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

by Madeline Hester
January 23, 2020

“A great product leader is not an island.”

That’s what Patrick DeThorne, group product manager at Collective Health, said when asked what it takes for a product manager to become a product leader. For DeThorne, no success is celebrated without the inclusion of his team. 

Product managers are responsible for setting the strategy and roadmap for a particular product. However, experienced managers know that in order to succeed, they must do more than delegate assignments and set deadlines.   

To rise as a leader, product managers must cultivate the same skills they look for in their direct reports. Soft skills like empathy help PMs know when to extend deadlines, or ask more probing questions. And when a project is a success, a good product leader knows that celebrating wins is what motivates their team to exceed expectations on the next assignment.

We asked DeThorne, as well as a product manager at Vista Consulting Group, about what distinguishes a leader from a manager. A few themes? Utilization of network connections, financial fluency and a dose of software development experience. 
 

vista consulting group
vista consulting group

When working for a tech investment firm like Vista Consulting Group, investing in the customer helps produce better work. Executive Director of Product Management Arjun Srinivasan explained how portfolio management and visiting customers lead to better results.

 

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

An aspiring product leader’s tool belt will likely include an expansion of accountability from point products to full product lines to the full product portfolio. Product leaders have to increase their strategic assimilation skills across a broader set of products, markets, customers and competitors. The key enabler here is what I call a “zoom” function that can gather detailed stimuli in the weeds and distill it into clear strategic themes and actions. 

Another important hard skill for PM leaders is having increased financial fluency, as they will likely have increased accountability in this area. It is important to understand and be able to link key revenue and cost drivers to operating activities. 

In terms of soft skills, PM leaders have to enhance their stakeholder management execution to effectively drive more complex, cross-functional dependent projects. Additionally, they have to be even more diligent about ruthlessly prioritizing their teams’ (and their own) time on a finite number of critical initiatives that drive clear and tangible impact on the business.

 

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

I don’t know if this skill isn’t talked about, but I think project portfolio management is overlooked and is fundamental to being an effective product manager. I’ve observed a wide variance of competency in this area over the years.  

The biggest opportunity I usually observe is for product managers to get more data-driven in aligning their capacity to their project workload. There are a million things that product managers will usually want to do or even be directed to do, but they often fall short of considering their capacity in detail when taking on commitments and so they quickly get over-committed.

I think project portfolio management is overlooked and is fundamental to being an effective product manager.’’ 

 

When it comes to product vision, what have you done to expand your knowledge of your industry, business, products, technology, customers, etc.? What impact has that had on your work?

It starts with trying to read as much as possible across each of these areas across a broad range of sources. Realistically, just carving out time to read, synthesize and action key learnings from reading each day is a low effort, high-impact investment for a product manager. In addition, I try to stay connected to key customers by visiting with them whenever possible and documenting insights and implications. Finally, I try to stay connected to key market influencers, such as research analysts, that can provide a holistic perspective of what customers at scale are talking and asking about.

The impact of building your knowledge base across these avenues is usually profound. A product manager with a strong fact base typically develops better product ideas, a clear rationale for product investments, and is able to better anticipate and take proactive action against customer and competitor trends. This ultimately leads to more compelling, sticky products that win in the market.

 

collective health
collective health

Collective Health is a healthtech company with a mission to make health insurance work for everyone. To motivate his team, Group Product Manager Patrick DeThorne says celebrating victories and recognizing individual contributions, as well as understanding customers, are the keys to success. 

 

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

I think you need a combination of boldness and humility to be an effective product leader. Be fearless when establishing your product vision and take well-informed risks, but don’t hesitate to admit failure when it inevitably occurs. If you aren’t taking chances and experimenting, you probably aren’t pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. 

Similarly, make sure to celebrate victories and recognize your teammates’ contributions — success is rarely a solo act. Finally, try to connect with individuals across your organization and don’t be afraid to ask them for help when you’re stuck. A great product leader is not an island.

 

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

The benefits of having software development experience are often overlooked. If you’re managing software products, having at least a basic understanding of the technical stack you’re working on is indispensable, and bonus points if you’ve built software yourself. This comes in handy when prioritizing work or estimating the feasibility of a certain feature without having to interrupt the rest of your team. 

Being a great product manager means making tradeoffs and being decisive. Being able to create accurate estimates of effort help inform those tradeoffs is crucial. Nothing undermines the credibility of a product manager faster than over-committing to a release because “it can’t be that hard.” While software development experience isn’t critical, I think everyone could benefit from having an appreciation of what that work entails.

Being a great product manager means making tradeoffs and being decisive.’’ 

 

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

The single most effective thing I’ve found for expanding my understanding of our customers is to try to do their jobs for a day, and see what their pain points are. User research and customer feedback are useful, but experiencing a “day in the life” of your customers first-hand as a product manager will highlight opportunities that you might not have even considered before. I’ve introduced entirely new features to products as a result of these exercises. It also helps inform future decision-making because you’ll have an even better understanding of what your customers really need.

 

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