How Your Leadership Team Can Be A Driving Force Behind Product Culture Failure

Product-led cultures elevate products to the highest levels of the company’s mission. But unfortunately, in many companies, the product leadership team can perpetuate a negative culture — setting up product managers to fail. There’s a lack of teaching that happens in the early stages of a product manager’s career, forcing people to make career decisions just to survive rather than thrive. It’s what’s called a ‘fake it till you make it’ culture.
In essence, the product leadership team are those with influence on the product roadmap. This includes the C-Suite, cross-functional VPs, and directors who nurture the product management function within the organization. This nurturing allows the product manager to benefit from the cross-functional collaboration and trust needed for product feature discovery, prioritization, execution and launch. Most importantly, they are responsible for empowering product managers, allowing them to present new roadmap initiatives and give consent so the product evolves.
Unfortunately, most organizations fall short due to a combination of factors — too much autonomy and initiative-taking to product departments, poor product mission and strategy communication, an inexperienced product team, etc. In addition to all that, sometimes the leadership team forgets to communicate what has been determined as the "right" product mission and strategy in a clear and explicit way. All resulting in a recipe for disaster.
Getting the product leadership team to develop consistent, stable, and familiar routines reinforced through repetition and communication is valuable. But what it takes to figure it all out is teamwork between the leadership team and the product team — with the former giving direction and clear communication and the latter working with the strategy and mission that’s been communicated.

3 ways to avoid a culture of failure
Before we dive into how you can avoid a negative product culture, let’s look at an example of a healthy product culture. In the book "How Google Works" by former CEO Eric Schmidt and former Head of Product Jonathan Rosenberg, a healthy product culture can be achieved through:
  • Hiring and developing very strong product managers (the critical first step).
  • Building and nurturing strong, cross-functional, co-located, empowered product teams.
  • Giving those product teams clear KPIs (OKRs).
  • Focusing on innovation on technology-enabled solutions.
  • Using data strategically.
  • Focusing relentlessly on the customer experience.
Now that you have these key elements in mind from Google’s perspective, let’s take a closer look at what it takes to drive a successful product culture.

1. Too much autonomy is confusing — and unsustainable
Unfortunately, it’s becoming a habit where product managers are being set up to fail, and so the critical step of developing strong product managers isn’t happening throughout organizations. Once the leadership team hires a product manager, they assume the PM has everything figured out on day 1 — wrong. This lack of teaching in the early stages of a product manager’s career leads to them surviving rather than thriving, ultimately resulting in a ‘fake it till you make it’ culture. What does this mean exactly? This is where product managers wing it and have no clue what they’re doing or talking about.
The result? A culture of failure. The product manager leaves their unsuccessful role as quickly as possible onto a new role, starting up the cycle of failure again. We’re creating a whole generation of product managers who are faking it.
This is why the leadership team within the product organization needs to give their product teams a clear mission and strategies with KPIs (OKRs), leading to the development of strong, cross-functional, empowered product teams.

