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How to Lead a High-performing Product Team "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 10 March 2020 True Cross-Functional Team, Product leader, Product leadership, product leadership skills, Product Management Skills, team building, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1525 Product Management 6.1
· 7 minute read

How to Lead a High-performing Product Team

As a product leader, what qualities do you need to cultivate to be able to ensure your team performs to the best of its abilities?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about teams – what is a team, team formation and development, cross-functional teams, and leading teams. I think we can all agree that not all teams, or organisations in which teams form and operate, are equal, so there is no single template to follow.

But, there are real challenges in forming a team when the utopia for teams, particularly in the product world, is painted as teams that are somewhat self-organising, highly cross-functional, and where decision making is heavily devolved. These challenges include talent and personnel, teams vs communities of practice, resource constraints or shared resources, geographical distribution, processes and tools, consistency versus self organisation, organisational culture and politics, the role of leadership and so on.

While this was on my mind, I watched a movie, “All The President’s Men” – from 1979 – with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal. It contains a line that epitomises how I, and I think many leaders, feel.

In the film, Ben Bradlee (played by Jason Robards), executive editor of the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein’s boss, has a meeting with the two journalists where he says: “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, so I need to trust them… I have a hard time trusting anyone.” As product leaders, or leaders of product teams (aka product managers), or leaders of any team or individual for that matter, we can’t (and shouldn’t) do people’s job for them. So we need to trust them, and sometimes that is hard. But if we don’t, we risk a lot going wrong.

There are a few takeaways from my own experiences and some observations of the leadership shown by Ben Bradlee over the course of the film when trying to enable autonomous high performing teams. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered about leading teams, and creating an environment where people can accomplish some great work.

1. A Leader has to Give Trust

Let’s start with the idea of trust in the Ben Bradlee quote. They say trust needs to be earned, and while that may be true, as a leader trust is either something you give or you don’t give. A person could do everything right, but giving trust is a bit like faith – it requires a step into the unknown at some point. And let’s be honest, giving trust and therefore in some ways control, can be scary. Some leaders, including me at times, struggle with it.

Therefore, whether trust exists or not has a lot to do with us and how we choose to lead. And the fact is, not every person on your team is the same, and so your style should adjust accordingly. One tool that I was introduced to very early in my career was this situational leadership model (a good short summary video here).

This is about finding the right tool or approach for the job. Just because we say we don’t want to be micromanagers for example, that doesn’t mean that, in some situations with some people, micro management isn’t needed. Levels of trust and perhaps scope differ in each quadrant and can change as individuals move through the leadership styles as a result of both relationship development, and performance/competency.

2. A Leader has to Give Feedback

Next let’s talk about feedback. Early in “All The President’s Men” the journalists present a draft of their story on the Watergate cover up. Bradlee takes his red pen to the article, asking questions about source, crossing things out, challenging directly and asking – “where’s the story?”. Redford and Hoffman’s characters ask themselves that question continually throughout the film, it spurs them to really dig and get as many facts and as much colour as they can.

I prefer to use the word critique instead of feedback. For me critique denotes a stronger, more detailed analytical assessment of a piece of work or an area of performance. It should be clear and timely and above all it should be expected. When teams and individuals know they will receive feedback, and can give it in return, they’re more likely to feel comfortable making decisions. They understand that they’re supported, even if at times the critique might be hard to hear.

There is however, I believe, a law of diminishing returns that applies squarely to feedback or critique. Firstly, we all need to be able to have difficult conversations – as giver and receiver. It’s unnatural, it can hurt, and it definitely requires practice. That said, when discussing a piece of work, or deliverable, or a decision, at some point you hit a law of diminishing returns on that critique, and you stray into either doing the job yourself or asking someone to magically mirror your mental model of the world. At this point, it’s time to have trust (and perhaps a little faith). Additional feedback/critique can be given retrospectively where there are more data points to leverage.

3. A Leader has to Show Empathy

A third element, in my experience, of enabling autonomous high performing is that of empathy. In the movie, when things aren’t going so well, Bradlee tells a story about when he was a reporter, and describes mistakes he’d made. He gives Woodward and Bernstein reassurance about their current challenges so they can keep making progress. This encapsulates the idea so prevalent in team utopia that failure is okay, and failure is learning.

For me, it’s also about being human and showing some vulnerability as a leader. It’s easy to forget that we’re all imperfect human beings working in imperfect organisations on things that aren’t an exact science. By acknowledging our own failures we give permission for our teams to acknowledge theirs. That is when learning can take place.

However, learning through failure and failing due to poor working practices or behaviours aren’t the same thing. So my next point is critical to leading teams through heavily delegated decision making – it’s all about performance and measurement.

4. A Leader has to Instil Accountability

For individuals or teams to have greater decision-making autonomy, they need to be highly accountable to the outcomes and results of their decisions and work. And not just the results, but how they go about their work and the impact they have on those around them. I’ve seen misaligned objectives, too much “just in time” anything, people telling others how to do their job, failure to hit commitments, poor stakeholder management and so on, create chaos, poor behaviour across the organisation and infighting.

In my experience, there are a few key things required to solve this: well-formed objectives that are shared by cross-functional teams; some mechanism and cadence for reviewing objectives and progress, while making them completely transparent to as broad an audience as possible; feedback, through one-to-ones, peer feedback etc; and, finding appropriate reward and consequences that flow from performance. This is an area we’ve worked hard on in the past year or so and still don’t have it exactly right.

When people are accountable for their performance and feel supported in achieving their goals, they will make good decisions more often than not, and learn from them more effectively when things go wrong.

While Ben Bradlee and the Watergate journalists had the ability to make decisions on the story they chased and how they articulated it, they were also completely accountable. They failed along the way, and may have failed altogether, but they owned it, they reviewed progress, learned from their own and their colleagues’ experiences, and delivered something remarkable.

As a leader, what does this boil down to? I read somewhere once that as a product leader “your team is your product”. My interpretation of this is that I’m constantly looking to optimise my team to achieve a set of outcomes, and deliver great products that customers value, against the backdrop of the business strategy. We adjust the portfolio mix, we adjust the resource allocation, we manage talent, we train and coach people, we improve tools and processes to be faster, more effective and more efficient. Ultimately, we strive to create an environment where groups of talented individuals can make great things happen by feeling trusted and supported, striving to achieve stretch goals, and being more autonomous in their decision making.

Whether you’ve got your version of team utopia or something else entirely, people really are the greatest asset to a business, and we must harness the creativity, passion and intellect that each person brings to the table.

In my experience, this is hard. But, in the words of Ben Bradlee: “Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up…. then get your asses back in gear.” Cultivating your team through trust, feedback, empathy, and accountability will make all the difference.

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