When it comes to product leadership style there’s no one size fits all. Undoubtedly, the leadership style you employ will depend on your experience, your team, and the environment and/organisation in which you work. Hopefully, yours is working well, but what if it’s not?
Here we talk to three experienced product leaders — Cait O’Riordan, Tanya Cordrey, and Tim Herbig — who draw from their own experience to discuss their understanding of leadership style, how to diagnose a problem, and how to develop and adapt your style to suit the situation.
- All leaders have a style — Daniel Goleman claims the best leaders choose the appropriate type of leadership in order to best “address the demands of a particular situation”
- If your leadership needs some work, it might be that you have to unlearn some past behaviours to become better equipped to lead empowered teams
- One of the starkest challenges for product leaders is that most often the people in our teams don’t work for us — instead, we find we must lead by “consent of the governed”
- If you want to know how people rate your leadership, you need to actively ask for feedback
- Remember to be human and to reveal who you are — being open about how you work and communicate best can help to significantly reduce the risk of misunderstandings
Meet the leaders
Cait O’Riordan is currently Chief Product and Information Officer at the Financial Times, was previously VP of Product at Shazam and devised the BBC’s digital strategy for the London 2012 Olympics. In 2017 she ranked 9th among the UK’s 100 most influential CIOs.
Tanya Cordrey previously led the Guardian’s global engineering, product, UX and data teams and now works closely with many product teams and product leaders. She is on the board of various companies and heads up Europe for AKF Partners, a US technology and product consultancy with clients such as Amazon, Pixar and Walmart as well as VC and PE firms such as Silverlake or Sequoia.
Tim Herbig is a veteran Product Leader, who held roles as a Product Manager and Head of Product at a broad range of startups and corporates for more than 10 years. Now, he works as a Product Coach with companies all over Europe on helping Product teams to become the best version of themselves. He’s also the author of Lateral Leadership.
Know your style
Being a leader is not easy and perfecting your style of leadership – how you provide direction, implement plans, and motivate people – takes time. Some leaders are naturals, others have to really work at it. While some will do an exemplary job, others will not.
Research the subject “leadership” and you’ll find many articles, guides, and ideas on what good leadership looks like, including Leadership That Gets Results by Daniel Goleman.
In it, Goleman claims the best leaders choose the appropriate type of leadership in order to best “address the demands of a particular situation”. He outlines six distinct styles that those leaders move between:
- Coercive: Demands immediate compliance
- Authoritative: Mobilises people towards a vision
- Coaching: Develops people for the future
- Democratic: Forges consensus through participation
- Pacesetting: Sets high standards for performance
- Affiliative: Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds
As Tim Herbig explains, many of us will, by nature, associate more with some of these styles than with others. “It’s interesting to be aware of which type you’re mostly affiliated with,” he says. But he advises against being too rigid about sticking within those types. Instead, he says, your style must be adaptive, especially in Product where you have no authority and have to lead by influence and adapt to the stakeholders around you, something he explains in his book, Lateral Leadership.
For Tanya, the foundation of your overall leadership style comes down to understanding what you like, what you’re good at and being very realistic about yourself and your skills as a leader. When you know that, she says, “you can complement those skills by making sure that you have other people in your team, who are really brilliant at the things you’re not so great at”.
Step one is being able to recognise the styles you use and to diagnose whether or not they’re working.
Diagnosing problems with your leadership
Perhaps your natural style of leadership has served you well so far but also, perhaps not. As Tanya Cordrey explains: “If you have a happy team that’s smashing its revenue targets out of the park and, put simply, everything’s working brilliantly well, it’s unlikely that you need to change anything about your leadership style.” On the other hand, survivorship bias may make you think that you’ve achieved the level and position you have precisely because of your leadership style, when unlearning some of those past behaviours and styles may actually leave you better equipped to lead empowered teams and take on the new challenges of leadership.
Or, if you’re a product leader who knows deep down that things aren’t quite going to plan, your style and approach might need a review and there are likely to be some signs that your leadership isn’t quite hitting the mark.
