The Product Leadership Challenge
Product Managers have a most distinct leadership challenge: standing at the hub of a multitude of departments and bringing together people with disparate goals and skills, you have all the responsibility for creating a successful whole product yet you have little formal authority to direct the actions of others.
Therefore, successful product management requires highly effective leadership.
When leadership is stripped of authority we discover the key element for being able to lead others comes down to the emotional intelligence of leaders themselves.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
In 1998, in what has become one of Harvard Business Review’s most enduring articles, “What Makes a Leader,” Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman states unequivocally:
“The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”
The article then goes on to introduce five components of emotional intelligence that allow individuals to recognize, connect with, and learn from their own and other people’s emotional states:
- Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
- Empathy and Compassion
- Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks
Product Leadership is Built Upon Emotional Intelligence
When you think of a “Product Leader”, what comes to mind?
Someone who screams and blames others when things go wrong, or someone who never loses their cool? Someone who runs down people, or someone who builds people up? Someone who jumps to conclusions from their own opinions, or someone who listens carefully to others and incorporates new data to make informed decisions?
Market expertise isn’t enough, a product leader has to possess a high degree of emotional intelligence in order to lead their product through the complicated maze of systems, processes and people that impact the whole product.
Product leadership requires:
Self-awareness is your ability to recognize your own emotions, strengths, weakness, values and drivers, and understand their impact on others. Confident product leaders know who they are and they accept the good with the bad of their own capabilities, and this contributes to their confidence as well as their humility. Product leadership is about making choices that are truly for the success of your product, not ones that serve your ego.
Self-regulation is the discipline of redirecting your disruptive emotions and being able to effectively adapt to changes and unexpected obstacles. You can’t afford to lose your cool—without authority people have to choose to follow you, and they don’t want to follow someone who panics. Remaining calm amidst chaos is powerful, contagious, and leads to clear thinking. Above all else, Product Leaders hold themselves accountable for their choices—including how they handle their own emotions. Blaming others is not part of successful Product Leadership.
Look towards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to understand motivation. At the most basic level a successful product means that people keep their employment and provide for their families. Make no mistake that good product management provides a sense of safety those you work with. And great product leadership elevates motivation by creating a sense of team, and providing opportunities for success, recognition, and a chance to stretch creatively.
- Empathy and Compassion
Empathy is the ability to understand how others feel or react to a situation. Empathy allows you to feel compassion for others and understand their behaviors and their needs at a deeper level. Powerful product leadership uses empathy as the foundation to develop team members, challenge people effectively, provide constructive feedback and listen at a level that has people feel truly heard.
- Social Skills
Effective social skills comes down to being a great listener and a great communicator. Product leaders are as open to hearing good news as bad news, even if it is about them. They are expert at getting teams to support their vision and maintain excitement over their plans. In addition, product leadership means being able to resolve conflicts effectively, initiate change, praise others, and engage in difficult conversations. If you aren’t seeing these results, get training in listening and communication skills.
Product leadership requires far more than product and market expertise, it requires an understanding of yourself and how you impact people around you. Take the initiative to get feedback on your current level of emotional intelligence and then work on improving it—it will help you excel!
Learn more about emotional intelligence and product leadership by taking our training course: How to Be a Phenomenal Product Manager.
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Meet the Author
Colleen O’Rourke is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at The 280 Group. She is passionate about developing Product Managers as leaders within their organizations, unleashing their exponential impact into the mix of products, people, and processes that are needed for success.
Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer