How to Become a Product Leader — Not Just a Product Manager

January 27, 2020

Tech companies across industries rely on product managers to work across departments in order to define, ship and iterate on products. Good product managers must master core competencies like running design sprints, resource allocation and performing market assessments. But great product managers have an edge. They possess more than high emotional intelligence; product leaders also know how to immerse themselves in the worlds of their users. 

“As clichéd as it sounds, there is no substitute for spending time in your user communities,” said Chief Product Officer Shiren Vijiasingam. “Be a bit of a sociologist and observe the microculture of your industry.”

Below, we spoke to four New York-based product management executives about how they’ve established themselves as product leaders in their space. They mentioned finding otherwise-unseen areas of opportunity and building strong relationships with their company’s customer service teams.  


 

Vimeo
Vimeo

Next month, Vimeo plans to launch an AI-powered short-form social video editing platform. Such an announcement is the product of behind-the-scenes operation management across teams –– a task that SVP of Product Matt Smith knows well. Smith said that he considers it his role to move the business beyond steady-state growth.

 

What skills are particularly important for product managers trying to establish themselves as product leaders?

Product is about solving the right problems for the right people. You have to have a solid understanding of who people are and what their day-to-day is like. This enables you to go beyond surface-level opportunities and really identify true areas of impact. From there, one must be able to break down complex issues into small, comprehensible next steps.

 

What’s an important product management skill no one talks about?

White space. I believe great product people have the ability to look beyond the tactical of managing a sprint or a feature release. They function as CEOs, understand the business objectives,  know how to motivate teams and find areas of opportunity that no one else has. The ability to fill that white space is how product moves a business forward beyond steady-state growth.

It’s all about studying behaviors and finding patterns.’’

When it comes to product vision, what have you done to expand your knowledge of your industry, business, products, technology, customers, etc.?

I get out of the office. I talk to people as much as possible. I read as many books as I can. It’s all about studying behaviors and finding patterns. The more patterns you see, the more you learn about someone’s job, their industry and their environment (both personally and professionally). Then it’s about connecting the dots within a profession or industry and across professions and industries. When you do this long enough, you get into larger-scale pattern recognition, which really lets you move seamlessly between industries. 

 

TodayTix
TodayTix

VP of Product Thomas de Simon appreciates thoroughness. He sees the value as a vehicle for effective leadership. From his first day at TodayTix on, he’s focused on absorbing all available information in an effort to arm each team member with the necessary context and support to do their job well. 

 

What skills are particularly important for product managers trying to establish themselves as product leaders?

A leader in any discipline can think about their role as the ability to achieve results through others. It’s no longer about being the best individual contributor. It’s about setting up an environment in which all teammates have the context and support needed to do their best work. 

This means assuming responsibilities across three categories –– people, process and product –– and expanding your spheres of influence in each of them. Creating the right team and culture is by far the most important. Setting up the right process should make delivery so predictable that it becomes boring. This way, teams can focus all of their energy on the quality of the product itself, not putting out fires or managing delays. Lastly, the leader needs to establish context by clearly communicating the organization’s broader needs and its customer base. 

It’s no longer about being the best individual contributor.’’ 

What's an important product management skill no one talks about?

The best PMs I’ve ever worked with are incredibly thorough. They always seem to be 10 steps ahead, come to every meeting prepared and with a point of view and propose original solutions when others are still stuck on discussing the problem. This hard work pays off by facilitating better-informed decisions and higher-quality work that ultimately saves time and earns them their team’s trust. 

 

When it comes to product vision, what have you done to expand your knowledge? 

I come from an agency background, which taught me how to be comfortable making decisions based on limited context and quick turnarounds. I learn best by talking to people. I did exactly that when I first joined TodayTix. I spent my first three weeks on a listening tour, first as it related to the business, then as it related to our customers. Pairing people’s historical knowledge with hours and hours of past user research and talking to real customers made it easier to see the forest for the trees and to recognize overarching themes. 

The result of these insights has been greater alignment across our teams. We all have goals that are informed by the same set of opportunities and challenges. Something that felt like a big deal yesterday suddenly isn’t as important when you can see the longer-term vision and how your work ladders up to our greater goals.

 

Newsela
Newsela

Chief Product Officer Shiren Vijiasingam attributes the success he’s seen in his role to his work in the field. He regularly visits classrooms to better understand how students are using technology in a way that influences Newsela content and products. This strategy allows him to generate a feedback loop that gets to the root of user experience issues. 

 

What skills are particularly important for product managers trying to establish themselves as product leaders?

A few things come to mind: accountability, purpose and versatility. The product managers who rise to become leaders have a deep sense of ownership and accountability. They’re self-sufficient but know when to ask for help and are always oriented to finding a solution. They’re purposeful and never satisfied with simply checking a task off a list. They want to deeply understand the intent of each project and help usher it through to the best possible outcome. 

In terms of versatility, they can scale up to a strategic, macro-level to partner with executives on the bigger picture and in the next moment dive deep into the weeds with an engineer, designer or editor to work through nitty-gritty details. This also plays out in how they inspire. Leaders don’t just tell people what to do. They bring them along in their quest to build the best solution for the user. And they tailor their approach to their audience. 

 

What’s an important product management skill no one talks about?

Product management should be closely linked to customer service. To best serve your users, you have to understand what they want, what they’re struggling with, and what doesn’t work in your product. There’s no better place to find out where things are breaking than with front-line teams hearing from frustrated users. While the ability to work cross-functionally with other teams is frequently covered, often overlooked is the absolutely critical skill of building a strong relationship with your customer service function. Potential PM leaders crave this free-flowing feedback loop to ensure that what the team is building is truly helping the end user. 

As clichéd as it sounds, there is no substitute for spending time in your user communities.’’

When it comes to product vision, what have you done to expand your knowledge? 

As clichéd as it sounds, there is no substitute for spending time in your user communities. Be a bit of a sociologist and observe the microculture of your industry. For me, that means spending time in classrooms, looking for patterns of behavior and talking to teachers and school leaders to understand the motivations and constraints behind those actions. 

I’ve seen first-hand just how regimented a class schedule is and how students today interact with the digital world around them, often with products in industries entirely unrelated to education. They are bingeing content with hyper-focused attention spans, and they alternate between apps and tools with ease. These inputs shape the way our product leaders architect a learning product that optimizes for that precious time in ways that resonate with students, cater to individual student needs and help teachers achieve educational objectives.

 

Tempus
Tempus

Ammu Menon, director of product management at Tempus, is always thinking about what’s to come. Her role requires her to understand where the industry is headed in the next few years and set up product roadmaps accordingly. She explained how she evaluates product success and keeps up on health tech trends. 

 

What skills are particularly important for product managers trying to establish themselves as product leaders?

As you transition from a strong product manager to an established product leader, there are a few skills to hone. A successful product leader needs to have a clear, strategic long-term product vision that they can break down into shorter-term product goals. You need the ability to see where the product needs to be in one, two or even five years from now and translate that to where the product needs to be in the next week or month. Strong communication and relationship-building skills are also key. Product leaders must be able to successfully communicate this vision to gain buy-in and support from stakeholders to execute on it. 

A product manager needs to be a jack of all trades.’’

What’s an important product management skill no one talks about? 

A product manager needs to be a jack of all trades. While rarely discussed, successful product managers have to be flexible enough to jump in anywhere they see a gap. As a product manager, I want to make sure I am building a useful product with strong user adoption. To that end, I am constantly analyzing potential barriers and figuring out where and how I can provide support to help overcome them. 

 

When it comes to product vision, what have you done to expand your knowledge?

To craft a successful product vision, a product manager needs to be constantly aware of the customer’s needs and pain points, as well as how the industry is evolving to support them. I read industry news, listen to countless podcasts about innovations in healthcare, attend educational sessions led by industry experts at my company and try to attend a conference or two a year. Continually expanding my industry knowledge gives me new ideas to iterate on and helps me prioritize product features.

 

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