For Tim, one, in particular, is clear. “When conversations have become one-sided and people stop challenging what you’re telling them – whether it’s intentional or not, this can be a sign that you have an intimidating attitude. It’s a big red flag,” he says, especially if those who seem unable to give feedback or challenge are your more senior product people. “There are many reasons why Associate Product Managers at the beginning of their career might be less talkative and instead default to listening and receiving information. But even then, and especially when you’re dealing with senior people, if they’ve given up challenging you, that’s a problem.”
Other indications that your leadership style isn’t achieving the desired outcome, include:
- Terrible relations with stakeholders
- Internal unrest in your team
- Poor and slow delivery
- Broken lines of communication
- An avoidance of confrontation (and that there’s a confrontation to be avoided!)
If some of these feel a little close to home, don’t panic, you’re not alone. No leader is 100% perfect 100% of the time.
“Almost every product leader I meet is struggling with the same problem,” says Tanya. “There’s always a leader who has real problems with stakeholder relations, or who struggles with their relationship with their CEO and their fellow exec team. And you have the product leader who has a team, but frankly the delivery is not what it should be and that’s often around pace.”
Some leaders will openly admit that they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to leading people, while others will plug on regardless, and this is dangerous.
As Richard Banfield, Mind the Product’s own Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw explain in their book Product Leadership, leaders who are defensive about their approach – especially if it’s not working – can “unknowingly derail projects or hurt their colleagues, without even meaning to.” Spotting the signs of a problem is therefore a good thing and overcoming problems is possible.
Cait O’Riordan learnt early on in her career that authenticity is the most important part of leading a successful team, and it was from that point in time that her leadership began to evolve.
Working as Head of Product at the BBC on the 2012 Olympics Games, she recalls attempting to mirror a leadership style she saw being used across the organisation but admits that it just wasn’t her, and simply did not work. “At that time, in 2010, there was this very directive, leadership style that I tried to emulate – I was very robust and tough with people,” she says. “One of the senior designers came to me and said ‘Cait are you going to continue beating us until morale improves?’ and my heart just sank. That was a real wake-up call for me.”
Cait describes this as her “leadership baptism of fire”. From there she worked hard to hone her own style, one where she could make clear her expectations while being kind, and taking into account the various experiences of her team members. Two years after she received that feedback, she delivered a product for the 2012 Games that proved the style of leadership she’d started out with just isn’t necessary in order to create products that people love.
“You can bring people along with you without adopting this very top-down leadership style of ranting and shouting to get things done. Being kind doesn’t mean that you are going to fail.”
Consent of the governed
One of the starkest challenges for product leaders is that most often the people in our teams don’t work for us, so a coercive or authoritative style will probably not work. Instead, we must realise that we lead by “consent of the governed” – the idea that our leadership legitimacy and moral right to direct work is only justified when consented to by the people over which that power is exercised. And for us to gain that consent – we have to earn it.
Asking for feedback
As any good product person knows, feedback is crucial, and for Cait as a leader it was a catalyst for change. But, in the absence of a brave team member who’s ready to point out your shortcomings, you’re unlikely to be handed such genuine feedback on a plate. “You have to actively go out and seek it,” says Cait.
At the Financial Times (FT), where Cait has been Chief Product and Information Officer since 2016, this process involves a mixture of 360-degree feedback (twice a year), Ask Me Anything sessions, asking directly for feedback (always providing the option to do so anonymously), and publicly reinforcing the value of feedback within the organisation.
“In response to the Black Lives Matter protests recently, I was given feedback that we weren’t responding fast enough and so I made sure I thanked my team and acknowledged that the feedback had been very useful to me, even though it might have been hard to hear,” says Cait. “I think you have to give examples of where feedback has changed your behaviour, because then I think people are more likely to give it.”
That feedback can also come from other leaders, people in the community whom you trust and respect. If you’re grappling with a problem at work, take it to a safe space where you can talk openly about the challenges you’re facing and get feedback from people you trust.
“I have drawn a lot of strength from building networks of colleagues that I can learn from,” says Cait, who has regular Zoom catch-ups with other women in leadership roles. “That has been really useful for me, because these are people I respect, whom I’ve worked with, and who are going through a similar thing to me at the same time.”
