There was some chatter a few weeks ago about the dearth of experienced product managers in innovation centers outside of Silicon Valley. It’s definitely true in the East Coast, and it hurts both very early stage companies (where the founder is usually the product leader) and scaling companies that need to bring on additional PM talent over time. It’s also a role that can create a lot of waste – after all, a product manager is neither building nor selling. So evaluating a great product leader is tough.
It got me thinking about the qualities of great product leaders and what can be learned from them and applied generally to others. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have met many strong product leaders – from the folks that I collaborated with at Ebay and Paypal, to Spark Portfolio Companies, to other entrepreneurs that I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with over the years. Below are a couple common characteristics I’ve observed:
1. A Winning Process: A new product is constructed through the efforts of multiple people collaborating to make progress with a variety of different tools. Creating a process that allows this to happen quickly, with a great result, and in a way that all players feel ownership and satisfaction is not easy. It’s especially difficult in a startup, where the unit of progress is not that obvious. Usually, the process that works at a well oiled company completely fails in an environment of uncertainty and experimentation.
2. Focus: As Chris Dixon noted, product managers are a commodity, but excellent product designers and decision-makers are rare. This is a very subjective thing, but I think it comes down to a product leader’s ability to prioritize the things that matter and focus their team along those vectors. This is the difference between a product team that magically creates something unique and interesting with limited resources and one that spins a lot of cycles to produce something generic. It’s as much about choosing what to say “no” to as it is about deciding what to actually do.
3. Metrics Obsessed Visionaries. This is perhaps the main reason why it’s hard to find great product leaders. The best ones out there have to combine two skills or personality traits that typically aren’t associated with each other. Great product leaders have an amazing sense of vision and intuition about where markets are going, how customer preferences will evolve, and how to delight end users with great usability. They totally get that relying on customers to tell you what to build has major limits and can yield uninspiring products. At the same time, most great product leaders are metrics obsessed. They have an unbelievably precise sense of the drivers of product success and have figured out how to measure and optimize against these drivers. Doing each of these well is really difficult in their own rights, and it’s really rare to find an individual who can do both.
This quick summary doesn’t really do justice to this topic, but is hopefully a good starting point. I’m going to start a new series over the next few weeks about great product leadership, and will be interviewing a bunch of folks that I respect as real pros in this field. Hope it’s beneficial, and I look forward to learning a ton through this myself. Stay tuned!