How to be a GREAT Product Manager (part 4)

The 4 Cs of leadership: credibility, commitment, communication and courage

leadership2.jpgProduct managers need to be leaders. A truism no doubt. But what does being a leader really mean and how can a product manager be a great leader? Let’s start by talking a bit about authority and responsibility. Both are words related to leadership.

Responsibility: noun. a form of trustworthiness; the trait of being answerable to someone for something or being responsible for one’s conduct; “he holds a position of great responsibility”

Authority: noun. the power or right to give orders or make decisions; “he has the authority to issue warrants”

Responsibility is both a trust and a duty. Authority is something you are given or possess related to your responsibilities. The two are clearly inter-related. If you have the responsibility to do something (e.g. uphold the law), you are given the authority to do the things that need to be done to deliver on your responsibility (e.g. issue warrants).

In cases such as law enforcement, both the responsibility and the authority are explicitly defined. In the case of many business functions, particularly matrix functions such as product management, the responsibilities may be explicit, but the authority is implicit in the role. It’s up to the individual product manager to understand that and not get caught up by the lack of a hierarchical reporting structure with other teams.

In my first PM job, after a frustrating product strategy meeting with senior management, one of my fellow product managers let out the famous line:

Product Management: All of the responsibility and none of the authority!

It was the first time I’d ever heard that line, and that afternoon, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. I had faced my own battles with the CEO over product direction issues.

When the first bullet point of the first slide of your product strategy presentation quoting a well-known industry analyst is brushed off by the CEO, and the analyst called “an idiot in a monkey suit“, you know it’s going to be a rough meeting. And when the CEO regularly plays a game called “If you guess what decision I’ve made about your products, then we’ll be in agreement on that issue“, it’s hard to feel empowered.

But, in the intervening years, I’ve learned a little bit about responsibility and authority and don’t agree with that line anymore. The fact is that, regardless of whether you have a CEO (and/or management team) that “gets it” or not, you’ve got a job to do, and whatever frustration you may be feeling about lack of authority is probably shared by your peers in other teams. So what can you do to use the authority that you do have and be the leader that you must be?

Welcome to my 4Cs of Leadership.

Leadership begins with credibility.

credibility: noun. the quality of being believable or trustworthy.

If people aren’t willing to believe you and trust what you say, then there is no way you’ll be given authority to do anything significant.

How do you become credible?

For a PM, the best way is to be viewed as having the most thorough knowledge in your organization of what is needed to help make your product successful. That is what everyone is expecting of you (you are the product manager!), and if you can exceed those expectations, you will have credibility when you speak with people. Some things to put on your “How do I gain credibility?” checklist are:

  • Know your product as well as your users know it
  • Understand the architecture well enough to know it’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Talk to more customers and partners than others in your company
  • Collect more hard data about customer and market needs than your peers
  • Understand the needs and dependencies of your internal teams (sales, support, marketing, engineering)
  • Help those teams in their efforts where reasonable and valuable

Gaining credibility takes time. You’ll have a bit of a grace period when you start a new position, so use that period to get up to speed. Then, continue to work at it and ensure that once you have credibility, you don’t lose it.

The second C of Leadership is commitment. The definition I like is:

commitment: noun. the act of binding oneself (intellectually or emotionally) to a course of action

Look at that definition closely. The words are very specific: “The act of binding oneself…” You must demonstrate commitment to your product’s success. In your current job as a Product Manager, have you bound yourself to the success of your product? Or are you just going through the motions and simply doing the job? People want to see that product managers truly care about product success and figuring out what is right and best for their product. If they don’t see that commitment to success, you will quickly lose credibility.

The third C of Leadership is communication.

communication: noun. the art and technique of using words effectively to impart information or ideas.

No amount of credibility can be retained if communication barriers exist between a leader and his/her followers. Leaders must be able to communicate their thoughts, ideas, visions and strategies clearly and succinctly, and in such a way that those listening are inspired to want to be part of the plans the leader is proposing.

Note that communication is both an art and a technique. Simply conveying information in documents or in rote form is not sufficient to be deemed communication. People need to understand what you are communicating to them and realize why it is important to listen to you.

Put yourself in their position and think about what they need from you. Convey information in forms that those receiving it from you find valuable. This may mean a bit of extra work for you initially — not everyone needs (or wants) to read requirements documents — but once people see you understand their frame of reference, they’ll see the value in understanding your communications. Keep in mind, people are bombarded with information daily, and they triage what they read and what they put aside. Make sure your information gets top priority by making it easy for them to consume.

Once you have credibility with your peers, show commitment to your product, and communicate vision and details clearly, you have the hallmarks of being a leader. But what can truly distinguish a good product manager from a great one is courage.

Welcome to the 4th and most challenging of the 4 Cs.

courage: noun. to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, esp. in spite of criticism. to have the courage of one’s conviction

The difference between a leader and a manager is the leader’s ability to take risks, blaze new trails, and have people follow him or her down those trails. Leaders can be praised when they succeed, but will be criticized roundly when they don’t.

As a product manager, you are an agent of positive change in your company. Stand up for what you believe is right, but do your homework first and be able to support your positions confidently. Not everyone will take to your recommendations or initiatives, even if you are correct. But, over time change can happen, even in the most conservative or difficult environments.

In companies that are open to change, it is a continuous process. In other companies, it comes in the form of a revolution. Regardless of the type of company you work in, if you want to rise to be viewed as a great leader, then have the courage to take, as Frost put it so well, The Road Not Taken.

The last stanza of Robert Frost’s poem sums things up nicely in my mind.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference


Part 1 – Don’t just sound smart, act smart and be smart
Part 2 – Be technical without becoming a technologist
Part 3 – “Spidey-sense” instincts are good, hard data is way better
Part 4 – The 4 Cs of Leadership
Part 5 – Be an integrator, translator and communicator
Part 6 – Own the product from conception to completion and beyond