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They Don’t Understand Your Role as a Product Leader. But Do You?

The role of the product leader goes far beyond managing the product department


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Noa Ganot

3 years ago | 6 min read

Most of the CEOs I work with, understand that the role of the product leader is very important. But many of them don’t fully understand how, exactly, it is important.

Whenever I talk to startup CEOs, especially first-timers, the discussion on product goes immediately to UX and wireframes. While this is an important aspect of the product (although product and UX are different roles), it is far from reflecting the product leader’s full responsibility.

I would argue that even if you are beyond that spot, and as a product leader you do much more than UX, you and the company might still not realize what is your primary responsibility as a product leader.

Why This Happens

Product management is a unique role in so many ways. One of these ways is that it has no clear playbook, and the boundaries of the role are very vague.

Add to that the fact that most of what we do is think and talk, and to produce real outcomes we need others to do their jobs, and you’ll understand why looking from the outside it’s hard to understand what we do.

In the evolution of a startup, the founders initially do whatever they can themselves. Thinking and talking about the product definitely falls under this category. When do they feel that they can no longer do it themselves? When it comes to the actual work products that product managers deliver: wireframes and user stories. It is also about the same time that working with R&D becomes more intense, so a lot of project management is needed.

You can only make a first impression once, and so it is no surprise that many CEOs see the product role primarily as a delivery role for concrete outcomes, and generally an execution-related role.

When it comes to the product leader (in early-stage startups it is often even the same person as the hands-on product manager), they still see the importance of the role in the orchestration of the product execution. They will say this is a strategic role, but in many cases what they can think of in terms of responsibilities are all execution-related.

Product Definition Itself Is Not Strategy

So why do the CEOs say it is an important, strategic role? It’s usually because as a product company, the person that defines the product has an immense impact on the company’s ability to succeed. It makes perfect sense.

But what is product definition exactly? Many people see it as the product’s UX and behavior. That is part of the definition, no doubt, but it’s the tactical part of it.

That’s why I include it under the execution-related responsibilities of the product leader. It doesn’t mean, by the way, that it is an easy job or that it is not important for the company’s ability to succeed. But the problem starts when the product leader’s responsibility is stopping there.

Truly defining the product includes many other things, like which problem it solves, for whom, the value proposition and why it makes sense business-wise — considering all relevant points of view including the customers, the market, and the company itself.

Test yourself: as a product leader, are you dealing with these things, or are you simply following the direction of senior management and try to build a product that would make the most out of this direction? How big is your playground and freedom to truly define the product?

If you don’t deal with the strategic aspects of the product definition, my advice would be to start ASAP. One way to do so is as part of the CPO Bootcamp, where the participants learn the deep aspects of product strategy and get explicit guidance on building it for their own products.

Business Is Also Your Business

Your primary responsibility as a product leader is to drive the business success of the company through its product(s).

To do that, you must first and foremost be involved and understand all the business aspects of the product, including the business goals of the company and the reasoning behind them.

When I send my mentees to work with sales on understanding the customers and the market better, the discussion often gets very quickly into features that are missing in the product. In some cases, this seems to be a more comfortable place both for the product leader and the salesperson. It is very tangible and easy to discuss.

But it would miss on what you are really trying to achieve from such conversations.

In the first edition of Marty Cagan’s book ‘Inspired’, he said that for a product to succeed it must be valuable, usable, and feasible. It is only in the second edition (released in December 2017) that he added also ‘business viable’.

If it took Marty almost 10 years to address this important aspect of product leadership, no wonder many product leaders don’t understand that this is part of their role.

And unfortunately, since most CEOs are neither experienced product leaders nor have worked with one before, they won’t be able to tell you that this is your responsibility, let alone guide you in fulfilling it.

My recommendation for you is not to wait for someone to give you that explicit responsibility, because in most cases it would never come. Instead, start thinking from that perspective, and engage in discussions that provoke thinking of others about these topics. This is one of these things that you only understand how much it was missing after you started doing them.

The old saying (which I love) is that the product leader is the CEO of the product. I see it most in that as a product leader, anything related to the product is your business.

There is no such thing as irrelevant or not accountable when it comes to the product leader. When you get that everything is your business, don’t forget to include in that, well, the business side of the company.

The Dual Role of the Product Leader

When you look at the product leader’s role (code name: CPO) compared to their peers (namely CMO, CTO, CRO, CFO), the product leader’s role stands out. Everyone mentioned above (CPO included) has execution-related responsibilities, each in their own domain.

They all also are executives in the company, meaning that they are part of company-related decisions even when they are out of their direct responsibility. All of them have strategic responsibilities within their domain, but the product leader’s strategic responsibility goes all the way up to the company level — and crosses all domains.

The product strategy in a product company is not the strategy of the product department. It is much closer to the company strategy in how broad it is.

In fact, it should take the company strategy and bring it a few levels down, to make sure it makes sense even when you add details to it. If it doesn’t, it is the product leader’s responsibility to provoke the discussions that will likely end up in updating the company strategy.

It is not an easy role — both mentally and in practice. Coming up with a good strategy is hard (I’ll elaborate on that in a future article), and doing so when no one understands that this is what you should be doing is much harder.

Still, I believe there are many things you can do to make it easier. The first thing is understanding that this is your responsibility, even if no one told you so explicitly.

Don’t wait to be called upon the job, start doing it now. Make yourself comfortable in engaging in discussions that are out of the strict product domain. Ask hard questions.

One of the reasons the CPO Bootcamp is such a unique program is that the participants get to practice all the aspects of their role — including both professional skills and the variety of soft and mental skills needed in order to succeed in this amazing yet very challenging role.

Whether you are doing it yourself or as part of the CPO Bootcamp, remember that your role as a product leader is not to lead the company’s product. It is to lead the company through its products, and that’s a huge difference.

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Noa Ganot

Product-market fit expert and mentor of product executives. 20+ years of tech and product leadership roles. Formerly Head of Product @ eBay, VP Product @ Twiggle, Product Lead @ Imperva. Lecturer and author. https://www.ganotnoa.com/deep-product


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