Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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.


From idea to strategy

Every product and service we have today was once an idea. Even the most basic items did not exist before someone (or ones) came up with an impression of a product or service that would be useful in some way. When you stop and think about it, the number of incredible products and services available today is truly amazing. In many cases, these great products have developed into product lines, companies and even industries. All from one idea.

Ideas need development to become strategies. The development of ideas is not an easy undertaking. In fact, most of the great ideas took a long time and a lot of hard work to develop into the useful products they are today. This is the primary responsibility of product managers.

Yahoo’s new CEO Carol Bartz has shown the need to drive ideas to strategies from the highest levels of the company. In the Fortune article Yahoo’s taskmaster, John Fortt describes Bartz as one who has “shown she can jump-start ailing companies.” At Autodesk (where she was CEO for 14 years) she delivered annual sales growth of 13% and increased the stock value more than eight times. She’s accomplished this through, among other things, focusing on product management:

Bartz transformed Autodesk through a series of smart acquisitions and by encouraging new product development. Autodesk’s software and applications became must-have tools for designers and manufacturers alike, thanks to Bartz’s insistence that the company methodically roll out new features based on customer feedback.

She also wants to prevent more space debris [Bartz’s term for ailing products] from launching in the future. ‘Yahoo was amateur hour in the past when it comes to product management,’ she bluntly told business partners last month; groups haphazardly released things without a clear sense of whether customers wanted them. From now on, she has promised, products will arrive on a schedule so that customers can offer feedback, with the best ideas appearing in the next version – a formula that worked well for her at Autodesk.

So how do you go from idea to strategy? One step at a time. This topic is, of course, way too broad and deep for one blog post. I’ll leave the deeper discussion to the many books and blogs written on the subject. The point is to get you thinking about the ideas you have and hopefully encourage you to do something to develop them.

The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager, you share responsibility to develop ideas into strategies. You have a great opportunity to become the strategic link from nascent ideas to full-blown product lines. Never discount your ability to make a major difference in your organization. I recommend Stewart’s blog for more details on becoming a strategic product manager.

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Book Review: Lead Well and Prosper

lead-well-and-prosper“‘I don’t have time’ is the most frequently used excuse for incompetence.” According to Nick McCormick, author of LEAD WELL AND PROSPER: 15 Successful Strategies for Becoming a Good Manager, by focusing on specific strategies you will use your time more effectively and improve your leadership capabilities.

Nick points out that management is in a state of crisis. Regardless of the numerous books on leadership and management, “we managers can’t seem to get it right.” This problem has lead to a cottage industry built upon ridiculing management — a comic strip, a TV show and numerous other outlets.

The book highlights 15 successful strategies to help managers improve their effectiveness:

  1. Adopt a serving attitude
  2. Teach
  3. Provide honest and timely feedback
  4. Share information
  5. Listen
  6. Treat people like human beings
  7. Set goals, plan and execute
  8. Learn
  9. Do the right thing
  10. Embrace the uncomfortable
  11. Clean up your own house first
  12. Persist
  13. Do what you say you’ll do
  14. Always follow up
  15. Plan your week

Lead Well and Prosper is a quick read with valuable information. The strategies are not new and have been written about in much more detail by numerous authors. However, the book’s organization makes it a valuable tool to help struggling organizations improve the capabilities of their management teams. If your organization is mired in mediocrity, your people will benefit by reading this book.

The book is organized into short chapters by strategy. Each chapter opens with dialog from fictional characters that help the reader understand how not to apply the topic for that chapter. At the end of each chapter is a concise list of “dos” and “don’ts” that apply to the strategy, and immediate actions the reader can take to apply what was taught. With these iconic helps you can easily grasp the main themes in under an hour.

The Product Management Perspective: Like other leadership books reviewed here, Lead Well and Prosper provides useful direction for product managers working hard to lead their teams to success. Nearly all the strategies can be applied to making you more effective in your work as a product manager, and building your credibility as a leader. It’s worth a self-evaluation to assure you are doing the basics (as described in this book) well.

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The lonely PM

I recently read an interesting post by Byron Workman that he called A Dying Product Manager. He talks about a person he met who was the only product manager (PM) at his company. He struggled to help others at the company understand the strategic role of product management and was unable to get visibility at the right levels of the company. Byron says:

He had all the responsibility, for all products, but no authority. He didn’t have any other people on his team to help him, and he had no way to get development or marketing to assist him. They looked at him only as a guy who new what all the features in the product are, and was a good source of answers to questions no one else knew.

Having lived through a similar situation, I can attest to the difficulty of working to promote sound product management practices in a situation where a company has never had product management and some do not understand the vital role a PM plays. It can be frustrating to attempt to establish sound practices when you feel like it’s an up-hill battle. Hopefully the following suggestions will help if you find yourself in a similar situation:

  • Communicate early and often: As the ‘lonely PM’ in the company it’s imperative you communicate the strategic role of product management up-front and often thereafter to assure everyone on the team (executive or otherwise) understands how you will add value to the company. 
  • Visit customers ASAP: A key to becoming the voice of the customer is to get out of the office and visit customers as soon after you start as possible. This will not be easy because the person/people who hired you will expect to see you in the office and may have concerns about the cost of travel. However, taking the initiative to understand customers’ (and potential customers’) needs will help develop the role of product management as the voice of the market; the sooner this occurs the better.
  • Become the leader: The role a PM plays in a well-run product company is critical. The PM should establish him/herself as a leader by working to build consensus and inspire others.
Establishing yourself as a respected product expert and the voice of the customer can be a difficult task for a product manager. However, there are ample resources to help, and many others PMs who have been through it and will gladly help if you reach out to them. At the end of the day, it’s not as lonely as it sometimes seems.

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Leadership and product strategy

Though the role of product manager differs from one company to the next, most product managers I know believe they drive the strategy for their products. I suppose in most cases they do. Strategic product managers spend time understanding the market and directing product activities toward meeting those activities. CEOs and other executives don’t always (or often) understand this. Therefore, part of the product manager’s job becomes educating executives on the strategic importance of understanding the market.

Strategic Role of Product ManagementI found a great new resource for educating people on the strategic role of product management. Yesterday Steve Johnson released an ebook called The Strategic Role of Product Management. He answers several questions such as who needs product management, what is marketing, and where does product management belong in an organization. It’s written in an easy-to-read format, in Steve’s unique and witty style, with stories that drive home key points. It’s replete with facts and statistics based on the many years of research carried out by Pragmatic Marketing. One of the key takeaways for me is the focus on helping people in other roles understand why product management is strategic. The following quote provides some insight on this:

Instead of talking about the company and its products, the successful product manager talks about customers and their problems. A product manager is the voice of the market full of customers.

One last thought about the importance of leadership. I found a quote by Dee Hock (founder of Visa) that provides good advice for product managers who need help convincing executives of their strategic role:

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.