Product Leadership 101: What It Takes To Build Successful Product Teams
What is product leadership and how is it different from product management?
Well, these two terms might seem confusingly similar but there is a distinguishable difference between them.
In the article, we’ll be discussing what the product leadership role entails and how it is different from the product management role. We’ll also look at what the responsibilities of a product leader are and what skills they need to succeed in their roles.
Let’s dive in!
- Product leadership involves outlining product vision, developing product-focused strategies, and ensuring their implementation in the organization
- The product leader is the first person to get involved in product development and focus on strategy, product-market fit, and customer experience
- Product managers step in later and they are in charge of implementing the strategy and building the product
- The product leader and product manager both work towards the same goal: developing successful products. They use the same tools, methodologies, and skills
- Senior leaders with various job titles, like the Vice-President of Product or even CEO, are normally in charge of product leadership, depending on the company size and industry
- Product leaders are responsible for building the right teams and organizational cultures
- To build a great product team, the product leader needs to hire employees not only with the relevant mindset and skills, but also constantly guide the team through the various stages of team formation
- Product leaders need to ensure that the workflow is organized and the team has all the necessary tools for efficient work
- Product leaders need good budgeting skills to assess if the product is financially viable and ensure there are funds available for its development
- Project management skills are also required to manage timelines and milestones
- A successful product leader also needs empathy, business acumen, technical skills, and storytelling skills
- Userpilot can help product leaders to analyze the user needs to make decisions on the product development strategy.
What is product leadership?
Product leadership aims to enable product-led growth.
In practice, it means developing and promoting a product-orientated strategy, and ensuring that all business and development decisions and processes within the organization are aligned with the strategy.
The importance of product leadership has gotten wide recognition in the industry and that is reflected in business and management literature.
Product leadership role vs product management role
What is the difference between product leadership and product management? In short, it is the different stages of the product lifecycle at which both play their roles.
The focus of product leadership is on strategy and ensuring good product-market fit and customer experience. Product management, on the other hand, is about implementing the strategy and building the product.
Differences between product leaders and product managers
Product leaders and product managers work towards the same goal: creating products that are valuable, usable, and feasible. However, they do it from a different perspective.
Product leaders are responsible for the high-level product vision, and the initial stages of the product build. They prepare the right conditions for the development of the product.
Product managers lead the product team to ensure that the product generates value and that it is feasible to develop from a technical point of view. They are involved in product development in a more granular way and focus on things like UX and UI design.
Product leadership and product management similarities
Although there are differences between product managers and product leaders, there are also some similarities.
As they both focus their professional energy on developing successful products, they rely on the same methodologies and tools to do their work and need to have similar skills. The three main skills that both shares include business acumen, analytical mindset, and design thinking.
Common product leadership role titles in a company
The job descriptions of various managers may include product leadership responsibilities.
Generally, in smaller organizations, the CEO or the CMO is responsible for product leadership, while in larger organizations with dedicated product departments, the CEO, Chief Product Officer, or Group Product Manager may have the responsibility.
When allocating the product leadership responsibilities, it’s important to remember that certain roles within the company have contradictory objectives and so shouldn’t be held by the same person.
For example, the head of engineering is well-aware of what it takes to develop a great quality product, so they may be reluctant to push for a release within a very tight deadline.
In general, the product leader’s position is determined by the company’s size and industry.
What is a product leader responsible for?
Product leadership responsibilities involve building the right organizational culture, developing best practices, overseeing the implementation of the vision, and ensuring that the product team has the necessary resources to do their work.
Building the product team and its collaboration culture
One of the most important aspects of the product leader role is promoting the right product-orientated organizational culture.
As not everybody has the right mindset, a newly appointed product leader may need to reshuffle the teams to realign them with the company vision.
A perfect team should not only share the same vision but also have the right mix of skills and personalities. A team of plants will have lots of ideas but if there are no shapers, implementers, or completer-finishers on the team, no product will ever be released to the customer.
Recruiting the right people is only the beginning though. Product leaders are also responsible for new employee onboarding, as well as ongoing training, coaching, and mentoring of their teams.
Your team won’t reach top performance overnight. Before they start cooking on gas, they need to go through the usual stages of forming, storming, and norming. This doesn’t happen on its own though and a good leader needs to guide the team through each of the stages.
Develop processes and practices
Product leaders are in charge of developing processes and practices that would reflect and reinforce the vision and the values of the company.
This may involve redesigning different workflows or adding new tools to the tech stack to maximize efficiency and productivity.
Everything the product team does, and how they do it, should contribute to the mission of building excellent products.
Product leaders need strong budgeting skills.
To start with, they need to be able to appraise the financial viability of the product. This is necessary to get the buy-in from other stakeholders and ensure that product is going to be profitable.
During the development process, they need to keep tabs on the financial performance of the team and make sure they have adequate resources to do their jobs well.
Finally, product leaders play a role in tailoring the pricing strategies to the current market situation.
Product leadership also involves a fair bit of project management.