It’s all about the teamwork
Do you know the expression "teamwork makes the dream work"? As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true. Autonomy and initiative-taking in an organization can end up in disaster when taken to extremes (e.g. leadership losing control of a product roadmap). Autonomy, therefore, needs to be within certain key parameters to guide decision-making:
  • Clearly communicated product mission and strategy: It’s all about repetition to prevent the forgetting curve from setting in. As the product manager, you’re the CRO (Chief Repeating officer) and need to communicate what should go in a product and how to market and sell it any chance you get (this is usually done via a one-page strategic document distributed throughout the business).
  • Product, tactics and corresponding metrics: These will help cross-departmental teams decide which features add value and the ones that don't. You have the autonomy to act on tactical issues that improve the product, but not on the strategic choices the leadership team has made that define the product mission.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Sometimes the leadership team forgets to communicate what has been determined as the "right" product mission and strategy in a clear and explicit way. What tends to happen is leaders overestimate their ability to communicate clearly. What they need to do is provide direction, because without it you can't be vision-driven. You need that guidance to lead, to guide and define the broader direction of the product. Without that vision and without that guidance, the strategy remains a mystery and the choices that are made get diluted beyond recognition because of that lack of clarity.
It’s about creating a "consent culture" where the leadership team as well as the product manager and engineers proceed with an idea once everyone involved agrees that it's the right thing to do.
We’re not building a consensus culture. A decision-making process where getting to 100% agreement (consensus) is hard (and often impossible), so we get stuck hoping for the CEO to untangle it all, putting everything on their plate over and over again.
Consent-based decision-making asks everyone to buy-in by default and to only speak up if they can't live with a decision. This type of product culture understands the value of making progress, even when people aren't in agreement.
3. Stop leadership from dictating all decisions about the product
What might you be paying for by releasing features that slip, fail and flop? Is your product team failing to address underlying issues? Are you missing out on revenue-generating opportunities? Are the engineering resources being wasted? Are you gridlocked by the hidden "costs" of resource contention? Product leadership should be there to help identify market opportunities, clearly setting the strategic foundations while making your product team accountable.
No doubt, it's imperative to measure the increasing burden of missed revenue-generating opportunities. The leadership team needs to assess that hidden cost. They certainly have a role in setting the product’s mission and strategies, which are oftentimes accompanied with tactics and corresponding metrics, and they need to be accountable for communicating the clear vision across the business.
The biggest thing you need as a product manager is momentum, and momentum can get stifled if members of your leadership team start hedging bets on features that are not fully understood or needed. Unfortunately, this typically happens as a result of blackmail with the leadership team not empowering you to ask tough questions and add value to the product roadmap.
Ultimately, adding features that don't generate momentum are very costly for the organization. For one, they waste engineering resources, and secondly, they increase customer support cost. They can also sometimes involve the marketing team, creating costly campaigns for features that no one is going to use.
In this case, you're not building momentum, you're simply shipping features that don't add much value and it's a missed opportunity. Instead, you should be thinking of the opportunity cost of building features that perhaps could add more value.
Think about what type of momentum those would generate with the sales team to close more deals and the type of momentum it would generate with the marketing team to be able to grow and bring in more customers. That positive momentum can add credibility to you as a product manager, enabling you to have greater influence and move the roadmap forward.
Your Next Steps
Product leaders are there to be a driving force behind a company’s success, helping product managers to own a portion of growth and steering roadmap decisions to achieve those financial milestones.
So then what are your next steps when it comes to nailing the product culture? Below are the different things you can do, depending on whether you’re in product leadership or management.
Product Leadership
  • Hire and develop very strong product managers.
  • Offer guidance and direction to product managers and the cross-functional teams they support to empower your product team and foster collaboration.
  • Clearly communicate product mission, strategy, tactics and corresponding metrics. Focus on why some choices were made and others rejected.
  • Regularly revisit your strategy and tactical structure by simplifying everything. Sometimes you need to make some hard choices.
  • Ask for product and roadmap ROI analysis.
Product Management
  • ⁠Learn the product’s mission and strategies (with tactics and corresponding metrics).
  • Learn your product and be prepared to talk about anything on your roadmap.
  • ⁠Study the market, learn about the product’s personas and customer experience with corresponding data.
  • ⁠Create a plan for what you think should happen next.
  • Own the conversation and be prepared to explain the priority.
  • ⁠Speak confidently and be prepared to defend your position.
The market and industry are constantly shifting with competitors trying to emulate and clone your product features to gain market share.
As we mentioned previously, momentum as a product manager is critical. Otherwise, you wind up with features that aren’t fully understood, needed and don’t add value to the product roadmap
As a product manager, you need to apply leadership tenets and then instill an owner’s mindset to roadmap initiatives since the leadership team delegates that influence to you. If this work is done early, it can help establish a product-led culture that will generate enough momentum for success.

Thanks to Loren O'Brien-Egesborg for contributing to this article as well as reading drafts and overseeing aspects of its publication. Also, if you have any feedback or criticism about this article, then shoot us an email
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Would you like our Product Management Premiere E-book? Visit our Download page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

About Bain Public

Bain Public, acquired by X Machina-AI Inc. in January 2022, offers consistent roadmap planning processes & tools for business leaders and product managers organized around what motivates, inspires and improves growth. Bain Public offers a variety of articles, e-books and approaches designed to help organizations understand their digital strategies, introduce elements of roadmapping and establish product-led change amongst the senior leaders and managers. Our approach, product, expert advice and coaching helps entangle complex technology, people and roadmap dynamics.

About XMachina

X Machina-AI seeks to provide a platform for the acquisition of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") entities in North America. The company’s thesis is based on an aggregation strategy to acquire successful AI targets and make them better through the addition of growth capital, streamlining of corporate processes and human capital acquisitions. The current sector focus of the Company is on enhancing supply-chain efficiencies, logistics and manufacturing.