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Career Growth and the Product Manager

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Career Growth and the Product Manager

I wear my respect on my sleeve for the many dedicated product management professionals who work in what I believe is one of the most difficult and critical roles in today’s fast-moving technology and B2B organizations. Product managers shoulder a tremendous responsibility to guide organizational resources, facilitate strategic choices, and lead execution initiatives—often with little or no formal authority. If corporate roles were Olympic athletes, product managers would be the decathletes.

While admittedly biased (based on my years as a product manager and as a leader of product managers), I firmly believe these talented and well-rounded business professionals represent some of the most valuable assets in a firm’s talent pool. Few positions outside of the role of product manager demand mastery of a broad spectrum of leadership, communication, and management skills as prerequisites for success.

From understanding the “voice of the customer”…to assessing and recommending strategic choices…to building the relationships and systems needed to drive execution across organizational silos, the product manager is truly an executive-in-training.

Of course, not every product manager is destined for (or even desires) a role in executive leadership. And many who are interested, fail to properly develop the critical soft skills needed to grow into and succeed as one of a firm’s top leaders. The most effective product managers and mentors of product managers recognize the importance of mastering the portfolio of informal leadership skills, and they constantly focus on creating and participating in developmental experiences that help those skills emerge.

Here’s my short list of skills which product managers should develop if they want to crack the ranks of senior leadership.

Leadership Skills

Today’s emerging leadership model is moving away from the command-and-control style many baby boomers grew up with, and towards a role that emphasizes flexibility and adaptability.

The new model for leading focuses on creating the right environment for teams and individuals to succeed, and it places a priority on the continual development of talent through coaching and mentoring. Early on, the successful product manager recognizes these leadership tasks as “table stakes” for success and works to strengthen his or her skills at every opportunity.

Developing leadership skills is an intangible task many attempt to accomplish by attending training courses, reading books, and observing other successful leaders. And, while these are useful steps to help an individual develop context for the true role of a leader, they are never substitutes for the experience gained through live-fire developmental activities.

As a wise and experienced professional once told me, “Leadership is a profession with a body of knowledge waiting to be discovered.” Books and classes are important and valuable, as long as the insights and approaches are leveraged to solve real problems for customers and organizations.

In supporting the development of product managers, I encourage an approach that emphasizes the application of key leadership skills in diverse and challenging situations. Developing informal leadership skills by shepherding a new product to market is a formative experience for a product manager.

This situation emphasizes the development of critical business planning, communication, negotiation, and execution skills. By the same token, managing an initiative to assess and create strategies for product offerings that are struggling helps develop critical-thinking and decision-making skills in the face of tough circumstances.

While not wanting to invite the “product-manager-as-project-manager” debate, I encourage product managers to recognize that execution inside an organization takes place through projects, and I advise them to gain experience developing and leading project teams.

The experience of working to develop high-performance project teams teaches the product manager the importance of focusing on creating an effective working environment. Additionally, the time spent dealing with the many headaches and people-issues that often bedevil projects is invaluable training in the reality of how challenging it is to drive results by leading without formal authority.

The practicing product manger or the product manager’s mentor must focus on an approach that emphasizes the development of key leadership skills and the application of these skills in a series of diverse leadership situations.

Ideally, any leadership development program for product managers will emphasize gaining experience in leading informally, leading horizontally, and managing upwards. A constant focus on testing the product manager in new situations accelerates the personal learning and development critical to the emerging leader.

Strategic Thinking

Like leaders, strategists aren’t born; in most cases, they are forged over time via the development of critical analytical skills. Few positions in a firm have the potential to contribute more to strategic thinking and development than that of the product manager.

I was fortunate enough to enjoy early career mentors that challenged me to constantly think outside of my product and outside of my company…to look at the big picture…to tune in to my various audiences…and to develop and test strategic hypotheses while growing the business. This is a very different way of thinking than the typical “What are the top 10 features I can jam into my next release?” Too many product managers don’t learn to look beyond their narrow scope (product, market segment). Worse yet, too many don’t grasp the importance of their role as a strategist in the overall firm’s plans.

The product-manager-as-strategist understands he or she must invest in looking at the big picture of market forces, customers, and competitors—and comparing this view to a company’s strategic priorities and capabilities. The effective product manager internalizes the philosophies espoused in Pragmatic Institute’s Tuned In book, by seeking to uncover unresolved client problems and then developing the programs and experiences that fill those needs and delights customers in ways that competitors cannot readily emulate.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for the product-manager-as-strategist to overcome is the ability to look critically at his or her own struggling product offerings and conclude that, in some circumstances, the problems are not solved by investing more money, creating more features, or working on the next release.

I know a product manager has evolved to an important intellectual level when he or she has the courage to confront a failing initiative with a strategy other than “spend more” or “develop more.” I’m particularly excited when the new proposal is clearly grounded in the “voice of the customer” and takes into account the prevailing and expected market forces.

If you are a senior leader or mentor, it is important to encourage your product managers to think critically and to consider the external environment in formulating their plans—as well as to involve them in strategic planning activities. Ensure your interactions are heavily weighted toward asking strategic questions versus offering answers. Your own example will teach product managers on your team to think holistically about strategy when formulating plans.

If you are a product manager seeking to grow your career, learn the art of asking questions, and invest ample time in the market—observing customers and looking for unresolved problems. And most important, recognize that the sun does not rise and set with the products you manage. Rather, your goal is to uncover unique opportunities to create value for your customers. The true solution may be something that doesn’t remotely resemble the offerings you are managing today.

Communications Skills and the Art of Diplomacy

A great product manager learns the skills needed to speak the language of executives. They recognize every encounter—regardless of with whom they are meeting—is an opportunity to build trust by understanding needs, creating shared perspectives, and building reasons for people and teams to move forward.

The recent award-winning HBO miniseries, John Adams (based on David McCullough’s biography of the same name), shows the mercurial and aggressive Adams nearly destroying any chance to earn France’s support for the American Revolutionary War with his demands for immediate action. His style and tactics nearly destroy the hard-won credibility that Benjamin Franklin earned over the several years he spent developing a mutually agreeable reason to oppose the British.

As a product manager, you may very well understand the “right” direction and believe that those who don’t share your opinion are blind to the obvious. Recognizing no two humans look at the same picture and see the same thing is an important first step in understanding the need for you to develop your diplomatic skills.

Another wise person in my life once advised, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” This simple statement underscores a powerful philosophy product managers (and all leaders) should apply in their day-to-day communications.

In today’s world, developing a communication style that creates interest and fosters respect is essential for success. Diplomatic skills to manage upwards, to manage across, and to manage the generations and the various cultures via distributed teams are skills that help the product manager quickly move beyond a mid-level role.

Tying It All Together

It is remarkably easy to get caught up in the pursuit of day-to-day business and the “urgent-unimportant,” and forget that every day is a chance to advance your career.

If you are fortunate enough to have a great mentor, consider yourself lucky. Pay attention to that mentor; listen and learn. If you don’t have a valued mentor or coach, it is incumbent upon you to take the initiative to create the experiences necessary for you to develop and fine-tune the leadership, strategic, and communication skills you need to advance your career.

Simply put, the role of product manager offers a unique foundation on which to build a successful career; the time to begin preparing is now.

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