Do you know what it takes to be a great Product Leader? In this post, you’ll learn the four pillars of Product Leadership and discover key skills that can take your career from good to great.
People often refer to Product Management as the “everything profession.” In a way, that’s true. We are the hub for all departments, juggling many critical tasks at the same time
Sometimes we get caught in the “management” portion of our profession and lose track of the greater goal: working towards becoming a Product Leader. Management is about execution. Leadership is about inspiring others to follow you and bring your vision to life.
The Four Pillars of Product Leadership
Believe it or not, the secret sauce of Product Leadership can be distilled down to four core pillars. Mastering them can propel you from being good to being great. The four pillars of Product Leadership are:
- Soft Skills
- Business Acumen
- Domain Knowledge
- Technical Skills
Later in this post, I share with you some examples of Product Leadership in action, so you have a clear understanding of what Product Leadership looks like and how these pillars work together.
But first, let’s dive into the four pillars of Product Leadership.
Product Leadership Pillar #1: Soft Skills
Technology and business are often the first skills we hear around Product Leadership. I’m always surprised that soft skills are usually an afterthought. In most organizations, Product Managers are individual contributors, so you need to rely on soft skills to get the job done. Like anything else, soft skills are something you can learn and practice.
Soft skills is a very broad term and honing your abilities in the following areas will give you a good start.
Communication is one of the core strengths of Product Leaders. We are responsible for selling the product vision and making sure everyone, from developers to executives, is on the same page. In general, the better you communicate, the easier your job will be. Here are some areas I recommend focusing on:
- Practice active listening and empathy. See How to Win Friends and Influence People in my books section. I also recommend this great post on active listening by Teresa Torres.
- Learn about communication styles like DISC.
- Improve your presentation skills, to large and small audiences alike. (Consider joining Toastmasters!)
- Improve your whiteboard skills. (Check out Sketchnote Workshop by Mike Rohde.)
- Improve your writing skills. (Get coaching from people you respect. Technical writers are always good allies.)
In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to focus on business or technology and forget the people behind it. People build products for people. In that sense, building solid relationships is the key to success. Networking, team building, and creating rapport with our peers and executives is not a luxury. It’s a requirement.
Product Managers are often the hub between multiple internal and external groups with different backgrounds and motivations. Building strong personal relationships not only makes it easier to get the job done, but it’s also a better way to live your life. I recommend books like How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie or Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.
Also, keep in mind that conflict is unavoidable in every relationship. It’s just a fact of life. Conflict management should be another ace under your sleeve. I recommend Conflict Competent‘s books and especially their courses.
When people think about negotiation, they are reminded of stress, conflict, and memories of used-car salesmen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I hate negotiations,” or “I’m not a good negotiator.” And yet, as Product Managers, we do it every day.
Negotiations are just conversations. We negotiate all the time with our teams, with our boss, with customers, etc. Every time you talk to Sales about why they can’t have a feature, you are negotiating. When you show the roadmap to your Executive team and explain why some features are not going into the release, you are negotiating.
The trick is to let go of the idea that one person wins and the other loses. It’s not a zero-sum game. The best negotiations aim for a win-win outcome. Very few people are born expert negotiators. Like anything else, negotiation is a learned skill.
People Management is often seen as an HR function or something that you only do with your direct reports. I disagree. According to Wikipedia, leadership is “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” People Management tools are very useful in gaining the support of others, so they can trust you to lead them.
“Manager Tools” is my preferred resource for anything regarding People Management. Their “Manager Tools Basics” series covers important topics such as:
- Providing mentorship and coaching
- How to provide feedback
- How to conduct 1-on-1 meetings
- Recruiting (hiring and firing)
- How to set goals and expectations, and how to measure results
- The art of delegation
Product Leadership Pillar #2: Business Acumen
Successful products not only solve the user’s needs, but they are also very profitable. Product Leaders of all levels need to have a solid understanding of business principles, so they can make trade-offs and decisions regarding what’s best for all parties involved.
Business is a big topic, so what should Product Leaders focus on? Check out my post, “Are you a business-savvy Product Manager?” for the key areas of business acumen for Product Leaders.
Product Leadership Pillar #3: Domain Knowledge
Having domain knowledge means having a clear understanding of your industry and your users’ pains and use-cases.