Ultimately, when you fail to get the results you want, Barry O’Reilly, author of Unlearn, asks, what’s your natural reaction? In his recent Mind the Product APAC talk, he said: “Do you blame someone else, do you blame the other team, or do you own the results and think about what you can do differently to impact the outcome?” People who are great “unlearners”, he explains, know how to take ownership of the results and challenge their own thinking and leadership style when it’s not working.
Consider your communication
In situations where feedback is being offered or requested in a one-on-one setting, rather than anonymously, those conversations must be approached with care.
Tim suggests you research the art of asking for feedback before you’re in a situation where you have to do it. “You don’t want to start things off by saying ‘hey there was a situation where your behaviour irritated me and this was the result’.” Instead, he says, you should be looking for good guidance and he recommends the book Radical Candor as a helpful place to start. “So many of us are caught in the false belief that you have to do the ‘shit sandwich’ – say one nice thing, then a bad thing followed by a nice thing – but this book shows that doesn’t work and can help you to facilitate and structure those conversations.”
The medium through which you give and receive feedback is important too. Right now, most of our communication is done via one digital form or another and so the medium you choose needs to be carefully considered.
In Tim’s opinion, face-to-face communication is always best when the topic is emotional or involves ego. “In these situations, the more synchronistic the communication has to be,” he says. “It should always be face-to-face or, if remote, go for a video call.”
Get the medium or delivery wrong, and you could leave yourself open to a world of pain.
In her whitepaper Misunderstood: Solving Digital Miscommunication at Work, Erica Dhawan, CEO of Cotential, explains that digital miscommunication happens all the time, and it’s expensive, especially for leaders. She describes how United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz tweeted an apology for the infamous video of a passenger being forced off a plane. While the apology was the right response, Munoz’s words she says “rang hollow”, were “poorly-timed” and lacked empathy.
Reveal who you are
Quite often, friction between a leader and their team members can also be down to simple misinterpretations of intent and style.
Perhaps you like to get into the details of things and do so by asking lots of questions or challenging ideas that could appear critical. Maybe, like Tim, you won’t respond to messages around 3pm on certain weekdays because you’re collecting your child from daycare. Without this context, it might seem to the person sending the message that it’s simply been ignored when, in fact, there’s nothing personal at play.
Being open about how you work and communicate best can help to significantly reduce the risk of misunderstandings like this, says Tim. “I’ve found user manuals to be helpful when I’ve consulted with new direct reports and in previous jobs. It’s essentially a handbook about myself and how I work.”
This simple tool can draw your team’s attention to your working preferences and typical behaviours. Here’s are a few example questions and answers:
|The conditions you work best in||Quiet, private space. If I don’t seem available because you haven’t seen me, feel free to Slack me – I’m probably hiding out!|
|How you like to communicate||For anything quick, Slack but for anything that requires discussion – in person or on a call. I’m told I can appear abrupt via Slack messages – it’s not intentional, feel free to call me out if this is the impression I give you – I’m working on it.|
|Your working hours||I start my working day early (7.30am) but – Warning! – I do inbox admin in the evenings – please note that I do not expect a reply to emails sent out of your working hours|
|How you like to receive feedback||I’m very open to feedback – don’t feel you have to sugarcoat it. However, I would prefer it to be given in a private, 1-2-1 setting.|
These simple pieces of information can, for example, be the difference between being considered a “coercive” leader – one demanding immediate compliance – and someone who simply does their email admin out of working hours.
“Me not replying around 3pm doesn’t mean that I’m angry or mad. It’s just the way I have to communicate during this time period,” says Tim, “having a user manual in place can help to avoid those implicit assumptions.” It works the other way around too. Ask your team to create manuals so that you can see where possible clashes could occur. It’s a quick and easy way to make sure they don’t and to understand your team, how they work and who they are.
Adapting to different situations
Of course, as Goleman explains in his article, the best leaders won’t employ one style of leadership all the time. Instead, they’ll be skilled at several and flexible enough to switch between them as and when the circumstances dictate. This could be in response to the company you work for, the team you lead, the circumstances in which you’re working, and even, as we’ve all recently discovered, changes in the world at large.
