Stepping Up: Product Manager to Product Leader

Avoiding lipstick on a pig in product management

In their book “The Discipline of Market Leaders”, authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema identified three areas in which businesses needed to perform if they were to be successful: product leadership, operational excellence and customer intimacy. In order to become a market leader however, they posited that businesses had to choose one of these value disciplines to drive strategy. 

We’ve come a long way since 1995 and things aren’t as clear cut anymore. Technology provides businesses ways to make strides in controlling costs and improving customer experience simultaneously. 67% of organizations surveyed as part of a study commissioned by KPMG in 2020 identified digital transformation as a high priority and 63% increased their budgets for this since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Businesses by and large are looking to digital capabilities, products and services to remain competitive. Building customer-centric digital solutions seems to be the way of the future, making the work of product leaders more important than ever before.

Athul, Vice President of Product at Fabelio, a Series D furniture e-commerce platform in Indonesia, walked me through his journey in product leadership and shared advice for product managers preparing for the next step in their careers.  

How does strong product leadership influence the trajectory of businesses?

Companies driven by product leadership have a relentless pursuit of innovation. They understand that there is immense value in being the first to capitalize on a product. They therefore favor deploying minimum viable products (MVPs), and refining them over time rather than bringing a product to perfection before taking it to the market. 

Product-obsession can be problematic in the context of start ups and hypergrowth organizations. Quick to launch products and encouraged by initial success, they may pursue metric after metric leading to the demise of the product. After a couple of cycles, teams may find themselves with little more than lipstick on a pig.

This risk is magnified when companies scale up as teams can easily lose cohesion with rapid growth. If the product team is not aligned, the product is likely to be misaligned. Product leaders prevent this from happening by keeping the process and team behind the product tethered to the company’s vision even when their means and methods of achieving it change. 

Paradoxically, great product leaders are able to take their eyes off the product long enough to assess the context they operate in. They scan the horizon for opportunities and monitor how customers' needs, expectations and experiences evolve. When leaders steer teams to develop products or features that rise to these ever-changing demands, they keep businesses relevant, at the forefront of their industries. 

What lies ahead for product managers moving into leadership roles?

Perhaps the most significant change product managers will notice in their new roles is the departure from execution. Athul observed that experience wires product managers to delegate tasks. Product leaders delegate problems. He explains: “it’s a different set of skills, thought process, ideologies and principles that guide these two roles”. Although product leaders primarily deal with product vision and strategy, the role is often cross-functional involving different parts of the business. Their work may intersect with sales and marketing for example, or involve responsibilities in the areas  of competitive intelligence and customer onboarding.

In the world of innovation, opportunities may be infinite but resources are not. It is incumbent on product leaders to provide strategy and structure to focus their teams’ creative energy and technical ability on making products that connect customers with the businesses’ vision. 

What can product managers do to sharpen the skills that they need to level up?

Vision may be the single most important element of an excellent product leader. The role often involves seeing into the future, developing things that don’t exist just yet. To hone this skill, individuals need to look beyond their tasks and develop a keen awareness of the business landscape.

Apart from knowing their teams and organizations through and through, product leaders keep up with external factors such as consumer behavior, industry trends and global events. Participating in design sprints is a solid way for product managers to dip their toes in the water and acclimate to fast-paced, cross-functional, collaborative, customer-oriented and solution-driven environments. 

The accomplishments of product leaders often result from their ability to empower others to solve problems making mentorship and coaching essential. Product managers will find an abundance of opportunities to develop in these areas by working closely with designers, engineers and analysts in their teams. 

Soft skills like empathy and communication are powerful tools. When product leaders understand and appreciate customer problems and team challenges, they are able to explore impactful solutions that align with business objectives. 

Final thoughts

As product managers progress into leadership roles, they may find themselves leaning less on the technical skills that propelled their careers earlier on. They will need a shift in mindset to reframe products as solutions that evolve rather than output to be delivered. 


Athul Vathul

Head of Product

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