Of the four pillars of Product Leadership, domain knowledge is the only one that doesn’t transfer from industry to industry. For example, I’ve been in the software industry my entire career, but that’s just technical knowledge. My domain knowledge has moved around from manufacturing automation to enterprise data management, to eCommerce to Energy. Each time, the problem I’m trying to solve is very different because the use-cases are different.
Having deep domain knowledge is a requirement for creating a solid product vision. It’s also a big asset when transitioning jobs, since companies want to hire people that have the right experience to hit the ground running. For the same reasons though, having deep domain knowledge can be a detriment when you’re trying to switch to a new industry or career.
I’d venture to say that domain knowledge is the hardest knowledge to acquire. So, how do you get it? The only way is to immerse yourself in your industry and learn everything you can. Here are a few suggestions:
- Talk to your users.
- Get a mentor. People in Sales, Product Marketing, or Executive roles are usually a great place to start.
- Attend trade shows.
- Read trade publications. Magazines, company blogs, and LinkedIn forums are a great resource.
- Follow the experts. Social media makes it easy to locate and follow industry experts. They usually share great content and probably have books or blogs of their own.
- Study your competition. What is their value proposition in the market vs. your company?
Product Leadership Pillar #4: Technical and UX Skills
The internet is full of discussions on whether Product Managers need technical skills. Some say it’s just a business position, and therefore being technical is not important. I’m in the other camp. As a Software Product Leader, I advocate for a deep technical understanding to balance the other pillars. “Technical” is a broad term that encompasses the following areas:
To me, Product Managers and Leaders need to understand how their product is built. I’m not saying they should be coding or playing Architect. I’m advocating for a deep understanding of the technologies being used and how they fit together. For example, a PM building a SaaS product should understand the basics of software engineering, SaaS, SOA, Internet technologies, etc.
A technology-savvy Product Leader has huge advantages like:
- Improved communication (and trust) from your development team.
- Ability to understand tech trends, understand how they impact your roadmap, and how they drive innovation.
- Improved communication with your customers. Product Leaders often need to interact with CIOs and CTOs from current or prospective customer companies. For them, it’s important for you to speak confidently in both business and tech terms.
- Ability to understand technical challenges and make educated trade-offs with your team.
I recommend reading my post What is a Technical Product Manager, Anyway?
And for additional insights on how PMs work with Agile teams, I also recommend reading 5 Key Responsibilities of Agile Product Leaders.
Note: To get a solid understanding of the technology behind IoT products, I recommend my post: Internet of Things: A Primer for Product Managers.
Today, users won’t settle for mediocre experiences. A good User Experience (UX) is a must, and all companies are (or should be) jumping on it. UX is an umbrella term for multiple design disciplines that together provide a delightful product experience. If you are new to UX, my post “UX for Product Managers” tells you what you need to know.
Product Lifecycle (from a product perspective)
Software Product Managers, need to be intimately familiar with the complete lifecycle of their product: ideation, user validation, software and hardware development, QA, staging, deployment, support, Sales and Marketing enablement, etc.
We need to understand “how the sausage is made,” so we can understand the development milestones, support our teams, and make sure the product is going in the right direction.
Processes, Methodologies, and Frameworks
Process is important, but it’s often overrated. I find it puzzling how many discussions you find online regarding processes and methodologies. Don’t get me wrong, all PMs should have this knowledge, but process knowledge alone doesn’t make for a good Product Manager.
Processes are different in every company and even standard ones continue to evolve. Great Product Managers can take a course, grab a book, or learn processes on the fly. As long as they have a strong foundation in the four pillars, then the processes can be picked up quickly.
Other processes, methodologies, and frameworks I consider valuable are:
- Agile. A simple internet search will give you a wealth of options for learning Agile. (I don’t advocate any particular version.)
- Setting priorities and building a Roadmap. I like Bruce McCarthy’s approach.
- Pragmatic Marketing.
- PMI. I know “Product” Managers are not the same as “Project” Managers, but keep in mind that regardless of your role, knowing how to drive a project to completion is always a good skill to have.
