How do YOU differentiate between good and great product leaders?
Short answer: Beyond product & leadership skills, Great product leaders = Courage to advocate & execute novel product strategies + Rare blend of creative & analytical/data skills + Culture fit.
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What differentiates good product leaders from great ones?
The most successful product organizations do a remarkable job of making smart decisions about people, products, and the business. They merge three factors:
They form a strategy (plan).
They expose their plan to reality via experimentation (consumer science).
They foster a culture that encourages experimentation.
Over time, culture forms the accumulated judgment of the organization, helping individuals to make great decisions about people, products, and the business.
It follows that great product leaders merge these three forces well, too.
Below, I detail what I look for when I interview candidates. At baseline, I seek product leaders that demonstrate both intellectual curiosity and passion for building products. This combination enables candidates to develop grit, helping them to overcome the challenges of building products.
I also look for two distinct sets of skills:
Product skills required to build products, and
Leadership skills that enable product managers to grow from individual contributors to VP-level leaders.
Here’s how I differentiate between good and great product leaders. In summary, I seek candidates who:
Have the courage to define, advocate and execute unique product strategies
Have a rare blend of creative and analytical skills (the skills required to be effective at consumer science), and
Are a great fit with the company culture.
At the end of this essay, I’ll provide an example of a great product leader that I hired.
1. Technical product skills
In every function within a company, whether it is is a marketing role, a sales role, or a finance role, there are a set of technical skills required to do the job. Here are the product skills I look for in product leaders:
Technical: Strong understanding of technology; work well with engineers
Management: Light process to deliver results; great communication
Creative: Generate ideas that matter
Business: Understand the business model and how to deliver shareholder value
Marketing: Package & position ideas to build consumer appeal
Design: Work well with designers; value simplicity
Consumer science: Generate consumer insight via focus groups, usability, surveys, behavioral data, and A/B testing; strong product sense.
For each role, I highlight which skills are most important. For instance, when I recruited a product manager for the non-member landing page at Netflix, I prioritized consumer science and business skills. For a new role focused on a just-born social strategy, I focused on creative and design skills. For an API role, I looked for candidates with strong technical skills. Different roles require different skills from the product and leadership lists outlined above.
2. Leadership skills
These are the skills I expect product leaders to develop over time:
Leadership: Ability to communicate an inspired vision of the future.
Management: Hiring, managing, organizing, and developing teams/organizations.
Strategic thinking: Developing hypotheses for how to delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.
Results-oriented: Proactive, “do what it takes” attitude. Not overly process-oriented.
Culture: Understand how to leverage culture as a foundation for light process and to build world-class organizations; good fit with the company’s culture.
Business maturity: Great judgment about people, products, and the business.
Domain expertise: Experience with product category and stage of the company.
Beyond product leader candidates, I use this same list for candidates in marketing, sales, technology, and finance. The key difference for leaders in different functions is the technical skills. A finance leader, for instance, needs strong technical skills in fundraising, accounting, and financial analysis— very different technical skills from product leaders.
3. Good v. Great
Like great product organizations, great product leaders merge strategy, consumer science, experimentation, and culture to make great decisions about people, products, and the business. When I assess individual candidates, here’s what I look for:
A combination of creative and data/analytical skills — core requirements for consumer science.
The courage to define, advocate and execute novel product strategies.
Culture fit. Great product leaders actually define the company culture through their skills and behaviors.
For me, a great product leader has a rare combination of creative skills and the data/analytical skills required to be successful at consumer science. It sounds cliche, but few product leaders have this combination of “left & right-brain” skills. At the fundamental level, a product leader needs to work effectively with designers to craft simple experiences for their customers. They also need to work effectively with engineers to scale these experiences. Creative skills enable successful product managers to build successful relationships with designers and the data skills provide a common language to communicate effectively with engineers.
Great product leaders use their “left & right brain” skills to outline unique product strategies. They display courage and persistence to advocate and execute their ideas despite ambiguity, incomplete information, and open resistance to new ideas. Strategic thinking skills help product leaders to outline a plan that both design and technology leaders can get behind.
When I first started at Netflix in 2005, I considered myself an anomaly as I was an English major. I was wary about my ability to work with large engineering teams. But, over time, I found that engineers liked working with me. When I asked one VP-level tech partner, John Ciancutti, why he liked to partner with me, he answered, “You do a great job bringing focus to 2-3 product strategies that really move the needle. And you always speak through data which provides a common language for your engineering partners.”
Example: Identifying and hiring a great product leader
I hired Todd Yellin as Director of Product Management at Netflix in 2006. Through the interview, I knew that he had both strong creative and analytical skills. Before Netflix, he had written and produced a film, “My Brother’s Shadow,” which demonstrated to me that he was highly creative. Plus, he clearly had domain expertise in movies—a big plus for Netflix. Knowing that Todd likely made no money on his first film, I asked how he fed his family. He replied, “I coach high school juniors on how to excel on college entrance exams— both the verbal and analytical skills.” I also knew that self-funding a film required tons of courage and grit.
Over the years that Todd worked for me, he worked very effectively with both his design and technology partners. He crafted a product strategy to create a more personalized experience for Netflix members and eventually proved that personalization improved retention. Todd was also undeterred by failure — like his failed hypothesis that a more entertaining site experience would improve retention. (See Netflix’s “Max” on PlayStation.) Last, Todd was able to both think and do. He articulated the personalization product strategy clearly but kept his eyes on the details, making him a very reliable partner for both technology and design partners.
Even more than this, Todd was the epitome of several of Netflix’s cultural values — he was intellectually curious, he was highly candid, and he displayed courage in the face of ambiguity and adversity. This role model-ship led him to be promoted to VP Product Innovation in 2010 and Todd continues to be a key part of the Netflix executive team today. (Look for the “helpful links” at the end of this essay to learn more about Todd.)
Here’s what I think differentiates great product leaders from good ones:
Great product leaders lead via the thoughtful articulation of product strategy.
They have both the creative and analytical skills to engage in experimentation via consumer science.
They not only are a great fit with the company’s culture but help to define it through their skills and behaviors.
A last note: It’s almost impossible to identify great product leaders through an interview. You just have to take your best shot at identifying them, then hire them to see if it works out. In the first two years at Netflix, I hired a dozen product managers. The result: Two or three were stars, four or five were good, and the remainder washed out in the first few years. Like all things product, you need to experiment to see what works.
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