Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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Book review: The Servant

the-servantThe book The Servant: A Simple Story About The True Essence of Leadership, written by James C. Hunter, brings out timeless principles of leadership and integrity in a story form. The story is about a man named John Daily who has his priorities mixed up. At the insistence of his wife he reluctantly agreed to go on a week-long spiritual retreat where he would have an experience that turns his life around. The story itself is only somewhat engaging, and has several unfinished threads. However, the thoughts and principles taught are valuable and make it worth the (quick) read.

The author talks about the old paradigm of leadership where the employees (‘grunts’) are at the bottom of the pyramid, and as you move up you have supervisors, middle managers, vice presidents and the CEO. He turns that paradigm on its head and shows an upside-down pyramid with employees at the top, on down to the CEO. Through this point of view he shows how true leaders serve the people who work for them, and the front-line employees serve their customers. The role of a leader is not to rule over other people, but to serve them.

Servent Leadership

Servent Leadership

With the paradigm shift in place, the author uses another inverted pyramid to describe the Servant Leadership model. At the bottom is will, then love, service and sacrifice, authority and leadership is at the top. According to this model, the first step toward leadership is will, having intentions + actions, or aligning intentions with actions and choosing the appropriate behavior. With the proper will you chose love, the verb (in this case) that means identifying and meeting the legitimate needs (not wants) of those being lead. The next step in the progression is to serve and sacrifice for others. Through service one builds authority or influence with people, and once that is established, one earns the right to be a leader. The greatest leaders, therefore, are the ones who serve the most.

Leaders create the proper conditions for growth to occur. One important way they do this is through service.


The Product Management Perspective: Product managers face an interesting challenge: they are (usually) responsible for the success of their products, yet the people they rely on to get their products successfully out the door do not (usually) report to them. This situation lends itself to servant leadership. This does not mean that product managers should run around doing whatever the Dev/Marketing/Sales/… manager tells them to do. Instead they must build relationships of trust with their teams and find ways to do things for them that will demonstrate their intentions to work together for success.


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Agile and SaaS

Two somewhat related topics are getting increasing attention these days: agile and SaaS (software-as-a-service). Agile software development changes the the paradigm for developing software; it breaks things down into smaller “bite-size” chunks. Tom Grant writes a nice post on the many reasons to be Agile. He compares its evolution with the Protestant Reformation. It’s a great post; well worth the read (regardless of your religious beliefs).

The onset of SaaS is making its mark in the world of software development. Many companies have rolled out successful SaaS offerings and even built their entire business model on SaaS as a delivery mechanism (e.g. Google and Salesforce.com). Gopal Shenoy takes on a critic who makes a prediction that the SaaS model will collapse in two years. He says: “While I totally agree that Saas is not the panacea to solve everything that is wrong with software, that many of the Saas vendors are not yet profitable, I cannot come to terms with him calling his prospective buyers stupid.” Again…well worth the read.

The Product Management Perspective: If you have not read much about Agile and/or SaaS, you should, and the sooner the better. Both Agile and SaaS are having a major impact on product management. Both will significantly affect how product managers do their jobs. Take time to educate yourself on these two important industry trends.


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Five factors of leadership

I’ve stated before that product managers have to be leaders (in the true sense of the word) because they have the responsibility on their shoulders to get products out the door on time, with high quality and under budget. The kicker – and the reason they must be leaders – is the people they rely on to get the job done do not (usually) report them. Their success depends on their ability to build consensus and inspire the team members to do great things.

I have identified five factors that, if understood and applied, will improve the leadership role of product managers:

  • People are assets: In any company or organization, the real assets are the people. Their intellect—along with personality, skills, knowledge, character, integrity, and other things collectively referred to as “human life value”—create the true value in any organization. When product managers see the people on the team as the true assets, and treat them accordingly, they will command the respect of a leader.
  • Trust is vital: Those who value their team members build trust. The trust goes both ways: product managers need to carry out their tasks in such a way that the team members can trust them. They (the PMs) also need to trust that the team members will do what they have committed to do.
  • Knowledge is power: Truthfully, knowledge is potential power; only when it’s applied does it become true power. It’s vitally important for product managers to be learners. Many resources exist for learning: books, trade magazines, blogs, analyst reports, etc. As they take in knowledge and put it into action, their success will increase.
  • Paradigm provides focus: The way in which product managers see their world – their ‘paradigm’ – influences their effectiveness as a leader. They can take the ‘victim’ approach or the ‘agent/hero’ approach. If they blame others and wonder why the world (or their team, or their customers) is against them they are taking the victim approach. If they take accountability for their actions and do whatever it takes to succeed, they become agents of positive change. They become heroes to those whom they lead. Not ‘hero’ in the sense of super heroes, but in the sense of someone who does more than they are expected (and probably paid) to do.
  • Decisions determine future: Leaders make decisions regularly. Successful product managers understand their markets and make difficult decisions that are not always accepted by team members or customers. They do not make decisions carelessly or in cavalier style, but they also do not cower from the responsibility to make a judgment call. They make choices and stand behind them. Ultimately they make decisions that lead their teams and their products to succeed.

These factors apply to many other disciplines and aspects of business. The focus on product management stems – as mentioned – from product managers needing to lead without having management authority over the people responsible for their success. I am confident that product managers who understand and apply these factors will become effective leaders. I am equally confident that anyone – in any field – who applies these factors will find success.

Please leave a comment and let me know whether this resonates with your experience in product management or any other discipline.

One last note: I have been invited to speak at the Software Management Perspectives conference next week where I will examine the Five Factors in more detail. If you attend please stop by and introduce yourself.