Lead & Learn: Two Skills of Successful PMs

Own the team direction but be willing to course-correct

Product management requires a broad set of skills. A lot of people, including myself, have written extensively about how these skills can be categorized. However, none of these categorizations can ever be complete or fully accurate, simply because the product manager role varies so much between organizations. In this article, instead of an attempt at completeness, I want to shine a light on a particular set of complementary skills: leading and learning. Successful product managers need to be able to lead and take charge but also willing to learn and change course at all times. In the following, I will highlight some of the reasons why and ways in which these skills help successful product managers.

Lead

A big challenge with the leadership aspect of product management is that product managers are usually not formally managing anyone. They are individual contributors like the designers, engineers, and other members of their cross-functional product team, and yet they are somehow expected to exhibit leadership. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without leadership, you don’t need a PM at all. Product managers typically don’t have hard skills like designers who create designs and visual assets or engineers who write code. Their whole reason for being on the product team is team cohesion and direction — ensuring the team moves as one and contributes to realizing the vision and creating customer and business value. In short, leadership.

Since by nature of their position in the org chart, product managers don’t have formal authority, they must exert leadership without authority, also called lateral leadership. This kind of leadership is earned, not bestowed. A product manager needs to show their team that they contribute value and that the product manager’s leadership role in the team is beneficial to the team and its members. Only then will the other team members accept the PM as a first among equals, a primus inter pares.

Often, the most natural way to earn that leadership is through stakeholder management, conflict resolution, and removal of bottlenecks. It usually falls quite naturally on the PM to interface with stakeholders outside of the product team, understand their needs and perspectives, and negotiate away any conflicts that arise. Similarly, it is often the PM who will try to fix bottlenecks and external dependencies of the team by talking to stakeholders across the organization. This work can be tedious and perceived as corporate bureaucracy, but is really required legwork to keep the entire organization aligned. Product teams often quickly perceive the value of a product manager’s contribution once they realize how much work goes into this kind of management of the interfaces of a product team with the rest of the organization.

This kind of stakeholder management neatly links with the interface with product leadership. After all, senior product leaders are also just stakeholders of the product team. Managing the relationship between the product team and product leadership puts a product manager in the position of representing vision and strategy (that is owned by product leadership) inside their product team. A PM who is an effective leader will not simply state these as a dogma but rather use them to inspire the team and get them to rally around a common purpose. Ideally, everyone on the team already believes in the shared vision, but since the PM is often best positioned to deeply understand the full strategy, they can effectively bring vision and strategy to life in the team and use that as an energizing and motivating force.

On a more actionable level, the product manager uses their leadership skills to represent both customer and business value in discussions within the team and helps prioritize for those aspects. A PM who is a good leader will do this not by decreeing what has the highest priority from a customer and business perspective, but rather by both understanding the perspectives of other team members (for example, to understand usability and technical feasibility of options that are being considered), but also by educating the team members about customer and business value and thus creating common buy-in to the resulting prioritization.

Product managers who are great leaders are good at listening, thinking, and talking: they understand the perspectives of all relevant parties, reason through tradeoffs, and then tell stories that convince everyone of the right cause of action that strikes a balance between the various sides.

Another often overlooked aspect of leadership that is very relevant for product managers is team building. Great product managers understand that they are only as good as their team, so they do their best to create a great team dynamic. This can mean anything from establishing internal processes over organizing team activities to lobbying for an improved work environment, like the right space to collaborate as a team.

Product managers can fail at being leaders in one of two ways: either by not taking the leadership role, or by misunderstanding it. PMs who don’t take the leadership role can lead to a team that is riddled by conflicts within and with stakeholders. The team may lack direction and purpose and team members might get frustrated and demotivated. Almost certainly though, team members will believe that the product manager adds little value to the team. PMs who accept the leadership role but misunderstand the it often impose their views on the team not by convincing them, but by telling them what to do. This might work for a little while, but it will certainly hurt motivation on the team, stifle creativity, and hence lead to worse product decisions.

On the other hand, a product manager who is successful at leading will take small steps to earn the trust of their team. They will make everyone on the team feel like they are more productive as individuals and as a team due to the contribution of the PM. A key skill that the PM uses to achieve this is empathy — listening to and understanding the perspectives and needs of people on the team and external stakeholders, and then proposing ways forward that alleviate conflicts and increase team effectiveness. The PM who is a good leader understands the value of team diversity and psychological safety and does their best to facilitate both. This PM rarely invokes their “privilege” to make the final call, but rather does their best to convince everyone.

Product managers who are great leaders also act as a source of energy and motivation for the team. They connect the activities of the team with the company mission and product vision. They help the team develop a vision for their work. In short: they make the team members see a purpose of their work.

Learn

The learning aspect of product management is both an enabler and a complement of the leadership aspect. One key component of learning for a product manager is empathy. Empathy tends to be talked about as a quality or an aspect of emotional intelligence, but it can be framed as a learning mindset as well. It starts with curiosity and willingness to understand — to learn about, as it were — the unique perspectives and needs of relevant parties from team members over stakeholders to customers. Empathy enables a product manager’s leadership. As mentioned above, a PM’s leadership is earned, not bestowed, and the only way to earn it is by understanding what team members need and then helping them get it.

