It’s Not Madness, It’s Product Leadership

Please find today’s post at On Product Management. As an avid college basketball fan, I’m offering insights on product leadership and how March Madness applies to teams and contributors in product management and product marketing. Enjoy the post!

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Leadership principles acquired from Kindergarten

This is a follow-up to an earlier guest post Leadership Lessons from a Kindergarten Class. In that post, I introduced my firsthand observations while working with my wife’s kindergarten class. From a leadership perspective, I relayed my participation in a classroom project where I asked and captured answers to each child’s response to, “What was the most important thing you learned in Kindergarten this year?”

The answers ranged from “learning to read”, “learning the alphabet”, “learning more math”, “Why we should wash our hands,” “Respect for my teacher” and other insights from the minds of 5 and 6-year-old children. Feel free to read my analogies to leadership in the post.

Fast forward to this years class. My wife moved to a different school, however, the kindergarten is in the same county, in the same school district, but there’s a difference.

My wife teaches at a magnet school for English language learners or ELL. The class is very diverse with over 10 nationalities in her classroom alone. There are  different traditions, customs, cultures and backgrounds all brought together with the purpose to learn. Some of the children were born in the United States and have a command of the language, while others have been in the country for a few months and have no language skills and lack an understanding of their new culture, language and how to succeed.

As a product leader, how would you handle the diversity and differences, and create a plan to support the success of each person?

My wife has great leadership and teaching skills, and her methods of creating a cohesive class that brings diversity and learning to the forefront has taught me some key principles in how leaders can build diverse teams. These principles apply to those who’ve recently joined company’s, have acquired or merged with another organization, or have been tasked with building product management or product marketing teams.

  1. Understand Current Situations: Some leaders overlook or ignore current situations and impact to the organization. Whether there’s a change to the organization or team,  product leaders should learn and understand cultures, styles, skills and experience and seek to understand. From a personal perspective, my wife has involved parents, extended family, interpreters, and other leaders to assist in understanding the needs of her students. This has created a bond and alliance that has grown since the beginning of the school year. How are you creating a bond, trust and alliance with those your collaborate with?
  2. Listen and Adapt: While listening and understanding are key to product leaders, adapting to current situations and building teams and organizations provides insights into how you might address organization, defining roles and responsibilities and building rapport with contributors. Regularly schedule one-on-one time with contributors and the organizations they interact with. Take time to listen and adapt your style to those on the team. Ask questions about backgrounds, experiences and other areas that will give you a better perspective of the culture, past organization, accomplishments and gaps.
  3. Start with the Basics: Means different things to different situations. Product leaders should constantly evaluate how they communicate with their teams, and what methods are used to connect. It is the responsibility for product leaders to build common languages, methods, techniques and measurements that executives and other stakeholders understand. Whether you’re a leader of products or teams, building commonality will eliminate frustration and confusion. Look for ways to involve a diverse skill set in building other essentials such as market authority, product vision and product planning.
  4. Be Willing to Refine Your Plan: The final principle brings it all together. While you may have plans in place, changes often unseat these and drive you to further refinement. As a product leader do you have a well-defined, articulated and flexible plan that outlines, organizational, process, communications and plans to hire, educate or transition teams? If not, pick one of the items mentioned and dive in.

Whether you’re a Kindergarten teacher or product leader, understanding, adapting and planning for diverse or changing situations provides a foundation where product management and product marketing can successfully grow.

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

Is it Time to Empty the Trash?

When I was a kid, I was excited for trash day. I wanted to be a garbage collector. No, make that a garbage man. Each week when the city services would roll down our street, I would follow the truck and its process of collection from one end to other. I recall the size of the truck, the sounds of hydraulics, the banging of metal cans, the movement of debris, and the fluid motion of men and machine that was surrounded by the crushing pressure and associated smells that made it to the curbside.

While I can recall the sounds, images and smells of trash day, I was constantly reminded by my parents that our trash needed to be emptied and taken to the street.

As product leaders do we get caught up in the sounds, images and smells associated with leading products and forget to empty our own trash?

