A Dichotomy – Leadership and Individual Contribution

Over the years, I’ve worked with some great product management leaders, and those who are exceptional at contributing to strategy, portfolios and products. However, I am finding increasing numbers of product management leaders that want to excel at leading, but can’t seem to let go of the individual contributions. Therein lays the problem.  

Leadership is Something You Decide

Whether you are thrust into product management leadership out of company necessity or have transitioned into a leadership position based on executive input, you may ask yourself how you got there. One day you’re engaging in products, connecting with markets and managing a thousand activities around definition and delivery. The next day, you’re stressing over portfolio strategies, reviewing team dynamics, answering questions that aren’t humanly possible and trying to infuse some creativity while figuring out how you’ll meet the needs of the business. 

If you’re a product manager or product marketing manager who enjoys the individual contribution, you have to decide if leadership is right for you.

In a Forbes.com interview, Dr. Robert Sternberg, President of the American Psychological Association stated, “The basic idea behind it is that leadership is not something you are born with and is not an inherited trait. It’s something you decide to do. Good leadership is a decision that builds on a combination–a synthesis–of wisdom, intelligence and creativity.”

Some Thoughts on Attitude and Skills

Early in my career, I decided to leave one situation for another. The new situation was my first leadership position and to say it was difficult, was an understatement. I inherited a loosely defined team that was maligned, overworked, under-appreciated and had no creativity. While I had the desire to lead and made the conscience decision to do so, it was attitude and skills that got me through the first few weeks.

In his book Tribes, We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin shared, “There are two differentiable elements that are really important. The first is skills and the other is attitude. To be a good leader you have to know how to do things, but attitude is at least as important or more important. The way you think about problems and your attitude toward those problems is as essential as your ability to solve them.”

If you have the elements of wisdom, intelligence and creativity stacked beside skills and attitude, I believe you have the right mix to be a great product management leader.

Comfort with Discomfort

We all know that leadership isn’t easy. And product management leadership is not for the faint-hearted. While you may ooze the characteristics of greatness, there’s an aspect of leadership that is often overlooked. “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. The scarcity makes leadership valuable. Its discomfort that creates the leverage that makes leadership worthwhile.” In other words, if everyone could do it, they would, and it wouldn’t be worth much” says Seth Godin.

Individual Contribution

At the onset of my post, I alluded to the fact that I’m seeing more companies where the product management leadership won’t let go and wants to be an individual contributor as well as a leader. In his post, In Support of Product Manager as MVP, Art Petty shares, “In an organization where products are the life-blood of growth, it is up to the firm’s leadership to recognize the value from this role and to develop a rigorous approach to identifying and developing these gifted professionals.  In an era where the battle for brains determines a businesses’ success or failure, it is imperative that firms recognize the critical role and contribution of the Product Manager.”

There are two things I recognize in Art’s comments. First, great product management is difficult to develop and maintain, and when you recognize and appreciate this as an executive you don’t want to let it go. I believe this causes the dichotomy. With a desire to excel as a leader, some of us miss that fact that we are to identify, develop, teach and inspire others. Our role is to set the stage and provide as much of a foundation of success as possible. Then we need to stand beside the person and watch them in action.

How can an effective product management leader identify, assess and develop the team while having another full-time job as an individual product management contributor? I believe you can’t. It places you in a position to lose credibility with your team and those you collaborate with throughout the organization.  

As Art shared, “The right Product Manager can literally propel an organization to success, yet organizations often grossly misfires in their selection and development of people in this critical role.” As a product management leader, do you want to share and build in that success or be associated with the misfires?   

To Lead or Not To Lead

To eliminate this dichotomy, we all have to understand what our contribution will be to product management. There are thousands of individual product management contributors and leaders that are successful and have greatness associated with who they are and what they do.

At the end of the day, you have to be the one who decides whether you will lead product management or contribute as an individual. It’s your decision and we’re glad to have you in the community.

