One of the best parts of leadership is nurturing the emerging leaders in your organization—being a leader of other leaders and helping them. It starts with understanding their motivations, what they want to do long term and giving opportunities for advancement.
The transition to people leadership for the first time is hard. This individual might have some amazing accomplishments regarding the product they lead and the customers they serve, but now, they have a whole set of different responsibilities.
It’s important when someone expresses they’re interested in people leadership to start assessing:
- Where do you have an opportunity within the rest of your organization to set up mentoring?
- Do you have a leadership development program?
- Are there outside programs that your organization would be willing to invest in?
- Do they have projects to work on things that are more strategic in nature or people-focused?
This content is based on an episode on the Pragmatic Live Product Chats Podcast featuring Anna Turner, vice president of product at Paycor. Listen to the episode:
Leadership Skills Should Start on a Practice Field
Sometimes you can take a good performer, and if you don’t let them practice people leadership in a safe space, an early failure can be costly in ways that are hard to recover from.
When you are their first-time leader, the organization should have a mentor who comes alongside you to help you through some of those challenges and tasks that no one talks about—for example, helping your team draft objective key results (OKRs) or how to conduct effective one-on-ones.
How do we help emerging leaders understand the goals of their people, listen to their people, and how do we teach them how to do things like regular check-ins? It’s those things that sometimes aren’t taught in the textbooks on how to be a good manager and leader.
Start to give them those stepping stones where they can be ready. And then also having that in the back of your mind for when you’re working on the org chart as your organization is growing and your teams change.
Here are the seven lessons they should learn as they develop their leadership skills.
Lesson 1: How to Coach and Mentor Using One-on-Ones
Sometimes with one-on-ones, you might think “I will just make it once a month” because you think it’s adding on work or taking away time from your team. But the opportunities and the connection points you uncover in those one-on-one sessions are so valuable.
If you’re a new leader, use your one-on-ones for listening and help. Sure, you should capture some key updates in that time, but where are they blocked? What strategic context might they need?
Set aside time quarterly when you move away from day-to-day projects and talk about them.
Who do you want to work with more or less, and what kind of projects are they interested in taking on? Are there people or connections from a market standpoint you can make for them? And then also revisit their career growth and development goals. Those goals can vary. It might be to grow in the company, or it might be something different.
Everybody has a different vision of what they want to do and what they want to achieve. And so spending time (at least once a quarter) with your people, understanding their goals, and then figuring out how you can come alongside and support them.
Lesson 2: Leadership isn’t Standardized
People sometimes don’t realize when they’re first-time managers that you manage every person differently.
And you have to.
Not everybody likes to be managed like you like to be managed. What feels like the ideal manager for you might not be the ideal manager for someone else; it is very individualized.
Many product managers with the same title often have different strengths and interests. So how do you align people to partner up and play together? It’s not just how you manage them but also how you get the most out of your team. How do you deliver the most value for the organization?
Each person’s journey is different. Each person’s strengths are different, and what each person wants is different too. So it can’t be one size fits all.
Lesson 3: People Leadership Isn’t for Everyone
We must also recognize and appreciate that there are growth paths that don’t bring someone to people leadership—and that is a perfectly acceptable thing. That can be hard for people when it feels like it needs progress means people leadership.
Some people don’t want to be people leaders, and some try it and don’t like it. There needs to be also a path for people to continue to grow in an individual contributor-type role.
For example, you might establish a principal or a director-level type individual contributor role. This person is highly influential and senior in the organization, but perhaps they don’t want to manage people, or that hasn’t been their thing. You need to give people growth paths that reflect their desires and their skillset.
Lesson 4: Create Time for Fun With Your Team
In virtual environments, it can be easy to lose human connection. Social events may not happen as frequently or naturally. You have to work a little harder to create opportunities for people to interact and get to know each other personally.
It can be as simple as having a weekly coffee chat or hosting a virtual game. It doesn’t have to be big and expensive; it can just be something to look forward to that’s fun and different.
Consider what will work best for your team when planning social events. Some people might prefer low-key events, while others might want something more high-energy. It’s also important to consider time zones. If you have a team spread out worldwide, you’ll need to be thoughtful about when you schedule events so everyone can participate.
Lesson 5: The Two Qualities of an Effective Product Team
The first hallmark of an excellent product team is being market driven.
It’s not about focusing on what you’re hearing inside the building but spending time in the market, understanding what’s happening with your prospects, customers and people who aren’t either of those things yet.
Think about how you can get in the market, and that can show up in a whole bunch of different ways:
- Getting on some customer calls,
- Going to an advisory board,
- Joining a sales call
- Going to a conference for the persona you serve.
