Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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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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Three Keys to Product Management Success

As product managers you have a significant responsibility for the success of your company. It’s easy to get bogged down in the countless tasks that are thrown your way every day. With all the meetings, floods of email, and requirements to manage, the thought of spending time on areas of strategic focus can seem overwhelming. However, with planning and a little effort you can make the difference. Start by focusing on three simple, yet powerful, keys to success:

  1. Know your market: Get a clear understanding of the market where your products compete, and work diligently to stay out in front of new trends and technologies. Make customer calls and customer visits often. Work with the sales team; understand how they sell your products. Know what works. Know the weaknesses of the products (and take action to correct them). Understand why people pay (or don’t pay) for your products. Be the voice of the customer to your company.
  1. Provide clear direction: One of your key directives as a product manager is to provide clear direction to the engineering/development teams. Spend the time to write understandable and timely requirements and prioritize them effectively. Provide solid product design (with the help of good designers). Give clear direction and project confidence and your full support to the work the engineering is doing. Earn their trust. Inspire them to do great things. “Have their backs” with the rest of the company (i.e. be their outspoken supporter).
  1. Launch successfully: You are in a unique position to facilitate successful product launches. Start with a tight, focused beta program; learn from the testers and change accordingly. Help product marketing set the proper tone for the launch by understanding the new product’s strengths. Work in tandem with the customer support teams to monitor product acceptance and make changes where necessary. Work with the sales team to make sure they understand the new product and hit the ground running when it releases. After a successful launch, monitor the product’s uptake and financials and make sure it continues to succeed. This, of course, loops back to knowing your market and making sure your product meets the needs of the people in your market.

These three practices cover the most important bases for creating successful products. You should plan time to focus on these elements on a daily and weekly basis. If you are in a leadership position in product management, take time to evaluate your team and make sure they are focusing on these key practices that will lead to product success.


The Product Management Perspective: see above


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Three practices of successful product managers

At the most basic level, a product’s success is measured by how well it sells in the market and the profit it brings to the company. A company’s success is ultimately a roll-up of all products and services selling for a profit. This seems straight forward, and yet in my experience company leaders too often lose track of this important goal. They focus on this marketing campaign or that new technology, and lose track of what’s most important. Granted, sometimes they focus too much on profit at the expense of other important directives, but that’s a topic for another post.

In most companies product managers have a lot of products and significant responsibilities. It’s easy for them to get bogged down in the countless tasks that are thrown their way every day. With all the meetings, floods of email, and requirements to manage, the thought of focusing on a product’s profitability can be illusive. It’s not impossible, however. By focusing on three simple, yet powerful, practices, product managers can channel their products toward profitability:

  1. Know your market: Get a clear understanding of the market where your products compete, and work diligently to stay in front of new trends and technologies. Make customer calls and customer visits often. Work with the sales team; understand how they sell your products. Know what works. Know the weaknesses of the products (and take action to correct them). Understand why people pay (or don’t pay) for your products. Be the voice of the customer to your company.
  2. Provide clear direction: One of the key directives for products managers is to provide clear direction to the engineering/development teams. Good product managers write understandable and timely requirements and prioritize them effectively. They provide solid product design (most effectively with the help of good designers). A key to giving clear direction is for product managers to project their confidence and full support to the work engineering is doing. Earn their trust. Inspire them to do great things, especially when developing your products.
  3. Launch successfully: A successful product launch depends on a coordinated launch plan involving many different groups. Product managers are in a unique position to facilitate successful product launches. Start with a tight, focused beta program; learn from the testers and change accordingly. Help product marketing set the proper tone for the launch by understanding the new product’s strengths. Work in tandem with the customer support teams to monitor product acceptance and make changes where necessary. Work with the sales team to make sure they understand the new product and hit the ground running when it releases. After a successful launch, monitor the product’s uptake and financials and make sure it continues to succeed. This, of course, loops back to knowing your market and making sure your product meets the needs of the people in your market.

These three practices cover the most important bases for creating successful products. You should plan time to focus on these elements on a daily and weekly basis. If you are in a leadership position in product management, take time to evaluate your team and make sure they are focusing on these key practices that will lead to profitable products.


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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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