The Product Leader’s Book of Problems — Problem I: You Have No Authority

Problem I: You Have No Authority


Curtis Savage

3 years ago | 9 min read

Table of Contents

Problem I: You Have No Authority

Problem II: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All

Problem III: The Uncertain World of Startups

Problem IV: Scaling Without Imploding

Problem V: The Complacent World of Enterprise

Introduction: The Product Leader’s Book of Problems

Product Managers solve problems. That’s what we do. We talk to people, try to understand their pain points, and develop solutions that solve those problems. If we solve the right problem in a valuable way, people actually pay us money, keep using our product and we keep our job. Sometimes we even get promoted. Of course, this is nothing new for most Product Managers. But here’s what is…

When Product Managers are promoted and first become Product Leaders, they find themselves in charge of managing people, not just things. Just when they thought they had mastered the art of solving problems, they realize — with muted panic and terror — that they’ve now inherited a whole new set of problems completely foreign to them.

A set of fuzzier problems that they are completely ill-equipped to deal with. Product leadership is more about leading people and less about writing code or managing project schedules. The leadership role is primarily characterized by soft skills as opposed to hard skills. This can be a very big adjustment for individual practitioners transitioning into leadership.

You can wait for the moment of panic described above (which I assure you, will come) or you can continue reading to remain master of your destiny.

Based on over a decade of experience managing and leading product teams across startup, emerging, and enterprise environments, I’ve put together an ordered list of the problems you will invariably encounter as you progress through your career.

Starting with the big universal problems that exist at every organization to the stage-specific problems that rear their ugly heads one-by-one as a company evolves from startup to enterprise, I will walk you through a snapshot, a crystal ball of sorts, of the problems your future-self will be dealing with as a Product Leader.

There are way too many to cram into a single post in any meaningful kind of way, so consider this the first post in what will become a blog series and your handy handbook: “The Product Leader’s Book of Problems.”

This is great news for you. You’ll be able to stay one step ahead of your next big problem as you pursue your product vision, navigating treacherous waters, slaying dragons, evoking awe, disbelief, respect and glory from developers to CEOs alike. Okay, let’s not get carried away. But, at the very least, you may be better prepared as you embark on your journey into product leadership and a little more sane at the end of it all.

Here’s the best part: access to this incredible one-time offer will only cost you $9.99/month. Okay, fine, it’s free. But your future-self better damned-well give me a few claps on Medium. I could be watching Tiger King right now.

Problem I: You have no authority

TL;DR Product Leaders have little formal authority in their organizations so they must develop strong Leadership and Soft Skills to gain influence and deliver successful outcomes.

To begin, before you even start your new role, the first and foremost problem you need to acknowledge is that your impressive-sounding new title — i.e. Head of Product, i.e. Chief Product Officer, i.e. Global Ruler of Product — is virtually meaningless. Well, maybe not quite meaningless, but your role has much less authority than the title suggests.

In reality, Product Leaders are responsible for the success of their product but have little authority over the people, resources, and assets needed to deliver a successful outcome. Put differently, people don’t have to do what you tell them since they don’t report to you, even if you yell at them. Especially, if you yell at them. Wait, what the #$&!?.

Joking aside, it’s important to emphasize that this is by far the most difficult problem you will need to solve as a Product Leader and learning the skills to solve this problem — how to influence people and achieve successful outcomes without formal authority — will take the better part, if not all, of your career.

The most successful Product Leaders understand this. They understand that tools, technologies, and methodologies are the easy straight-forward part. So don’t fall into the trap of endlessly arguing the merits of Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Scrum vs. Kanban vs. Scaled-Agile vs. Post-Agile vs. Lean vs. Star Trek II vs. Star Wars V…just please stop. Instead, focus on your biggest problem. Learn how to lead without authority by gaining influence and getting the best out of others. People will love working with you. You’ll deliver great products. The ocean will part. Your career will flourish.

But it’s not easy. It’s important to remember that the product is not just a set of features on your roadmap. At least, not from the customer’s perspective. From the customer’s perspective, the product goes well beyond a set of features and encompasses the holistic end-to-end experience.

You need to start thinking about the product as everything from how you talk about the product to how you acquire customers to how you close those customers to how you support those customers. Are you starting to see the problem? We aren’t just talking about how to get the best out of your core product team of designers, developers and product managers; we’re talking about the wider organization (and perhaps the known universe itself).

So just how do you get the best out of everyone that touches your product while navigating black holes and traversing through time? In addition to your core Product team, how do you get Sales, Marketing, Ops, and Finance teams all aligned, jazzed-up about your vision, and eager to support you? Your product could have the best features in the world, but if your Marketing team is putting out the wrong message, or your Sales team is promising the impossible, or your Customer Support team takes days to get back to people, then the customer could have a poor experience — and be forever lost to the vacuum of space. And that tragedy, my friend, is not on Dave from Sales.

That is on you. Doesn’t sound fair, does it? Sometimes it’s not.

But you’re the Product Leader now and you need to solve it — all without authority. Having fun yet?

