Product Leadership Best Practices

In the PMHQ Slack community, we regularly get thought-provoking questions that we feel should be explored in-depth and documented for future reference. We’re starting a new set of Q&A posts called Highlights to dive into these kinds of questions, and enable everyone in the community to revisit the answers and contribute further!

“As I continue to grow into a leader of product managers, I’m finding myself disconnected from the actual product work that’s taking place. I should mention that I also manage the design team, so I’m strapped for time, as you can imagine.

At any given moment, I want to know what’s going on with the PMs and their work so that I can be helpful, but I don’t always have the time to sit-down and debrief each week.

I tried to sit down with each PM individually, but when I spend too much time with one PM, the others and their products suffer.

I had the idea of requesting a weekly summary of what happened that week, which would give me enough of the details to be helpful, and could also be an exercise in clarity for the PM.

What are you guys doing with your PMs? How are you staying connected to the work, without getting sucked into any given product so deep that you begin to neglect the rest of the team?”

Steffan Howey, Head of Product at P&G

What is Product Leadership?

Product leadership is the art and science of defining a product vision, communicating it effectively, aligning the organization to deliver on that vision, achieving results, and getting the right feedback for future improvement.

Product leadership seems easy for a product leader who has a vision shared by the entire team, but when working on a product where there’s more than one person with their own ideas of what is right for the product, aligning those opinions over time can be an art.

The key to success as a product leader is delivering consistent results and hearing feedback from all stakeholders. This feedback is what enables a product leader to improve. Without it, the product vision can be lost in translation or become too static and not keep up with evolving customer needs.

To deliver results as a product leader, you need a framework for setting the right focus and priorities on how different pieces of your business work together—and how all of that adds value to your customers. Without that framework, you can easily become overwhelmed by tasks or lose sight of the bigger picture while trying to keep everyone on track. If those priorities fall out of alignment with market needs, or if they don’t get communicated effectively throughout the organization, then you’re putting yourself and your company at risk.

Product Leadership Advice

Our community of product leaders had lots of great insights to share on this topic! Below is a summary of their best practices.

1. Rob’s Advice

Rob structured his team so that he has squads of PMs, designers, and developers, with each squad semi-independently working on a focused problem.

His approach consists of 5 parts:

1) Make the product managers and designers responsible for setting their own goals and metrics. Each squad takes ownership of their target area, which Rob calls “The Problem Statement”, and is charged with designing the success metric(s), the measurement, setting the baseline, and setting the target and timeline.
2) Require the product managers and designers to attend a minimum of engineering standups. This was actually quite difficult, since half of Rob’s team was in India, while the other half was in San Francisco, but it ensured that not only were the PMs and Designers aware of what was going on and available to help solve issues, but they built a rapport with the engineering teams by staying in the trenches with them.
3) Host a “scrum of scrums” multiple times each week to work through blockers, thoughts, and issues. This is a centralized meeting of PMs and Designers to talk through their Problem Statements, target metrics, timelines, features, prototypes, feedback, and release progress.
4) 75% of the way through a release cycle, each squad conducts a demo. The focus was to strengthen each PM’s presentation skills and clarify their thought process regarding downstream impacts. It also helps raise visibility across the organization of upcoming features, progress towards metrics, and keeps everyone on the same page.
5) Outside of these structured meetings, Rob has 1:1’s with each team member on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly depending on load). During that time, the team member sets 100% of the agenda, the topics, and the direction of the conversation. He emphasizes that he’s there “to help, not to judge.” That way, his team feels open to come to him not just for tough questions, but also for lighter topics.

2. Rohit’s Advice

Rohit found that operationalization enabled him to make the most impact.

His approach consists of 8 sets of meetings:

1) Weekly sync meetings with directors in engineering, product, and design. In these meetings, they went over milestones and tracking for upcoming and in-progress work.
He used this meeting to drive accountability and remove roadblocks while enabling him to keep in touch with the day-to-day. At his organization, project managers prepare the materials for this meeting through JIRA.
2) Daily 15 minute stand-ups with his management team, which was distributed across London, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, and Berlin. Here, they focused on higher-level discussions around projects and human resourcing.
3) Weekly 30 minute management team meeting, with half of the time focused on operations and human resources, and half focused on long-term planning.
4) Weekly 30 minute full-team meeting. Here, he gave general business updates during the first half and then spent 15 minutes on deep dives.
5) Monthly design reviews with the design team, so that he can provide feedback on design items.
6) Monthly 45-minute steering committee meetings with decision-making stakeholders for each product. Here, the teams provide status updates, share the upcoming roadmap, and make prioritization decisions.
7) Monthly 60-minute product council meeting with the executive team to approve the roadmap, discuss financial metrics and approve or change resourcing plans.
8) Finally, he and his direct reports met quarterly in one location for an all-day planning session.
You can check out other expert advice by seasoned professionals within the PMHQ community.

3. Analysis

As product managers rise the ranks and join the leadership team, their work shifts away from the day-to-day execution for a single product. Product leaders are expected to guide multiple product teams towards success, while simultaneously driving executive-level decisions with their counterparts from other departments.

While each product leader has their own take on how to enable their product teams, there are a core set of product leadership principles that are evident from the best practices above.

First, each product leader needs to create a culture of ownership and open communication. Product leaders need to enable their direct reports to take charge since it’s impossible for anyone person to personally manage more than a couple of teams at any given time.

Since product leaders must distribute individual product ownership to their direct reports, they must create channels and norms around open communication. Without open communication, product leaders cannot expect to keep their direct reports in sync with their expectations.

Second, product leaders rely on various rituals and events to keep teams running effectively. Regularly scheduled events create consistency and set expectations across the organization.

Use daily and weekly meetings to maintain momentum, and use monthly and quarterly meetings to set the strategic direction. Use 1:1’s to know how each product manager is progressing in their career trajectory, and empower them to ask questions or raise concerns to be worked through.

Third, product leaders should never let themselves become the bottleneck. Remember that product leaders set the direction for the entire product portfolio, and ideally should not be too deeply involved in minor product decisions.

One of the ultimate goals of any leader is to multiply their impact by creating strong leaders who can achieve goals in ever-more diverse ways. By teaching product managers how to take on additional leadership responsibilities, product leaders can simultaneously reduce their own workload while strengthening the talent of their own employees.

Probably the most counterintuitive finding is that more knowledge is not always better. By maintaining some distance away from each product, product leaders can make more objective calls.

Shifting from an individual contributor role to a management role can be jarring since the expectations are wildly different. Individual contributors are used to being responsible for every single detail, whereas people managers are tasked with setting direction and enforcing consistency across many teams without necessarily knowing every single detail.

We’re confident that by keeping the above principles in mind, you’ll be a more effective product leader.

About Our Contributors

Steffan Howey is Head of Product at P&G.

Rob McGrorty was previously Head of Product at Webgility, a multi-channel ecommerce solutions provider for accounting integration, inventory & order management.

Rohit Sharma is VP of Product at Funding Circle, a peer-to-peer lending marketplace that allows investors to lend money directly to small and -sized businesses.

Have thoughts that you’d like to contribute around product leadership best practices? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!

Clement Kao
Clement Kao
Clement Kao is Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He was previously a Principal Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.