My last post briefly listed some broad responsibilities of product leaders which are distinct from the direct work of managing individual products. That’s a big thought, expanded below, which also gives me a jumping-off point for follow-on posts.
Defining my label carefully, a “product leader” is someone who manages a team of product managers. That maps to titles like Director of Product Management, Group Product Manager, VP of Products, or Chief Product Officer. There may also be some designers or a few developers reporting into such roles, but I’m focused away from CTO and VP Engineering roles where the majority of staff are developers.
Here are four sets of challenges that are different from managing individual products:
 Designing, Building, and Nurturing a Product Team
 Driving Strategy, Tooling and Outcomes
 Growing Cross-Functional Collaboration
 Working With (Other) C-Level Execs
 Designing, Building, and Nurturing a Product Team
Product leaders should make specific choices about the structure and evolution of their product teams. I don’t see most leaders doing this, though. Instead, they just start hiring — or pick up a random organizational model from some not-so-similar company. As Saeed Khan writes, “what worked at Spotify or Shopify or Stackify… will not necessarily work at your company.”
We product leaders need a strong point of view and a plan for:
- How many product managers we need. I measure this in ratios: how many “makers” (including developers, designers, DevOps, researchers) are lined up against each product manager? When this gets above 10:1, most product managers seem unable to keep up with their teams, and struggle with tactical short-term deliverables (user stories, sales interrupts, sprint planning, backlog ordering, support escalations, standups, story acceptance). They are drowning, with no time for the underlying research and analysis that drive good product outcomes (first-person problem validation, matching end user value to technical features, pricing/packaging, market economics, testable positioning, win/loss and competitive analysis, internal alignment. See Melissa Perri’s product kata). Over-allocated product managers are forced to cut corners, usually on direct customer validation and on product strategy.
- Aligning PMs to development teams, products, segments or markets. How do we divide the work across the product team? We can assign each product manager to one product (if they are small enough), or to each development team, or by market segment, or matched to specific corporate initiatives. We could split out roles: strategist, researcher, growth, technical analyst, pricing. We could make Sales happy by focusing product managers on a handful of major customers. But this is a critical decision: what’s our organizing principle?
- Hiring strategy. There’s lots of generic advice to hire product managers for empathy, or enthusiasm, or experience, or subject/market expertise, or coding skills, or intentionally ignoring candidates with previous product management experience. Most of these strike me as unhelpful over-generalizations from narrow experience bases or special situations. What does your team and company need? Maybe a balanced mix of seasoned senior product managers and high-energy internal transfers plus a couple of bushy-tailed newcomers. Decide before you post your next opening.
- Coaching/mentoring/training plan. Product management is a craft: we build judgment and skills and understanding of conceptual frameworks over time. We develop good product reflexes. We learn by doing. No two-day class or workshop or certificate turns anyone into a product manager… so the less experienced folks on our teams need ongoing coaching/mentoring. Can you personally block out a full hour every week with each newbie on your team – to critique work; share cross-functional feedback; coach on messaging and presentation styles; and help pick the right canvas or template or metric for the problem at hand? If not, you should probably hire experienced senior product folks instead. Or have seniors on your team formally assigned to mentor the novices.
Recapping, we can’t default our way into strong product organizations. IMHO, there’s no universal “best practice” or admired company to copy, no quick-and-dirty template to crib, no cut-and-paste org chart. We need to weigh various approaches, match one to our current company’s situation, and adapt as conditions change.
 Driving Outcomes, Strategy, Tools
Now that we have a team, we need to set them up for success. Some of our team will be in their first product role, others coming from differently organized companies. Many will have strong biases toward/against various frameworks and tools and processes. As product leaders, we have to create just enough structure and common process to get work done – without losing sight of why various activities are important.
- Champion outcomes tied to real customer value, especially in OKRs/KPIs. Most product teams focus on output – hitting committed delivery dates that aren’t tethered to quantifiable customer behavior or value. It’s easy to let an executive or major customer choose features that mostly don’t move the needle. As product leaders, we must constantly push for outcomes that reflect actual user/customer value, rather than development velocity or current-quarter revenue or vanity engagement metrics. Every product manager should be asking “how will this feature accelerate end user onboarding or increase funnel conversion or generate more paid transactions? Before we start development, how will we measure success?” Josh Seiden reminds us that every important development effort should tie to an outcome, measured by business-relevant changes in human behavior.
- Portfolio-level strategy. Each product manager on our team may be responsible for a separate piece of the product line. And each is making good local decisions to improve satisfaction, revenue, quality, performance or evolution of their portion. But as product leaders, we need to push for a coherent product line, pieces that fit together to solve customer problems, and strategic resource allocation decisions across products. We must make sure that strategic trade-offs are made across the portfolio. The alternative is shipping our org chart. (Product strategy can be delegated: I don’t need to generate all of the answers myself or be the smartest person in the room. But I am responsible for having solid strategies and making hard trade-offs.)
