Becoming a head of product and managing a group of product people is a significant career step. In this article, I share my recommendations to help you get ready for the new job and be off to a great start.
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Be Prepared to Look after People, Not Products
When you become a head of product, you move into a management position. Consequently, your focus shifts from looking after a product to leading the product people on your team and helping them to do a great job.
Instead of creating, for example, product strategies and roadmaps and tracking KPIs, you should help the people on your team acquire the right knowledge and develop the right skills so that they can carry out the relevant work on their own. This will allow them to take full ownership of and responsibility for their products, and it will increase their motivation, productivity, and job satisfaction. A great way to do this is to mentor and coach people. For instance, you might show the individuals how they can make effective strategic product decisions, create an actionable product roadmap, and effectively use the right KPIs.
Another key aspect to support the people on your team succeed is to create the right environment for people to succeed. This includes establishing psychological safety, fostering collaboration and trust amongst the product people, establishing clear roles and expectations, which I’ll discuss below, and ensuring that everyone has the right infrastructure and tools available.
Becoming the head of product therefore requires you to let go of your role as a practicing and presumably successful product person and to step away from the many joys and challenges of managing a product. For some people, that’s straightforward. But others find it hard to no longer be actively involved in making product decisions, regularly talking to users, engaging the stakeholders, and working with development teams.
Additionally, being an effective leader requires you to cultivate a genuine caring attitude for the people you want to lead, whether you like them or not. It means that you’ll have to deal with people issues on a regular basis, help and support the individuals who are on your team, constructively address problems and offer advice. To put it differently, to lead means to serve and support others.
If it’s hard for you to let go of being actively involved in managing a product or if you don’t find it rewarding to help and support a group of product people, then becoming a head of product is probably not right for you, at least not at this point in time.
Grow Your Leadership Skills
To be able to effectively lead and support a group of product people, you will benefit from having developed strong leadership and people skills, including the following ones:
- Empathy: You are able to reach out with warm-heartedness even to individuals who you don’t agree with and who you find not likeable, value their perspectives, and take a genuine interest in their needs.
- Trust, integrity, and respect: You can earn the trust of others, speak and act with integrity, and create an environment where people feel safe and respected.
- Active listening: You are used to listening to others with the intention to understand, not to answer. You give the other person your full attention, and you keep an open mind whilst hearing what the individual has to say.
- Feedback: You are able to offer constructive feedback so that the other person can receive it and benefit from it. You are also able to skilfully deal with difficult feedback and criticism that others share with you.
- Goal setting: You can lead others through shared goals that create a common purpose and give the individuals the autonomy they need to do a great job.
- Decision-making: You understand how groups can effectively make decisions, and you are able to secure strong buy-in to important product decisions from others, including the stakeholders and development teams.
- Conflict: You can constructively deal with disagreements and conflicts rather than ignoring or suppressing them, or ending up with damaged relationships, bad feelings, and mistrust.
- Time management: You have learnt to effectively manage your time, and you are able to practice sustainable pace.
- Group dynamics: You know what it takes for a group of people to effectively work together, and you are able to help a group of individuals jell.
A great way to develop these skills is to manage a larger product together with a group of product people who you lead—without being their boss. But even if this option is not available to you, guiding a group of stakeholders and one or more development teams will allow you to practice the skills listed above.
Ensure that Your Core Product Management Skills are Strong
Being able to effectively lead others is great. But I find that it usually not enough. To be able to guide, mentor, and coach other product people, you should ensure that your own product management “hard” skills are strong and that you don’t have any major gaps in your product management knowledge. This includes the following ten capabilities:
- Formulating an inspiring vision for a product.
- Carrying out the relevant product strategy work and taking into account product ethics.
- Creating and validating a product strategy including market and user research.
- Developing a product roadmap and setting realistic product goals/outcomes.
- Selecting the right KPIs, tracking product performance, and updating the product strategy and roadmap.
- Creating and adapting a business model and generating a financial forecast.
- Creating user models like personas (based on first-hand knowledge of the users and customers).
- Working with the product backlog: Stocking, prioritising, refining, and updating a backlog; capturing product backlog items as user stories.
- Validating solution ideas: Using, for example, product demos, usability tests, and A/B tests.
- Working with data: Selecting data samples, analysing them, and drawing the right conclusions.
As you might have noticed, the list above includes strategic and tactical product management skills. Both are necessary in my experience to effectively support the members of a product management team, understand the challenges they are struggling with, and offer helpful feedback and guidance. What’s more, having solid product management skills shows the people on your team that you are a competent product person. This is likely to increase their respect and trust for you.
Gain Experience in Managing Different Products
Having successfully managed different products will put you in a great position to advise and support the product people who work for you. Ideally, you should have managed revenue-generating and supporting products across multiple life cycle stages and events, including launch, product-market fit, and retirement.
The experience of working for different companies can also be an advantage, as this will have exposed you to different company cultures and different ways of practicing product management. I personally benefited a lot from working for Intel as a focused, high-paced tech company in the late 1990ies as well as for Siemens as a much larger and diverse business with different product portfolios and different product management processes.
One of the things I learnt from my time at the two companies is that there is no one right way to practice product management. But I also realised that there are a number of common approaches and techniques that tend to be helpful even in seemingly very different environments.
Understand Different Product Roles and Responsibilities
A group of product people will find it hard to work together if roles and responsibilities are not clear. What’s more, it will be difficult for you as the head of product to offer effective feedback and help the individuals develop and grow if it is not clear what’s expected of them. To make things worse, few companies I have worked with had clearly defined product roles. Chances are that you will have to create or improve the relevant role descriptions when you become the head of product.
It is therefore important that you understand common product management roles and responsibilities and that you know how a group of product people can collaboratively manage a larger product. You should understand, for example, what the role of a Scrum product owner is, how it differs from a SAFe product owner, how it compares to a traditional product manager, and which skills an individual requires to be an effective Scrum product owner.
Know Your Industry
To be an effective head of product, I find it helpful to understand the industry the company is in. This includes the following four factors:
- The market with the user and customer needs;
- The major players and competitors;
- The dominant business models and revenue sources;
- The main trends that affect the industry.
Having this knowledge tends to make it easier to be a first-time head of product. It means that you don’t have to worry about getting up to speed with new markets, competitors, and products. Having said that, I consider industry knowledge as a plus but not mandatory: You can typically acquire the relevant knowledge comparatively quickly.
Carefully Plan the Career Step
As with any bigger career step, it’s helpful to develop a realistic outlook of when you will be ready to apply for a head of product position. To get started, assess your current skill set. Then identify and prioritise any bigger shortcomings that you need to address, and determine the right learning and development measures.
For example, you might decide that as an intermediate step, you aim to manage a larger product and use this opportunity to develop your leadership skills and understanding of product roles. You might also decide to carry out some self-study and read articles and books on (product) leadership or attend a product leadership workshop.
Whatever you do, give yourself the time you need to get ready for the career move. There is no point in rushing into a head of product position and quickly finding yourself out of your depth in the new role. I might put the bar quite high, but recommend at least three to five years’ experience before becoming a head of product and being able to successfully lead a product management team.