Becoming a Strategic Product Leader: Understanding the Business

Becoming more strategic is one of the most common - and most challenging - development areas for product leaders. This article and the following ones in the series will help you to get there.
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There comes a time in the life of every product leader that calls for growth. One of the pillars that are the hardest to grow in but are of critical importance, is “becoming more strategic”. If it’s you, you know it’s time. You might have gotten this as direct feedback before. Or maybe you want to make a broader impact and get to your next level, or perhaps both, as it usually happens.

But What Does It Mean Exactly, to Become More Strategic? and Where Should You Start?

Let me take you through it. 

To help you, I am starting a series of articles that will pave the way for you. In this first article, I will demonstrate the importance of understanding the business at a whole new level.

When people – specifically your manager or the CEO – talk about being strategic, they are thinking about having a system-wide view that spans across all aspects of a certain topic. As a product leader, being strategic means having a system-wide view that spans across all aspects of your product.

I’m sure you feel you already are immersed in all the aspects of your product. The variety of issues you need to deal with is crazy and sometimes overwhelming. You are constantly dealing with priorities and timelines, balancing urgent customer requests with the long-term roadmap, making sure design-UX-dev-research-QA all work well together, and assisting sales and customer success teams in meeting their goals. You are everywhere, aren’t you?

While everything you are already doing indeed involves important aspects of the product, one critical aspect is missing: the ability to bring the product to business success.

But wait, isn’t that owned by the business people? Why do I – as the product leader – need to master it? Isn’t it enough that I’m helping them in whatever they need?

The answer is that you have to have a much deeper understanding of all the business aspects related to your product because you are the one defining which product to build. And that definition alone can determine if your product has a chance to succeed. Many other things need to happen in order for this success to be accomplished, but many products don’t stand a chance merely because the business aspects weren’t taken into consideration when the product was chosen.

For example, a year ago, a promising and well-funded startup in the Israeli cyberspace approached me after they felt their product has reached a glass ceiling (a concept that I am talking about in the unique content available to my newsletter subscribers). When I sent them to conduct market research, they observed an interesting phenomenon: they googled the problem they were solving for their customers. All the results sent them back to their own articles.

In other words, the problem that they were solving didn’t have any manifestation on the web. This is a strong indication that the problem – even if it does exist – isn’t prevalent enough. And a product that is solving a problem not many people (or organizations) have, is bound to fail, no matter how well it solves this specific problem.

The issue with the product, in this case, is not its features, UX, or technology. It’s the very basic definition of which need it is coming to serve. And the need that was chosen wasn’t good enough, because it barely existed

By the way, it’s not that the company was struggling in business. The customers who had this need were super happy, and the roadmap was full of more and more features that would make them even happier. There were just not too many of them, which means the company can’t grow significantly enough moving forward.

In this company’s case, the glass ceiling wasn’t really made of glass, it was more like a ceiling made of concrete. The company had to pivot to be able to deliver business success at the order of magnitude that was expected of them.

To start your strategic journey, you need to dig deep to understand ALL the aspects of your product. At the business level, it means answering questions like:

  • Which people from which organizations are buying the product, and why?
  • What objections and concerns will they have before they buy?
  • Who else would they need to convince as part of the process, and what’s in it for them?
  • What would make them give up on you – before or after they buy?

Test Yourself: Do You Have Detailed Answers to These Questions?

I encourage you to write the answers you already have and go as deep as you can.

Talk to the business people, not only when they need something from you. Ask them where things are going smoothly for them, and most importantly, where things are not. Use their insights to identify gaps, and understand what you, as the product leader, can do to help. In many cases, it does not involve defining features or pushing harder on the roadmap. Help your marketing and sales teams to identify the right audience. Get crisp on the value proposition that will help drive messaging. Give them the answers – and not only the features – that will help them make a smooth sale.

It’s always easier – both for you and for them – to talk about features. But a coherent end-to-end story can be much more impactful. It’s your responsibility to tell the product story that will drive the business and to make sure you are not driving the wrong way.


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

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