As a product manager, it can often be difficult to blend personality traits with job responsibilities. Many PMs come from an engineering background that keeps them primarily working on individual projects or interacting with a consistent, small team of colleagues. It can be a challenge moving into product management that can have the PM interacting with all facets of the organization – product (duh), design, development, marketing, sales, operations, c-suite, etc. – as well upstream – suppliers, OEMs, etc. – and downstream – customers and other stakeholders. Not only is this a big change, but product managers are supposed to be leaders in all of these capacities as well, usually without formal authority. PMs are counted on for their ability to influence all different types of people with zero or few direct reports.
I am one of those PMs who was thrown into the role without a true understanding of what it means to be a product leader. That’s not to say that I didn’t know what leadership was, but that I was not exposed to true leadership without formal authority. I did not consider myself to be a leader, as I don’t exhibit the traits of what I thought to be a traditional leader that I had grown up seeing in the media. A dominant, loud personality that knows exactly what to do every time and controls everything that happens beneath him – that was/is not me and is not who I want to be.
But there I was, a fresh-out-of-college 23-year old handed the keys to developing the strategy, positioning, and messaging for a $10m product line and another high-growth product line that was expected to drive part of the company’s future, as well drive the execution for my product’s engineering and marketing, make decisions on suppliers, assembly and manufacturing, and train a seasoned sales team on my products. I had no formal product management training, I’m shy and soft-spoken, often preferring to let others speak while I consider their opinions and gather my thoughts. My teams were diverse in age and backgrounds, but I was usually the youngest and quietest person (by far, for both) in the room.
As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned more about the subtler aspects of product leadership. I’m still not outspoken or domineering, but I take charge when needed, make decisions, and persuade stakeholders with the best of them. I decided to take a look at more ways to improve my PM and leadership skills. I went through (of course) Good PM, Bad PM, and books such as How to Make Friends and Influence People, Originals, Yes, and, Influence, The Charisma Myth, Extreme Ownership, and Quiet, among many others, searching for something that would give me an edge. I took ideas and concepts from each book with me and use them when I can.
In the rest of this post, I’d like to explore the 7 key leadership principles listed as I’ve read through Product Management for Dummies.
Their take: Vision means knowing where your product needs to go and creating a strong picture of how to get there. You should be thinking short-term and long-term.
The introvert take: For an introvert, having a compelling vision is the building block for everything else you can do. It aids in each of the rest of the principles. You should know, to the best of your ability, what specific things your team will be working on for the next few months and have a strong idea for what may be on the board for the next year or two. These items can absolutely change, but having a plan backed up by true knowledge is essential.
The key to a vision is being able to explain why. You should know the market, competition, industry, buyers, and users like the back of your hand to the point that you can predict how things will change. You should also be able to talk about technological changes and advances and how they might affect your product and the way customers interact with it in the future (even if that means it becomes obsolete!). The why is what gets people on board.
Their take: Know what you believe in and be willing to fight for it. Be willing to break out of your comfort zone to make things happen. Think outside the box and then turn those ideas into reality.
The introvert take: Pick your spots and be able to back it up. You need to be able to confidently communicate your ideas. When it’s time to speak up, do it with purpose and assurance, knowing that the data backs up your stance. Being bold doesn’t have to mean being loud and boisterous, but instead is turning knowledge into action and accepting failure as a possibility.
Ability to Influence
Their take: You should use logic and emotion to win over many different types of audiences.
The introvert take: The key to persuading different stakeholders within your organization is being able to talk to them on their level and clearly articulate the benefits (and have knowledge of the drawbacks) of your decisions regarding your products. The way you pitch to executives should be different from the way you talk to sales, engineering, marketing, etc. You should know the motivations of each group you talk to and be able to justify your decisions on those terms.
One key that I think is probably the most important leadership ability isn’t reflected in the book’s list so I will include it here. That is the ability to build trust. Being able to influence any group of people in your company is founded on the sincere belief that you’re going to act in the best interests of the company. Sometimes this will align with your stakeholder’s belief about what is best for them personally. Other times, you’ll have to explain the benefits of your decision even if they don’t like it, and this will be significantly easier if you’ve built trust. Trust means many things, but can be built by following through on what you say, by being open, honest, and transparent in your communication, and discussing issues when they arise. As a PM, your victories should be credited to your team and your team’s failures should deflect from them and fall squarely on your shoulders. When people know that you’re willing to go to bat to protect them, they will be more willing to work for you.
Be an Expert
Their take: You should be an expert in the field of product management and in the market segments that your product is targeting. It is difficult to get others to follow you if you aren’t an expert in the customers, markets, technology, and trends for your product.
The introvert take: This is how you back up your vision and decisions. This is how you lead when you’re not the loudest in the room. As a product manager, you should know everything you can about the industry, market, competition, emerging technology, and your buyer and user personas. You should know past information on your product sales, missed opportunities, and avenues for growth and expansion. A mix of qualitative and quantitative data is better than just relying on one or the other.
This (plus your vision) should give you the confidence to speak up. You won’t always win, but when you back up your opinions with clear, convincing data you will find that often you do. When your decisions go wrong, you’ll be able to back up your choices and make it clear why you made your decision.
Their take: Being enthusiastic is contagious and will bring your team together. This will get you and your team to a higher level and get people excited about your vision.
The introvert take: Enthusiasm doesn’t have to be rah-rah all the time. You can impact your team by consistently bringing positivity, optimism, and confidence. When things go wrong, it is important to be the even keel that your team can count on to right the ship and provide new direction.
Their take: You have to be able to keep going despite difficult people and circumstances. Your effort can’t just be a one-time activity or meeting, but should be a driving, ever-present force. Break down seemingly insurmountable challenges into small steps and effect as much change as you can.
The introvert take: One of the keys to being tenacious, for me at least, is my unrelenting optimism. Failure in business and in life is inevitable. There will always be missed sales, difficult to reach deadlines, and fire to put out. The best way I’ve learned to deal with it and keep going is to be able to find a bright side to everything. Each result is a lesson that can be applied to future situations.
Commitment to Excellence
Their take: Be excellent both in the work you do and in your deliverables. Everything you deliver as a PM should read well and look amazing. You are the center of all aspects of your product and if your work isn’t excellent the effect will ripple into other aspects of your product and organization.
The introvert take: The easiest way to commit to excellence is to have a greater, driving purpose behind what you do. Again it’s the why that is important. For example, I used to work primarily with products in the education technology space. I didn’t cry or jump for joy with every thousand dollars made or lost on a sale, but it was easy to remind myself that every product we put into a classroom meant ~30 kids getting a better education. You don’t have to be excited and jump for joy at every aspect of your job, but know that the level of your work will influence the level of everyone else’s work on your product.
Do you have your own thoughts on the keys to leadership in product management or reflections on the ones listed here? Leave a comment or shoot me an email!