Essential Pieces for Strategic Product Leadership

In conversations with executives over the past year, I repeatedly hear stories or experience product managers who lack essential elements of product leadership. Not the person leading the team, (although that’s another blog post), but those who lead products.

Whether you manage a single product as a contributor, guide numerous products in a portfolio, or lead a team and strategy for a product line or business unit, product leadership counters most of the tactical issues that surface in product management.

What are the essential pieces in building Strategic Product Leadership? Below are five areas I believe are the pieces to every product leadership puzzle.

 Product Vision – is first on my list. While many executive teams have a high-level vision, it’s product leadership that guides the how, why, when and where of product strategy and makes the vision a reality. Product management has a great influence on product vision. Driving strategy as a leader begins with knowing your markets, defining a product vision that’s realistic, communicating this vision and investigating what you don’t know.

Market Authority – is second on my list of essential pieces. Without it, product management’s value is relegated to tactical tasks related to product definition and delivery. Market authority is a continuous action and is built from many sources including; customers, industry events, analysts, focus groups, online information and social media. You can find limitless information with the right plan in place. It’s interesting to note that in a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center about  Twitter use:

  • 62% of users post work updates on a daily basis.
  • 12% of users post work updates more than once a day.
  • 72% post personal updates.
  • 19% of users post personal updates more than once a day.

Why is this important in becoming a market authority? Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become the common platform for open dialogue. I have read product management rants about lost deals, delays in product releases, ineptness of development, company turmoil and other topics that provide competitive insight. 

Having an intimate knowledge of your product(s), other products inside your organization, markets, competition, buyers and users, the buying and sales process all strengthen your effectiveness as an authority that senior management will rely. Remember, If you aren’t the market authority, someone else will be.

Product Planning – falls next on my list. Most product managers gravitate toward more tactical and short-term measurable aspects of a product’s life and often feel a natural connection with the development of a product. Leading products requires a balance of strategic and tactical and often the details of the next release overshadow product planning. When product management looks at product life more than life-cycleit will add another piece to the puzzle. 

Product Leadership – the personal side is next on my list. In Michael Hopkin’s recent post on Leadership and Product Management, Mike shared, “The key to successful product management is working well with other teams. Product managers hold a unique position in the company: they depend on people from other groups, but they do not have managerial authority over those people (in most cases). Their success depends on their ability to build consensus and inspire the other team members to do great things. Therefore, a product manager must earn the trust of people in the organization and influence them to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.”

Measurement – while last, this may be one of the most critical pieces of strategic product leaders. When measuring impact, most organizations rely on revenue and financial metrics. It’s interesting to note that these are not leading, but lagging indicators. Think about it, sales revenue, profitability, cost of sales and profit margin are not known until the end of a cycle.

Areas carrying operational influence provide current and leading indicators. Indicators such as market sensing, speed to market, product launch and others may offer more leading information than their financial counterparts and better alignment to product management and its leadership.

I welcome any comments will continue to develop additional content surrounding the strategic pieces of product leadership. If you’d like connections via Twitter you can find me @jim(underscore)holland.

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  • jidoctor  On December 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    It would be interesting to know how these leaders who feel that their is a lack of product leaders let this practice continue? How do they support the spiral?

    I have seen that while many product professionals would like to take true leadership of their products, the processes, budgets and organizational structures do not always support the tacticas of the product people. I also believe that the fears that have been brought by the downturn in the economy have created environments of “just enough” and no longer foster “world-class.”

    I think that we will continue to see the lack of product leadership until 1) executives realize that taking a product person from your competitor adds no more value than the ability to repeat what the competition does; 2) executives look beyond the resume, and engage in “real” talks that uncover the abilities of the product person for the market skills your outlined above; and 3)the product professionals are put into environments where there are leaders who are offering the right support for them to take the next step forward, based on breaking down the roadblocks, balancing and leveraging the unique skills of each team member, and fostering growth and understanding.

    In other words, product professionals can only grow, as executives desire, when the negative “politics” of product management are transformed into a healthy environment.

    • Geoffrey Anderson  On December 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm

      Jidoctor – Loved your analysis and retort. I read the original post and found my head nodding, then mouthing “but…” on most of the points that you hit.

      Your point about the fears and environment forcing (encouraging, driving, whatever synonym fits the bill) the “Just enough” mentality and reducing the horizon of the “world class” really resonates with me. If you have no reality in the assessment of where you are at today, and a strategic vision of what you want to be, then there are many forces within that can derail your plans. I come from the Semiconductor Capital Equipment industry, and a group that relished downturns as times to double down the investment, and catch up on priorities. However, today, it seems that all public companies are loathe to not knuckle under investor’s glare to reduce their risk in tough times.

      It depends on the organization and the execs, as you point out, but I have seen little to make me believe that the senior executive staff in general “gets” it. (However, I am blessed that at least my local executive here does get it, and is super supportive – I just need to get past fire fighting).

      One thing you hint at towards the end is the role of executive desire and the “P” word (politics). Once an organization grows beyond the medium size (~ 100M a year), I have found that politics seem to become entrenched, and unless the product professional is adept at playing the game, or at least avoiding the pitfalls, it can become a very hard momentum to change from within the machine.

  • Michael Ray Hopkin  On December 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Jim, great post! It’s so easy — as a product manager — to get caught up in tactical “fires” and lose site of the real goals of our products.

    In this post I see three key words for product success: 1)”essential” – focusing on the areas you describe above is absolutely essential. 2) “strategic” – much has been said about strategy and thinking strategically as a product manager, and yet most of us are still pulled into the tactical every day; tactical work is important; strategic work is essential. 3) “leadership” – for your product to succeed, you (the product manager) have to be the leader among your peers (those over whom you have no managerial authority). Your relationship with people on other teams is critical. As you work to gain their trust — and you trust them — your products will succeed.


  • Tim Johnson  On December 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm


    It would also be interesting to see how compensation plans for product managers match up to these points. A PM may want to spend more time on the product life but if his metrics are on tactical life-cycle tasks, that is what he is going to do.

    Some of these areas are very esoteric and would be difficult to include in a compensation plan but have you seen any that do?




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