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Lana Khimka on the skills that determine success for product leaders, their teams and their products
Product State Q&A
EC: Based on your study of top product leader skills, what are some of the key discrepancies between the views of PMs and product leaders themselves?
LK: Earlier this year, we surveyed 107 product managers in Europe. The objective was to identify the key skills that lead to success for them, their teams, and their products.
The participants included both leaders and individual contributors, and I was interested in analyzing the differences in their responses.
The results turned out to be quite consistent among different groups of respondents:
Those 4 skills appeared in the Top 5 for both product managers and product leaders:
Setting clear goals and providing direction
Building effective relationships with stakeholders, top management & investors
Setting effective product strategy
Building effective team structure, delegating and distributing work in a team
Two insights particularly caught my attention:
1/ Setting clear goals and providing direction - individual contributors almost unanimously selected ‘Setting clear goals and providing direction’ as the top skill for a successful product leader, while only 60% of leaders chose it.
This actually reflects a dynamic I commonly observe in startups:
Product leaders are reluctant to appear as authoritative managers and, as a result, offer vague directions and allow the team to set their own goals and brainstorm directions. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect - unclear direction causes a constant change in priorities and regularly missed goals. The team feels confused and becomes demotivated.
» Action point suggestion: Use the insights from the study as an opportunity to have an open discussion with your team and assess if they need more guidance from your regarding goals and direction.
2/ Growing and coaching team members effectively - another discrepancy between the responses of leaders and individual contributors is related to the ‘Growing and coaching team members effectively’ skill.
This outcome is expected, given that individual contributors' choices tend to be skewed toward leadership skills that directly impact their careers and success.
I agree that growing and coaching your team is one of the most important skills in the long run.
But what to do if you’re a first-time manager and you have to prioritize what to master first?
» Action point suggestion: Start with mastering product strategy, decision-making, and goal-setting skills. Without clarity in these areas, you can’t have a meaningful conversation about personal and professional growth anyway. Seeing long-term direction for your product allows you to plan which roles and skillsets will be needed in the future. You can use this info to offer concrete growth opportunities for your team members and develop meaningful growth goals.
EC: What are some of the key differences in what matters most for product leaders in a small startup versus larger companies?
LK: Insights from this chart are helpful for answering the following questions:
Should I join a startup or an established company?
What skills will help to advance my career in a particular organiation?
Similar to the previous questions, the results appeared pretty consistent, with just a few differences.
1/ ‘High level of self-awareness & growth mindset’ was listed in the Top 5 leadership skills according to respondents from small organizations.
This insight can be particularly valuable for product managers and leaders considering joining a young startup in its early stages (Seed or early Series A). In such environments, being open to learning and reflection is often more important than traditional hard skills in product management.
A quick tip: By embracing a growth mindset and joining a young startup, you can fast-track your path to a leadership role.
2/ ‘Setting effective product strategy’ plays a more important role in product leadership success in bigger organizations. That’s not surprising - when smaller organizations mostly focus on moving fast and testing as many hypotheses as possible, more mature products have to rely on clearly defined product strategies to grow.
A common paradox in a PM’s career:
To move to a leadership role, one needs to have experience with product strategy, but gaining this experience is only possible when you’re already in a leadership role because product strategy is impossible to master in theory.
The most common feedback senior product managers receive when looking for a promotion is ‘You need to develop strategic thinking.’
» My recommendation for developing strategic thinking: Practice including a business perspective in your communication and product decisions. This will help you to be perceived as more strategic. A good place to start is books about business models (Alexander Osterwalder) and competitive strategy (Michael Porter).
EC: ‘Ability to manage and execute complex projects’ is of least importance across all respondents, especially B2C and companies over 100 people. What are the pros and cons of this thinking?
LK: In an ideal scenario, the role of a leader is to enable the team to do the work rather than be involved in the execution themselves. From this point of view, the skills of setting direction, motivation, and communication are indeed more important than the ability to execute complex projects.
But we rarely work in the ideal scenario.
A good product leader is able to set an effective product strategy, but a great product leader is the one who can make it happen. And to make things happen, one often needs project management skills.
There are two cases when project management skills are not important for product leaders:
If you work in a big organisation with a separate project manager function
If you have a team of very senior product managers who don’t need coaching from you
In all other cases, product leaders either have to be directly involved in managing complex cross-functional initiatives or they need to have a sufficient experience in project management to coach their team members.
Of course, a modern startup environment doesn’t require product managers to have a PMBOK certification.
In my experience, there are four key areas of project management that matter for product leaders:
Integration Management - ensure smooth coordination between teams and departments and facilitate collaboration
Scope Management - split complex scope into small but valuable deliverables so the team moves iteratively and maintains focus and momentum
Resource Management - establish buy-in from all teams involved in the project and ensure that resources are available.
Stakeholder Management - ensure that requirements from all relevant stakeholders are taken into consideration and everyone stays informed about a project's progress.
You can download the full version of the Product Leadership survey results here - https://noblahblahleadership.com/product-leadership-skills-study-2023
“Product leaders are reluctant to appear as authoritative managers and, as a result, offer vague directions and allow the team to set their own goals and brainstorm directions. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect.”
- Lana Khimka
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