I looked him straight into the eyes. He looked back at me.
We didn’t say a single word. No one dared to move.
Everything was still for 5 mins.
What sounds like a plot to the latest John Grisham crime novel was actually a way to hack leadership. But… let’s start at the beginning: On a June day in Hamburg, Germany, a select group of product leaders met to exchange fresh insights, discuss bold opinions and create new memories.
Sharing a meal is the best way to get a conversation started so hosts Petra Wille and Arne Kittler, began this year’s leadership forum by inviting everyone to lunch. Then, we headed into an agenda that promised to deal with great expectations, hacking leadership and bringing clarity to chaos (and vice versa).
Here are some of our key lessons:
Performance management: To become, you need to do
Product managers expect clear guidance on what is expected of them to excel at their role and to achieve promotion. Thor Mitchell, Head of Product at Miro, talked about how he implements, evaluates and evolves the competency framework for his product managers. Performance management is a game of titles, compensation, grades and promotions, he’s found.
It is also about supporting the development of your team by providing a clear path for progression, continuous feedback on progress and maintaining the team’s morale and self worth. It’s about investing in people, retaining high performers and addressing under performance.
As leaders, we must coach product managers:
- to develop their skills,
- so that they earn the trust of stakeholders,
- so that they manage higher impact initiatives.
The form of such impact then reveals a product manager’s competency level. From Melissa Perri’s book Escaping the Build Trap, we know there are three forms of impact:
While less experienced product managers deliver impact mostly on a tactical level, the more senior deliver significant operational and strategic impact too. The most senior product people won’t have much tactical impact to focus on operations and strategy.
Before writing detailed competency profiles, you must first understand what “competency” is. For product people, it means a range of skills from easy to teach to hard to teach:
- Tools (JIRA, Trello, Asana, ProdPad…)
- Processes (Scrum, OKRs, JTBD, Kano…)
- Techniques (writing user stories, managing a backlog, writing status updates …)
- Competencies (leadership, communication, analysis, strategy …)
- Character traits (humility, empathy, mindset …)
After looking at how other growth-stage product-led companies such as Uber, AirBNB and Slack use their competency levels (check levels.fyi for that), Miro decided on 10 different competency levels: APM 1, APM2, PM1, PM2, Senior PM, Group PM, Director of Product, Senior Director of Product, VP of Product, Senior VP of Product, Chief Product Officer. Each level is associated with clear expectations, and a product manager needs to know and do what’s expected in order to fulfil each role.
Alignment is a spectrum: Focus on clarity
The next speaker, joining remotely, was Mind the Product’s Managing Director Emily Tate. In her talk, Emily reflected on the story of Mind the Product, what it means to create focus and clarity within a team and how easy this is to lose:
In an ideal state, our teams understand WHERE to go and WHY. Emily calls this the state of conscious clarity. If neither is clear, we have to go back to the basics to work on vision, mission and strategy. Most often, it’s the states in between that our teams slip into once clarity starts to fade.
If there is implicit alignment, teams move in the right direction but aren’t able to answer why they are doing what they’re doing. Everyone has different ideas. In that case, it’s time to document the vision, mission and strategy. But if there is unconscious misalignment, teams understand the WHY but don’t work in the same direction. They have different views on how to achieve the product vision. For that scenario, Emily recommends tightening up product principles.
Product principles are specific and actionable rules which are a manifestation of our vision. Without clear product principles, teams miss a framework for their decision making. Clarity isn’t just a vision. It requires anchors, such as A-over-B statements.
Clarity isn’t a destination, says Emily. It requires constant care and paradoxically it’s easier to reach clarity during hard times: While good times allow people to chase after various opportunities, hard times force focus. So, a little exercise to gain more clarity is to ask ourselves: “What would I do if half of my budget gets cut tomorrow?”.
Hacking leadership: The habit of 5 bases
The last session of the day was “Hacking leadership”, and was a different kind of session – not a talk but a session with facilitator Esther Blázquez Blanco and musician Christophe Stoll. Esther asked us whether we are actually living everything we know, and then guided the group through an experience to explore their own wisdom and human connections.
While it was unexpected and involved doing things that most of us are not used to (like looking a stranger in the eyes for 5 minutes straight), all participants opened up to this unique experience and walked away with the habit of 5 bases:
- Presence: There is no better gift for a human being than to offer our presence.
- Redemption: When there is a conflict, there is someone suffering. We should ask ourselves “What do I need to leave behind, so that I can move forward?”.
- Recognition: A leader is not someone focused on shining or inspiring others. A leader is someone who wants you to shine.
- Legacy: What do we want to leave in the world, not just for our children but for the children of the children of the employees we don’t even know?
To summarise, if you can’t decide or look for an answer of what a leader would do, this is the key thing to remember:
- Share what you love: A leader is someone who shares what they love.
More great content from #mtpEngage Hamburg to come
Write-ups of the conference keynote and session speaker talks will become available to members on the site in the coming weeks. We also look forward to hearing what you thought of this year’s #mtpEngage (you can send your own write-ups to firstname.lastname@example.org) and hope you’ll agree that it feels that, despite the difficulties of the past few years, our product community has never been stronger.