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.
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.