From Individual Contributor to Product Leader

Let’s assume a product leader has been a rock star Product Manager before: she knows the craft, can guide others, and has previously delivered great outcomes. Without that, it’s hard to imagine becoming a product leader. Yes, the world has seen some outstanding coaches in sports who haven’t necessarily been great performers themselves — but still, in Product Management relevant prior experience is a must.
The trick is, what brought you here, won’t get you there: In several aspects, changing the role into leadership will bring new challenges. Let’s consider 3 main areas:

Lead People and Processes

Probably the most significant change comes with becoming the manager of others. For the Product Leader, these will be the Product Managers, Product Marketing, Product Operations, UX, and whoever might be part of the product organization depending on the structure of the company. Suddenly, any achievement as an individual contributor PM becomes less relevant in favor of many different aspects related to people, processes, and strategy. For example:

From working with a team in some dedicated product area

To leading and coordinating a team of Product Managers each working in their area

From working with an agile coach to improve collaboration in the team

To motivating, coaching and mentoring other product managers

From working with colleagues and teams recruited by others

To hiring and onboarding new team members

From running discovery inside a specific product area

To driving and aligning discovery for multiple teams

From setting specific goals for the next product release

To providing strategy so others can align their goals

From analyzing product data to improve the product experience

To driving alignment to build product analytics across multiple teams

From doing the product management job with given frameworks

To constantly driving for excellence inside the product management team

To emphasize, we would say that the Product Leader will have two main products:

  • Firstly, the team that needs to be mentored and coached.
  • Secondly, the product strategy to ensure strong alignment across the organization.

Compared to these, any individual product contribution, any feature the Product Leader drives herself, will have lower priority and shall better be delegated to some team members.

Collaborate across the Entire Organization

Beyond the team, a Product Leader is expected to be visible across the entire company, not just inside her own team. Also, she will come up with solutions and priorities that benefit the business as a whole rather than a single team:

From working with a dedicated team of designers and engineers

To driving complex initiatives across the organization

From managing a backlog of the team toward a product goal

To priorities from which the entire business benefits

Become a Partner of Senior Executives

It’s important to gain the trust of senior executives. As they might be risk-averse and doubtful, it helps a lot to have shown before that a Product Leader wants and can do the job before she has actually been promoted. For example by tackling challenges when they surface, regardless of formal position and responsibilities. Unless you are employed in some highly siloed and bureaucratic company, don’t wait for the title to do the work.

From presenting features inside the product and engineering group

To providing status and aligning on a plan for complex initiatives with the leadership team

From delivering features along the roadmap

To looking at business cases that could be tackled with new or enhanced products

From engaging with existing customers

To expanding into new markets targeting new customers

Further Reading

Product Strategy Canvas

Becoming a Product Leader

This is an article series on moving from individual contributor Product Manager to people manager and Product Leader.

James Wang | Product Coalition
Product Strategy Canvas

Moving from Individual Contributor to Product Leader

What you need to think about if you’re crossing the leadership chasm.

Jason Knight | Medium