Monday, July 04, 2011

Product Management Leadership

As product manager, I face the issue of project executions on daily basis. Today in most companies, there are dedicated Project manager, Engineering manager, QA manager, Program manager and a product manager overseeing various aspects of the project. Having multiple managers overseeing a project of developing new products creates its own set of challenges. The biggest challenge is the project leadership, often times the leadership role is not defined and hence the project wobbles along - leading to cost & time over runs.

Product Development is a multi-displinary activity which involves several departments/group to work together to develop a product. There will be multiple teams working on developing a new product, but often there is no designated project leader. The absence of a designated leader creates multiple power centers that causes the project to wobble & stumble.

Few organizations have created Program Management Office (PMO) to coordinate the activities of various groups and have a common dashboard/reporting structure for project and in absence of a project leader, the leadership role is often given to PMO which often leads to product failures.

Program management office is a conduit between the project teams and upper management, the PMO does not have the right expertise to provide leadership for the projects. The best role for PMO is to provide a platform for leadership building and consensus in project execution.

In a typical product development project there are several moving components. Changing market requirements force changes on the scope of the project. The changes to the project team composition due to attrition or changing engineering priorities can lead to changes in the project schedules. This results in a very dynamic environment which has many moving parts and that leads to changes to both the scope and schedule of the project. In absence of leadership, PMO will be forced to impose strict deadlines and that often leads to shipping inferior/poor products.

In waterfall model, the product manager would sign-off the product requirements to the development team and define the release date. The project team would work on those requirements and release the product when the features are completed. Any changes to the product requirements would have a direct impact on the released dates. This methodology had several disadvantages - mainly the release dates change when the product requirements change or when resources allocated to the project change.

Leadership in project management is often an undiscussed matter, people tend to assume that there will be a project leader who is some else but not them. Even PMI's PMBOK is silent when it comes to leadership in project management.

Leadership and Project Management

In product development projects, the role of leadership in projects fall naturally on product manager. Only if the product manager abdicates this role, the leadership position must be taken by project manager or program manager.

In my experience, the main areas of leadership that a product manager needs to provide are as follows:

1. Vision
2. Good Communication
3. Enthusiasm
4. Team Building
5. Integrity
6. Trust
7. Competence
8. Empathy
9. Problem Solving Skills
10. Manage pressure


The product owner or the product owner must be a visionary. The leader must have a clear vision of the future and must know how the product fits into that future. Great leaders have the ability to articulate their vision and inspire other to work towards realizing their vision. Visionaries always challenge the status quo and thrive on bringing in a change.

My favorite quote that illustrates leadership comes from Steve Jobs:

"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" - Steve Jobs, when is lured John Sculley from Pepsi.

Good Communication

A leader should be able to communicate with people at all levels. Project leader must clearly communicate about goals, responsibility, performance, expectations and feedback at all levels in the team and to all stake holders.

Leaders place a great value on openness and directness. The project leader is also the team's link to the larger organization. The leader must have the ability to effectively negotiate and use persuasion when necessary to ensure the success of the team and project. Through effective communication, project leaders support individual and team achievements by creating explicit guidelines for accomplishing results and for the career advancement of team members.


The Project leader always plays the cheer leader for the project team. People do not like leaders who are negative and who keep criticizing others - it brings down the morale. People like to follow leaders who display enthusiasm - who have a bounce in their step, who have a "can-do" attitude. People like leaders who show a challenge and then tell others how it can be achieved, rather than give reasons why something can't be done.

Enthusiastic leaders are confident of reaching the project goals despite all challenges and are a committed to their goals and their enthusiasm will rub on others to share their optimistic expectations. Enthusiasm is contagious and effective leaders know how to use it.

Team Building

Project teams are dynamic. People move in and move out of the project based on their roles and contribution. So in such a dynamic environment, the leader must constantly work towards team building to create comrade between team members. The main goal of the leader is to convert the group of strangers into a single cohesive unit. The leader must control the team building process and dynamics all through the project and provide appropriate leadership during each stage of team building (forming, norming, storming, performing & disbanding).

The leader must also have an understanding of the different team players styles, strengths and know how to capitalize on it. As a project leader, proper provisioning must be done at the project planning stage for all the team building activities. The team building is a continuos process all through the project and even beyond.


A great leader is someone who scores high on integrity and people will always remember it by his/her actions. Good leadership demands commitment to, and demonstration of, ethical practices. Creating standards for ethical behavior for oneself and living by these standards, as well as rewarding those who exemplify these practices, are responsibilities of project leaders. Leadership motivated by self-interest does not serve the well being of the team. Leadership based on integrity represents nothing less than a set of values others share, behavior consistent with values and dedication to honesty with self and team members.

In other words the leader "walks the talk" and in the process earns trust.

Trust to Delegate

Project leader often has too many things on his plate. It is not practical to do everything by one
Trust is an essential element in the relationship of a project leader and the team. Leaders demonstrate their trust in others through delegation and then how they check and control their work.

Individuals who are unable to trust other people often fail as leaders and forever remain little more that micro-managers, or end up doing all of the work themselves. I'd say: "A good leader is a little lazy." Remember - its a leaders job to see what's coming ahead and to do that one must not be too busy with work, so delegate to free up your time.


To be successful project leader, one should earn the teams respect. In a project, team members often look up to the leader to provide necessary technical guidance to overcome key challenges. At such times, the leader must have the necessary technical competence or must be in a position to get the necessary experts to help. Having technical abilities in the core technology areas of the project is a must for a project leader.

In large complex projects, it may not always be feasible to have technical competence in all the areas, and in such condition, leaders must know to delegate such maters to technical experts and monitor to ensure that issues are solved in a timely manner.

Having a successful track record is the surest way to be considered competent. Expertise in leadership skills is another dimension in competence. The ability to challenge, inspire, enable, model and encourage must be demonstrated if leaders are to be seen as capable and competent.

A competent leader earns the team's respect and then only get the right to lead the project.
Problem Solving Skills

All projects run into problems, and when it does, the team looks up to the leader to solve them for the team. Leaders must be able to identify problems and effectively solve them. This often requires involving stake holders and getting necessary resources to solve the problems and keep the project moving forward.

Leaders are not expected to solve the problem themselves, but they must be able to provide the team with inputs (ideas, resources and methods) to solve the problem. Leaders must not delve on how the problem must be solved, instead provide the necessary inputs and see how the team solves the problem.

Manage Pressure

All projects come under pressure to do more, do it faster or do with less. A project leader must be able to deal with all the external pressures on the project and in the process manage the project scope and deliverables. This takes a extraordinary ability in terms of managing pressure. A leader will take these problems in their stride.

When leaders encounter a stressful event, they consider it interesting, they feel they can influence the outcome and they see it as an opportunity.

"Out of the uncertainty and chaos of change, leaders rise up and articulate a new image of the future that pulls the project together." - Bennis 1997.

Good leader should never let others in the team see how stressful he/she is. A good leader must be damn good in hiding the outward symptoms of stress.

Empathy & Emotional Quotient

"It's nice when a project leader acknowledges that we all have a life outside of work."

Great leaders know how to manage their people. Understanding that people have a life beyond work is just the first step. Knowing people's lives will help in getting the best of out them. Leaders must be able to connect to their team at emotional level and empathize with them.

Closing Thoughts

Project Leadership skills is not something that comes in a text book. It must be learned on the field and developed. Being a leader is a great aspiration but it requires charisma, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, courage, dependability, flexibility, integrity, judgment, and respect for others.

Product managers are ideally positioned to provide that leadership but they cannot demand that their right. Instead they must earn that position.

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