What Makes Product Leader Great?
As a product leader, you are responsible for the high-level product strategy of your organization. But how do you jump the chasm from good product leader to great product leader to ensure that your team wins long-term? That’s exactly what we asked 13 seasoned product executives in last summer’s Chief Product Officer Webinar Series. Follow along as we break down the product leadership advice of CPOs, VPs of Products, board members, and more as they discuss the tips that helped them make the transition.
Below we provide context on product leadership, but feel free to skip straight to the advice if you are in a hurry.
What is Product Leadership?
Product leadership is one’s ability to develop and manage products that meet customer needs while driving business growth and innovation. It involves having deep domain knowledge and business acumen, and using that knowledge to develop processes and make informed product decisions about strategy, development, and launches.
There are several different product leadership roles, including product manager, product portfolio manager, product owner, chief product officer, head of product, and VP/director of product. These roles have varying levels of responsibility, from overseeing a single product’s development to managing an entire product portfolio. They may also differ at every company in terms of the scope of their responsibilities, such as customer research, product strategy, product development, and team management.
The product leadership structure can differ significantly between large and small companies. Large companies often have a dedicated product organization with several layers of product management leadership. Each layer of product leadership is responsible for managing a specific area of the product organization and has a defined scope of responsibilities.
In contrast, small companies may have a flatter product leadership structure, with fewer layers of management and a greater emphasis on cross-functional collaboration. A product management leader in a small company would have broader responsibilities and work in a fast-paced environment.
What Does a Product Leader Do?
The typical responsibilities of a product leader include:
- Defining and communicating the product visions and strategies to stakeholders.
- Conducting market research and gathering customer feedback to inform product decisions.
- Developing and maintaining the product roadmap, including feature prioritization, release planning, and resource allocation.
- Collaborating with cross-functional teams, such as engineering, design, product marketing, and sales, to ensure successful product development and launch.
- Ensuring that the product meets customer needs and delivers business value, as measured by key performance indicators.
- Managing the product development life cycle process, including product updates, enhancements, and retirement.
- Identifying and mitigating portfolio risks to the product’s success, such as competitive threats or changing market trends.
- Leading and developing a team of product managers
Overall, product leaders are responsible for driving product success and growth while balancing the needs of the customer, the business, and the market.
What Makes a Good Product Leader Great?
Now that we know the working mechanisms of a product leader, let’s get into what truly makes a product leader great. Check out the overlying themes from the advice of 13 trailblazers of the product and tech industry.
Storytelling is essential for great product leadership because when creating a product, leaders need to be able to communicate the value and vision in a compelling way that resonates with their audience. By telling a story, product leaders can create an emotional connection with their stakeholders and inspire them to take action, whether that means investing in the product, buying it, or contributing to its development.
Here’s what some product leaders had to say on storytelling:
“[Being a great product leader] is being able to manage up to the board and talk about really hard things in a diplomatic way. Great CPOs will tell their story in a way that will create clarity and visibility so that your board can have confidence in you. You can have really hard conversations about what you need to do and need to not do, but you keep the faith throughout it.
If you have a great CPO, they can get the board and CEO on board with their plan, and they work as a partnership with humility to admit mistakes and build those relationships with people.”
– Melissa Perri, CEO @ ProduxLabs and Author of Escaping the Build Trap
“ What differentiates great Chief Product Officers is that if you talk to a board or you talk to a C-suite, or you talk to their team, each one of them will describe that individual in a very different way. They will describe them as having strong business acumen, good presentation, and a lot of charisma. The C-suite will say they are a team player, willing to give, understanding of my pain. And their team will say they are a good mentor, helping me understand how to advance my career.
And so you have to be a chameleon. And you have to represent yourself differently, not disingenuously, to the stakeholder group you’re in. And as a product person, you are the glue; therefore you interact with a lot of different groups. Make sure you’re adjusting your presentation style for the empathy of those stakeholders. That’s what makes a great Chief Product Officer.”
– Shelley Perry, Operating Partner @ Scalelogix Ventures
Clarity helps great product leaders build great products by effectively communicating their vision and strategy, aligning stakeholders around common goals, and making informed decisions based on data and insights. Without clarity, product leaders risk confusion, misalignment, and lack of buy-in, which can lead to missed opportunities, wasted resources, and product failure.
Here’s what some product leaders had to say on clarity:
“A really great head of product is a highly facilitative leader that brings systems into place to allow the leadership team to get visibility to make decisions. That is somebody who understands they don’t own the decisions. However, they know that the more they can bring data to the leadership team so they can make tradeoffs, the more they can control those decisions in the right way.
In the end, a great chief product officer doesn’t lose that facilitative mindset. They focus on the system and put it in place so others can make those decisions. And really great CPOs will make the whole leadership team feel like they were a part of the decision-making process. These folks need to believe in the roadmap you’re creating. So don’t lose that ability to bring them along, as you move up the ladder from being a great head of product to a great CPO.”
– Ryan Polk, Operating Partner @ Insight Partners
“A good Chief Product Officer focuses on the how and the what, but a great Chief Product Officer focuses on the why. They figure out how to communicate and frame the problem and align success metrics to scale and grow the business.”
