What are the key leadership qualities that inspire teams to build amazing digital products?
Building great products is a difficult and complex job — but also fascinating. It requires a bold vision and, at the same time, a strong connection with reality: successful Digital Product Managers are both visionaries and pragmatists — they are strategic thinkers and have the ability to see product opportunities when others are ‘lost’ in ambiguity.
In fact, I prefer using ‘leadership’ over ‘management’ in the context of digital product development: True Product Leaders don’t just manage a product; they envision great digital products and features out of the blue; they spot those critical differences between a superior product and an average one; they know how to build a software product from scratch — how to handle ambiguity and shape the scope; where to focus and how to prioritize features in a smart and strategic way.
Talented Digital Product Leaders make epic things happen — by releasing the right instances of their product, in the right order and at the right time. They act as the ‘CEO of the product’ — they bring a bold vision, the strategy, and the ambition to deliver value to end-users, customers, and stakeholders — while using the corporate resources wisely.
More specifically, in a digital context, effective product leadership requires a wide range of skills and competencies, spanning across technology and commercial domains. Regardless of the actual title — Digital Product Manager, Product Architect, Chief Product Officer, etc. — true Product Leaders tend to have the following nine abilities and talents.
1. Product & User Sense
Thinking in terms of digital products is not as easy as it may sound. After 20 years in the technology innovation and software product development space, I’ve witnessed many promising ideas and concepts failing due to insufficient framing, definition, or work prioritization. I’ve met teams struggling to understand the notion of a digital product — and how it is different from a project. In other cases, great concepts were abandoned simply due to the limited ability of the team to see the ‘big picture’ and ‘how to get there’: the software product development process — and especially the agile, iterative approach — is often misunderstood, and thus, not applied in the right way.
Having the ability to define concrete, coherent products with high business potential is a rare skill. Good Product Leaders have the talent to ‘easily’ obtain a holistic, strategic view of what the right product might be for a given problem space; they can identify the riskier assumptions and they know how to test them, learn and adapt; they define what success looks like with clarity, and set the measurement framework that helps the team to execute fast — in a truly agile fashion.
Having good product sense also requires the ability to think ‘as a user’: Succesful Product Leaders demonstrate a ‘user mentality’ and use empathy to relate to user problems, frequent customer needs, and stakeholder expectations; they are able to feel the pain points and deeply understand the problem and the ecosystem in which it exists.
The define a product with clarity implies an increased ability to capture and process the wider ‘landscape’ — that is, the key players in the market, their differentiators, the current monetization models, the involved technology, and the partner ecosystem.
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2. Innovation Mindset
Successful Product Leaders realize the value of innovation for product development and establish the right processes to empower a special culture — fostering ideas sharing, collaboration, creativeness, and experimentation. Mastering innovation practices and tools (such as design thinking, design sprints, idea assessment, prioritization rapid prototyping, and validation methods) is essential for this role.
Additionally, Product Leaders have the mechanisms to deal with ‘failure’ — they accept it as part of the innovation process and as a source of learning — in the context of continuous improvement. They encourage their team to take risks and ‘fail-safe, fail-fast’ as part of a fast-paced, ongoing product innovation process.
3. Entrepreneurial Thinking
Product Leaders demonstrate a special mindset that sets the basis for success: they are enthusiastic about designing and building products people love; they are always looking for opportunities to create value and solve big problems in novel and effective ways; they are driven by impact and innovation, but at the same time they stay connected to reality via clear objectives and systematic measurement of performance and success — after all, they have to also deliver value for the business.
To have a successful career in product management, you need big thinking but also awareness of the business, commercial, and technological constraints — along with the priorities imposed by user demand and needs. As the ‘CEO of the product,’ you will have to balance what users need, what creates a significant business potential for the company, and how to best build it with the available corporate resources (e.g. technology, talent, financial resources).
4. Cross-domain Knowledge
Modern digital products are complex: their success depends on a mix of technology, usability, business models, marketing, and operational excellence — they must all work together in harmony to drive user engagement, value creation, and sufficient monetization. Product Leaders ‘make things happen’ by applying the vision, defining the roadmap, and wisely steering the efforts of talented multidisciplinary teams that deal with all the above.
In a typical scenario, ‘product people’ interact with designers, software engineers, data scientists, marketing, and commercialization experts and hence it is crucial to be able to understand the language, the perspective, and the capabilities of each domain in the context of the product.
When developing digital products, a strong technical background is a must for a great Product Leader: Defining exceptional products depends on the level of understanding of both the capabilities and the constraints of technology. While the Product Leader can delegate certain technical workstreams and decisions to technology experts in the team, it is always a major plus to have a solid technological background and deep understanding of the ‘state of the art’ and the global tech trends.
