Being an effective product leader is not easy: It requires embracing people's ideas as well as saying no, being neither too accommodating, nor too assertive. This post helps you recognise and overcome two common, ineffective leadership styles, feature broker and product dictator, and develop a balanced, successful leadership approach.
Feature Broker and Product Dictator
How do you best lead the stakeholders and development team as the person in charge of the product? One way to answer this question is to avoid unhelpful but common leadership styles. Two of these styles, feature broker and product dictator, are shown in the picture below.
A feature broker is a product person who relies on others—the stakeholders, development team, management, users, or a customer—to come up with ideas and make product decisions. As its name suggests, this leadership style mediates between different parties and tries to broker a deal.
A product dictator—also called a coercive leader—exhibits the opposite leadership style: the individual assumes that she or he knows best what needs to be done. Consequently, the person makes the product decisions and expects others to support them.
While being a feature broker shows that the individual is able to connect with other people and appreciate their ideas, it carries the risk of trying to please everyone thereby creating a product that doesn’t do a good job for anybody. In the worst case, you end up with a feature soup, a loose collection of features requested by the users, customers, or stakeholders. Such a product typically has a weak value proposition, offers a poor user experience, and is therefore unlikely to become a success.
Being a product dictator is equally undesirable, unless your product is in crisis. Being decisive and having a clear vision of where you want to take the product is certainly helpful. But if you believe that you are always right, and you know best, then you probably end up making wrong decisions: It’s very unlikely that one person has all the knowledge and skills required and can counteract all cognitive biases.
Even if this was the case, this leadership approach creates an unhealthy work environment: The development team members and stakeholders are told what to do and are expected to fall in line to support the decisions—no matter if they agree or not. This dampens their motivation, wastes their creativity and knowledge, and leads to weak buy-in. What’s more, people are likely to blame you if the product does not deliver the desired benefits. To make things worse, you may end up worn-out and overworked, as you want to be involved in all decisions.
Recognise Your Leadership Bias
Feature broker and product dictator are extreme leadership styles, of course. But it seems that most of us, including myself, gravitate towards one of the two extremes and are inclined to act as a feature broker or product dictator. If that’s the case for you, then don’t feel bad. Recognising your leadership bias is a key step towards becoming a better, more effective product leader, as I explain below.
If you are new in a product role or if you have just taken on a new product, and your knowledge about the users, needs, business goals, and competition is still weak, then you often end up asking the stakeholders and dev team for suggestions and are more likely to accept their requests. Similarly, if you work in an organisation where product management is not recognised as a function in its own right, or if you look after a bespoke product for a customer, you may get pulled towards the feature broker style. Additionally, if you find it generally difficult to say no to others and want to please people, or if you suffer from imposter syndrome and believe that others know much more about the product than you do, then this trait will draw you towards the feature broker style.
If, however, the dev team and stakeholders are less experienced than you, or if you hold a senior position in the company, then people may well expect you to decide and tell them what to do. Even if you involve them in the decision-making process, people may require encouragement to speak their mind and think out of the box. Moreover, if you find it hard to trust others, if you are critical of yourself and other people, if you are a bit of a perfectionist or control freak, then you are likely to lean towards the product dictator pattern.
Be a Balanced Product Leader
Once you understand your leadership bias, you can take the next step and address its causes. This will help you become a more balanced and effective leader grounded in the middle of the leadership continuum shown in the picture below.
If you gravitate towards the feature broker style, then empower yourself. Acquire the relevant knowledge and learn as much as you can about the market; and consider improving your people skills and virtuous qualities. This will earn you trust and respect, and help you lead the decision-making process. Additionally, you might have to overcome people-pleasing or imposter habits. You may also have to practice saying no—even if it is difficult initially—and accept that having difficult conversations is part of your job. At the same time, take advantage of your strengths, such as connecting with people and appreciating their ideas.
Additionally, organisational impediments might have to be overcome to help you be a more effective product person. If you lack management support or if there is no established product management function in the organisation, then you may want to address the issue and lobby for more authority—together with your ScrumMaster or coach. Similarly, if you create bespoke products, a customer makes the key product decisions, and you end up being a proxy between the individual and the dev team, then you may require senior management support to change the situation. In some cases, you may have to accept the setup for now, and try to change your level of authority for the next project.
However, if you are biased towards the product dictator style—if you are good at making decisions, but not so good at appreciating other people’s ideas—then empower the development team and stakeholders. Coach the individuals and help them acquire the relevant knowledge. Actively involve people in the decision-making process, and show them that you value their input. Invite the stakeholders and development team representatives to collaborative product strategy and roadmap workshops; involve the dev team in the product backlog work; and write user stories together, for instance. This might increase your workload in the short term, but it generates support and buy-in, and it allows you to delegate work in the future, for example, some of the story refinement work to the development team.
If you have some perfectionist or controlling tendencies, then bring to mind that none of us is perfect, cultivate compassion for yourself and others, be grateful for the work other people do, and decide to trust the development team and stakeholders, once you have agreed on shared goals. At the same token, don’t forget your strengths including being decisive and not shying away from difficult conversations.
Great leaders are made, not born. Therefore, develop yourself, leverage your strengths, and work on your weaknesses. Don’t forget that change seldom happens overnight. It takes effort, discipline, and self-compassion: Learning new skills can involve setbacks, and some habits die hard, as I know from my own experience.