Dear Gib: What do you recommend to a PM who is strong on product skills but weak on leadership skills?

Answer: Leadership is a practiced art. There are lots of ways to exercise the skills before you take on your first formal leadership role.

(That’s me on the left at a Product Calgary meetup, pre-Covid.)

Dear Anonymous:

I’ll bet you’re referencing product and leadership skills from my previous post (“How to Best Prepare for Head of Product Roles”). As a refresher, here are the leadership skills I listed:

Leadership skills

  • Leadership: Communicate an inspired vision of the future.

  • Management: Hire, manage, and develop teams.

  • Strategic thinking: Form hypotheses to delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.

  • Results-oriented: Proactive; do whatever it takes to deliver results.

  • Culture: Leverage culture as a tool to enable great decision-making without process. (Also, good fit with the company’s culture.)

  • Business maturity: Good judgment around product, people, and business.

  • Domain expertise: Experience with category and company stage.

I assume you’d like to become a formal/informal product leader in the future. (There are lots of PMs who deliver extraordinary value without moving into leadership roles.)

Leadership as Practiced Art

The good news: there are lots of ways to exercise leadership skills:

  • Lead your project and/or swimlane. No matter the scale and scope of your project and role, make sure there are clear strategies, proxy metrics, and tactics. (See my Strategy/Metric/Tactics framework.)

  • Bring doughnuts. Be the person who goes the extra mile to support the engineers, data scientists, designers, and product marketers on your team. Do your primary job, but look for opportunities to be even more helpful—embrace servant leadership.

  • Pretend you’re the leader. When you’re in meetings, and someone asks, “What do other folks think?” speak up. If you don’t know the answer, ask questions until you can form an opinion, then engage in debate to help make the decision. The biggest challenge for new leaders: you’re expected to have an opinion about everything. Practice now, while the stakes are low.

  • Practice management and leadership with your peers. If no one reports to you, you can still help your peers develop their skills. Forward helpful articles/videos or create a talk on a topic you are passionate about. (For twenty years, I hosted a monthly talk on a variety of topics to help my bosses, peers, and reports develop their skills.)

  • Volunteer to be a part of a recruiting team. You’ll learn to assess talent and better understand the role of culture in assessing “best fit” employees.

  • Attend meetings outside the product organization. A key challenge in leadership is ensuring cross-functional alignment. Ask a marketing, content, or finance partner if you can attend a few of their meetings. You’ll learn about the function and see how other leaders run their meetings, inspire debate, and drive decision-making within their organization.

  • Look for volunteer opportunities to develop leadership skills. Within the company, there are opportunities to host celebrations, onboard new employees, or help the company define, edit, and live its culture. Outside of work, organize a monthly product meetup. (Meetups are a great way to build your network of peers and mentors, which helps future recruiting efforts.)

Practicing leadership is about leaning forward. There’s always too much work to go around, so organizations appreciate employees who look to do more.

Accelerate Your Product Leader Career

Here’s what will accelerate your career as a leader:

  • Deliver extraordinary results in your current role.

  • Develop recruiting, hiring, and people management skills, so when you’re promoted, someone on your team can quickly replace you.

  • Be a “culture carrier,” embodying the skills and behaviors outlined in your company’s culture.

All of my suggestions above help to “prime the pump” so you’ll be ready when leadership opportunities present themselves to you.

I hope you found this answer helpful.

Best,

Gib

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