Struggling With Your Product Leadership Team? Here's How To Manage Them!
Roadmapping has become a political problem. Over the last decade, there have been advancements in the product world where the CEO is no longer the only one who calls the shots; now, there is a Product Leadership Team (PLT) that is supposed to work collaboratively with the product manager on defining the next set of features of a product. Although the product leadership team believes that they should have a product manager who can think of solutions and implement them, they tend to refuse to follow these solutions themselves. This article provides advice for product managers on how to overcome this tension with the PLT and how to improve that relationship for the greater good of the product roadmap and its success.
Who are part of the Product Leadership Team (PLT) and what is expected from them?
The product leadership team is essentially the stakeholders who have influence on the product roadmap, including the cross-functional VPs and directors, the product leaders, and the C-suite which includes the CEO, CFO, CRO (or head of Sales), CMO (or head of Marketing), CTO (or head of engineering), and optionally the CPO (or head of Product), Director of Customer support, COO (who knows the internal processes inside out) and the head of content (if a media company) or head of partnerships.
The product leadership team has many roles: they offer guidance and direction to product managers and the cross-functional teams they support to empower the product team and foster collaboration; they clearly communicate the product mission, strategy, tactics and corresponding metrics; they regularly revisit the strategy and tactical structure by making some hard choices; and they ask for the product and roadmap ROI analysis.
One of their main and most important responsibilities, however, is to hire and develop very strong product managers and nurture their function within the organization. This nurturing will allow the product manager to benefit from the cross-functional collaboration and trust needed for product feature discovery, execution and launch. Most importantly, the product leadership team is responsible for empowering the product management function, allowing them to present new roadmap initiatives, prioritize, and giving consent so the product evolves.
How does the product manager engage with the leadership team?
Although it’s the leadership team’s responsibility to nurture the product manager, this isn’t the case most of the time; product managers often aren’t "empowered" by the product leadership team. They instead sometimes feel intimidated when engaging with the VP or a C-Suite member. Most product managers also worry that any conversation they’re going to have with the PLT is going to be a top-down "do what we tell you to do" type of conversation rather than one where they are genuinely trying to conduct a collaborative discovery and value prioritization exercise.
Much like any successful head coach in professional sports, the product manager ultimately is the leader of a team. Their duty is to work with the product leadership team (not for them) to determine the product mission, strategies, and tactics to establish a roadmap that will put their team on a path to achieving financial (and growth) milestones.
One of the main ways they do this is through pivoting. Product managers should investigate the industry, market and competitive landscape, and ask the product leadership team every quarter whether it’s time to either ‘pivot or persevere’ initial baseline strategies or tactics. This ‘pivot or persevere’ question allows product managers to question (and even challenge the) stakeholders: is it best to consider a change in the strategies or keep the same, slow-moving ones? Pivoting is really just changing the company’s strategies and tactics when there is evidence that the current strategy isn’t working. A pivot will have a direct impact on the future features that get released, both on the actual product and the roadmap.
As successful as pivoting can be for the product, it won’t work if the product leadership team doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the product manager.
Solution: Improving the Communication!
The first way to improve this dynamic between the product leadership team and the product manager is through better communication tactics. Proper communication with the product leaders needs to be improved in order for proper collaboration. And the starting point for this communication is with the leader of the pack: the CEO.
The relationship between the members of the PTL is like a team of dogs pulling a sled. Normally, there would be the lead dog who sets the pace and direction for the rest of the sled team. However, for a dog sled team to work well, they need to learn how to work as a pack. This is particularly important since dog sledding depends on all the sled dogs following the lead dog; this is the CEO of a company. Swing dogs (sometimes called point dogs) are right behind the lead dog. They swing the sled when the trail curves or turns. In reference to any team (work, school, sports, etc.), the ‘swing’ people are those who support the leader in a way that gets others on the team to follow along; these would be the PLT members of a company.
In order for communication to flow smoothly throughout the entire product leadership team, the product manager must communicate to the lead dog of the pack (the CEO) and focus their attention on getting them on board; then, the rest of the PTL should follow and direct the rest of the company!
Product leadership culture is messy. In practice, no product leadership team is perfect. Everyone is plagued by derailed discussion, dismissed opinions, side conversations, directs who dominate, and those who seem to be biting their tongue. And, implementing a successful product-led process is difficult, especially when the leadership team is exhibiting messy behaviour; oftentimes, they rely on one point of view and dismiss what others have to say. In this scenario, leadership upholds preconceived notions after roadmap prioritization and dilutes the scope of the quarterly initiatives with new priorities. They interpret minor market/industry, customer/competitor shifts to improvise, modifying the product mission, strategies and tactics beyond recognition, causing product teams to lose control. As they seek harmony or conformity within their team in a desire to maintain collegiality, they actually make roadmap completion confusing and difficult to deal with.
As a product manager, you want stakeholders to build good habits around roadmap completion, not messy ones! It's normal to get tangled up with leadership, like asking them amicably not to interfere with roadmap pillars once prioritized is the most straightforward way to prevent unpleasant jolts.
However, nothing can get in the way of product success when you have a confident product leadership team who can build and nurture the product team, drive product strategy and processes, grow cross-functional collaboration, and accomplish successful goal alignment!
Below are 3 ways you - the product manager - can improve the relationship with your product leadership team:
- Be the ‘hub’ of your product leadership team
Firstly, you should be in the center of all conversations with your PTL. This way, if someone on the product leadership team voices an issue while you are part of the conversation, you can turn the conversation around to talk about the possible solutions instead.
If a leadership team member has a problem and the only other people in the conversation are other leadership members, the only fix they will have is updating the roadmap. The solution to this is not to give them any reason to discuss the roadmap without the product manager. Ensure they discuss the product and it’s roadmap only with you.
And, do it one-on-one! Have a personal relationship with each of your product leadership team members.
- No surprises
Secondly, make sure there are no surprises on either ends: yours and the PLT members; Do not surprise your product leadership members, and do not invite your leadership members to surprise you.
If you use the roadmap planning meeting as a time to convey new and important information, then you are surprising your leadership team. The roadmap planning meeting is not the place to convey important information for the first time. You don’t want the product leadership team members over-reacting to bad news (or good news) in front of other members.
Instead, pre-wire! In the roadmap planning meeting, you can present the exact same information, but all the members will have heard it already. You will present your plan (pillar with feature mix) after being informed by the comments of the board members you previously heard from.
- Think for the product leadership team!
Finally, don’t make the leadership team think. Instead, present them with the information they need to know: outline the problem, AND the course of action you are recommending. List for the PLT what the product is doing and the things that will make it quickly increase in value. If the product is not correctly doing these things, present them with the bad news but couple it with the initiatives you are proposing to solve the problem.
If you present the problem first to the PLT and you do not have a solution, they will start to think about solutions for you. Or, if they can’t think of a solution, they will begin to believe that they should probably have a product manager who can think of solutions. Avoid this by thinking for them!
These 3 things we’ve listed may sound manipulative and like a lot of work, however, attempting to influence the behaviour of others for the product’s success is what roadmapping is all about, and is needed to help product managers in their jobs. The most crucial thing to remember is the roadmap planning process is all about managing your leadership team!
Article written by Jessica Scandaliato. Thanks to Paul Ortchanian for reading drafts and overseeing aspects of its publication. Also, if you have any feedback or criticism about this article, feel free to shoot us an email at email@example.com.
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