Leading through uncertainty
Take COVID-19, our new normal. Right now we live and work in a world of widespread uncertainty. For many organisations, big and small, certainty is simply no longer an option. So how can you, as a leader, adapt to best effect?
For Cait, in the current environment, it means being more vulnerable. “I’ve definitely had to show a lot more of my own personality. I have to continuously admit that I don’t have all the answers, when previously I think I was able to be incredibly certain,” a response that’s been well-received by her team. In being honest and expressing uncertainty it has made them feel better.
“They’ve seen that I’m not this all-seeing being,” she says, “and again, this comes back to authenticity because if I was to stand up and pretend that I knew all the answers right now, it wouldn’t be authentic, people just wouldn’t believe me.”
Most of the time, it’s not going to be a worldwide shift that leaders need to worry about. Instead, the need will be to adapt to a new team, a new organisation and potentially a new domain. If your leadership skills are sound and you’re good at your practice, this transition will be easier.
For Cait, not having domain knowledge provided a quick learning experience when she moved from sport and news at the BBC to music at Shazam.
“My fear when going into Shazam was that I wouldn’t be able to work in a commercial organisation, but that was actually fine and my product skills were good. However, I didn’t have domain knowledge,” and this she says, made the transition process feel like she was wading through treacle. As a result, the advice she now gives all of the people she mentors is that when you start a new job, get ready to learn and make tough decisions quickly.
“Ask every single stupid question that you can think of in the first six months and spend your entire time learning the business because that’s the thing that is going to be difficult,” she says. “It’s OK to say when you don’t know stuff. Don’t try and bluff it. Make sure that you are learning and that you are visibly learning and that you learn very quickly so that you can own your domain.”
After those six months, she says, your grace period will be over and people will expect you to know your stuff. However, if you need to restructure a team, or make decisions on people who aren’t performing in their roles, these decisions are ones you, as a leader, have to be willing to make fairly quickly, and it can be hard work to marry the two sides. “Make those changes relatively quickly as soon as you have enough knowledge to be able to do it, because it only gets harder, the longer you wait,” says Cait.
“I’ve talked a lot about treating people with respect and being authentic, but you do still have to make very very difficult decisions. If you don’t think something is set up right or that the people that you’ve got aren’t right, fix that as quickly as possible. It becomes less personal if you do it when you first come in.”
Your style as a leader is exactly that – it’s yours. Don’t worry if you lead differently from others, or if your leadership style doesn’t fit neatly into a Goleman mould. The important thing about your leadership style is that it works and results in a happy, high-performing team.
As Banfield, Eriksson, and Walkingshaw say in their book Product Leadership, “Leaders don’t always look like you expect them to. There are plenty of leadership styles, so find the one that plays to your strengths. Some leaders lead by example; others, with charismatic personalities or by putting their team’s needs first. Whatever you choose, make sure it resonates with who you are. Trying to be something you’re not is exhausting and unsustainable. Great leaders are always true to who they are.”
Take time to recognise what styles of leadership come naturally to you and, if your current style isn’t working, explore others. Be mindful of where you need to flex and adapt to new and different situations and be comfortable in the knowledge that it’s ok to not have the answer all the time – just don’t pretend you do when you don’t.
As product leaders we need to earn our team’s trust, so invite feedback from your team and your peers, then learn from the feedback they give you. And consider your communication too. What it says about your leadership style might not be representing you accurately.
Finally, we know being a product leader is tough and often feels like a lonely task, but as an MTP Leader, it doesn’t have to feel that way.
If you’d like to link up with other leaders, you can. Visit your community discussion platform where you can chat with other product leaders about strategy, hiring, managing upwards, and more.
You might also like to:
- Read: Designing and Using Your Product Leadership Scorecard by Ross Webb
- Watch: How to Apply Lateral Leadership in Agile Environments, by Tim Herbig
- Listen: The Invisible Leader: Facilitation Secrets – Elena Astilleros on The Product Experience