Product Management

Why Is Product Leadership So Relevant Today?


Editor's note: Below is an excerpt from Product Leadership, a book by Richard Banfield, Nate Walkingshaw, and Martin Eriksson.

The product leader’s impact

A product leader is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a product and, by extension, the company itself. 

The impact of that cannot be underestimated. 

According to Ken Norton, product leaders are “the implementers of the company vision,” always pushing the company forward by “focusing on what is most important to the company - what do we want to accomplish as a business and what do we need to do to get there?” 

Norton’s time at GV (previously Google Ventures) convinced him of the importance of product leadership. 

He believes that product leadership should have a vision for the product and where it should be in a year, in 5 years, and in 10 years from now - and then articulate this vision to the rest of the leadership team and to the wider organization. Creating a product vision and crafting a plan to get there is as relevant as you can get to the organization’s success.

As Ben Horowitz of the successful venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz put it fifteen years ago while he was a Product Manager at Netscape, 

“A good product manager acts like and is viewed as CEO of the product. Good product managers have a realistic vision of what success of their product means and they ensure that this vision becomes reality - whatever it takes. Good product managers are viewed by the entire product team as the leader of the product.” 

As we’ve acknowledged, the CEO analogy is problematic but successful product leaders often look and sound like CEOs. 

Understanding that product managers are leaders and not just managers is the cornerstone of this book. Forgive us if we repeat this point throughout the book. It’s an idea worth reinforcing.

A picture of RIchard Banfield's book titled Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams

The evolving organization

The product team is in the unique position of trying to achieve an outsize impact, while having almost no authority over the teams that build, market, support and sell the product. 

“When you’re a product manager,” says Ken Norton “you’re generally not the boss. You need to gain authority through your actions and your leadership skills, not your role.” 

This is very different from previous generations when the manager held authority over the team and decisions by virtue of the title. That era has passed and a new approach to management has emerged. As Norton says, management is now earned through positive behavior.

Product leaders should never assume that their title qualifies them to lead by the inferred authority of the role alone. 

“Responsible and accountable does mean that we have teams that are actually accountable and responsible, and my job is to make sure they want to turn up to work,” says Nilan Peiris, VP Product and Growth at TransferWise. “They work as one on a team, and that's due to upfront thinking about hiring and about culture and about leadership within teams.” 

This cooperation doesn’t happen by accident. Product managers and leaders are expected to take an active role in building culture and leading their teams through the mundane day-to-day activities, not just the high level strategies and vision.

As peers to the other departments, “this sets up a healthy tension between engineering, product and marketing, and the different ways those departments think. This is healthy because it allows product management to synthesize all these alternative views into the optimum decision for the product and the company,” continues Norton. 

Balancing the feedback and friction that comes from other teams and external sources is part of the job. An evolving organization understands that eliminating friction isn’t the mandate, it’s understanding what insights might result from that friction. 

Maintaining this friction while preventing chaos is something Steve Selzer speaks passionately about. As the Experience Design Manager at AirBnB, he is referring specifically to the friction that results from a poorly designed UX, but his insights are relevant to all aspects of product. 

“It’s generally a good thing to remove friction but we need to retain the friction that helps us grow, that helps us navigate change and become resilient.” 

As is the case with so many things in product creation, the rules that apply to successful product design also apply to successful product team leadership.

The team

Without a team the role of the product leader would not exist. The successful leader is reflected in the success of their team, and likewise, a poor leader is revealed by the failures of their team . It has been suggested that if product leaders were paid by the effectiveness of their teams we’d have more successful products. How the team is recruited, developed and guided is probably one of the most important elements of the product leader’s role. 

It is also, without doubt the hardest part of the job. 

“Every team deals with personalities,” says David Cancel, CEO and Co-Founder of Drift. “Sales and marketing have a certain set of personalities they deal with from a leadership standpoint. But product is very different and very interesting. For one thing, we're in a market where product managers, engineers and designers have all the options in the world, so why should they work on your product versus others?” 

Cancel, who has led product teams at Performable, Hubspot and was CTO of Compete (acquired by WPP), has an unconventional view on product leadership, “that may not be the same in other teams, where leadership can be very top-down and very by the book.”

Product leaders have more relevance because they are increasingly the people responsible for connecting the dots between the executive vision and the practical work on the ground. 

Bryan Dunn, Senior Director of Product Management at Localytics talks about the early days at his company. 

“When the company was still small enough, our CEO and COO were making a lot of the product decisions, but as the company grew this didn’t scale very well. They would make some decisions, but couldn’t get into the details enough to understand all the nuances and tradeoffs of those decisions. They might’ve seen the potential value but in terms of feasibility and usability, they didn’t have enough depth, or time to work through these things with customers in order to give the engineering team guidance about what the market needed.”

A product leader needs to balance the triumvirate of viability, feasibility and usability. To do this, they look to the executive to handle the viability aspect and then translate that into what’s feasible and usable. The CEO should be setting the general direction for the company. For some early stage companies, the CEO will also be occupied with raising money, adding senior team members and a dozen other things. 

As Bryan Dunn says, 

“I was spending so much time with customers doing the detail-oriented work that a product manager does, that I started to have my own opinions about what we should be building.” 

Dunn’s observation shows that it is often the people closest to the customer who are best-suited to make product decisions. This fact means that product leaders are also best-suited to shape the direction of the product. Product leaders have first-hand insight into the customer experience. This insight might not be available or top of mind with all senior executives in the organization. The product leader must have the authority to lead the organization’s product direction.

The makers

Managing the flow of information and directing the organization as an advocate of the customer are important aspects of being a product managers. Leading the internal team is an essential part of the job. 

“In product teams, you have to deal with makers,” says Cancel. “Makers are different, sometimes difficult or weird. In a product team we are all makers, and so the personality challenges that you deal with - how you build a team, how you align personalities within that team and then how you motivate them - are very different.” 

Makers need uninterrupted time to create stuff and solve problems. Some process ceremonies can interfere with this focused time. All managers and leaders should be judged by their team’s outputs, and product leaders are no different. If you’re managing a team of makers, your day will be judged by how well you protected them from distractions and what they were able to make. 

This dimension further elevates product leaders from old-school management. No longer are they barking orders at subordinates but rather empathetically motivating creative personalities toward mutually rewarding goals. They create safe mental and physical places for makers and problem-solvers to work, and make the team the heroes. This means the leader is also advocate, coach, guide, mentor and cheerleader to the team. 

As one executive product leader told us, 

“When I was a senior engineering manager my job was all about technology and process, now I’m Chief Product Officer and my job is all about dealing with people and their emotions.”

Richard recently published Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, which he coauthored with Nate Walkingshaw and Martin Eriksson. He also authored Design Leadership and Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products, which he coauthored with C. Todd Lombardo and Trace Wax. Richard is the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil, and under his leadership Fresh Tilled Soil has delivered UX and product design to 700+ clients across the world. His colorful life experience includes being an officer in the army and a dive master on the remote Islamic Republic of the Comoros.

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