- Shared tools and processes. Our product teams need a minimum set of agreements, work flows and tools. Every product or project can’t be its own process snowflake. I’m mostly tool-agnostic and favor lightest-possible processes, so prefer my team pick their favorites. Ticketing with Jira or LeanKit or Trello or email or TFS or Slack? Roadmapping and portfolio tracking with Aha! or ProdPlan or Product Plan or Roadmunk? User success tracking with Pendo or Amplitude or Intercom? I do need to establish a balance between enforcing group-wide standards and giving teams freedom to pick their tools.
Importantly, tools don’t solve organizational or strategic issues. For instance, designing a heavyweight process for incoming feature requests (“account teams must fill out this 6 page Salesforce form, including hard revenue commitments”) just aggravates already-frustrated sales teams — encouraging them to escalate their demands to the CEO.
Takeaway: our product teams need clear, actionable goals and relevant strategic frameworks to succeed. As product leaders, we need to make sure these exist. Then, we have to establish just enough common tooling and process to get work done, without encouraging excess bureaucracy or blind adherence to procedure.
 Growing Cross-Functional Collaboration
Our product managers have lots of responsibility but little actual authority. They need cooperation and participation from a wide assortment of functional groups: Engineering, Design, Marketing, Sales, Customer Support/Success, Finance, Legal. As product leaders, we have to work with our peers to create the conditions for strong, long-running partnerships.
- Designing teams and task forces. The problem with committees is that no one wants to be on one, but everyone hates to be left out of decision-making. As product leaders, we need to be smart about constructing effective teams that work within our companies. We must be keen observers of corporate behavior. For instance, consider splitting out small working groups for ideation (“who are the 4-6 smartest folks across all organizations who can think through this knotty problem?”) from larger review audiences (“which 20 directors and VPs need biweekly status and Q&A?”).
- Cross-functional trust and psychological safety. We can’t make anyone do the right thing, we can only make them *want* to do the right thing. So part of our leadership role is finding formal and informal ways of encouraging teams to take risks; to connect technical work with user outcomes; to collectively unpack hard problems; to depend on each other. (Google’s research on teams emphasizes psychological safety.) We drive recognition of good effort and cross-functional productivity. We coach our product managers to be inspirers rather than bullies.
- Frequent re-re-sharing of plans, goals, strategies, roles. Unlike product managers, most employees don’t focus on roadmaps or KPIs or customer segmentation — they quickly forget what we’re working on, and why, and for whom. And they rarely can explain what a product manager does. As product leaders, we are constantly be “selling” what’s coming next (and why), how this aligns with company-wide goals, and how product managers add value. I want 15 minutes every quarter in each peers’ staff meetings to promote product efforts and product management thinking.
Takeaway: improving collaboration across functions takes time and energy and insights into organizational behavior. As product leaders, we have to create the climate for real teamwork.
(Note: if your product organization has a two or more layers of hierarchy, this work mostly goes to first-line managers like Directors or Group Product Managers.)
 Working With (Other) C-Level Execs
Company-wide dysfunction starts at the top: adversarial executives, badly chosen business models, misaligned goals, punitive cultures, motivational posters that no one believes. Instead of managing individual products, the most senior product leader must think systematically about how to make the executive team (and their organizations) succeed. As the person on senior staff with the fewest direct reports and smallest budget, there’s much less at risk in identifying what’s best for the company as a whole:
- Push for ruthless C-level prioritization. Executive escalations are the #1 stressor for product teams: an endless stream of “can’t we just…” and “how hard would it be to…” and “I just got off a customer call” and “this needs to rough-sized right away.” It’s a behavioral issue that our individual product managers can’t deflect. As the senior product leader, it’s my job to push my executive peers to see the bigger picture: to frame interrupts as EXCLUSIVE OR trade-offs against current commitments; to relentlessly remind the C-suite which in-plan projects will really move the revenue and customer value needles; to make visible the cumulative cost of many seemingly small items. To take the heat for good prioritization choices that my team makes every day.
- Identify top-level goal misalignments and disincentives. Most functional groups have activity-based metrics or short-term revenue goals which often conflict with each other. Professional services teams get bonuses for invoicing more custom work, while Engineering/Product are trying to reduce “specials.” Sales teams get quota relief for products we no longer support. Support is measured on call duration rather than solving customer problems. Marketing has top-of-funnel traffic goals that flood Sales with unqualified prospects. With no axe to grind, product leaders can diagnose misalignments and mediate among the power players.
- Be the economic voice of the company. From our product perch, we see the end-to-end economics of products, solutions, and customer value. When markets shift; or products need to be retired; or successful new channels replace old partnerships; or new tech outperforms old tech; or online marketing replaces in-person selling, we stand up for the health of the overall business and the value our best customers derive from it.
Takeaway: the most senior product leader stands up for long-term interest of the company and its target customers, not just individual products or departments. This is leadership by example and persuasion and insight — much more than just organizational politics.
Product leaders shape organizational and strategic processes so that our products — and our product managers — can succeed. We apply good product thinking broadly to our company, culture, incentives and top-level business goals. We work closely with other functional leaders to make the right things happen. And we empower our outstanding team of product managers to nurture their individual products.
Editorial thanks to Ellen Grace Henson, Ron Lichty, Ben Williams, Audrey Cheng, and Mike Freier. Poster photo credit: https://www.successories.com/Teamwork-Motivational-Posters/1