Product Leadership Marty Cagan

Alternatives To Product Leaders

This is the second of two related articles talking about the alternatives to product managers and product leaders.  In the first article, I discussed how the product manager’s responsibilities of value and viability can, under the right conditions, be covered by other approaches.

In this article, I wanted to talk about alternatives to covering the product leader’s responsibilities.  

This one is a little more complicated because the product leaders have a pretty wide range of responsibilities, and those responsibilities normally vary depending on whether the product leader is a manager of individual contributors, or if they are a manager of managers.

But first, if we’re going to talk about the alternative to product leaders, we need to get on the same page as to what capable product leaders are actually responsible for.  

As with the product manager role, the job of the product leaders is dramatically different if the company has feature teams versus empowered product teams.  

The article Product Leadership Is Hard summarizes the many responsibilities of a strong product leader operating in the product model, and tries to explain why the job is a tough one to do well.  

To be clear, this article is all about potential alternatives to the role played by product leaders in the product model.  Most companies that don’t have capable product leaders are not operating in the product model – most have stakeholder-driven feature teams.

The first thing you’ll notice is that companies that have strong true product managers also have strong product leaders.  In nearly every case, it is the strong product leaders that are the ones that coach and develop the strong product managers.  

But the reverse is unfortunately also true.  If the company has weak product managers, it’s almost always a direct result of having weak product leaders.

So especially when you have weak product managers and weak product leaders, it’s not unusual for the company to look to alternatives.

Product Leadership at Early Stage Companies

This topic is one where there are very different considerations for smaller companies – especially startups and scaleups – as compared to large companies.

In smaller companies, it is very common that one of the cofounders (often the CEO or CTO) can be that effective product leader.  In most cases, this is a very good thing. That founder has been engaged with the product from day 1, and has participated directly in virtually everything that has been learned about the product and the customers.

In fact, one of the common problems is when a founder brings in a product leader prematurely, and that person simply does not have the product or customer knowledge that the founder has, and so does not have the trust of the founder or the other leaders and stakeholders.

Product Leadership at Scale

But at a certain point, the founder acting as head of product simply ceases to scale.  Especially when that founder has never done this before, and doesn’t understand the level of investment they need to make in order to develop a product leadership team under them.

This is the situation I’m discussing in this article.  This is when the founder / head of product has realized that she now needs real product leadership.  The founder might still keep responsibility for the product vision (I like when they do), but where they realize they need people that can build the necessary product teams, come up with the necessary product strategy, and ensure the organization is able to execute on that product vision and strategy.

Alternatives to Product Leadership

I want to be clear up front: I’m sharing below the main approaches I’ve seen attempted, but the truth is, for a company at scale, I don’t know of any real alternative to strong product leaders, because I haven’t seen any of these alternatives consistently work, in terms of generating the necessary business outcomes.  

Leading With Command and Control

The main alternative to strong product leadership is when that founder is not willing or able to invest in developing one or more strong product leaders, and truly empower those people, she reverts to command and control style leadership.

The most common version of this is that the founder delegates to one or more business leaders, and each of these stakeholders takes responsibility for driving product for their area.  Hence the so-called “peanut-butter” product strategy, stakeholder-driven roadmaps, and the feature teams that support them.

However, sometimes the founder / CEO tries to continue to play the role of product leader herself, and then you’ll see a large, consolidated product roadmap, and the many feature teams that support them.

In either case, soon enough, the company finds itself dealing with the consequences of feature teams:  The teams are not empowered; they are mercenaries, there to serve the business by delivering the projects and features the CEO or stakeholders request.  The focus is now on output, and not outcomes. Tech debt issues accelerate as a consequence of the project focus.  Product managers become project managers. Design is run like an internal agency.  Innovation rarely happens because the engineers are simply there to code.  The best people usually start to leave.

When I said earlier that strong product managers are almost always found in companies with strong product leaders, it is because this is the key to empowerment.  I often explain to companies that empowered product teams don’t require less management, they require better management.  As I’ve written many times, empowerment does not mean just giving those people space to work.

In order to truly empower people, you have to have both the experience to effectively coach, and also be immersed in the strategy and execution to help the product teams make good decisions and achieve successful outcomes.

Leading With Process

The second alternative to product leadership is something I’ve also written a great deal about already, and that’s when weak product leaders try to lead through process.  I don’t want to repeat all the arguments again, especially since so many people have already heard my rantings against process people destroying product organizations.  Let me just emphasize that there’s a reason the leaders of the top product companies are so scared of this disease infecting their companies.

Leading With Proxies

The third alternative to product leadership is when companies try to create a separate group that attempts to cover at least some of the product leadership responsibilities – especially product strategy, and improving the effectiveness of the product managers –  but almost always with people that are considerably less experienced than true product leaders.  All too often these people then fall back on “process and governance,” which comes with the problems I’ve already discussed.

Leading With Product Leadership

So we’re back to the need for true product leadership.

Product companies survive and thrive when they provide successful products and services to their customers.  I’m not sure why so many companies resist the concept that a strong product company requires strong product leadership.  I literally can’t think of a more essential competency for a product company.

If you’re a product company, especially a tech-powered product company, I argue this is the single most important thing for you to get right.  Everything else, including marketing, sales, revenue, profit, and valuation, all directly or indirectly derive from this.

If you’re a startup, the goal is product/market fit.  If you’re a more established company, then your goal is consistent innovation creating value for your customers and your company.  The key in both cases is strong product leadership.