In a recent post entitled, “4 Key Skills Leaders Must Develop to Succeed in Today’s Workplace,” Art Petty shares, “The ability to assess and respond appropriately in varying situations is a derailment factor for too many.” Why? It’s my opinion that we often derail ourselves because we’re buried in the mounds of crap we collect and never get rid of.

As a product leaders, what do you need to discard and take to the curb?

From time to time I have to remind myself or be reminded (from others) that to be successful as a product leader, I should constantly take inventory of my skills, experience, accomplishments, goals and gaps and then replace outdated or trivial things with those attributes that allow me to respond better.

If you haven’t taken time to stop and take a personal inventory of yourself, you should. To start emptying the trash, here’s a few questions to consider that should assist in identifying things to cast off.

  • What’s working well and what’s not
  • What areas of product leadership do I excel,  where do I fall short
  • Where do I contribute and where do I need to improve
  • What areas of product leadership do I find comfortable, and challenging
  • What changes will increase my value
  • What areas should I focus that really matter
  • What skills or experience do I need to acquire

When we actively assess our capabilities and surface those items should be dropped off at the curb, product management and product marketing will find decisions come with clarity and not clutter.

Finally, as product leaders, we have a responsibility to support, build and contribute our experiences with others. Are you actively reusing and recycling your product management or product marketing experiences with others?

As always, I welcome your comments, insights and experiences. If you like the post, please tweet this on Twitter.

Please Check Your Baggage…

I’ve been traveling more and noticed when I fly, that people drag a lot of baggage onto planes. They are overloaded, exceeding size and weight limits, and doing everything within their power not to check baggage and potentially incur additional costs.

While walking through an airport last week, I started to think about how product leaders often carry baggage. When you think about baggage, we should first consider the intangible things that get in the way.

Product leaders deal with tangible (real and concrete) things and intangibles (indifferent or obscured) everyday and should pack their luggage with things they personally and professional value most.  It also has to be of value to their organization as well. Let me illustrate.

Last week, I left home with a few extras items packed in my baggage. I packed some food items that I like. However, when going through security at my local airport, I was asked the infamous question, “Who’s bag is this?” by the TSA officer.

I was moved to the side and politely asked by the officer if they could rummage inside my bag looking for anything suspicious. I agreed and the search began. I had packed a harmless box of Blueberry Pop Tarts (a personal weakness) and the foil wrappers sent the scanner into a frenzy.

The Pop Tarts were removed and everyone in line watched as they were individually scanned to ensure that they weren’t the exploding variety, but the frosted ones.

While I was a bit embarrassed, I still had my Pop Tarts and made my flight without a problem. While fruit flavored pastries may be more desirable, how often do we pack our bags with things that are unnecessary or intangible and of no value as a product leader.

In Stephen Drains post Take Control of Your Own Baggage, he shares, “Leadership starts from the inside – knowing how we’re wired, how we interact with others and empowering and mentoring others to do what needs to be done. But leadership is also about taking responsibility for our own baggage. You know, those issues, whether work or personal that we all carry around.”

I often blog about the strategic elements of product leadership and how we can become more valued and effective. I’ve realized that the “leadership” aspect of product management comes from inside.

Might I recommend the following to help you take control of your own baggage and to better pack what you need.

  1. At the start of each day, find some time to reflect for 15 -30 minutes on what you have packed in your bag and what your missing.
  2. Make a list of what you’ve packed and what you need to unload, add or replace.
  3. Discuss the items with a friend, mentor or peer who knows you well. Validating the contents of your bag is important.
  4. Commit to working on one item this week.

As you take control of your baggage each day, I hope you’ll find things to add, discard or place into it. If you have some advice for other product leaders, please share them via your comments.

Leading Product Vision

In my post, Essential Pieces for Strategic Product Leadership, I outlined four areas that are paramount for product leaders. First on my list was Product Vision and I’ll focus on that topic for this post. Before I dive in, I want to clarify that when I discuss product leadership, I’m not talking about a title, but contributive role, a mindset and actions that influence the business. This traverses all roles in the discipline of product management.

Joining a new company some years ago, I had the opportunity of sitting with the CEO. As the new senior product leader, I wanted to better understand the company’s vision and what was most important to him.

One of the first questions I asked was, “What’s your personal vision for the company?” His response was straightforward and to the point. “I want to be a billion dollar company by 2010.”