For example, in the context of a consumer-facing digital service, the Product Leader must be able to understand the principles behind a good user experience, the user engagement measurement frameworks, and the underlying enabling technologies — product people must be able to spot the opportunities arising from the latest technologies but also be aware of the limitations and the associated risks. In the same example, the Product Leader is expected to have a sufficient understanding of Machine Learning models and Data Science technologies — and how these can power smart differentiated end-user experiences.
5. Commercial Acumen
The commercial element is key. Good Product Leaders are able to identify the right business models, monetization strategies, pricing structures, and growth mechanisms to ensure the viability of the product; they continually explore and spot opportunities to introduce product innovation — novel features and solutions — along with business model innovation. They scan the ecosystem not only for competitors but also for great partners and potential synergies.
6. Data-Driven, but with Sound Judgement
During the product development journey, it is critical to measure all the key aspects of the engineering/ product development process along with the performance of the actual product instances — through customer feedback.
Product Leaders recognize the importance of effective feedback loops — streams of data that are converted to insights that may trigger or support certain important decisions in the product development life cycle. Consequently, a very important quality of a Product Leader is the ability to identify the right sources and classes of data, and the types of feedback loops that can be used to improve the decision-making process (faster and better decisions). For example, is findings from user-research strong enough to kill a feature? When to use A/B testing to decide on feature variants? How to model, analyze, and interpret user feedback? How to weight qualitative vs quantitative feedback? How to leverage telemetry insights to improve existing features and user experiences?
The ability of the Product Leader to interpret the data in the right context is equally critical — how to synthesize insights, qualitative and quantitative data coming from experiments, prototyping, market research, and other sources, in order to make the right product decisions. Successful Product Leaders use these data streams to steer the efforts, adapt the scope and the strategy — they make those tough decisions that separate success from failure.
However, there are cases where the data may be incomplete, unreliable, or even misleading — which emphasizes the importance of another leadership quality: the ability to make decisions with limited or no data — or even deciding against the ‘data story’.
In ambiguous situations, Product Leaders are expected to demonstrate sound judgment and even question the signals and the patterns derived from data — there may be various reasons to do, such as alternate interpretations of the situation or even a radical, strategic view. Successful leaders know when to be purely ‘data-driven’ and when to lean on their business judgment, critical thinking, and strategic insights.
7. Ability to Execute, Readiness to Pivot
Defining great products is only one part of the story. As a Product Leader, you need to set the roadmap, make the team believe the purpose and the potential of the product, drive execution, and ‘make it happen’; and this requires a number of special skills and qualities, including effective work decomposition, prioritization, measurement and steering of the overall product development process.
When building digital products, great execution also means pace, effectiveness, agility, and also readiness to pivot. Leaders should be ready to accept failure and recognize early signals indicating a different approach or a new path. By setting well-thought goals and success criteria, good Product Leaders continuously measure the performance of experiments and newly released features and they are ready to reconsider even core aspects of the initial product strategy.
This agility also requires effective communication with the product team — great Product Leaders are transparent, they share insights about failures and justify with clear articulation any changes in the strategy or the focus of the product. They bring clarity on how the product needs to evolve and why.
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8. Ability to Streamline Product Innovation
In a modern product development setup, there are plenty of methods, techniques. systems and tools that could be used to accelerate and streamline the process. Product Leaders must be able to establish the right process and activate those methods that allow fast execution, continuous discovery of high-potential ideas, and smooth adaptation of the product based on insights and just-in-time information and knowledge.
For example, Product Leaders need to tell when a prototyping effort or a proof of concept is required and how the outcomes could impact those critical pending decisions. They must introduce fast, effective processes to incorporate new ideas into existing product backlogs along with a transparent assessment and prioritization framework.
9. A ‘Product’ Leadership Style
There’s a lot written about different leadership styles and the ‘effective business leader’. But in my opinion, leading people is very different from leading a product. Yes, as a Product Leader you need to inspire and energize your team and all the key stakeholders — but this should ideally happen ‘naturally,’ as the outcome of the extraordinary efforts to shape and build a great product.
Leading a product is also about communicating the vision, the purpose, and the strategy — as part of an open culture of innovation, information sharing, and collaboration. It is this special culture combined with the bold product vision and passion for impact that inspires people to do their best and get obsessed with product success.
When people believe in the purpose of the product and the commitment of its leadership, they engage, they become part of it, and ultimately part of its success. In this ‘open’ mode, people realize that they can leave their mark on the product, get recognized, and grow as leaders; leading great products to success also leads to great product engineering teams.
As you develop your leadership style, you should focus on inspiring and influencing over managing people.
Great digital products are built by talented teams that are inspired by passionate, skillful product visionaries. To become one, you need a natural propensity to build epic stuff, passion for impact, and a wide combination of skills — from software engineering, and product development to monetization and growth.