Top 10 Product Leadership Lessons

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to give a talk at the 9th annual Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference.  I’m trying to be better about posting the slides from these talks as they happen.

Context & Caveats

This talk is based substantially on a lecture I gave at LinkedIn on August 31, 2011.  It’s heavily based on the unique product, strategy and organizational issues that you see currently in fast moving, hyper growth, consumer-focused software companies.

At the same time, many of the higher level business and management issues discussed are fairly universal, so hopefully there is something useful here for anyone who is passionate about building organizations that build great products.

So take a look, and I look forward to the comments.  FWIW The Optimus Prime quotes are from this excellent list of Optimus Prime quotes for the workplace.

Be A Great Product Leader

Great Product Leaders Win Games

Being a great product leader is hard. Every organization and process is different, and in many cases you are responsible for the outcome without having the authority to enforce decisions. My recent blog post on Being a Great Product Leader was an attempt to capture the specifics of how to lead a great, cross-functional software team.

To scale a great team, however, you need more than just a list of roles and responsibilities. How you onboard new talent is as important for the long term health of your team as how you identify and hire them in the first place.

The Trials of Being a New Coach

When a sports team gets a new coach, there is some authority that comes with the role. You can immediately set standards for behavior & strategy – how the team is going to practice, what plays the team is going to run. That authority, however, tends to be short -lived. Before you know it, the team begins to focus on one thing: are we winning games?

Joining a new team as a product manager has the same dynamic. At most of the companies I’ve been a part of, there is this false sense of security that comes from process and organization. Sure, if you are technically fulfilling the role and responsibilities of a product manager, there is a certain amount of respect and authority initially. However, in the long term, teams want to win games, and in software that means products that people are proud of and products that move the needle.

So is there a pattern of behavior for new product managers that ensures long term success? I’ll argue yes, and for my new hires I boil it down to three phases:
2 weeks, 2 months, and 2 quarters.

Two Weeks

The first two weeks of a product manager are critical, because this is the window where a new leader can establish the most important aspect of the role: what game are we playing, and how do we keep score.

As a result, the first thing I lay out for new product manager is:

  • The company culture and organizational philosophy of the team. Why the company matters. Product/engineering partnership. Results oriented performance.
  • The current strategic frame for how their product fits into the overall strategy of the company.
  • The current metrics and milestones for the product they are taking over.
  • A set of frameworks for the roles & responsibilities of product managers. These include posts on being a great product leader, product prioritization, finding heat in design, etc.

In the first two weeks, a new product manager is expected to:

  • Thoroughly challenge and finalize the strategic frame for the area. Does the existing frame make sense, or is there a better game to be playing?
  • Thoroughly understand the existing product metrics, and identify new or different metrics needed to properly assess the success of the area (max: 3)
  • Reprioritize all existing and future ideas & concepts based on the above, a.k.a. the product roadmap.

In addition, the first two weeks is the time when a new product manager can physically sit down and meet all the other key product and engineering leaders in overlapping areas, to help them both have context for their product and more importantly establish communication channels across the company with other key leaders. Great product managers very often serve as efficient people routers, and knowing who to talk to is often as important as knowing what to do.

Two Months

Like medicine, theoretical knowledge will only get you so far as a product manager. At some point, you learn by doing. A team will tolerate theoretical discussion for a short while, but in the end, a new product manager needs to get their hands dirty.

Two months is too short a time to significantly move the needle, but it is enough time to run through a few release cycles. In the first two months, it’s crucial for a product manager to actually be responsible for something released to users. In addition, the first two months is the typical time frame for a new product manager to flesh out the “best idea” from the team on how to win.

Two months is enough time to:

  • Have identified key outstanding bugs or minor feature fixes that matter.
  • Led the design / specification of solutions to those issues, and see them go live.
  • Write their first product specification for a larger, more significant milestone for their area. This should be their highest priority project to “move the needle” as they’ve defined it for the team.

The first two months are crucial, because not only does it help the new team execute together and coalesce, but also put their stake in the ground on what their next big evolution will be. By leading the effort to place that bet, a product manager sets the team up for the type of success that hopefully will provide long term momentum for that product team.

Two Quarters

Six months is the window to get a cross-functional team into the positive, reinforcing cycle of ongoing success. At this point, the team has released both small and large features, and has meaningfully “moved the needle.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the product manager led the launch of a single, monolithic all-or-nothing feature. In fact, what it most likely means is that the team launched a combination of iterative efforts to test out their theories and push through changes that in the aggregate validated the strategy and prioritization that had been put in place.

Great Product Leaders Win Games

Once teams have victories under their belt, in hyper-growth companies they gain both the desire to win again, and the confidence to execute on that desire. Creating that momentum is one of the hardest, and yet most valuable elements of cross-functional leadership.

This pattern has proven reliably consistent for my own product leadership efforts, as well as in differentiating the long term success of product managers I’ve hired and mentored.

In some ways, it’s really simple: great teams like winning, and great leaders reliably lead teams to great victories.

Now go out and win games.