– Lydia Varmazis, CPO @ Lydia & Co.
3. Outcome-focused Teams
Building outcome-focused teams ensures that product development efforts are aligned with the overall goals and objectives of the business. Rather than simply focusing on outputs or features, outcome-focused product teams prioritize delivering tangible results that create value for customers and drive business growth.
Here’s what some product leaders had to say on building outcome-focused teams:
“The value the product leader can unlock in their people and in their teams is a true indicator of a good vs. great CPO. It ultimately comes down to the depth and breadth of how they can show their impact. It is also luck, right time, right place, right ideas. There are some things out of your control that go into great outcomes and becoming a great CPO.”
– Aniket Gune, CPO @ SmartAsset
“A good CPO delivers on business outcomes, and that is a given. But a great CPO is transformative with their outcomes. They are 10xers across business impact, team impact, and they make the org product-led. Hitting the goal is good, but transformative is hard.”
– Ketan Babaria, CPO @ M1 Finance
Building a framework for alignment is essential for great product leadership because it helps to ensure that everyone is aligned and working towards a common goal. When everyone is on the same page, it is much easier to make informed decisions, prioritize effectively, and execute the product strategy with focus and clarity.
Here’s what some product leaders had to say on alignment:
“From good to great, it’s having that simple and easy-to-understand framework where you can align your PMs, product ops team, and your stakeholders so you can align how you and your product team is enabling those outcomes on the product, strategic, and company level. It’s being able to tell that story with a simple framework.”
– Denise Tilles, CPO @ Grocket
“You need to have a product vision and sell that vision to everyone (sales team, board, CEO) to get aligned on the vision and strategy on achieving the goal. Great CPOs can craft a vision to get other people to feel they play a role and are important to that vision.”
– Wyatt Jenkins, CPO @ Procore
Building a good culture is essential for great product leadership because it creates an environment for product teams that fosters creativity, collaboration, and innovation. A positive culture can motivate team members to do their best work, take ownership of their roles, and work together towards shared goals. This is particularly important in product development, which often requires cross-functional teams to work together to deliver high-quality products that meet customer needs.
Check out what product leaders had to say about building culture:
“The biggest thing is execution. That’s quantitative. But the key sub-piece here, which makes a great product manager, is ego.
Being able to manage ego. Egos of your executive team, of your product team, of everybody, period. That is the most important thing. Because you are not the most important. The product person is not the most important thing. The collaborative effort is the most important. And that’s what, I think, makes a great chief product officer.”
– Avin Arumugam, Operating Partner @ Struck Capital
“At the end of the day, going from a good to great product leader comes down to how you delight the customers and business growth.
And for me, that comes down to how you create the right culture in product teams because no matter how good a CPO is, if you can’t create the right culture that allows teams to get customer feedback, and deliver products quickly, you can’t build great products.
Once your dev and product managers are cooking with gas, the rest of the organization comes along because you start getting more predictable in terms of when things are going to be released. The sales and customer support team is no longer frustrated that it’s taking so long and there’s no visibility. So the transparency that comes with speed is typically what I think drives a great Chief Product Officer to help a company grow and delight customers.”
– Spiros Theodossiou, CPO @ Dext
“What makes a great product leader is putting your company first and your people first. That means that it’s not all about the product. It’s really about spending enough time with my peers so that I put in the effort to make sure my company and people are successful, not just my specific team.
All being on the same page as a leadership team is so vital. Creating this leadership view and rowing in the same direction makes a great leader. Then in terms of product, it’s being data-driven, customer-focused, and really building a culture where people want to work together. It’s a team sport.”
– Trisha Price, CPO @ Pendo
6. Customer Focused
Being customer-focused is essential for great product leadership because it ensures that the product is designed and developed with the needs and wants of the customer in mind. When a product leader is customer-focused, they take the time to deeply understand the customer’s problems, needs, and preferences and use that understanding to inform product decisions.
Here’s what some product leaders had to say about being customer focused.
“Be extremely customer focused. This is not to be confused with customer responsive, meaning, I’m not going to just do what you think you want me to do, but I’m going to get behind what it is you’re trying to accomplish and solve for. I’m going to come to you with an innovative and differentiated approach to solving that problem.
That means you have to know your customers inside and out. I think those product managers that have a pulse on the emotional, contextual, and functional things their customers are trying to solve for are usually ahead of the game.
So my mantra is, if there’s a debate internally or any uncertainty, come back to, what do you think that customer really wants? Hopefully, you know the customer well enough that pretty much anything you come out with would be accretive to that customer’s life.”
– Cory Gaines, CPO @ BlackHawk Network
Great Product Leadership: The Bottom Line
To make the transition from good to great, product leaders must be expert storytellers, customer-focused, and culture driven. They must be able to tell a story in a way that creates clarity and inspires stakeholders to take action while also maintaining alignment in communicating their vision and strategy. And all the while having every action line up with their ultimate business outcomes. It is the combination of these qualities and traits that can help a product leader move from good to great and drive the success of their organization.
How can a product leader encompass all of these qualities?
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