The X-Factors: Soft Skills for Product Leaders

A team of product professionals and a Product Leader brainstorming ideas on sticky notes.

“There is something different about her.”

“He just gets it.”

“After spending five minutes with her, I know she’s going to be a VP in the next few years.

When you hear quotes like these, you either nod your head or cringe, depending on whether you can envision people saying these things about you. The factors that separate the good from the great, the worker bees from the rock stars, can be elusive—which is why they can be so frustrating.

Sometimes, there is no doubt that someone you’ve just met is going places in his career. On the flip side, we have all seen those product managers who have all the data—they have done market visits and have the perfect business plans—yet they never seem to achieve career traction. These could be two product-management professionals of similar backgrounds, age and experience, so why two completely different career trajectories?

I have been fortunate in my career to work with many talented individuals and meet even more through ProductCamps and as an instructor for Pragmatic Institute. Based on those interactions, I’ve formed some hypotheses about what makes a great product leader. The good news is that there is a pattern that we can all learn from, emulate, and use to change the trajectory of our careers.

Re-Envisioning Product Leaders

Many human resources departments would tell you that as professionals get more experience, their effectiveness increases—that someone with 20 years of industry experience will be more effective than someone with five.

I am here to tell you that HR’s perspective on product roles is wrong. Experience and effectiveness do correlate, but they are not necessarily causal. The seven “X-factor traits” differentiate product managers from product leaders.

Inspire Others

I have all of the responsibility, all of the accountability and none of the authority.

– Every product manager, like, ever

Product professionals around the world utter some variation of this statement every day. It is partially true, although incomplete. Their job titles, “product manager” or “product marketing manager,” can be misleading because most people assume they manage people and products. But they don’t. They are often given roles of great strategic importance in the organization, yet they have little ability to directly affect the changes they need. This is why the first of the seven X-factors that makes a product leader is the ability to inspire others to action.

While we sometimes manage teams of people, they are usually outside engineering, user experience, operations or support. Those are the groups we must work with to undertake the changes the company needs to roll out new and updated products. We can’t go to members of those other teams and issue management edicts (“Do this because I’m a manager, and I am telling you to do it”). A lighter touch is required.

Product leaders must be able to engage their teams in a discussion of the “why” to inspire action. When we help the team understand why their work impacts the bigger picture, strategy or goal, it motivates and inspires the team to greatness. People don’t want to collect a paycheck; they want to have an impact.

How to develop this skill: To describe the “why” to others in the organization, we must first understand it ourselves. Usually, founders have the “why” on the tips of their tongues because they started the company to scratch a particular itch. If the founder is available, interview them to map your product to the vision.

Another way to access the “why” comes from the market. You must always be in the market talking to customers and non-customers. As you hear the problems from your market contacts, drill down on why they care: Why this problem, and not that problem? Why are you asking for this enhancement; what problem are you trying to solve? You are ready to inspire others when you have the answers to these questions.

Communicating the “why” becomes simple. The roadmap can facilitate this conversation, so share it in your engineering or development meeting. Instead of discussing the next set of features to be developed, facilitate a discussion about why you are building these capabilities in this order.

Call out specific team members and use your market knowledge to help validate what they are working on. For example: “Don, the UX work you are doing on this next release is critical because 70 percent of our users are abandoning after three clicks.”

How to identify this skill: To identify this trait during a candidate interview, ask open-ended questions like:

  • Why were you attracted to your last product?
  • Why did your market care about what you released?
  • If I hired you for this role and asked you to recruit a new team member, what would your pitch be to get them to join?

Future product leaders can describe the “why” behind what they do and how they do it. They can use that understanding to inspire others to action.

Speak Truth to Power

Every product professional is eventually faced with an inconvenient truth. It could be during a beta demo when they get feedback from the tester that the product is all wrong. Or it might be during sales training when the team is disinterested because their quota doesn’t reinforce selling the new product. And most professionals bear the scars of products that were delayed so much that the original release date is now an afterthought. Product professionals have a stark and clear choice in each of these situations: Do I bury my head in the sand or raise this issue to my leadership team, even though doing so would be uncomfortable?

Many product professionals choose not to raise uncomfortable issues because they worry about being rude or fear that someone might “shoot the messenger.” But those with product leadership potential know that they can be a voice of the truth in these situations. Raising visibility on challenging issues is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. If we genuinely want the product and business to succeed, we cannot “hope” issues away. There may be organizational designs or more significant resourcing issues at play that an executive can help resolve.

How to develop this skill: The first step in learning to speak truth to power is understanding at what level to engage those in power. No executive wants to work with someone who runs to them daily, looking for “parental supervision” on all issues. The second step is to learn that how you raise an issue is just as important as the issue itself. Consider the context. For example, calling out an executive in public might not be the best way to address a problem. Third, speaking the truth to power is not only about raising issues – it’s also about providing solutions. A product leader should describe the problem and offer several potential fixes.

