Modern product management is a relatively young discipline. There remains a lot of room for a final definition of what product management is and how it can be best organized.
At the same time, it is necessary to stake a claim as quickly as possible. Firstly, the career path for product managers needs properly establishing. Secondly, product management needs to be positioned as a ‘serious’ function at board and executive levels. The latter is also important to give product managers a sponsor at the right level.
What does it take for ambitious product leaders to become the peers of executives?
- Leave your comfort zone
Depending on your background, your comfort zone might be engineering, design or something else. To a certain extent you need to speak the language of executives to be taken seriously. And – I hate to say this – forget a little bit about your idealism. I experienced this when I was chief product officer at XING AG. There were many situations when I felt uncomfortable because peers asked me to also push business topics. Trying to focus on my function made me appear less senior than I was.
- Care about strategy
Challenge the company planning for future years. And if there is no planning yet, start working on it. Lead the process. Don’t let go. In one of my previous companies I was much too willing to accept what was available when I joined. Only after a senior corporate director came on board, did I realize what big unacceptable gaps in strategy I had previously ignored. By then valuable time was lost.
- Sell the value you are adding
The digital transformation is your chance. Never has there been more uncertainty about changes and how to address them. In a consultancy project for a client of mine I changed my attitude. Before, I felt uncomfortable because I was too different from the ‘mainstream’. My client helped me to make my value proposition even clearer by telling me why they had hired me for their project.
- Stay focused on your customers
See everything you do as service to your customers. Position yourself as the voice of the user. A good CEO will always appreciate customer insights. At Nokia, we were debating a lot around product – almost without a focus on our users. Nokia was a company with a certain distance from its customers at that time. During one presentation there was a product manager who had grounded her work in user interviews. And she became well respected by the VP.
Walk the talk. Be concrete, show prototypes, traction and excited users. Focus on quality and compromise on areas that are of minor importance. I am saying this after having produced thousands of PowerPoint slides. One person’s goal in enacting change at his company was to reduce the number of different security gloves used. He tried various methods, but only got a breakthrough when he put all the different glove models on the table of the board room. As they piled up on that table the executives were shocked and right away approved the cost-cutting proposal. This example shows how important it is to do things that are tangible and experiential.
Some of you might lose interest in an executive role after having read that. But reality bites. And it’s more than okay to only focus on delivering great products. Entering the executive ranks requires a change of attitude. Not everyone is up for that. Pick your battles!