Anyone can be a product leader.

On the difference between product leadership and product management.

Date: @December 26, 2022

being product-minded.

I've always been someone that has been product-minded. I care about the why, not just the what, of companies and products.

I struggle with this interest since I have never been interested in the nuts and bolts of product management. Sprints, requirements docs, OKRs, running meetings, exerting influence without authority—all these important product concepts made my eyes glaze over for reasons I cannot explain.

I felt unable to exert the influence on product I wanted to without knowing or doing tactical product work.

I now feel differently.

defining product leadership.

I differentiate product leadership and product management.

Product leadership comes down to three things:

  1. Define the problem. This is harder than it sounds. What really matters to your customer? It’s often not what they think or what you initially think.
  2. Develop a tangible vision. Tangibility is crucial to a compelling vision. What does the ideal world feel like? How does it make the customer ecstatic?
  3. Bridge towards a solution. Do whatever it takes (within reason) to create space for a solution to emerge. Build great teams. Drive consensus. Take hard calls. Learn unfamiliar skills. Often times, the solution doesn’t fall to you; it’s on you to create the safe, creative, and effective space for builders to solve. Let them cook!

be a product leader.

Anyone in any role on any team can do these three steps.

One need not be a product manager to be a product leader. Conversely, many good product managers are not good product leaders.

My archetype here is Steve Jobs. One would never consider Steve to be a product manager, though he led the truly radical product vision of Apple. Build by Tony Fadell offers great anecdotes of Steve’s product leadership (e.g. his decision to make the iPhone have a touchscreen).

This post is a reminder to myself that I can always be a product leader.

Of course, leaders share the stage, empower others, and follow the principles of team over self. So I won’t sit there in a meeting and consider myself the sole arbiter of product direction; to do so would be a failure of leadership.

However, I can always play a part in the direction of the product. I just need to follow the three steps.

useful reads

  1. https://medium.com/pave-engineering/the-product-engineer-94cbb6db82e8
  2. https://blog.pragmaticengineer.com/the-product-minded-engineer/
  3. https://twitter.com/danrose999/status/1576589678677217281