Product Leadership Is Hard
So many people I meet naively believe that the key to empowering product teams is simply to get the management to back off, stop micromanaging, and give their product teams some space to do their jobs.
But as I’ve tried to explain many times, empowered product teams depend not on less leadership, but on better leadership.
But what does that really mean?
When I explain what’s truly required to product leaders of feature team organizations in order to move to empowered product teams, they are usually in a state of shock for awhile, as they digest just how far away their current role is from where they need to be, and they start to realize the central role they need to play.
In this article, I’d like to try to share a high-level overview of the product leadership role. As you’ll soon see, to provide you a detailed view would take more than 400 pages.
But hopefully, there will be enough to increase your awareness of the role of strong product leadership, and give you an appreciation for just how hard the job is to do well.
But before we get into it, a couple of caveats:
First, when I refer to “product leadership,” I mean the leaders and managers of product management, product design, and engineering.
Second, for this discussion, I will distinguish between leadership and management responsibilities. Most leaders have both management and leadership responsibilities, although the percentage of each varies with their level in the company. Most first-level managers are primarily managing with a little leadership, and senior leaders are primarily leading with much less time spent managing.
As legendary CEO Andy Grove said, “What gets in the way of good work? There are only two possibilities. The first is that people don’t know how to do good work. The second is that they know how, but they aren’t motivated.” Let’s tackle these two in order.
Let’s first discuss the management responsibilities, which primarily involve coaching and staffing.
Probably the most often overlooked element to strong management is coaching. It is the single most important responsibility of every people manager to develop the skills of their people.
This most definitely does not mean micromanaging them. It does mean assessing and understanding their strengths and weaknesses, coming up with a coaching plan, and then spending the quality time necessary to help them improve.
More generally, every member of a product team deserves to have someone who is committed to helping them get better at their craft. This is why, in the vast majority of strong tech product organizations, the engineers report to experienced engineering managers; the designers report to experienced design managers; and the product managers report to proven managers of product management.
The amount of time and effort you need to spend on coaching depends on the number and experience level of your people, but to set your expectations, it’s normal for first-level managers to need to spend on the order of 50% of your work week on coaching. And if I need to explain to you why this is the highest and best use of your time, you may want to reconsider the management path.
As the greatest coach Bill Campbell said, “Coaching is no longer a specialty; you cannot be a good manager without being a good coach.”
The managers are the people we hold responsible for staffing the product teams. This means sourcing, recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, evaluating, promoting, and when necessary, replacing, the members of the teams.
If you have an HR function at your company, they are there to support your managers with these activities, but they are in no way a substitute for the hiring manager in these responsibilities. This is critically important for your managers to grok.
Because empowered product teams are predicated on competent product managers, product designers, and engineers, this starts with raising the bar on staffing and coaching.
Yes, taking staffing seriously is hard, and it takes a substantial amount of time and effort, and you’ll likely feel like this is not the product related work you prefer to do. But as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos says, “Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will be, the single most important element of Amazon’s success.”
There are essentially two main ways that you can lead a product organization.
You can lead by what’s known as “command and control,” which means explicitly telling your people what you need them to do, usually by assigning them a roadmap of features and projects to build. In this model the leaders and stakeholders are making most of the meaningful decisions, and your product teams (or more accurately, feature teams) are there to carry out those decisions. Admittedly, this is easier to do.
The alternative is that you can lead by empowering the teams, by instead assigning them business or customer problems to solve, and then letting the product teams determine the best way to solve those problems.
However, if you choose to push key decisions down to the product teams, then you will need to provide those teams with the strategic context necessary for them to make good decisions.
This is why, for example, at Netflix the mantra is “Lead by context, not control.”
Some of the strategic context comes from the most senior leaders of the company, such as the purpose of the business (the mission), and the critical business objectives for the year, but the majority of the strategic context comes from the product leadership: the product vision and principles, the team topology, the product strategy and the specific team objectives.
To be very clear, these elements of the strategic context are the specific responsibility of the product leaders. Individuals on the product teams may contribute ideas or insights, and that’s a great sign of a strong culture, but these are ultimately leadership responsibilities.
Product Vision and Principles
The product vision describes the future we are trying to create, and most important, how the vision improves the lives of our customers. The product vision serves as the shared goal for the product organization. In terms of timeframe, it is usually between 3 and 10 years out.
There may be any number of cross-functional, empowered product teams—ranging from a few in a startup, to hundreds in a large enterprise—but they all need to head in the same direction, and contribute in their own way to solving the larger problem.
Some companies refer to the product vision as their “North Star”—in the sense that no matter what product team you’re on, and whatever specific problem you’re trying to solve, you always know how your piece contributes to the more meaningful whole.
More generally, the product vision is what keeps us inspired and excited to come to work each day—month after month, year after year.
It is worth noting that the product vision is typically the single most powerful recruiting tool for strong product people.
Product principles complement the product vision by speaking to the nature of the products that your organization believes it needs to produce. The principles reflect the values and ethics of the organization, and also some strategic decisions that help the teams make the right decisions when faced with difficult trade-offs.
Creating a compelling product vision is a bit different than the other elements of the strategic context. The product vision is more art than science. It’s purpose is to persuade. It is meant to be emotional. You are talking about how you will improve the lives of your customers.
You don’t want so much detail that your teams think it’s prescriptive, but you also need enough detail so people can really understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
So while creating a good product vision is not easy, it is worth the effort because a good product vision is the gift that keeps on giving. So much of what we do derives from the product vision – the architecture, the team topology, the product strategy, and of course your products for the next several years.
The team topology refers to how we break up the work among different product teams to best enable them to do great work. This includes the structure and scope of teams, and their relationship to one another.
Our goal with the topology is to maximize empowerment. We do that by striving for loosely coupled, but highly-aligned teams.
Coming up with an effective team topology is one of the most difficult but important responsibilities for product leaders, especially at scale. It requires intense collaboration and negotiation between the head of product and the head of technology. The decisions you make impact the relationships and dependencies between the teams, and what each team will actually own.
When done well, your product teams are empowered with a high degree of autonomy, and they feel a real sense of ownership over their work, and how it contributes to the greater whole. The teams can tackle hard problems, moving fast and seeing the results.
The product strategy describes how we plan to accomplish the product vision, while meeting the needs of the business as we go. The strategy derives from focus, then leverages insights, converts these insights into action, and finally manages the work through to completion.
More generally, the product strategy helps us get the most value out of whatever number of product teams we have.
The output of the product strategy is a set of business or customer problems to solve (team objectives) that the leaders will then need to assign to specific product teams.
The product strategy is where strong product leaders distinguish themselves. They decide what the focus will be and what it won’t be, and sometimes these decisions are not always popular with other leaders. They live and breathe the data and insights about the product, and are constantly seeking the points of leverage that power the product strategy. A strong product strategy can help a small organization outperform much larger competitors.
Unfortunately there are no easy shortcuts to a strong product strategy. It requires real time and effort to aggregate and assimilate the data and insights you’ll need.
In order to execute on the product strategy, the leaders need to ensure that each product team has one or two clear objectives they have been assigned (typically quarterly), which spell out the problems they are being asked to solve.
These objectives derive directly from the product strategy—it’s where insights are turned into actions.
This is also where empowerment becomes real and not just a buzzword.
The team is given a small number of significant problems to solve – the team objectives. The team then considers the problems and proposes clear measures of success (the key results), which they then discuss with their leaders. The leaders may need to iterate with their teams and others to try and get as much coverage as possible of the broader organization’s objectives.
The litmus test for empowerment is that the product team is able to decide the best way to solve the problems they have been assigned (their team objectives).
It takes strong leaders to be self-confident and secure enough to truly empower the people that work for them, and to stand back and let the team take credit for their successes.
The final critical role of leaders is communicating the strategic context – the product vision, principles, topology, and product strategy—both to the product organization, and across the company more broadly.
This requires an ongoing crusade of evangelizing—in recruiting, onboarding, weekly 1:1 coaching, all-hands meetings, team lunches, board meetings, customer briefings, and everything in between.
The larger the organization, the more essential it is to be relentless at evangelism, and it’s important for the leaders to understand that evangelism is something that is never “done.” It needs to be constant.
Lead with context, not control.
As you can hopefully see, the job of a product leader in a strong product company based on empowered product teams is both very different from the role in a feature team organization, and also much more difficult.
If you’ve never before worked in a strong product company, you may benefit from a product coach. If you’d like to go much deeper into these leadership topics, that is the reason my SVPG Partner Chris Jones and I wrote the new book: EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products.