A related aspect is the appreciation for diversity in the team in terms of backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions. As mentioned above, such diversity leads to a greater outcome in the end, but requires a product manager who values learning and improvement more than being right. Every time you have a discussion with someone whose opinion differs from yours, you have the chance to learn something if you are willing to listen.

On the note of valuing learning more than being right, it is crucial for a product manager to accept being wrong and be willing to change course as new information emerges. One could call this “humility” but really it’s just realism. It’s basically an iron rule of product management that most of our ideas fail. A product manager who’s not willing to accept that they will be wrong most of the time will ship plenty of changes to the product that are at best needless complexity, at worst actively harmful. A learning mindset, in which ideas that didn’t work are seen as a successful learning instead of a failed idea, helps here. A great product manager will ensure the broader organization learns from ideas that didn’t work, too. Since most ideas fail, otherwise a lot of the work that is going on in an organization doesn’t produce anything of value. A learning that was generated, captured, and disseminated when an idea failed can be of tremendous value, and the product manager is well positioned to ensure that happens.

Even more broadly, an urge to learn is important for a product manager to deeply understand the drivers of success for the product. What needs to users have, where are the problems with the current product, what determines business success? All of these questions never have complete answers, and it is part of the product manager’s job to constantly evolve their answers to these questions. If they don’t, their product will stop improving.

Another important facet of learning is improving team processes. No team ever works as efficiently and effectively as they could, and no process is ever fully optimized. Additionally, as conditions change — team members, the type of work, the strategy, market conditions, etc. — even processes that used to be quite well-oiled can become ineffective and cumbersome. Of course, it is the responsibility of the whole team to run regular retrospectives and improve their ways of working, but the product manager has a particularly important role to play since they tend to act as the “glue” and fill any holes in the process that occur, so they are often well positioned to highlight the need for process changes.

The same holds true for the product manager’s introspection and self-improvement, of course. Personal and professional growth requires the willingness and ability to accept failures and identify areas for improvement, and then work on them. Nobody can live up to their full potential of they don’t accept that they need to constantly learn and improve.

Product managers that fail to exhibit a learning mindset tend to get dogmatic, stuck in their ways. They tend to believe that a certain way of working they they’ve seen perform well in some environment will work well in others, too. They have a certain vision of the product and ideas for improvements but are reluctant to change them when new information arises. They succumb to confirmation bias, seeing only information that confirms their beliefs. They don’t mind working in a team where most members are disengaged and disinterested, because it means they can simply get their idea of things done without much discussion.

Product managers who are great at learning, on the other hand, welcome controversial discussions and dissenting opinions as an opportunity for the team to uncover the best way forward. They are not afraid to kill their darlings — they understand the cost of complexity and that sometimes not shipping a change that has proven not to improve the product is the best way forward. They evangelize and drive a culture of introspection and improvement on an individual and team level, leading to a team that becomes ever more productive and motivated. Because they see learning as a reward, they are not discouraged by setbacks, but rather see them as improvement opportunities and necessary steps on the path to overall success.

Lead & Learn

To understand why these two skills need to go hand in hand, let’s look at what happens when one of them is missing, even if the product manager is strong in the other one.

A product manager who’s naturally great at leadership but a poor learner will have no problem rallying the team behind a shared vision, purpose, and direction. They are often great talkers, able to paint a compelling picture of the future and the way to get there. This helps them generate buy-in for their ideas with the team and stakeholders. This PM will often see great successes in the beginning, as the team is energized by the shared mission. The problem starts when the first setbacks occur. Because product development is so uncertain and risky, it is inevitable that this happens. If the product manager is unwilling or unable to learn from these setbacks, they will simply double down on their strategy. To a certain degree, that is good, but there comes the time when the course correction becomes absolutely necessary. This PM will stay on the wrong course too long and waste time and resources, eventually being beaten in the market by more nimble competitors.

The product manager who is a great learner but a poor leader will face different problems. Their tendency to listen and soak up knowledge and use that to suggest improvements will actually earn them some natural authority in the team. After all, being curious and empathic are fantastic enablers for lateral leadership. However, this product manager is likely not going to use that authority to great effect. They will stay passive and not broker compromises, meaning that discussions about tough tradeoffs will go in circles unless a different team member takes the broker role. This can work if there is for example a senior engineer or designer on the team who takes the mantle, but in those cases, the product manager isn’t really able to fill their role very effectively — at that point, they will often be more of a glorified team secretary who is participating in meetings and documenting their results, writing specs and tickets.

Clearly, in order to be an effective product manager, you need to know how to lead and how to learn. The two reinforce each other and you have to understand when it is time to lead and when it is time to learn. You can’t be a great leader if you’re not a great learner. And once you’re a great leader, you can push yourself and the team to even greater learning.

I hope you found this article useful. If you did, feel free to follow me on Twitter where I share thoughts and articles on product management and leadership.

Experienced product leader, previously at 8fit, Yammer, BCG. Currently working on something new.

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