Product Leadership Marty Cagan

Product Leadership Theater

The previous article on Product Management Theater proved to be quite popular, and I’m grateful for all the positive feedback.  

But as expected, some people took it somewhat personally, and pointed the blame at their managers (the product leaders) or at their company’s executives.

In my article, I wasn’t trying to assign any blame (other than on misguided product manager training programs).  I was just arguing that no matter your situation, it is always useful for your career, and your company, for you to develop your skills.  

And those with the least skills are usually the most vulnerable.

That said, it is true that where you find product management theater, you usually find product leadership theater.  This should be no surprise as strong product managers have usually been coached and developed by strong product leaders.

But when I talk to the product leaders, they usually point the blame at their senior leadership (e.g. CEO that does not come from product, an organizational structure and culture that is very top-down, very sales or stakeholder-driven, very date-driven, etc.).

There is no question that the senior leaders have an important role to play if you want to move to the product model, and some behaviors may need to change.

However, the surprise for so many product leaders is that they have at least as much work to do.

It is truly perplexing how many product leaders believe that once the senior executives change their ways, all will be good. 

They focus their energy on getting others to change, rather than on changing themselves:

  • They complain about having weak product managers.
  • They complain about not being empowered.
  • They complain about engineers who don’t seem engaged.
  • They complain about having stakeholders that don’t trust them. 
  • They complain about CEOs who demand detailed product roadmaps.

Yet, they don’t seem to realize that each of these problems is very much a consequence of their own actions (or inactions, as the case may be).

If a product leader is not willing to take responsibility for raising the skill level of her product people, then the product teams will be staffed with people who lack the necessary level of competence.

When that’s the case, who would be surprised if the teams are not empowered?

Who would be surprised if the engineers act like mercenaries?

Who would be surprised if the stakeholders don’t trust the product managers?

Who would be surprised if the CEO doesn’t trust the product leaders?

More generally, two important things for product leaders to keep in mind, especially if they wish to embark on a transformation to the product model: first, you have as much ownership as you have credibility; and second, part of your job as a product leader is to change hearts and minds.

While it is true that the executives have much to change to move to the product model, there are even larger changes required of the product leaders. There is plenty of work needed from all sides, but success starts with the product organization (product leaders and product teams) raising their game.