Lead on Purpose: How Product Managers Lead Teams to Success

By Michael Ray Hopkin August 01, 2009

The Pragmatic Marketer: Volume 6 Issue 1In a recent article in The Pragmatic Marketer, Alyssa Dver states that the success of product managers is measured by how well they get other people in the company to do their jobs. There’s a lot of truth in that statement! In most organizations, the product manager does not have direct reports, but still is responsible for assuring that the right product is released on time and under budget.

This dilemma puts pressure on the product manager to inspire others to do great work—even though he or she cannot hold others accountable. As a result, product managers must be persuasive, flexible, persistent, and optimistic; they must lead on purpose.

Seven guiding principles

I derived the title “Lead on Purpose” and many other ideas and practices from a seminar called “Live on Purpose” given by my friend and coach Dr. Paul H. Jenkins (“Dr. Paul” www.drpaul.org). Dr. Paul is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people encounter, recognize, embrace, live, and share true principles of abundant living. Dr. Paul teaches the importance of letting principle guide through seven key points:

  1. People are assets. He describes how people—not things—are the true assets that add value to our lives.
  2. Trust is vital. When we focus on building relationships and trust with others, we all grow together.
  3. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is actually potential power; only when it is applied does it become true power.
  4. Be decisive. We make decisions every day, and when we are decisive, things fall into place.
  5. The victim paradigm. Victims shirk responsibility for their actions, blame others when problems occur, live in scarcity, and consume more than they produce.
  6. The agent paradigm. Agents take accountability for their lives, live in abundance, and produce more value than they consume.
  7. The choice. As individuals, we ultimately choose the paradigm in which we live.

These seven principles provide direction for those who desire to live their lives with purpose—those who want to take control of their actions and live abundantly.

Applying the principles to product management

How do the principles apply to product management? The role a product manager often plays in an organization resembles (at a macrolevel) the role a person’s brain plays in influencing individual thoughts and actions. The product manager must choose to work with other team members who are responsible for different aspects of the project in such a way that allow them to function as a single unit. For most product managers, the team consists of managers and individual contributors who design, develop, test, market, support, and sell the product. Without the team, products go nowhere.

In much the same way (also at a macro level) that a CEO runs the company, the product manager acts as the catalyst to drive unity in purpose and action, which ultimately leads to the timely release of quality products.

If a product manager wants to lead product teams with purpose and energy, practicing and applying the principles of living on purpose to the daily work of product management inspires that unity and synergy among team members and develops a more efficient and successful creation of a product. Here is a look at how product managers can apply the seven principles to their jobs:

Principle 1: People are assets

In today’s world, when people talk about assets, they most often refer to their house, car, boat, or investments. In the business world, technology and products—along with their associated intellectual property—are the assets that typically get the most attention.

Naturally, in the world of product management, most product managers think about the products they manage as the true assets. The success of those products creates revenue for the company and results in praise and commendations for the product managers.

Unfortunately, many companies view their employees as another expense on the income statement. Simply put, things of monetary value are most commonly thought of as assets; and, often, people become tools or objects to help an individual or company acquire more “assets.”

In truth, the real assets of any organization are the people. Their intellect—along with personality, skills, knowledge, character, integrity, and other things collectively referred to as “human life value”—create the true value in any organization.

Because of the nature of the work, it is vital that product managers treat their colleagues as true assets. Toward that end, a product manager must spend time with the team. This means talking with them, listening to their concerns and fears about the current phase of the project, and occasionally taking them out for lunch. I’m always amazed at how much a lunch motivates people.

When team members feel valued, they care more about the product on which they are working. Face-time with the team also helps product managers understand individuals and personally assist them. Time spent with the team pays financial dividends as high-quality products make it to market on time and with enough vitality to excite the sales force. When product managers focus on the people with whom they work, the products succeed as a result.

Principle 2: Trust is vital

Gaining the trust of the team goes hand-in-hand with treating people as assets. When product managers value the work and the efforts of their teams, they gain the trust of team members. When teams know they are working on a great product that will sell in the market, they are freed from worries about job stability as well as from the boredom of less exciting products.

Product managers gain the trust of their teams by rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. When the development team has an alpha version of the product ready, a sharp-witted product manager will install it, exercise the functionality, and provide feedback to the team. When the documentation team has a draft of the new documents, the product manager will carefully review and provide comments. As the product gets closer to a beta-and ship-ready state, great product managers will work closely with marketing and operations to make sure plans are laid for a successful product launch.

Throughout the project life cycle, product managers find ways to help customer-facing teams prepare to sell and support the product. In this way, product managers gain trust by showing that they are reliable and in charge—leading on purpose.

Another way to build trust is to take the heat when things do not go exactly as planned. Sometimes, taking responsibility can result in a better outcome for the product. In a recent assignment, I took on a broadly installed product that was failing with many customers. Within days of taking over, I received calls from frustrated sales and product support engineers who wanted me to hear customer frustrations first hand. I accepted every request. Even though I didn’t solve many problems at first, the mere act of listening to customers, discussing their frustrations, and applying this knowledge to improving the product won me the trust not only of the customers, but also of my colleagues. With the resulting synergy among the team, we were able to release a successful new version of the product.