Role-playing and practice can help alleviate the fear of telling the truth to those in power. Talk to a trusted colleague about the issue and what you plan to tell the executive team, then work with them to contextualize the message and provide potential solutions.

How to identify this skill: Uncovering this skill in an interview setting can be difficult. It is insufficient to pose the obvious question: “Tell me about a time when you told a difficult truth to an executive team.” Unless you know an executive at the candidate’s old company, you cannot know if you are getting the truth or what the candidate wants you to hear. Test truth to power by posing a direct, uncomfortable question: “Tell me the worst thing about our interviewing process.” You can then evaluate whether candidates are comfortable having this type of conversation and whether they suggest solutions or deflect and defer.

Synthesize Complex Information

Many product professionals are adept at gathering data. They spend hours researching the competition, interviewing salespeople or buyers and observing users. A good product professional might turn the various data sources into a 100-page business case. A rock star can synthesize that data into a compelling 10-page presentation, including a call to action.

How to develop this skill: Synthesis is best developed by practice. Take the output and conclusions you have drawn from your information and assemble them into a presentation. Then, pull a trusted peer into a room and have them play the role of the critic. Ask them to consider:

  • Are your conclusions well-founded?
  • Have you backed your assertions with data (either in presentation or voice-over)?
  • Have you included too much data for the audience?

Remember that what you say is important, but what you don’t say or include may be equally important.

How to identify this skill: There are several ways to test for synthesis. If you’re in a job interview setting, give the candidate a reading assignment before the interview. Then, during the interview, ask the candidate to tell you what they learned. A strong synthesizer will be able to sum up a long article into a few key takeaways. To raise the difficulty level, give the candidate a research topic instead. In this way, you can test both research ability and the ability to synthesize what they have learned.

Alternatively, you can use open-ended questions like: “Tell me about a time when you observed an end user of your product.” Then, you can probe to see if the candidate focuses on the observations or if they can pull threads from other data sources to emphasize what they learned, how that validated or conflicted with their existing knowledge, and what action items they took as a result.

Communicate Effectively

There comes a time in every leader’s career when they must stand up in front of their peers, managers and executives and sell their ideas and conclusions. For some, these situations create sweaty palms, heart palpitations and weak knees.

But a rock star learns to relish the opportunity to share their perspective with the group. They are skilled communicators who can hone a presentation’s content, style, tempo, and tone to the group at hand. They know the content backward and forward and can handle questions on the fly. The audience will leave the room nodding their heads because the presenter’s ideas and conclusions seem forgone.

How to develop this skill:  It’s estimated that 70-75% of the U.S. population fears public speaking. So, if you find yourself feeling anxious, you are not alone. The good news is that, like most fears, this one can be overcome. To overcome the fear of public speaking, practice. Challenge yourself to speak in meetings or join a supportive group like Toastmasters for feedback and mentorship. Prepare by becoming a subject matter expert on your topic area. Your confidence will skyrocket.

How to identify this skill: When interviewing, give candidates a situation, topic, or scenario in which they must ask for more funding. Have them prepare a 10-slide presentation they might give the executive team. Some candidates will balk at doing this amount of work for an interview—but those weren’t the candidates you wanted anyway. A true rock star will jump at the chance to use their synthesis and communication skills to excel in the candidate pool.

Challenge Popular Opinions

At Pragmatic Institute, we teach that product professionals should be the “president of the product.” Sometimes, that means challenging executive teams. A solid executive debater is an X-factor because a product leader must be the strongest advocate for what is best for the market and the product. Some may worry that using this skill is politically dangerous. However, the more the product professional exercises this skill (within limits), the more the executive team respects them. How can you respect a professional who can’t provide reasonable pushback?

How to develop this skill: To develop your executive debater skills, first evaluate your situation. Will your executive team be receptive to being challenged? If not, you might be able to shift the dynamic with an upfront conversation about how you plan to provide stronger guidance and leadership—even if it means offering pushback. Otherwise, recognize that not every company wants this from the product teams. Some companies want people to check their brains at the door and simply execute. If this is the situation you find yourself in, you may be at the wrong company.

Next, look for opportunities to challenge team thinking and drive the right outcomes. How you debate will vary based on the team’s personality and temperament, but in general, remember to praise in public and criticize in private. Also, recognize that moderation is key, so pick your battles wisely. No executive team wants to be pulled into a debate on every decision. Focus on the big decisions that matter.

How to identify this skill: Ask the candidate for examples of when they challenged an executive team and the result. One interesting way to phrase the question: “Tell me about a time when you challenged your executive team. Now, tell me about a time when you did that, and they overruled you and why.” A good candidate has prepared for the first part of the question, and the second part allows you to evaluate how the candidate feels about being overruled. Another way to test this skill is to assign candidates a presentation or analysis to perform and then poke at their findings. Challenge them and force them to defend their conclusions, perhaps in a panel interview where the panelists toss questions to the candidate in a round-robin format. This method is intended to probe deeply, use the group’s intelligence and induce stress in the candidates, so you can see how they perform under pressure.

