Being a successful product manager or product owner requires more than product management know-how. While being able to create a valid product strategy, develop an actionable product roadmap, and prioritise the product backlog are undoubtedly important, these skills are not enough. You also have to be able to lead others and apply the right leadership styles, as I explain in this article.
Leading without Authority
As the person in charge of the product, you often don’t have the authority to tell people what to do. Instead, you need to collaborate with the development team and the other stakeholders to help you design, build, provide, and offer a new product or new features. But effective collaboration requires leadership.
Unfortunately, there is no one right way to lead people. The appropriate approach depends on the context. While many people, including myself, favour a visionary product manager—someone who leads through a shared vision—this leadership style is not always helpful. Take a product in crisis that is about to miss a critical release date or has stopped working due to a major bug. This is hardly an opportunity to shine as a visionary leader and guide people by establishing an aspirational goal.
As leadership is context dependent, we need to understand which leadership approaches are available to us and when they are appropriate. Goleman’s classification of six leadership styles helps us with this. Goleman distinguishes visionary, affiliative, democratic, coaching, pacesetting, and coercive styles. Every leadership style has its place and none is always right. Instead, they are intended to complement each other. If you want to excel as a product manager, then you have to be able to apply all of them. Think of the styles as leadership tools that have their unique strengths and weaknesses—like most product management practices, such as user stories and use cases, or goal-oriented product roadmaps and feature-based ones.
The Visionary Product Manager
A visionary product manager leads through shared goals including inspiring a shared vision. It describes the ultimate reason for creating the product and acts the product’s true north that pulls people in the right direction. A visionary leader says, “come with me”, and lets people work out the details of how to get there.
Being a visionary leader is particularly helpful when creating a new product or a major product update. It encourages shared ownership and responsibility. It provides motivation and direction. But as mentioned before, this leadership style requires that people have the time, expertise, and willingness to figure out how to achieve an overarching goal. This is not always the case, for instance, when the product is in crisis or when people don’t buy into the vision.
The Affiliative Product Manager
An affiliative product manager puts people first, creates harmony, and builds strong relationships. This makes people feel appreciated and improves collaboration. Applying this leadership style helps you establish a trustful relationship with a new development team and new stakeholders and it facilitates building a new product management team. It is similar to servant-leadership, an approach that suggests that leaders should serve the people they lead.
Be aware of the following two affiliative leadership traps, though: Focusing first and foremost on people might create a lack of results orientation, and working well together might become more important than delivering a successful product.
Secondly, helping people bond, especially the development team, is the role of the ScrumMaster or coach in an agile context. You should therefore be careful not to take on responsibilities that belong to others and that may overwhelm you, as I describe in more detail in my post Every Great Product Owner Needs a Great ScrumMaster.
The Democratic Product Manager
A democratic leader involves people in the decision-making processes and builds agreement through participation. This leadership style increases responsibility and ownership, and it leverages the knowledge and ideas of the development team and stakeholders. It is ideal for making important product decisions that require strong buy-in and for generating and evaluating new ideas.
But be aware that if applied incorrectly, democratic leadership can result in long-winded decision-making processes and delayed decisions. In the worst case, decisions are made by committee, and weak compromises are brokered. You should therefore make sure that people involved in the decisions share a common goal or vision. What’s more, carefully decide who to involve and which decision making rule and process you want to employ, as I explain in more detail in Decision Time: How Decision Rules Help You Make Better Product Decisions.
The Coaching Product Manager
While coaching isn’t commonly associated with product managers—but rather with ScrumMasters and line managers—it should still be part of your leadership toolkit: Coaching helps you transfer product and domain knowledge to the development team and the stakeholders and it is a very helpful approach to develop and grow junior product managers.
When coaching someone, make sure that the individual is open to coaching and that you provide regular feedback and guidance. Be aware that coaching is a process that requires time and commitment, as people work towards longer-term goals, for example, developing a better understanding of the customer and user needs. If you require immediate improvements or if people aren’t happy to be coached, then the leadership style is not appropriate.
The Pacesetting Product Manager
Pacesetting product managers lead by example. You essentially ask people to do as you do. This leadership style establishes clear expectations and high standards. It is useful to show people how a job is done, for instance, how to create a product roadmap, write user stories, or prioritise the product backlog. And it delivers results quickly. But there is a dark side to it.
People may feel overwhelmed and they may worry that they can’t meet your expectations. They may be afraid of making mistakes and not show the necessary ownership of their actions. After all, you say how things are done. If it doesn’t work out, then this is your problem.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. Pacesetting means that you expect high standards of yourself and that you are never quite satisfied with your own work. This can create a negative, overly critical outlook. It can also exhaust you and in the worst case, lead to burn out. As pacesetting is a double-edged sword, you should apply the leadership style with care.
The Coercive Product Manager
A coercive product manager acts in an authoritarian way and demands immediate compliance. If you employ this style, then you ask people to do what you tell them. It’s a helpful leadership approach to get out of a crisis, such as, imminent danger of missing a critical release date.
But it requires that you are able to correctly identify what has to be done. What’s more, it can lead to loss of motivation, responsibility, self-organisation, and ownership; making mistakes is not tolerated and learning is limited. As it has a negative impact on morale and work climate, you should only use it in emergencies.
If a crisis is brewing, however, if swift and decisive action is required, then you should not shy away from being coercive. Do make sure, though, that you frequently reflect on your intentions and actions and that you question if the leadership style is still helpful.
A big thank you to Geoff Watts for introducing me to Goleman’s leadership styles.