Hacking Your Product Leadership Career in 2022

Rich Mironov, CEO & Product Management Executive at Mironov Consulting, dives into the ins and outs of product leadership by reflecting on his wealth of experience.

The most-asked question for a product leader is, “what is the role of a great product leader?” It was a mystery for some of the most successful product leaders you know today. Before we hit the books of being a successful product leader — unlike any other roles with clear-cut responsibilities — product leadership is about moving and shaking the product within the company.

Diligent product leaders make epic things happen by releasing the right instances of their product at the right time and in perfect order. In other words, you can call them the “CEO of the product,” as they bring in a bold vision, strategy, and the ambition to deliver value to end-users. They do all this while making sure to use the corporate resources wisely.

Before delving deeper into what makes a great product leader, let’s understand the clear distinction between product management and leadership:

Product Management vs. Product Leadership

Product leadership is nothing without product management. Often discussed under the same umbrella, know that the responsibilities of both the roles are not the same. However, one cannot function without the other. While management is about doing things efficiently, and leadership is about effectiveness. Similarly —

Product Management is the process of building a product as efficiently as possible. The challenges that revolve around here are deftly navigating through the sales fluctuations, changes in the market, and staff turnover.

Product Leadership revels with the time spent deciding which features and products would add value to customers upon development. What happens here is finding the product-market-fit or user/customer discovery becomes a significant concern for leaders. Therefore, startups or other smaller enterprises need PMs who are comfortable wearing the product leadership hat.

The path to product leadership is not a clear one, which brings us back to square one:

What Are Product Leaders, Anyway?

While it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle, one of the most important factors to remember as a leader is how your product managers can add value as compared to how developers add value. There are plenty of myths about product leadership, one of which is “product managers are supposed to get developers to work faster and be more productive.”

Well, that’s not true. In fact, here are some truths:

  • Product managers ensure that what they are building is useful in moving the revenue needle or customers’ happiness while improving the infrastructure.
  • Leaders need to protect their product managers from the chaos that the company has — shifting priorities on a daily basis, which leads to frustration.
  • Avoid proxies. Every time you’d get feedback about the product from someone who’s not the end-user, you’re likely to get partial, filtered information. Speak directly to the real people making decisions in the outside world.

Let’s unpack some of the crucial responsibilities of great product leaders and how they can have an impact on their organizations.

Master These Four Key Responsibilities To Become An Ingenious Product Leader

Believe it or not, the secret recipe of product leadership can be minimized to four key responsibilities.

Building the Product Team: If you’re going to be a product leader, mind that the first step is to develop your own product team. This means that you are going to have to:

  • Spend a great deal of time coming up with a crafty strategy to hire experienced product managers.
  • Figure out how many people you’ll need, train them, and delegate them to the path of success; otherwise, you’ll end up doing all the product management.
  • If you need subject matter experts, dig the hole and source the best ones as they’ll tend to overrule the world and tell everybody what the correct answers are instead of listening.
  • Make sure that your product managers are well-aligned with the development teams along with the product and the market in a way that enables them to chase and achieve the goals you’ve set for them.

Driving Product Strategy, Processes, and Tooling: While it’s unnecessary for the product leader to actually “create” the strategy, you have to build enough structure and put some standard processes in place to get work done.

Companies have adopted different kinds of metrics through the years, and they spend over a year arguing whether to adopt OKRs, for instance. Then they spend five minutes choosing the wrong OKRs. As the product leader, sitting in all the exec meetings, it’s in your caliber to choose the actual goals that support the business, growth, and customers instead of a random metric. Once the goals are all set, delegate your product managers to which tools they can use to ace the processes.

Growing Cross-Functional Collaboration: There is no alternative to building a tremendous cross-functional collaboration and trust with all the other groups within and outside the company. If marketing hates sales, the product is likely to lend a hand there while working with support, customer success, finance, engineering, and outside partners. Spend a lot of time explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing and why they should help. Remember that you have all the responsibility but none of the authority.

As product leaders, you are students of human behavior, and you need to think really hard about getting other folks to help and collaborate. Stick around deciding how the different departments should be rewarded to improve motivation and engagement.

Working With C-Level Execs: Company-wide dysfunction occurs at the top: punitive cultures, misaligned goals, motivational posters no one really believes in, and so on. With the markets shifting rapidly, the C-level execs are likely to have a new idea now, and then that’d blow up the initial strategy. The product leaders, in this case, are required to spend an abundance of time trying to keep the rest of the executives still on the strategy. Together as leaders, if you can’t stick to something long enough, you can’t get much done.

None of these pillars are doing the product manager’s job because, as the product leader, it’s crucial to delegate as much of the product work. Most of these functions will enable you to become the ideal leader that every product team needs.

The takeaway here is to figure out how to make the conditions in your company such that your product managers can succeed. Let’s say you have a team of 20 product managers, all of whom are failing; it is more towards a leadership issue; not an individual issue.

How Can Product Leaders Drive Impact

As a leader, how can you set up your organization for a bigger customer and business impact? Apart from a harmonious product team, product vision, and a strategy, in order to drive impact, there is also a need for a bundle of soft skills from the leader.

Being a Mentor to Your Team: When you choose people smarter than you (or at least they might think they are) to work for you, not only do you have to set goals for them, but also empower them. There’s no better mentor than a leader, and as the product leader, you have to coordinate and create an environment for your team to succeed.

Develop Processes That Improve Work: Define the clear-cut roles and responsibilities of your all-star product managers and professionals. You need to think about how individuals in a team can work together most effectively.

Create a Collaboration Culture: Remember that your team is the heart of the business, and in that regard, you need to be the glue that holds everyone working on the product together. Navigate the differences in opinion and aim to be more transparent in terms of communication to promote a culture of collaboration across various teams within the organization.

Encourage a Culture of Customer-Centricity: You might have the most efficiently-engineered and well-designed product in the entire world, but if your customers don’t like it, it will not thrive in the market. Therefore, when making decisions, keep your customers at the core of your product and the top of your mind, and your life will become much more manageable.

Experiment, Learn and Repeat: In today’s fast-paced landscape, your product team needs to keep in the loop of experiment-driven learning. Keep empowering your team to learn new things every day, and one day or the other, your company will hit the jackpot.

Product Leaders Think Beyond Just the Product

True product leadership is about looking beyond the actual product and the impact that it would have on the world. With the dramatic turn of events, as the world moves towards artificial intelligence and the internet of things, the products no longer live in the physical world. The products also need to be able to interact in the virtual world.

Great product leaders can focus on their product teams and their product portfolios because they’ve mastered the art of hiring competent product managers. Besides, they’ve also done an excellent job delegating all of the individual product work that they can authorize for their teams.

In the end, it takes strong leaders to empower the individuals in their team truly and then stand back while letting the team take credit for their successes.

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