The Solution: Leadership and Soft Skills

So how do you approach this quagmire?

TL;DR: Buy people donuts and show them cute photos of your puppy.

If that fails, then resort to Plan B. Buy them more donuts. And then develop your Leadership and Soft Skills. As mentioned, Product leaders need to lead by influence since they have no authority and achieving your goals requires the application of exceptional Leadership and Soft Skills. Put simply, you need to gain authority through your actions, not your title.

Entire books are written on how to develop Leadership and Soft Skills (and you should read them). In the meantime, here’s what you need to know to get you started.

Product Leadership

Product Leadership is all about helping people be their best by motivating, focusing, and uniting them around a common goal. You need to articulate a clear vision, rally everyone behind that vision, and define a clear path on how you’re going to arrive there.

It requires getting people excited and keeping them engaged because they see the vision and feel like they own a piece of it. This makes them eager to collaborate, co-create, and deliver an amazing solution with you.

Leadership means understanding and playing to your team’s strengths and weaknesses. It also means positively resolving conflict as it arises from differences of opinion and always guiding the team toward the end-goal, ensuring everyone is bought-in and onboard for the ride. And yes, it means dealing with all of the messy people problems.

The best Product Leaders are “Servant Leaders” who put the needs of their teams (and customers) first. In short, true leadership is about selflessly getting the best out of others to achieve your vision.

Soft Skills

Soft skills are the other key ingredients you need to build influence within your organization. They include any skill that helps you influence others and gain consensus. Communication, active listening, negotiation, persuasion, lobbying, presentation and collaboration are all key soft skills every Product Leader should learn and consciously practice.

As a Product Leader, you are caught between senior stakeholders and the Product team. You need to be able to communicate upwards, downwards and even outwards to other departments and customers.

At times you’ll feel like you’re playing a game Twister. You’ll need to be able to manage a lot of friction as competing priorities and various feature requests start coming your way from all directions. But it should be noted, eliminating friction isn’t the goal here. Friction is actually good. And with the right Soft Skills in your tool kit, you can manage the friction in a healthy, non-escalating, depoliticized, and productive way, using it to help your team grow and produce better outcomes.

The best place to start is with solid communication, bordering on over-communication, which can be tricky for Product Leaders coming from more technical backgrounds. Strong communication relies primarily on active listening to ensure you fully understand others and they fully understand you. Next time you’re in a conversation, especially a difficult conversation, try listening intently, speaking less, and playing back the message you think you heard.

Chances are you’ll have a much more meaningful, productive, two-sided conversation. Also, remember to choose your words extra carefully to ensure others understand you at all times. As you transition into a leadership position and become more senior, you will find your words carry much more weight so choose your words extra carefully to ensure others understand you at all times. You never want to be misunderstood.

Oh yes, and keep your cool. You may become frustrated, but losing your cool is the quickest way to lose respect and influence within your organization. Show equanimity and grace under fire. Stay calm and gain people’s admiration at how you handle difficult situations. Do this enough and you’ll not only create a safe space for you and your team to be your best, but you’ll see your influence grow in leaps and bounds.

Putting It Into Practice

If you’re an individual practitioner with limited experience leading people and have traditionally focused on hard skills over soft skills up until this point in your career, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed right now. You shouldn’t. Many leaders lack at least some of these skills (and, sadly, some lack many).

There’s absolutely no way you’ll be a pro at all of these out of the gate, but don’t sweat it. Both Leadership and Soft Skills are very much learned. Very few people are born natural-born leaders. If you make an earnest commitment to improving, you’ll already be well ahead of the pack

. With enough practice, these skills will naturalize and gradually become habits and you’ll develop a reputation for being a strong leader and communicator, earning more respect, trust, and ultimately, influence at your organization.

Final Thoughts

Leading without authority is not easy and not for the faint of heart. However, the “command-and-control” style of leadership is becoming obsolete anyway so consider yourself lucky that you’re ahead of the curve. Your formal lack of authority ensures you can’t get lazy and rely on your title to get things done. Instead, you have to practice true leadership and become a “Servant Leader”, always putting the needs of your team and the customer first.

The most experienced Product Leaders understand their formal lack of authority and work extra hard at developing the leadership and soft-skills needed to lead by influence. By doing this, they build strong relationships founded on mutual respect and trust across the organization, and slowly, but surely, carve out more influence for themselves and their team so they can successfully deliver amazing products and achieve their goals.

Think of yourself as an Orchestrator. You may have a masterpiece in your head, but that’s where it will remain unless you have the Leadership and Soft Skills needed to conduct your orchestra and make it a reality. So do yourself a favour. Learn these skills and go create something beautiful with your team.

Further Reading

Problem I: You Have No Authority

Problem II: One Product Approach Does Not Fit All

Problem III: The Uncertain World of Startups

Problem IV: Scaling Without Imploding

Problem V: The Complacent World of Enterprise

This article was originally published by Curtis savage on medium.


Created by

Curtis Savage

Product Leader based in Toronto, Canada







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