I sat there for a few seconds thinking about his question. At the time, the company was about one-fifth the size. Before I could ask any clarifying questions, he asked, “What would the product vision look like to support this?” It took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and I said, “A lot more than I envisioned this morning.” 

Over time, I realized that the vision of the company was more than a magical revenue number and a date in the future. It was a living entity owned by several of the senior management team and I was fully engaged in the process.

This example isn’t unlike many organizations. The words mission, vision, strategy and goals are thrown around, confused and co-mingled. While this post won’t delve into this, I will follow on with another post to discuss and demystify the terminology and process.

In a recent post entitled, “Why Should Anyone Trust Your Vision” by Harvard’s John Kotter, he shares; “Almost all managers have been brought up in a world where small-numbers decide, large-numbers execute (after the large-numbers are “sold,” which is almost impossible if the small-numbers are not trusted). People continue to think and act this way, often unconsciously.”

How can product leaders influence product vision in conventional decide – execute organizations?

John explains, “The conventional decide-execute model handles large changes very poorly. Let’s just say that success comes from a lot more people getting involved in the decision-making process.”

I believe a key part of the decision-making process comes from the bottom up, and every product leader has an opportunity to influence in some capacity.

Influence from the Bottom Up – product leaders who consistently build, communicate and collaborate with market data, current trends, competitive knowledge, customer feedback and data points developed from daily activities have a higher probability of impacting their organizations product vision. 

Why? When you have a strong understanding of market problems, know buyers and users, and can articulate stories in common terms everyone including users, sales and executives understand, you create a valued relationship. 

CEOs and executives seek trusted advisors and reliable sources. If those don’t exist, others will be found and used. Don’t ever under-estimate the power of bottom up influence and the value your  information and knowledge provides.  

Influence in the Middle happens when product management teams unite to collaborate for the common good of products or services. This type of collaboration fosters thought leadership and alignment. While reading Get Your Ducks in a RowJennifer Doctor shared, “While having independent thought and avoiding group think, all personnel in the organization need to be following the same vision and product road map.” 

In his post 5 Steps to Building a Great Product Management Team, Saeed Khan  shares, “Too often technology product management is viewed as the requirements collector, or keeper of the product roadmap, or an adjunct to Engineering. But all of these sell short the value and impact Product Management can have on a business.”

“Thought leaders embrace and extend the information found in their daily lives that reveal directions, trends and future states” said Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing

Executives often are looking for the direction, trends and future states that create or refine vision. As a team do you create, communicate and provide measurable value to the executive team? If not, get the team together and discuss what’s missing and then create an action plan of how you’ll begin to correct this in the next 30 days. Use each others talent, skills and experiences to reconnect with the executive team.

Guiding from the Top – is easiest when you’re sitting at a vantage point that’s across the table from the executives. While a seat at the executive table is desirable for product management, it may not be feasible in your organization. While you may not have a permanent seat, having an open invitation to join them is a great start.

How can product leaders gain access to the executive table? It all starts with TRUST.

Trust, the Foundation – A CEO friend of mine recently shared, “The single largest excise tax in organizations is TRUST. However, there’s a vacuum of trust in many organizations. At the end of the day, those willing to fill that vacuum make my decisions more tolerable.”

Michael Hopkin shares in his post Three Winning Words, “The word trust has bi-direction meaning and only works when flowing both ways: you have to depend on other people to do what they say they will do; and you have to work, act and believe so that others will confide in and depend on you. People who live and behave in such a way that others can confide in them understand the importance of trust.”

If trust is established between product leaders and executive management, a Vision of Influence will emerge. From the bottom up, product leaders can infuse direction, trends and insight that influence vision. 

I’ve seen this vision of influence firsthand and its great to hear executives say, “We don’t do anything without product management’s endorsement. They own product vision.”

Leading product vision and creating influence takes time, patience and focus. It requires an organization where each person is a product leader. In a future post, I’ll discuss structure, alignment and how to build product leaders into your organization.   

Feel free to post any comments and retweet the post on Twitter. If you’d like to connect via email, I can be reached at jholland(at)missioncreekpartners(dot)com.