Bridging the Gap: From Product Management to Product Leadership

October 8, 2021

Product people, assemble! So here’s a question that might have raced through your mind if you ever thought of advancing your career: What can I do to grow from a product manager into a product leader?

Well, we might be aware that product management is about empathising with users, identifying opportunities, and collaborating with others, and that great product managers are adept at problem-solving and connecting the dots between business, technology and user experience.

But while product leaders can also be competent with these things, they possess another set of skills: people management. The value of product leaders isn’t what they can do as an individual product person, but what overall outcomes their product teams can create. Becoming a product leader means becoming a leader of leaders.

In this blog post, we explore three fundamental shifts that product managers need to make to develop themselves as product leaders.

Becoming a team coach

While product managers can be occupied with the nitty gritty of all things product, from conducting user research to discussing product development and deployment with designers and developers, the job of a product leader is to set a team of product managers up for success.

In a recent conversation with Athul V, Vice President of Product at Fabelio, he said that the most significant change product managers will notice in their new roles is the departure from execution. As a result, it’s crucial that product leaders provide strategy and structure to focus their teams’ creative energy and technical ability on building products that serve both the customer and business needs.

This means that product leaders would become more like team coaches, who:

Creating a culture of learning

When it comes to delegating tasks, a common mistake that aspiring product leaders might make is to keep projects for themselves. One might think that since they’re most suited to do a job, then they should be the ones doing it. But in fact, this might deprive someone else who could have cultivated a valuable skill in the process of owning the task.

Lisa Singer, who is the VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester, recommends giving product managers the space to learn and practice. When people have the chance to apply new skills, share what they’ve learned, and receive feedback on their progress, they’ll take mastering new competencies more seriously. 

So for people who want to become product leaders, rather than thinking that it’s probably better to do things on their own, the alternative is to delegate projects or tasks that can provide their team members the chance to stretch their skills and learn new ones. Sure, it might require us to set aside some time for training others, but it’s the perfect chance for us to pay it forward to our teams and teach them what works best.

Aligning teams to business outcomes

The third thing that product leaders need to be good at is aligning their team’s work to business outcomes. While good product managers may already have good business acumen, remember that product leaders are more people-focused and care more about overall team performance.

What this means is that product leaders must know how to create the most value by managing their product and business teams as a singular cross-functional team and getting everyone onboard with working towards key north star outcomes.

As Itamar Gilad, a product management coach and ex-product manager at Google, writes in his blog: “Modern-day project managers therefore no longer attempt to bridge between the teams or act as gatekeepers. They seek to break the walls entirely and get everyone to work together, with a focus on the business model as a whole.”

A leader of leaders

Like many management to leadership roles, what product managers and product leaders do is entirely different. At the end of the day, the main difference between a product manager and a product leader is that whereas product managers drive product strategy, product leaders drive people’s performance.

Product leaders have ample opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise to the people they lead, and it can be a rewarding experience along your career path, should you want to become a product leader.

And if you’re seriously considering upskilling yourself to become one, why not start by looking outside your immediate role and organisation for opportunities to learn from other product leaders? Check out our upcoming learning sprint where you can start honing your people management skills and learn alongside other managers who share the same goals of becoming a people leader. (Applications close on 24 October, 2021)