Principle 3: Knowledge is power

Before product managers can tackle difficult situations and effectively lead their teams to success, they need to gain knowledge. There are many sources of product and market knowledge: business books, analyst reports, trade rags, blogs, and the Internet. The volume of information is overwhelming, and keeping up sometimes seems next to impossible. Because knowledge is vital to leading on purpose, product managers must seek avenues for finding the knowledge that will be most useful to them and their specific needs.

In the world of product management and marketing, one of the best sources of knowledge I have found that can be applied directly to our work is Pragmatic Marketing. The company provides a wide range of training and consulting geared to educating and improving the role of product managers (or product marketing managers).

What is the best way for product managers to apply the knowledge they gain to achieve power in their position? Ultimately, they need to find ways to put the knowledge they acquire into action. This most often becomes a personal quest; no one else can do it for us.

We can and should use tools that help us gather, filter, and deliver documents and other types of collateral that ensure the team (and others) know product direction. I have used Ryma Technology Solution’s FeaturePlan as the tool for gathering and organizing the data that comes at me.

Other product managers write blogs to disseminate knowledge. The tool we use is less important than the effort we put forth to use our knowledge to create valuable products. As product managers, we hold the key to our products’ success.

Principle 4: Be decisive

How do product managers take aim? For starters, they need to have a clearly-defined reason for why a product is necessary. This definition includes problem statements that will be solved by the product and clearly-defined requirements to get there. Product managers need to define three things about their products:

  1. Where is the product today?
  2. Where does it need to go and by what time?
  3. How can the team get the product from here to there?

As product managers, do not underestimate the importance not only of making key decisions, but also of standing behind those decisions. We cannot afford to blame others for our decisions. If the team makes a decision, stand up and take responsibility for the consequences. Do not permit FEAR (false evidence appearing real) to lead us or allow our concern for what could happen to change the course of our behavior. We must be confident in our ability to make decisions and in others’ abilities to agree with and support us.

At the same time, be humble enough to accept that we are not always right, and often need to change our own course of behavior. Making decisions gives us the opportunity to learn and, ultimately, make better decisions. As product managers, we must act confidently humble.

Product managers must also provide vision into where a product is going and how it will get there. Once the vision is clear, share it with the team. The act of sharing vision with people working on various aspects of product development arms them with energy and desire to do their part for the success of the product. This can be tricky, but if we want our team to take their products in the desired direction, we must demonstrate vision.

Principle 5:Shun the victim paradigm

People living the victim mentality blame others for what goes wrong rather than taking responsibility for their actions. They often live in scarcity or feel there’s never enough of anything and, therefore, must have more for themselves. It’s often a “Why me?” approach when bad things happen.

Victims go through life avoiding situations that could possibly harm them or make them look bad. They consume more than they produce. They take the “I can’t” approach: I can’t handle it; I can’t afford it; I can’t do it. The ultimate outcome of the victim mentality is captivity. Those who take this approach end up in bondage to the forces around them, instead of free to act for themselves.

Playing the victim as product managers will not work. We must recognize moments when these types of beliefs are entering our minds and seize the opportunity to employ some of the techniques previously discussed to bring us back to leading “on purpose.”

Principle 6: Live the agent paradigm

We often admire people living the agent paradigm. Agents take responsibility for their actions and shoulder the blame—even when they may not be fully responsible. They live in abundance and recognize that there is more than enough for everyone. When bad things happen, agents ask “Why not me?” and work toward solutions.

These people are producers—creating more value than they consume. They take the “How can I?” approach: How can I handle it? How can I afford it? How can I do it? Agents realize life is a package deal and comes with ups and downs. They do not focus on the flaws or imperfections in others, but on their positive traits. For those who take this approach, the ultimate outcome is prosperity. Agents are free to live unencumbered by the actions of others—feeling joy and happiness in their accomplishments and enjoying the trust and respect of others.

To achieve success, product managers must lead teams within the agent paradigm. We must take responsibility for the progress of product development and its success when the product hits the market. Our goal is to willingly stand up, look people in the eye, and demonstrate confidence in our direction. Living the agent paradigm as product managers means living it personally—and leading our team members to live it themselves. By leading as producers, we inspire others to live as producers; by moving forward as a team, we produce great products that people want to buy.

Principle 7: Make the choice

Achieving prosperity and success is a choice each of us must make. However, by personally living the principles of abundance, we inspire others to do the same—thereby increasing the success of the team and the entire organization.

The choice of how we will act, inspire, and lead our teams is ours to make. Make the choice to lead on purpose!

Categories: Leadership
Michael Ray Hopkin

Michael Ray Hopkin

Michael Ray Hopkin has over 13 years experience working as a software engineer and a product manager for companies ranging from startups to major corporations. He is a proven communicator who has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to gain the trust and commitment of large, cross-divisional teams. He is eager to communicate with you about improving the leadership role of product management. To contact Michael, visit his blog,Lead On Purpose or email him at mrhopkin@gmail.com

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