Product leaders focus on high-level management of timelines and milestones. They support the product/project managers, product owners, and Scrum masters, who are responsible for the day-to-day deployment of the product projects and monitor their work.
Removing impediments to the daily work of the product teams is an important part of the product leader’s role.
Even the best team is not going to perform well if they keep facing barriers. This could be inadequate tools or insufficient resources.
Many of them can be tackled by the people on the ground, like the Scrum masters, but sometimes more clout (or more money) is needed to solve issues. That’s when the product leader needs to step in.
Product leadership skills
Performing all the responsibilities of product leaders requires very diverse skillsets and personal qualities.
Empathy is the foundation of great product leadership because it helps deliver the right product to customers and build great relationships with your teams.
To start with, product leaders need empathy to understand the customers’ needs. Even the most financially sound product projects won’t succeed if they don’t deliver value to customers.
To achieve that, you need to know customers’ pain points and the goals they want to achieve. Once you know them, you can prioritize the development of features accordingly.
You also need empathy for your team. It will help you understand what makes your team members tick and leverage that knowledge to motivate them.
Empathy also helps you to remove obstacles that prevent your team from doing their work effectively. As we said above, this is an important part of the product leadership role.
Business acumen is what distinguishes good product leaders from absolutely brilliant ones.
You can learn a lot about product development, setting out product strategy, or product-led growth from online resources, books, and courses. You can even go one step further and study business at college, which will give you a solid foundation as a business leader.
However, to be a brilliant product leader, you need business savviness that you can develop only through experience. This will help you identify opportunities that others might be missing (while giving others a miss), assess risks more accurately, and overall, make better business decisions.
That kind of business sixth sense will let you climb the ladder in your organization, and more importantly, develop products that delight both customers and the shareholders.
Being proficient in every possible growth technology is neither possible nor necessary for a product leader. After all, that’s not where your greatest contributions to the product come from.
However, you need a certain level of understanding of the technical processes in your company.
Understanding the tech side of your product will help you to estimate more accurately and set realistic goals for your product teams. It will also help manage the expectations of other stakeholders.
It will also improve the quality of communication and allow you to build better rapport with your tech teams. The technical knowledge will let you communicate the objectives and requirements to the team accurately and succinctly.
What’s more, it will increase your understanding of the issues and challenges that they face, and enable you to remove barriers more effectively.
What exact skills you need will depend on the product, the workflows within the team, and the tools they use. Do your research to identify those and get appropriate training to build a foundation of knowledge that will serve you during your career in product leadership.
Great storytelling skills are essential for successful product leadership.
As we’ve mentioned before, product leaders are responsible for setting the product vision – the North Star that inspires and guides the work of the team.
However, even the most brilliant product ideas are not of much use if they don’t get the buy-in from the stakeholders. That’s why the ability to build compelling narratives about the product is essential.
First, product leaders must be able to captivate the decision-makers with their story of the product. When they get the green light, they need to tell another story to the team to clearly communicate the objectives and win their commitment.
Finally, great storytelling is essential to capture the attention of the customers and paint a picture of how excellent the product will be at solving their problems.
The importance of soft skills is often underestimated but the truth is no product leader can succeed without them. These skills are the key to building successful teams, communicating a product-orientated vision to them, and developing relationships with other stakeholders.
Some of the most important soft skills include:
- emotional intelligence – to control your own emotions, empathize with others, or de-escalate conflicts
- relationship building – with all current stakeholders and potential business partners; this includes building virtual relationships and networking -build this using virtual team building arrangements that can help you to establish a good level of understanding in a soft way.
- people management – to motivate people, build and develop effective teams, and coach and mentor individual team members to ensure their continuous development and engagement
- communication – to express your ideas so that they are understood in an intended way
- active listening – to understand others’ perspectives, challenges, and issues
- negotiation and persuasion – to secure necessary resources and win the buy-in of others, be it senior management, product team members, or customers
- creativity – to come up with innovative product ideas and outside-the-box solutions to problems
Some of the skills are more difficult to develop than others, but overall there’s quite a lot you can do to grow your soft skill set. Here are a few online courses that we think are worth looking at:
- Emotional Intelligence Basics, LinkedIn Learning
- Emotional Intelligence: Cultivating Immensely Human Interactions, Coursera
- Building Business Relationships, LinkedIn Learning
- Building Relationships While Working from Home, LinkedIn Learning
- People Management Skills, CIPD/FutureLearn
- Improving Your Leadership Communications, LinkedIn Learning
- The Power of Deep Listening (Using Active Listening Skills), Udemy (Paid)
- Negotiation Skills, LinkedIn Learning
- Introduction to Negotiation: A Strategic Playbook for Becoming a Principled and Persuasive Negotiator, Coursera
- Developing Your Creativity as a Leader, LinkedIn Learning
- Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success, Coursera
Product leaders work along with product managers to develop products that delight users and provide value.
They may come with different job titles but they are all responsible for developing product-centered strategies and aligning their organizations and product teams with the product vision.
Wanna see how Userpilot can help you create product experiences code-free and contribute to your product leadership role, get a free demo to get started!