Build Consensus

Great products do not come from the force of personality. They require the organization to work together toward greatness. However, inspiring others to take action is not enough, especially if different parts of the organization work at odds with one another. To become strong product leaders, we must be “consensus builders” who align the organization to solve a problem together.

Unfortunately, consensus is often elusive. It has received a bad reputation recently, with many looking at it as the fluffy domain of management consultants. However, product professionals who are consensus builders can travel across an organization without being perceived as pushing an agenda. They can ask questions and receive honest and open answers because they have the street cred of the market. Other teams trust that they are looking out for the good of the product and not a specific department. These soft skills allow them to smooth out team conflict and get products to market faster by redirecting energy that would otherwise be spent on internal strife.

How to develop this skill: The best way to develop building consensus is to practice. Start by getting to know your organization better and understanding how departments are measured, such as quotas, net promoter scores or hitting dates. Where there are warring factions, bring them together to discuss. Do not choose sides in the conversation; facilitate it and let them work through it on their own. The consensus will stick better if they feel like they reached it instead of you forcing it. Pose leading, open-ended questions, such as: “I’ve noticed that there is friction when your team and Joe’s work together; what do you think about that?” If deeper issues are at play, these questions will bring them out so you can work on them with the team.

Sometimes, just listening is enough to oil the gears and get people working together again.

How to identify this skill: When you call on the candidate’s business references, don’t just ask the standard, “Would you recommend Amy for this role?” The reference doesn’t know anything about the role you have created and is completely unqualified to answer. Instead, ask for specific examples of Amy building consensus across the organization and how she did it. Someone familiar enough with a candidate to be a reference should be able to provide a few simple examples.

Demonstrate Empathy

The final X-factor is intertwined with all others and will amplify all the other soft skills product leaders bring to bear. It is the ability to empathize with others, inside and outside the business.

Empathy means understanding what people are going through without having experienced it. Unfortunately, many product professionals undervalue empathy and issue edicts such as “We’re moving up the ship date” or “We’ve worked with management to add this to your quota.”

When product leaders fail to understand others’ situations, their tendency to make unreasonable demands skyrockets. Then, their credibility and effectiveness decrease. Eventually, they flame out, and their products fail. Failing to empathize with people outside the organization, such as customers, is even more fatal to product success. At best, you will not ask good questions, and at worst, you will make terrible choices. Both routes lead to failure.

One reason that empathy receives short shrift today is culture. Most business cultures embrace execution and “just-do-it” attitudes, with empathy sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. Another reason is that being empathetic takes time. In a world where execution and daily tasks rule, stopping to understand a peer’s world outside of a hot action item feels strange–almost like a waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Empathy is wound into the entire product we deliver, whether we know it or not.

Empathetic product leaders budget time to understand their peers. They know how other teams are measured, how their collaborators spend their time, and when a request is reasonable or not. As a result, the empathetic product leader can intercept, redirect, and reframe executive action items that could derail the team. Empathetic rock stars also understand that their prior industry knowledge may not apply to every situation, and they seek to fully understand the market. The result is products that are created faster and solve problems more completely.

How to develop this skill: Start by putting yourself into your peers’ shoes. Think about how they are measured and then ask them open-ended questions to understand their lives:

  • What are your top concerns at work?
  • What drives you crazy about your job?
  • What would you change about work if you could?

Next, think about the last five things you requested from them and how they align with what you just learned. You will probably discover that you caused some stress. Consider how what you asked might have changed if you had known this data beforehand. Would you have asked for a different timeframe or in a different way? Would you have asked at all?

Being empathetic is not about being soft or not caring about results. The opposite is true: When used correctly, strong empathy can create better trust, communication, and results.

How to identify this skill: Empathy is one of the simpler X-factors to evaluate. Run candidates through a battery of questions about their past or current roles and ask them to identify how the different groups at the company were measured. Drill down for details. A strongly empathetic leader will recall these measurements quickly and discuss whether they were good or bad. Ask follow-up questions such as: “How did that measurement change the way you worked with that group?” This will help determine if they used empathy to change how they worked across the organization.

Think about how you interact with the data you collect and the people you interact with. Are you inspiring others, speaking the truth to power, synthesizing data, and building consensus? Are you empathetic while also being willing to debate executives?

As marketing guru Peter Drucker said, “Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.” This holds equally true today for making a rock-star product leader.

While some X-factor soft skills might already be present, others can be learned. Take the steps outlined in this article to become a rock star and launch your career to new heights.

Author

  • Paul Young

    Paul Young, an Executive Leader with 26 years of expertise in Product Management and Marketing, has navigated impactful roles at TeleNetwork, Cisco Systems, Dell, and more. Notably, he contributed to NetStreams, The Fans Zone, and Pragmatic Institute. Paul's strategic acumen has left an imprint in the tech industry. For questions or inquiries, please contact [email protected].

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