And sometimes there’s also negotiation you can do with other teams. Maybe if you don’t have the budget but another team in the organization needs you to come and do something that could fit with market visits, ask them if they’ll use their budget for travel expenses. I also found there are a lot of great free conferences, especially in this world of work that is virtual.
Visiting the market is exciting because you gain insights and ideas, but it also gives you confidence because you hear it from the marketing.
Every team is a little bit different. You might feel restricted by budget, but there are plenty of free things you can do. Sometimes it’s just making time and setting up appointments on your calendar, even if it’s just Zoom calls.
Market visits are where you will find your best ideas for innovation in understanding what problems you hear thematically across the market.
Also if you’re a people leader, especially a new people leader, in product and you’ve got people on your team that maybe are feeling the whirlwind, they’re buried under tactical tasks, help encourage them to get back up and get outside the building.
The second attribute of a strong product team is stewardship.
Teams that practice stewardship are thoughtful about value versus cost. Product teams have a finite set of resources and a finite budget to spend. With technology, we can do just about anything, but is it the right thing? Because everything you say yes to, you have to say no to something else.
When teams are empowered with the right tools and have market knowledge, they can make strategic decisions with their dollars. It’s all about understanding the market and the needs and the company.
Lesson 6: Improve Your Team’s and Organization’s Data Maturity
Excellent teams build a practice around data. It could be everything from a quarterly business review to insight sharing. But having some type of event or driver reinforces the importance of each product person taking a look at their product’s health.
Every organization is in a different place when it comes to data maturity.
Early in the data maturity curve, it helps to start by outlining the data that matters to your team. Then, the other end of the maturity curve involves product operations, and the goal is to find ways to make the data easier for your product teams to consume.
Data mature organizations often have a practice where they might have a dashboard for the different teams in the organization. And it’s not just data for the product teams but leaders in the organization as well.
Where You Can Capture Data
- Product usage data: This includes data on how often the product is used, how long users spend using it, and which features are used the most. This type of data can be collected through analytics tools or user surveys.
- Engagement data: This includes data on users’ engagement with the product, including how often they return to use it and whether they recommend it to others. This data can be collected through user surveys or customer satisfaction reports.
- Customer feedback: This includes qualitative information about what users think of the product, their level of satisfaction, and any suggestions they have for improvements. This data can be collected through user interviews, focus groups, or customer service interactions.
Look at the data and then make sure they can share it in a digestible way. Then once product teams have data, they have all sorts of ideas of how they might solve problems or improve their product. It might be a certain product in your portfolio or an internal partnership opportunity.
Understanding and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data can become overwhelming. A leader can help provide focus and clarity to their product teams by asking for specific information. It’s not limiting to providing this kind of structure. It’s empowering because it gives direction.
Having so many data sources about customers and products within the organization can be both a blessing and a curse. How do you get all that data together, and how do you work with all the other data owners?
Partner with Other Departments on Data Projects
The data you might want to look at may not be available to the product team. For example, you might not have access if you want to look at financials.
Explore what data is available at your organization. Sometimes, it’s just hidden. For example, one team in the organization has it, but it hasn’t been shared widely. You might be surprised how much you may be able to access early on to start building reports.
Once teams understand why the data matters, they become more open to sharing and often get very excited. It is important to clarify how the data will be used so that teams do not get apprehensive about sharing information.
You should communicate why you are asking for certain types of data, how you’re consuming it, and what actions happened because of it. And the big shift you’re striving for is going from finding data to consuming and analyzing data.
It’s hard if you’re doing monthly reports and spend a day getting the numbers—you don’t have the time to reflect. There are so many opportunities to use data in our decisions when we’re not spending all of our time chasing it down.
A result of cross-functional collaboration for data projects is getting everybody moving in the same direction.
If you looking for ways to help your product team incorporate data into product practices and decisions, enroll in the Pragmatic Insight Course >> Learn More
Lesson 7: What to Look For When You’re Hire New Team Members
If you’re looking for a product manager, product owner or product portfolio leader, look for somebody who’s market-driven. Ask questions like, “If this type of scenario happened, what would you do?”
Look for someone who is thinking about what the competition is doing. Have they talked to clients? Have they spent time from a sales perspective? Do they know what’s going on in this particular space? Look for someone who focuses their time on what’s happening outside the building. It’s determining if they understand the NIHITO (nothing important happens in the office) principle because that’s one of the ways product people win.
That’s also how good product people get everybody in alignment in the organization and really add value.
It’s very easy for a product person to get distracted and help with other things. But, if a product manager is not focusing on the strategy and trying to understand the market, other people might try to fill the gap. And they’re not going to do a great job at it because they’re actually in charge of sales, finance or some other part of the business.
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