If you like the post, please comment. If you’d like to connect with me, I may be reached on Twitter at jim_holland or drop him an email at jbhprivate[at]gmail[dot]com.

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  • Chris Boothe  On April 13, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    You are so right Jim! Just like the age old adage of whether to be working IN or ON your business. The same holds true for product management. If you are working inside of your products one at a time how do you lead those that are tasked with doing just that.

    • Product Management Tribe  On April 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

      Chris – thanks for the comments. Your insight on IN or OUT definitely applies to product management. Like any area, product management often is trapped in limited career mobility and a leadership role is the only route. Some people should have taken a detour.

  • Michael Ray Hopkin  On April 15, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Jim, excellent post! I’ve often argued that PMs must be leaders in their organization. However, those who lead the PM organization in an organization need to have both the skills and desire to lead. They need to let go of the day-to-day PM work and assume a new type of leadership responsibility as you state above.


    • Product Management Tribe  On April 15, 2010 at 6:48 pm

      Mike, thanks for your comment and I agree that “skills and desire” as you’ve stated are key. Lay those out with, “I really want to lead this team” and you’ve got a winning combination.

  • Geoffrey Anderson  On April 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Wow. What a great post, and it covers much of my love/hate relationship with product management. Particularly the mention about leading while being an individual contributor. I transitioned out of a role because I fought with the group GM about the impossibility of leading a group(implicitly), yet carrying the bag as well. I spent three more years there than I should have, and came out with a heart attack to show for it.

    Now that I am in a role where I am valued for my contributions, life is 100% better.

    It does seem like many leaders of Product Management are not true leaders as you describe, but often fall into the roles (due to your noted lack of career paths once you get into the role).

    • Product Management Tribe  On April 19, 2010 at 12:04 am

      Geoffrey – thanks for the post. It’s great to recognize that leading in product management includes what you do as an individual contributor and those who leads others. Either way, you have to decide and then as you mentioned, “life is 100% better.”

  • theprodmgr  On April 20, 2010 at 4:34 pm


    Great post. I’m finding myself in a catch-22. They want me to show that I can lead and be strategic, but not at the expense of letting the day to day tactical initiatives suffer. So, when there is enough “tactical” initiatives to keep someone busy for more than 8 hours / day, they say “you haven’t shown us you can be tactical”. And then, if the time is spent being tactical, they say “why aren’t these things done”. You can’t win for trying sometimes,

    And then comes the concerns over budget and being able to afford someone to lead the team and people to manage the “day to day”.

    • Geoffrey Anderson  On April 20, 2010 at 4:51 pm

      Wow, you sound like you work for my old boss(es). They complained loudly that I spent too much time on the tactical fire fighting, redirected me to the strategy side (which I did quite well too) then they grumbled that the tactical items were not getting done. So I oscillated back and forth, creating froth in my personal and professional life. I felt wholly schizophrenic by the end.

      When they started asking me to fly all over the world on a moment’s notice to help close $60K deals, I thought to myself “Is this really the best use of a high dollar PM resource?”.

      They clearly wanted their cake and to eat it too.

      The reality is, as mentioned in the blog posting, is to not short the staffing of PM and ensure that the team has adequate leadership, but alas, that is an epidemic position in the industry.

    • Product Management Tribe  On April 20, 2010 at 5:14 pm

      I understand the Catch-22. I’ve been there before. at some point two discussion have to happen. The first is with management. You know the conversation. It surrounds value and it doesn’t include the tactical stuff that they want you to do for the majority of your day. The frank side of the conversation has to happen at some point. Let management know that you’ve decided to lead and focus on strategic elements and building team knowledge and execution, not just giving people “stuff to do.” If they don’t get the conversation, then the second conversation is the one you have by yourself where you asses, “do I really enjoy who I’m working for, what I do and does my contribution make a difference?”


  • By Blogging Out Loud #5 « Sally Out Loud on April 12, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    […] Make up your mind. Do you want to be a leader or an individual contributer? Read A Dichotomy – Leadership and Individual Contribution. […]

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