Becoming a Strategic Product Leader, Part 2: Speak Up.

To take a leadership position, your voice must be heard. Even, and maybe especially, when your managers see things differently.
Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

In 2005 I joined Attunity (acquired by Qlik for $560M) to lead the development of a new product. Erez, my new boss, gave me clear instructions on what he wanted me to do. My inner product leader immediately replied with a question: why? what are you trying to achieve by doing that?

Erez had a good answer: the company’s flagship product didn’t get enough traction, and they thought the reason was that it wasn’t so easy to integrate into modern data processing tools. So they wanted to integrate into such a tool out of the box. They already picked the first tool to integrate into (based on customer demand) and gave me detailed instructions to do the bare minimum needed for the integration. The instructions were to open the API of the flagship product and allow developers on the tool to use it. Erez estimated the development effort in 2-3 men months and has already assigned a single developer to the team to do that.

Think Logically Even When Others Tell You Differently

Understanding what I need to do, I did what any product leader would do at this point: research. I studied the tool but more importantly studied how its users perceived it and what they were choosing it for. As part of my research, I also looked at what other companies are providing as a built-in integration for the tool. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the bare minimum that my boss was asking for, wasn’t going to deliver the results the company was hoping to achieve. In short, this tool was meant for non-coders to be able to drag and drop components and create advanced logical scenarios. While it had the technical option to call advanced APIs, it wasn’t natural for the tool’s most common customer segment, and my conclusion was that it wouldn’t really reduce the friction of the integration which was the original goal of the new product.

Committed to make it a great success, I went back to Erez and told him exactly that. We had a good discussion, mostly because I came prepared and had good answers to all of his questions. I made sure he understands what’s in it for him (how it relates to the company’s success, it wasn’t personal in any way). At the end of the meeting, Erez was completely enrolled in this new direction. He asked me for updated effort estimations, and as a result, we grew the team to 4 people who were working on the product for a year. 

Yes, that’s an order of magnitude larger than the original intent of 2-3 men months. But that was the only way to make the new product a success story. And it was, for many years to come.

Being a strategic product leader requires you to feel comfortable and think logically even when others (specifically your manager or the CEO) tell you otherwise. They will rarely ask for your opinion, at least until you showed them a few times that you have one worth listening to. Don’t let this derail you. If you want to become a strategic product leader, your voice must be heard – asked or not.

Understand the Why

Telling a product leader to ask “why” is like telling a baby to cry. Of course you are going to do that! But my advice here is different. Don’t only ask “why”. Make sure you fully understand why. It is your responsibility to get to the bottom of it and see how the dots are all connected (more on this also next week). Don’t stop until it makes sense to you.

Note that you won’t always get all the answers. In fact, in most cases, you won’t get all the answers, simply because your managers don’t have them. When you find a gap in the reasoning – and you will, that I can guarantee – ask for answers. And when you don’t get sufficient ones, provide the answers yourself. You can conduct market research quickly, but from my experience, it’s not the research that is missing at this point. 

The part that is most important and hardest to achieve is to tell an end-to-end story that makes sense. Sometimes, there are so many gaps in the original story, that you don’t even understand who the characters are. Start closing them, one by one, and it will become much clearer.

One of the methods I love for this phase is asking yourself “why does my manager / CEO / CRO want to do this?”. And then answering yourself. You don’t necessarily need them in the conversation. They often mean a lot of things which they can’t express. But when you have tied all the dots together for them, they will be able to tell you “yes, that’s what I meant”.

Which brings me to my next point.

Come-Up With Answers

As a strategic product leader, you are expected to come up with answers. If you don’t do that, you will find yourself as the one who is poking holes in everything everyone else says, but leaves it to them to create a solution. 

It harms you twice: once because it’s honestly, annoying, not really helping the team but only pointing out what’s wrong. And twice, because it brings you back to stage 1 where you depend on others (who originally didn’t have all the answers for you). 

Be proactive in making suggestions and recommendations, while making sure they are aligned with “the why” as you understood it and other details in the bigger picture. 

To become a strategic product leader, you need to take the driver’s seat, even if no-one gave you the keys officially. Drive safely 🙂

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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