs) mandated by our professional certifying organizations.  Unfortunately, neither of those formats creates the exhilarating sense of learning and discovery that we may have had at some time earlier in our lives, but lost along the way to becoming responsible adults.

Art gives a list of activities that will help to rekindle your love of learning. It’s well worth the read.

Taking the opportunity to really have a positive influence on others and pursuing education with a determined attitude will help us on our course of continued motivating leadership.


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Why blog?

A few months ago I wrote a post I wrote about the reason I write my blog. I concluded that the reason (if there’s only one) is because it forces me to learn; to dig into books and magazines, to read other blogs and to find out where the things I value in the world are headed. I read a great post today where Gopal discusses his reasons and recommendations for blogging. He does a nice job of expanding upon the reasons he writes, all of which I can identify with, especially his third reason:

Write about something I am very passionate about – product management – Identifying market problems, solving them and shipping products that solve them is what I enjoy the most at work.

If you’ve ever thought about starting a blog, take a minute and read Gopal’s recommendations for new bloggers; it’s well worth the time.

For those of you who are experienced bloggers, why do you write?

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