Product Leaders Think Beyond the Product
The four pillars I describe above will give you all the necessary skills to build successful products. But building the product is not enough. True Product Leadership looks beyond the actual product and considers the impact their product will have in the world. Let me explain.
Fifteen, or even ten years ago, the four pillars of Product Leadership would have been enough. As long as you understood the customer problem, found market-fit, and worked with Engineering to build the product, you were good to go. But not anymore.
In today’s era of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, the products we build are no longer just living in a virtual world. These products interact with the physical world, which can lead to scary consequences. Today’s Product Leaders must also think about the impact of their product. In short, they need to focus on social responsibility and security.
In an era of internet-connected devices, providing value to our customers or generating profits for our company is not enough. We need to consider the bigger picture and understand how our product impacts society as a whole.
For example, let’s imagine you are working on self-driving vehicles. Here are some questions you should consider:
- Can my product be weaponized and used to cause harm?
- What would happen if my product stops working? Would that cause harm to others?
- How can my product help (or at least not impact) Climate Change?
- Will introducing my product result in some people losing their jobs? How can I counter that effect?
- How can we design the product so it can be 100% recyclable when it reaches the end of its useful life?
As you can see, questions like these have big implications on your roadmap and strategy. Product Leaders should ponder these questions and balance the need to produce short-term profits with the lasting effect your product will have in the world.
Security Throughout the Product Lifecycle
We live in a time where products like autonomous vehicles, drones, or self-healing power grids are no longer science fiction. These products are usually complex systems that use the Internet of Things as a backbone for gathering data and feed complex Artificial Intelligence models to provide value to customers.
As these products become more and more ingrained in our daily lives, our ability to secure them needs to become our first priority. Not only because a “hacked” product stops delivering value to our customers, but also because these types of products can cause physical harm to people if they fall in the hands of bad actors.
Therefore, Product Leaders must make a priority to implement security across the product development lifecycle. Now, “security” is a very broad topic, but Product Leaders can utilize the four pillars to ensure security is never an afterthought.
For example, here’s how a Product Leader would use the four pillars to embed security in their development process:
Soft Skills: Communicate the risks associated with the product, articulate a plan, and get buy-in from all stakeholders on how to move forward.
Business Acumen: Analyze the budgetary investment needed to get the right tooling and processes in place to follow secure development practices and have the right staff to monitor the product, once it is deployed in the field.
Domain Knowledge: Understand vulnerabilities and attack schemes that are common in the industry. For example, what are some common threats in the Smart Building or Healthcare industry? Are we mitigating those risks today?
Technology: Work with Engineering to define the current security gaps in the product and define how and when those gaps will be included in the roadmap.
Social Responsibility and Security are skills that fall somewhere in between the pillars because they force you to make decisions and evaluate trade-offs across all four pillars.
Examples of Product Leaders in Action
For years I’ve been fascinated with understanding the qualities that make great Product Leaders. That’s one of the reasons I started my IoT Product Leadership podcast. It is a way for me to have conversations with top Product Leaders around the world and learn from their experience.
Now that you know the four pillars of Product Leadership, it’s time to see those skills in action. Below you’ll find a selection of my favorite interviews with top Product Leaders.
As you listen to each episode, notice how fluent each Product Leader is around all of the pillars. They seamlessly move the conversation from a business to a technology, to an industry focus. You’ll notice that these four pillars don’t live in isolation. Product Leaders have them in their toolbox and are able to quickly select the right tool for the job.
Business Acumen – Product Leader: Rich Mironov, CEO of Mironov Consulting.
Domain Knowledge – Product Leader: Anthony Harrison, Director of Public Policy at ChargePoint.
Technology and UX – Product Leader: Sam George, Head of PM for Microsoft Azure IoT.
Social Responsibility – Product Leader: Larsh Johnson, CTO of Stem.
Soft Skills – Product Leader: Bryan Kelly, CEO of Soft Works Practice.
The Bottom Line
Product Leadership is a very challenging profession because we have to juggle a huge breadth of knowledge and moving parts. The vast array of information in this post takes years of study and experience to become comfortable with and eventually master.
The important thing is to always strive for improvement and work every day on becoming a well-rounded Product Leader. I hope this post helps guide you in creating a roadmap for your own professional development and grow stronger in any of your opportunity areas!